n late 1937, William E. Dodd returned from a four-year tour as U.S. Ambassador to Germany determined to warn his countrymen that the world’s democracies faced annihilation unless they banded together to confront the Nazi threat. “Mankind is in grave danger”, Dodd told one gathering in New York, “but democratic governments seem not to know what to do. If they do nothing, Western civilization—religious, personal, and economic freedom—is in grave danger.”
Delivered during a three-month speaking tour of twenty cities, the Ambassador’s message closely tracked key themes of his private communications with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and senior State Department officials during the previous four years. Based in Berlin almost from the beginning of Nazi rule, Dodd had early on grasped the ruthless nature of the Hitler regime, which represented a growing, largely unrecognized, danger for the United States and other Western democracies, then preoccupied with the worldwide Depression. Officials at the State Department perceived Dodd as an “unfortunate misfit”, in the words of one prominent senior official, and generally discounted the reports of the former University of Chicago professor. And while Roosevelt sympathized with and may have been influenced by Dodd’s letters and dispatches, he was either unable or unwilling to confront the isolationist sentiments that dominated American public life even after the beginning of World War II.
Dodd died at age seventy, two years after his return from Germany. Aside from some attention in 1941, when his children published his diary from his Berlin years, he largely disappeared from the public eye. That changed in 2011, when Erik Larson published In the Garden of Beasts, an account of Dodd’s tenure in Berlin that became a bestseller. Larson’s novel-like rendering of Dodd’s ambassadorship and life in Berlin, which includes a detailed account of his daughter Martha’s social life and close relations with both leading Nazis and a Soviet secret agent, brought back to life, so to speak, a long-ignored figure who on second glance seems more interesting than ever.
The success of Larson’s book in turn inspired the distinguished presidential historian Robert Dallek to re-release his own biography of Dodd, which began life as a doctoral dissertation originally completed in 1968. Dallek’s book is a more traditional academic work that traverses Dodd’s career as one of the most prominent American historians of his day, his involvement in politics and public affairs, and his official diplomacy in Berlin. Aside from a new preface, it lacks even a hint of his daughter’s extraordinary private intrigues, which helped make Larson’s book such a page-turner. But like Larson, Dallek offers a sympathetic portrayal of Dodd and makes the case that the Ambassador sized up the Nazis far more shrewdly than did the State Department professionals of the day who, he observes archly, put “diplomatic correctness above political astuteness.”
Read collectively today, the three books—Dodd’s personal diary, the Dallek biography and the Larson account—present a complementary portrait of the scholar-diplomat as a temperamental idealist yet also as an astute realist in judging the Nazis before the eruption of World War II. All three books, different as they are, converge on the pathos of Dodd’s inability to awaken most of his colleagues or the public to the gathering threat. Dallek provides the historical context for Larson’s account of the first two years of Dodd’s tenure in Berlin, which seeks to show, in often granular detail, what it felt like for two Americans from the heartland, Dodd and daughter Martha, to be present in the darkness of Nazi Germany. The diary, meanwhile, gives us Dodd in his own words, with interesting personal appraisals of Hitler, Goebbels and other Nazi leaders, and intimate accounts of his meetings with Roosevelt and other prominent figures of his time. Together, the three works provide a rare window on important questions that remain relevant today, and not just for the sake of history: Why did so many in the West fail to recognize the nature of the threat posed by Nazi Germany when it was still early enough to head off catastrophe? And why were those who did recognize the dangers, like Dodd, unable to motivate a more effective response to the Nazi threat that would eventually—and unexpectedly, to most Americans—culminate in World War II and the Holocaust?
The success, in particular, of Larson’s book also raises a corollary set of questions: Why was Dodd ignored for so long even amid the explosion of interest in the Holocaust that began in the mid-1960s, and what is the significance of his reemergence in the public eye? The answers lie not only in Larson’s brilliant storytelling, though that has surely played a big role. It also has to do with the rapidly developing interest among journalists, scholars, NGO activists and policymakers in the question of preventing egregious human rights violations and mass violence, which continue to be acceptable tools of statecraft in some parts of the world.
Clearly, how to prevent mass murder and genocide has emerged as one of the most important challenges for our leaders today, albeit not always recognized as such. Over the past four decades, American Presidents and their counterparts have been regularly forced to grapple with reports of mass violence happening in far-off places, from the “killing fields” of Cambodia, to genocides in Rwanda and in Bosnia and arguably Darfur, to current cases of large-scale war crimes and crimes against humanity in places like Syria or Sudan. One need not assert that these cases are comparable in scope or detail to the Holocaust (they obviously are not) to recognize themes in Ambassador Dodd’s experience that are familiar to contemporary leaders. His difficulties, first, in believing the worst of certain people and, then, in stimulating effective action from the well-grounded fears he developed track the experience of many diplomats who followed him into the field in the most demanding of assignments.
As is well known, the present U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, saw similar patterns in other cases of mass atrocity while working as a journalist, as related in A Problem from Hell, her Pulitzer Prize-winning study of failed U.S. responses to past genocides. Power was so struck by this trend that, while serving as a White House aide, she helped create an Atrocities Prevention Board within the U.S. government to try to rectify the built-in systemic bias against preventive action. Preventive action does not necessarily mean military intervention. Financial sanctions, muscular diplomacy, the threat of prosecutions, secret intelligence operations and simply calling out would-be perpetrators are among the many practical steps available to keep crises from metastasizing. In theory, those should be cheaper and more effective than the wars, mass killing and other catastrophes that often ensue. But as Dodd discovered firsthand 75 years ago, the task of preventing genocide seems much easier after the fact than in the moment one is confronted with the threat.
illiam Dodd was a most unlikely diplomat, an “ambassador by default”, as Dallek describes him. His chosen profession was academia, and he rose from modest roots on a farm in Clayton, North Carolina, to become a leading historian of the American South, based for most of his career at the University of Chicago. As a young man, he traveled to Leipzig to pursue his graduate studies and obtain his Ph.D., becoming fluent in the language and acquiring a love of German culture. Dodd wrote his dissertation on Thomas Jefferson, the object of lifelong veneration; he saw himself as a Jeffersonian Democrat, devoted to equal opportunity for yeoman planters and other ordinary folk and opposed to the aristocratic political class. But as a white Virginian born just four years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox courthouse, he also learned from his Southern parents a then-uncharacteristic view of slavery and the Civil War that arguably sensitized him to bigotry, and to peoples’ excuses for it.
A 1916 meeting with another Southern-born man a dozen years his senior, Woodrow Wilson, changed Dodd’s life. Meeting Wilson awakened Dodd’s abiding interest in the political affairs of the day. Wilson charmed him, and eventually persuaded him that the United States was correct to intervene in the European war. Despite Wilson’s racism, Dodd became his friend and ardent champion. He saw Wilson as a “modern embodiment of Jefferson”, according to Larson. Dodd wrote a laudatory biography of Wilson and believed until his death that catastrophe would have been avoided in Europe had the United States followed the President’s plan to join the League of Nations and more vigorously engage in the world. He had initial misgivings about Roosevelt’s commitment to progressivism, but came to see FDR as a worthy successor to Wilson, worked on behalf of his election, and put himself forward for service in the new Administration.
Roosevelt’s decision to name a neophyte diplomat to the Berlin post just as a revolutionary government was taking power might seem strange, reckless even. But Roosevelt was instinctively skeptical of the professional diplomats from the State Department, seeing them as “likely to be unfriendly to his liberal domestic and foreign policies”, according to Dallek. With the Nazis already cracking down on opposition, persecuting Jews and dismantling German democracy, Roosevelt apparently determined to send to Berlin a nationally known figure who would exemplify American democratic values. Commerce Secretary Daniel Roper, an old friend of Dodd’s, recommended him, and after at least five prominent people turned down his offer, Roosevelt finally persuaded Dodd to take on the job. When Roosevelt called on June 8, 1933 to offer him the post, he told Dodd, “[Your] work as a liberal and as a scholar, and your study at a German university are the main reasons for my wishing to appoint you. . . . I want an American liberal in Germany as a standing example.”
he account of this conversation comes directly from Dodd’s diary, published after his death in 1940. Both Dallek and Larson draw heavily from the single volume of diary entries, and both address skepticism in some scholarly circles about whether Dodd’s was a diary in a conventional sense or a compendium of his writings put together in diary form after the fact. Martha Dodd, in a 1968 letter to Dallek, described the diary as “absolutely authentic.” Both writers based their work on a review of Dodd’s letters, diplomatic reports and many other papers, and have concluded that the diary is essentially accurate. As Larson writes in his discussion of his sources, “Dodd’s published diary sounds like Dodd, feels authentic and expresses sentiments that are in perfect accord with his letters to Roosevelt, [Secretary of State Cordell]Hull, and others.”
Although they differ in emphasis, all three volumes trace a similar trajectory, starting with Dodd’s initial beliefs that better relations with Germany were possible and that the country could be brought into the company of peace-loving nations. Like many of the diplomats posted to Berlin, Dodd seemed to accept vague Nazi assurances that they desired better relations or that they would ease up on the persecution of the Jews. According to Dallek, even after Dodd met Hitler in 1934 and endured the dictator’s implicit contempt for the United Statesand wild claims of Jewish influence there,
[Dodd] was still not ready to believe that better relations were beyond reach or that the Führer could be in fact as unreasonable as he seemed. . . . Like others who would be even more seriously fooled later in the decade, Dodd assumed that Hitler and his ministers would have to act like reasonable men.
At several points, Larson captures the common, country-club version of anti-Semitism that may have initially clouded Dodd’s judgment. Soon after arriving in Berlin, Dodd wrote a letter to an acquaintance embracing the notion held by some prominent Americans that the Jews shared responsibility for their plight in Germany because they were too active and too prominent. While he did not approve “of the ruthlessness that is being applied to the Jews here”, he did think the Germans had a valid grievance. “When I have occasion to speak unofficially to eminent Germans, I have said very frankly that they had a very serious problem but that they do not seem to know how to solve it”, he wrote. “The Jews had held a great many more of the key positions in Germany than their numbers or their talents entitled them to.” Based on this view, Dodd told Hitler in March 1934 that he might take a cue from how Jewish influence was restrained in the United States. Dodd explained to Hitler, he wrote, “that where a question of over-activity of Jews in university or official life made trouble, we had managed to redistribute the offices in such a way as to not give great offense.” According to Charles Callan Tansill’s 1952 book Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933–1941, Hitler ignored Dodd’s advice, responding with barely contained fury that, “if they [the Jews] continue their activity we shall make a complete end of them in this country.”
So if Dodd’s prejudices allowed some wishful thinking in his early months, it quickly vanished in the face of this audience with Hitler and a parade of Nazi outrages visited upon individual Jews, American visitors and dissenting Germans. Then there was the deluge of propaganda from Berlin. “Earnest and emphatic as Hitler appeared”, Dodd wrote in May 1935,
he certainly does not fool me. He once avowed to me that he would throw any German official into the North Sea if he sent propaganda to the United States. . . . But there are now 600 employees in the foreign propaganda division now active in Berlin. Nor was there any let-up in the United States in 1934. . . . This is one of many evidences of the complete insincerity of their promises.
The most revealing anecdotes in Dodd’s diary involve meetings with visitors to the U.S. Embassy who were seeking his assistance in ensuring their safety or helping them to emigrate. In most cases, Dodd explains that there is little he can do, and indeed his standard instructions—including, in this case, specific direction from the President—admonish him to stay out of German domestic affairs, at least in his official capacity. But these personal encounters and cases brought to Dodd’s attention undoubtedly made a powerful impression that cannot necessarily be captured in dry diplomatic reports or his button-down diary entries. Larson skillfully triangulates these anecdotes with other sources of contemporaneous information to show how Dodd and his team were brought face-to-face with Nazi brutishness on a regular basis.
One of Dodd’s visitors was Fritz Haber, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who ran the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and told what Dodd described as “the saddest story of Jewish persecution I have yet heard.” Although he had converted to Protestantism before the war, Haber was considered a non-Aryan under the new Nazi racial laws. He was allowed to remain a director of the institute because of an exception granted to Jewish war veterans, but had been ordered to fire the Jews on the staff. “Rather than preside over the dismissal of his friends and colleagues, he resigned”, Larson writes. Haber was now coming to Dodd in hopes of assistance, which Dodd doubts he can provide. “Such treatment”, Dodd wrote in a diary entry, “can only bring evil to the government which practices such terrible cruelty.”
For Dodd, a key turning point came on June 30, 1934, “The Night of the Long Knives”, when Hitler purged opposition to his regime, moving against both radicals like Brown Shirt leader Ernst Röhm and conservative generals who might have posed a threat to his government. The story of the purge and how it felt to be in Berlin as it was unfolding, as told in detail by Larson, serves as the culmination of Dodd’s intellectual journey in Larson’s account. The scales fall away from his eyes and the Ambassador finally sees clearly Hitler’s utter depravity and ruthlessness. Dodd resolved soon after those events never to seek another audience with Hitler except on official grounds: “I have a sense of horror when I look at the man.” Dodd’s diary entry for July 8, 1934, stated: “My task here is to work for peace and better relations”, but “I do not see how anything can be done so long as Hitler, Göring and Goebbels are the directing heads of the country. Never have I heard or read of three more unfit men in high place.”
he recovery of William Dodd as an historical figure, thanks in great measure to Larson’s bestseller, raises a variety of issues of ongoing relevance, one of which is the immense value of on-the-ground, in-person reporting from dangerous places. In an era of global satellite scrutiny, data mining and other technical means of intelligence collection, the human factor remains critical. Dodd’s diary is notable for the wide and diverse range of people he came into contact with in the course of his business—journalists, university professors, bankers and other business leaders, American visitors and countless others—not to mention his meetings with diplomats from the German Foreign Ministry and economic policymakers like Minister of Economics andReichsbank President Hjalmar Schacht. Given his fluency in German, historical familiarity with the country and willingness to get out of Berlin on personal travel, he did not seem much handicapped by his decision not to meet personally with Hitler or the most senior leaders. Dodd came to his conclusions not from reading books but by coming into direct contact with evil.
The Dodd that emerges from both the Dallek and Larson books fulfilled a diplomat’s most important task: providing accurate and sober-minded reporting of events in the country to which he is accredited. Following the Night of the Long Knives, Dodd’s dispatches and reports described a Germany bent on war and territorial expansion, a thoroughly militarized population, the intimidation of churches and universities, and his own frustration with American isolationism, which constrained his diplomacy and made meaningful responses to the Nazis impossible.
Of particular note are his clear-eyed descriptions of the deepening persecution and cruelty toward the Jews. Reading a Goebbels speech declaring the Jews to be “the syphilis of all European peoples” and finding fresh evidence of anti-Semitism in the middle of 1934, Dodd shifted his views to conclude that the regime could not be moderated, according to Dallek. “I was put in the position of having been humbugged”, he told FDR, “as indeed I was.” One cannot say Washington was not well informed by the Ambassador in Berlin. Indeed, Dallek considers Dodd’s background as a diplomatic outsider, unconstrained by orthodoxy, an asset. “[It] is hard to see how an ambassador could have been much more astute than Dodd in his judgment of events”, he writes. In “the face of the evil generated by the Hitler regime”, his “simple manliness and humane generosity” proved itself “superior to the sophistication of the traditionalists—not merely as a moral posture but even as an instrument of human understanding.”
Did Dodd contemplate the eventual physical extermination of the Jews by the Nazis and their allies elsewhere in Europe? There is no evidence in his diary that he considered the Final Solution. Nor is there evidence that he had read Mein Kampf or acquainted himself with the most radical of the statements and writings of Hitler and other Nazi leaders. But Dodd clearly judged Hitler capable of even greater cruelty than he had exhibited in the early stages of the Nazi revolution, based on a conversation he reported in May 1935 with the British Ambassador, Sir Eric Phipps, about the possibility of influencing the Germans to stop their cruel treatment of the Jews. “Hitler is fanatical on the subject”, Phipps told Dodd, “and if you and I were to go to the Foreign Office to argue the matter there would be a sensation and perhaps a dozen Jews would be beaten, even killed, within a few days.” Dodd wrote that he is not so “pessimistic” but shared Phipps’s view that complaining to the authorities would ultimately do no good. “The Hitler Party is bent upon putting all the Jews out of Germany and confiscating their property”, he wrote.
By the end of his tenure, Dodd had come to the conclusion that the Führer was capable of far worse. Appearing at the Harvard Club in Boston in June 1938, about six months after his ambassadorship concluded, Dodd warned that Hitler hated the Jews and that his true intent was to “kill them all.”
In his perceptions of the Nazis, Dodd was not alone. Others in his own embassy, particularly Consul General George S. Messersmith, saw through the blandishments offered by Hitler’s diplomats from the beginning. In a prescient dispatch from September 1933 cited by Dallek, Messersmith concluded, “in the long run, what is happening here may be more disturbing to our peace and comfort than the other problems which concern us [today.]” French and British diplomats would later come under severe criticism for appeasing Hitler, but Dodd’s diary suggests that his ambassadorial counterparts shared most of his core assessments, if not also his prescriptions. In his diary, Dodd reported a consultation in 1934 with the French Ambassador André François-Poncet about German rearmament: “François-Poncet was, as he has been since the date of my arrival here a year ago, fully convinced that France is to be attacked and Alsace-Lorraine, Austria and western Poland to be annexed.” At another point, François-Poncet tells Dodd that he would not at all be surprised to be shot on the streets of Berlin: “The Germans hate us so and their leadership is crazy.”
he question thus painfully endures as to why Dodd and others with “ground truth” were so often ignored by the ultimate decision-makers. Why was Dodd unable to rouse his colleagues back in Washington and a sleeping public beyond to the threat he saw so clearly?
On this important question, Dodd’s diary and the two more contemporary books about him don’t add much to the reams of history that have already been written on the Western failure to confront Hitler. These histories largely focus on European pacifism, American isolationism and the worldwide Depression that understandably preoccupied Roosevelt and other leaders. Dodd himself does not appear particularly thoughtful in his diary about his own frustrations. Other than periodically contemplating tendering his resignation, which was eventually accepted by Roosevelt at the end of 1937, Dodd does little to analyze what more he could do to summon a more aggressive policy against Hitler from the President, the State Department or the public. Dodd sees the one group that might have been a natural ally, the organized Jewish leadership, as a nuisance to be managed more than as a force to be activated.
It is easy to find fault in retrospect, but 1933 was a much different time. There existed none of the human rights conventions and structures that were put in place after the Holocaust, the elaborate network of civil society organizations that today report regularly on human rights violations, nor the range of policy options that exist today. Even the idea that human rights in another country should be an official American concern was not generally accepted, as Roosevelt made clear in his first face-to-face meeting with Dodd at the White House, on June 16, 1933, less than two weeks after the appointment. Roosevelt told Dodd to address the emerging patterns of Jewish persecution—but only unofficially. “The German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited”, Roosevelt told his new envoy.
But this is also not a governmental affair. We can do nothing except for American citizens who happen to be made victims. We must protect them, and whatever we can do to moderate the general persecution by unofficial and personal influence ought to be done.
In Dodd’s case, his influence at the State Department was also limited by the almost instant dislike, even contempt, that many of the most senior officials felt for the rookie Ambassador. This is one of the major themes of both Dallek and Larson’s account of his Berlin tenure. The professional diplomats found Dodd’s assessments to be naive and his obsession with cost cutting and managing the embassy frugally to be unbecoming of the status of a great power in Berlin. They were infuriated by his unwillingness to meet with Hitler and senior Nazis. Under Secretary William Phillips complained in his own diary, “What in the world is the use of having an ambassador who refuses to speak to the government to which he is accredited?” Even as Germany was descending into barbarism, Phillips and his colleagues pressed Dodd on what seems today a peripheral issue, collecting Germany’s debts from the last war. They constantly tried to undermine him, the fact of which Dodd seemed only faintly aware.
Unlike many other Ambassadors, however, Dodd did have a personal pipeline to the President, which he freely used, sending letters to Roosevelt outside official channels and meeting with him in person from time to time during his trips back to the United States. Dallek argues that while Dodd may have had little influence on the professional diplomats, he did help shape the President’s strong feelings about the Nazis, which would inform his efforts eventually to bring the United States into the war. In the meantime, however, Roosevelt did not buck the stern isolationism that militated against a more aggressive policy to confront Hitler at an earlier stage, when it might have made a difference. That reality, more than anything, contributed to a deep disquiet, even depression, that followed Dodd throughout his tour in Berlin. “It was difficult”, Dallek writes, “to accept the fact that improved German-American relations were out of reach, [and] it was even more painful to acknowledge that prospects for a meaningful response to the Nazis from the United States were almost as bleak.”
Even when atrocities are being committed en masse, stimulating action from distracted policymakers is a huge challenge. Less than five years after Dodd resigned his post, the allied leadership and the public received a stream of reports of the Nazi extermination campaign in the east, yet they could not muster an organized campaign to rescue the threatened Jews until it was largely too late. It is surely an even bigger challenge to act preventively, before atrocities actually begin and when worst-case scenarios seem fantastic and unimaginable to almost everybody. Preventive policies that might work are usually not obvious, moreover. They are typically seen as infeasible by the bureaucracy, and they are almost never the first, second or even third priority for administrations. They are also almost never politically popular. A new book, FDR and the Jews, cites 1937 Gallup polls showing that 70 percent of respondents thought it had been a mistake for the United States to enter World War I, and 71 percent agreed that if one foreign nation attacked another, the United States should not “join with other nations to compel it to stop.” Impassivity in the face of evil was ingrained in American attitudes until shortly before the Holocaust commenced.
As Dodd would discover, political leadership is the indispensable element in combating such attitudes and shaping public opinion. Such leadership must usually emanate from the Oval Office, especially in the most extreme cases, in which genocide and crimes against humanity are threatened, but Congress, civil society and others can also play a role. That was true in 1933 and 1937, and it remains true 75 years later, when Americans seem just as disinclined during uncertain economic times to intervene abroad.