In my last post, I looked at a well-known writer who wrote about Germany: D. H. Lawrence. I commented on how during my research I am surprised again and again by the big-name authors who spent time in and commented on Germany, such as Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh.
Another surprise in looking for English-speaking writing about Germany is how many interesting authors I’ve come across for the first time; it’s almost embarrassing to learn about the existence of important figures like W. E. Dubois and Thomas Wolfe this late, after my formal education is long completed. Embarrassing, and yet invigorating, a reminder that the old truism about how you never stop learning really is… well, true.
Martha Dodd is another author I’d never heard of before, but who, in retrospect, makes me ask why it took so long. After all, this American diplomat’s daughter published several books with first-hand accounts of Nazi Germany during the war before going on to take a stand in the whole McCarthy witch-hunts of the fifties, eventually fleeing to the Communist Block. When that turned out not to be all it was cracked up to be, she tried to get back into the USA and eventually died just over 20 years ago in Prague. Quite a life, and one I assumed that I would somehow have heard of or read about.
Where, how & why did she write about Germany?
In 1933, at the age of 25, Dodd accompanied her father to Germany as he took up his post as ambassador there. She remained there with him until they left in 1938, when she took up residency in New York and composed her memoires of her time in Germany, published in a timely fashion in 1939 under the title Through Embassy Eyes (or My Time in Germany in the UK).
She followed this with a novel in 1945 about the moral decay of German society under the Nazis, something of a clunking work of fiction which was read, if at all, for the first-hand accounts which were obviously its basis.
The extract here, taken from Through Embassy Eyes is Dodd at her best, however, describing how she experienced Germany as a typical travel récit, but with no small amount of attention to imposing structure on the material and crafting a slightly literary form.
What to look out for
For readers with litte time/short attention spans – or looking for a funny comment/a way to look clever
1. I’m sick and silly of being told smugly about how conspicuously recognisable Brits on holiday are by their bright red colour – this in a country of sun-bed obsessives who walk around in the same hue of melanoma-orange as their favourite autumn vegetable, the pumpkin! Well, Martha Dodd delivers all the proof I need (and I don’t need much) that Germans are just as bad.
2. Despite the fact that Wansee is so close to Berlin as to actually be a part of it, I fail to see how Dodd and her companion could have left it at six and arrived in what she means by Berlin (i.e. the city centre) at six.
Saturday, June 30th, was a beautiful and warm a day as we had yet had in Germany. I determined to spend the day on the beach, imitating the German habit of acquiring a sunburn as early as possible in the season. I had a date with a friend of mine, a young secretary in a foreign embassy. In less than a week, I planned to go to Russia and, since I had heard the heat was unbearable, I was getting in training as well.
We took down the top of the Ford roadster and drove to Gross Glienicke, a lovely and fairly private lake near Wansee. I baked in the sun the whole day, retiring to the shade only for cooling drinks and sandwiches. It was a beautiful serene blue day, the lake shimmering and glittering in front of us, and the sun spreading its fire over us. It was a silent and soft day – we didn’t even have the energy or desire to talk politics or discuss the new tension in the atmosphere. At six o’clock we decided we had had enough sun and we drove slowly and quietly back to Berlin, our heads giddy and our bodies burning from the sun.
We passed through lanes of acacia tress, their beautiful white clustered blossoms, like bunches of rich ivory-tinted grapes, falling heavily forward and down, their scent like ripe grapes in the sun-laden air. (…)
We were not thinking of yesterday, or tomorrow, of the Nazis or of politics. Men and women were speeding by us both ways on bicycles, with small children in little wagons on the side, or in baskets on the front. (…) I was happy, pleased with my day and my companion, full of sympathy for the earnest, simply kindly German people, so obviously taking a hard-earned walk or rest, enjoying themselves and their countryside so intensely.
It was six o’clock when we drove into Berlin. I pulled down my skirt and sat up straight and proper as befits a diplomat’s daughter. The atmosphere had changed, fewer people were on the streets, many of them in curious static groups. Soon we noticed there was an unusual number of police standing around. As we drove nearer and nearer to the heart of the city, we saw heavy army trucks, machine guns, many soldiers, S.S. men, and especially large numbers of the green uniformed Goering police – and no S.A. men. The familiar Brown Shirt was significantly absent. As we came closer to home, we realized something very serious was happening. More truckloads of arms and soldiers on the edges of the streets and in the parks, some streets blocked off, guards and police everywhere. Hardly a person dressed in civilian clothes could be seen as we neared Tiergarten Strasse, and traffic seemed to have stopped. We had a diplomatic number so we were allowed free passage.
My companion was alarmed by this time. He let me off at the head of the lane that led to our Embassy and sped away to his own. I flew towards the house in the broiling sun. Breaking suddenly into our darkened house, the cool air striking me in the face, I turned a little dizzy, my eyes blinded for a moment from the lack of light. I stumbled up the first flight of stairs. When I got halfway up I saw the shadowy figure of my brother at the head of the steps. He called out nervously, “Martha, is that you? Where have you been? We were worried about you. Von Schleicher has been shot. We don’t know what is happening. There is martial law in Berlin.”
My two pfennigs
For readers with more time on their hands
The very admirable Oliver Lubrich (to whose book, “Travels in the Reich, 1933-45: Foreign Authors Report from Germany” I am much indebted) describes how Dodd’s book of 1939 evolves from a “classic travelogue… into a bildungsroman”. Essentially, Dodd starts by taking things at face value, describing her experiences as a privileged ambassador’s daughter and examining the Germans from the outside. At first, she simply enjoys this seemingly fine country full of polite, healthy-looking people. The sheer weight of events, however, forces her to look behind the scenes, to start reading between the lines of what Germans say to her, and before long, she is convinced of the danger at the heart of Nazism and writing against it (in 1939, when it was still by no means clear that the US would enter the War).
What Dodd does well is to manage the transition. She doesn’t have herself wake up one morning a few years more mature and a convinced anti-Nazi, but rather describes how she slowly changes her opinions based on a range of alarming events. This extract is a great example of how she achieves this, focussing at first on the weather and her own desires and then showing how political events such as the move against Röhm, Hitler’s former S.A. chief, in 1934 impact on her mental priorities.
At a second glance, it becomes clear that Dodd didn’t get lucky, but actually aimed to use her retrospective view to ironies herself and her narcissistic ignorance of what was going on around her. Her emphasis on describing the bucolic splendour of the day at the lake is, in fact, slightly jarring: when describing the acacia trees and their blossom, she repeats “grapes” in a clumsy fashion, perhaps aiming for an over-obvious bacchanalian connotation, or perhaps revealing her concentration on the structure and necessity of describing nature rather than a particular desire to do so.
Although Dodd is clearly relating things that actually happened, she was almost certainly very aware of the classic oppositions she was building up: in the country during the daytime, the sun shines, the Germans look happy, and she is concerned with nothing more onerous than getting a tan; in the city, night is approaching, the house is dark, the Germans are uniformed and her concerns are immediately far more grave.
All through Dodd’s book, pleasant events are interrupted by horrible reminders of Nazism: on holiday, a woman having "consorted with a Jew" is ridiculed in public; at parties, sudden outburst of fanaticism and melancholy destroy the mood. In this way, the author is telling us that even the most determined hedonist with a diplomatic licence plate, money to burn and no particular political interest had to, at some point, be woken up to circumstances in which they found themselves. At the same time, with its opening emphasis on the fun and attractive sides of the resurgent Germany, it shows just how easy it was for people to find places and ways to ignore the wake-up calls, and even to feel that Hitler and Nazism were, with a few regrettable exceptions, good for Germany on the whole. On that point, Lubrich’s book also includes diary entries from John F. Kennedy commenting on how “the Germans really are too good – it makes people gang against them”.
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