The austere Dodd, who loved to spend time working on his small Virginia farm, is often described in the book as a Jeffersonian democrat. With modest personal resources and determined to live on his official annual salary of $17,500.00 he was ill suited to serving in a foreign service dominated by members of America’s wealthy elite. The members of the “Pretty Good Club” were condescending at best in their attitudes towards Dodd.
Joining Dodd in Berlin were his wife, Martha known as “Mattie”, his son, William Jr. known as “Bill” and his daughter, Martha.
A jolt of sexual energy runs through the book as the daughter, Martha, engages in affairs with men of multiple European nationalities including Russians, Germans and French. She is attracted to good men, average men and dangerous men.
As they arrive in Germany Dodd and his family share a positive attitude. Dodd enjoyed his studies at Leipzig prior to WW I. They have an American optimism that is a wonderful trait of many Americans. They are wary of Nazis but hopeful the early violence of the regime was an aberration.
Where I had thought of the SS and the Gestapo as the most feared agencies in Nazi Germany the book makes clear that in the early days it was the SA which caused the most anxiety. With their aggressive marches and crude tactics they were a menace to anyone not an avowed supporter of Hitler. It is Ernst Rohm, head of the SA, rather than Heinrich Himmler, in charge of the SS, who lives in a fine home down the street.
Dodd is one of many to find Hitler’s personality uncomfortable during meetings. More important he believes Hitler’s sincere expressions that Hitler wants peace. While Hitler is verbally interested in peace all around Germany re-armament has begun. With the terrible losses that took place in WW I, diplomats and politicians in Europe and North America want to believe Hitler’s words.
There is a fascinating moment when Martha has a private discussion with Hitler. Nazi Putzi Hanfstaengel had an idea that an American woman would be a good choice for the spouse of the Fueher. While the rendezvous was not repeated Martha's observations of Hitler were positive:
“Hitler’s eyes,” she wrote, “were startling and unforgettable – they seemed pale blue in color, were intense, unwavering, hypnotic.”
Yet his manner was gentle – “excessively gentle,” she wrote – more that of a shy teenager than an iron dictator. “Unobtrusive, communicative, informal, he had a certain quiet charm, almost a tenderness of speech and glance,” she wrote.
He “seemed modest, middle class, rather dull and self-conscious – yet with the strange tenderness and appealing helplessness,” Martha wrote.
The story of this All-American family in Germany, as the Nazis steadily strengthen their grip on Germany, is compelling.
The Dodds support Jewish people but have their own prejudices. Ambassador Dodd speaks to senior Nazis of how America resolved the issue of too many American Jews in high ranking university positions through quotas.
There are vivid portrayals of such Nazi leaders as Goebbels and Goring.
I have long read that Berliners were famous for sardonic humour but I have rarely seen examples. Larson provides several. Two arose after Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives” in which he purged the leadership of the SA.
There was a question between Berliners after the killings:
“Are you still among the living?”
When Hitler said the homosexuality of Ernst Rohm, the SA’s leader was “a complete surprise to him” Berliners joked:
“What will he do when he finally finds out about Gobbels’s
During their first year in Berlin the family, especially Martha, is transformed. Where 80 years later we see the Nazis through their brutality, especially during WW II, they were subtler in their early days in power. Life, except for Jews and Communists, was improving for the German people under Hitler’s leadership of the nation in 1933. It was only through daily contact with Nazis that the Dodd family came to appreciate the Nazis were cruel and dangerous.
It is a brilliant book unfolding as a mystery with the Ambassador and his family gradually working out that the dangers at the heart of Nazi Germany. (June 30/13)