It’s been a while since I brought back the regular feature Reading With Fakename. But this book deserves it.
Pretty much everyone has read books about the horrors of Nazi rule, but this is the first book I’ve ever read which describes what was happening in Germany in the first years of the Nazi takeover. And that really is the question, isn’t it? How could this have happened? The book begins in 1933, when Hitler has first been named Chancellor.
Essentially four things were happening within the U.S. First, the U.S. was in the midst of the Great Depression. Immigration and immigrants were highly frowned upon, since the perception was that immigrants would take or compete for the few available jobs left to existing citizens. How timely does that seem now?
Second, it wasn’t just any immigrants, it was particularly Jews. Jews were viewed as a stereotype: always rich and controlling, particularly controlling the banks and the media. This may have been dismissed as ignorance, if it weren’t for the fact that two of the most powerful people in the State Department agreed. There were quotas for how many people were permitted to emigrate from any particular country. These quotas were set by the Department of Labor, but it was the State Department which actually issued visas for travel. They quietly and unofficially reduced the number of visas issued to persons from Germany (especially Jews) to 10% of the quota. Even though they knew that Jews were being killed and persecuted inside Germany. Treatment of the Jews in Germany was dismissed as a domestic problem that the U.S. had no right to interfere in.
Third, it was about the money. (Isn’t it always?) The U.S. didn’t want to piss Germany off, because Germany still owed a lot of money as reparations from WWI.
And fourth, there was zero appetite for becoming involved in another war after WWI, which was a horrendous conflict. No matter how despicable Germany began to behave, it was viewed as a “European problem”. Isolationism was the mood of the day. Bear in mind that the reason the U.S. entered WWII was that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and had nothing to do with the noble cause of saving the Jews.
The book is told as the story of William Dodd, who became the U.S. Ambassador to Germany in 1933, after five other much smarter people had turned it down. Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago, but was unhappy in his job. First, he felt he had not been given the recognition he deserved, which I think means he thought he should have been offered the Chairmanship of the department. Second, he was trying to write a book about the Old South, but his teaching schedule was so heavy, he had no time or energy left to write. So he began a campaign to be named an Ambassador. What he wanted was someplace sleepy, where he wouldn’t have to work too hard, like the Netherlands.
When Dodd went to Berlin, he took his entire family with him; his wife and his grown son Bill Jr. and grown daughter Martha. Much of the book follows the escapades of Martha, who was, to put it in a family-friendly way, a party girl. She was generally sleeping with four or five men at a time, including a couple of Nazis, one of whom (Rudolf Diels) was the original head of the Gestapo. Diels was ruthless, but somewhere along the line developed a conscience, and actually testified for the prosecution in the Nuremberg trials.
One of her lovers was a guy named Boris, who was an attaché to the Soviet Embassy. Unbeknownst to Martha, he was an agent for the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. The two of them fell in love, but it was a doomed relationship. Her last letter from him arrived after she had already returned to the U.S., after her father was recalled. She didn’t learn for many years that that letter was written at gunpoint, and that after writing it, Boris was executed by the NKVD. He was apparently seen as too friendly to the West. Ironically, the letter was intended to keep Martha’s feelings for Boris alive, since the NKVD was trying to recruit her as a spy. It wouldn’t have done for her to know that they were about to execute Boris.
Dodd was initially a milquetoast. He took to heart FDR’s advice that he should set an example of freedom and American values, rather than “meddling” in the internal affairs of Germany. (This meant, don’t say bad things about how they’re treating the Jews.) Dodd was more than willing to believe that attacks on Jews, and Americans, and others, were isolated incidents, not condoned by the leadership. But eventually it began to soak into his thick skull that he was being duped, and he began to speak out, making him even more unpopular with his superiors than he already was for a number of petty reasons. Upon his death, he was viewed as almost the lone voice in government, warning of what was to come. He was the American Cassandra. If he had any doubts about his assessment, those doubts were erased by the infamous “Night of the Long Knives”.
This review only scratches the surface of the incredible amount of information in the book, but I wanted to include a story that made a huge impression on me, the story of a guy named Fritz Haber. Haber was a German scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1918 for inventing the Haber process, a method of synthesizing ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen gasses. He is also known as the father of chemical warfare, starting with the development of chlorine gas. His wife begged him to stop doing this kind of work, to which he replied “Death is death”. Nine days after chlorine gas was first used against the French at Ypres in WWI, his wife committed suicide.
Haber had just one problem–he was a Jew. He was allowed to continue in his post as director of Germany’s institute of chemistry, even after laws were passed that essentially made it illegal for Jews to be employed at all. Nevertheless, he began to see the handwriting on the wall. He came to Dodd, asking to emigrate to the U.S. Dodd told him he couldn’t help, because that year’s quota had already been filled. This of course, was not true., although Dodd believed it was. Haber ended up emigrating to Great Britain, and died within six months.
In what has to be one of the most tragic ironies of history, one of the things Haber invented was a pesticide called Zyklon-A. The Nazis tinkered with it and made Zyklon-B. This is the gas used to murder a million people, most of them Jews, in the gas chambers of the concentration camps.
I read this book a while ago and, like you, found it fascinating and for the same reason that you mention. It goes a long way in helping to understand the German zeitgeist of the time. It was the first time I felt like I could comprehend some of what the Nazis were thinking.
There is some internet gossip that Michel Hazanavivious (The Artist) is directing a movie from this Novel starring Natalie Portman. I look forward to that if it is true.
Larsen has just published a novel about the Lusitania which might be worthwhile.
This link is helpful.