1933 /
Philip Metcalfe.
Sag Harbor, New York : Permanent Press, c1988.
316 p. : ill.
More Details
Sag Harbor, New York : Permanent Press, c1988.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One


Ablack and white photograph from the 1930s shows an American family on the first class deck of a passenger liner. Behind them the teak railing and the scupper plates can be clearly made out. No wind ruffles their hair, no ocean wave disturbs their balance. The ship is at dock and a portion of a dockside sign, "United States Lines," can be deciphered beyond the close focus of the photograph. The women, mother and daughter, hold bouquets of flowers and smile for the camera. Between them stand father and son. The father has just made a pointed remark, his right arm gesturing, while his 28-year-old son listens. The two women smile. The camera shutter trips.

    The port was Hamburg, Germany, in the summer of 1933. Adolf Hitler had been Chancellor for five months, virtual dictator for four, and the American family Posing for pictures on the first class deck of the SS Washington belonged to the newly appointed ambassador from America, William E. Dodd.

    For 24-year-old Martha Dodd, the crossing had been both lighthearted and somber. Lighthearted because a fellow passenger turned out to be the second son of the newly elected president and when the two compared passports they were struck by the simplicity of his which read: "Franklin Roosevelt, Jr." and the exaggerated grandeur of hers: "... daughter of William E. Dodd, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to Germany." Somber because after seeing the Roosevelt party off at Le Havre, Martha searched desperately for a patch of French soil to embrace. She finally found some between two railroad ties and, removing a shoe, touched it with her toe. She had toured Europe with her mother five years before and had fallen madly in love with France.

    A month earlier in Chicago when her mother called her at work to tell her that President Roosevelt had asked her father to be the next Ambassador to Germany, Martha never dreamt that in a few short weeks she would be going to Berlin. In Chicago she had a good job reviewing books as an assistant literary editor on the Chicago Tribune . Evenings she wrote short stories until early in the morning.

    She tried to recall what she knew about Germany. She had toured the Rhineland briefly on her European trip, but she had no interest in politics or contemporary history. According to the newspapers, Adolf Hitler looked like Charlie Chaplin and behaved like a clown in a country that burned books. She could not imagine her father in such an atmosphere.

    Her father was the head of the history department at the University of Chicago and the first professor in the United States to occupy a chair of Southern History. The author of numerous books and papers on Lincoln and Lee and Jefferson, he was a short, precise man with a face weathered from the summers he spent with his family farming in Virginia. His speech displayed the gracious pathos of the born southerner.

    "Of course, I was surprised," he told reporters, "but not so surprised that I dropped the receiver or anything like that. I recognized the President's voice, which helped the situation a good deal."

    Her father had asked Roosevelt if the leaders of the so-called "New Germany" might not take exception to the appointment of a man who had recently written a biography of Woodrow Wilson. Among conservative diehards in Germany, Wilson was still known as the "War President."

    "I am sure they will not. That book, 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. It is a difficult post, and you have cultural approaches that could help. I want an American liberal in Germany as a standing example."

    The new administration had waited three months before filling the post in Berlin. Roosevelt had wanted an unspectacular man, a shrewd observer whose head would not be turned by fascist flattery or splendor. The President had never met Dodd, but he had read some of his writings and was particularly impressed by the historian's ideas on Jefferson.

    "Don't take your household things," Dodd told his family. "Leave most of the furniture and belongings here, because we will be back in a year." Hitler's government was not expected to last, and when it fell the need for a standing liberal in Germany would also disappear. Martha's father fully expected to be back in Chicago, teaching, within twelve months.

    But she did not want to go to Germany, Martha argued. She did not want to give up her job on the Tribune (as frustrating as it was to review several books in a space hardly large enough to do justice to one). She was earning good money and her stories were beginning to sell.

    "Suppose I cannot write over there?"

    The prospect terrified her. She knew she was talented and exceptionally lyrical. No less a figure than Carl Sandburg, a friend of the family, had urged her not to be afraid of her lyricism. She wrote effusively but self-critically and both loved and hated her gift and hid its strain on her under an outward pose of toughness that only poorly disguised her highly-strung nature. If she stopped writing now, after she had begun to produce good work, her father's success would be her ruin. She doubted that her gift could survive the move to a foreign capital and the whirl of foreign impressions. And if it died, who could say it had ever lived outside of her memory of it?

    She could of course return if she felt that way, her father promised, to perhaps a better job on the Tribune . In the meantime she would make the acquaintance of a great people and a great nation and see history in the making. The experience could only enrich a young woman of her ability and ambition.

    Except for a short and unhappy half year at a snobbish finishing school near Washington, D.C. Martha had never lived wholly away from her parents. The family was exceptionally close, no longer quite parents and children but adults living together under one roof. Events had rushed her generation so far ahead intellectually and sensually that she sometimes felt as if her mother and father were her children, her "darlings" as she called them. She was equally devoted to her older brother, Bill, who taught history at the American University in Washington, D.C. Martha and Bill hoped to share an apartment together some day. A recent, ill-fated elopement had only convinced Martha never to let matrimony interfere with her career.

    When Bill heard the news he wired back that he was eager to go to Germany where, like his father, he could earn a doctorate at a German university. Martha was left with no choice but to accept the inevitable or stay on alone in Chicago. She tried to see the journey as a lark, but the final weeks in Chicago were an agony of suspense for her.

    "Well, you won't need many dresses and certainly not formal ones," her editor at the Tribune advised, "because, since the Court life has been destroyed and the Nazis have come to power, there must be no social life." Thinking of the remark later, Martha had to smile. Nobody in America had known very much about Germany or her new rulers.

    Roosevelt's first Ambassador to the Third Reich was 64 in the summer of 1933. A plain, toothsome man, Professor Dodd had the unblinking gaze of his idol, Woodrow Wilson, whose public papers he had helped edit. Joy outside of his family came to Dodd only from within. It was an emotion he distrusted and Roosevelt could not have chosen a better man to abjure the blandishments of diplomatic life in Berlin if, indeed, any remained.

    A self-made man from the pine brakes and red soil of an impoverished family of North Carolina farmers, William E. Dodd showed an early predilection for the past. Born just four years after the surrender at Appomatox, he was nicknamed "Monk Dodd" by his schoolmates. Denied admission to the University of North Carolina due to his lowly origins, he passed through a series of military and polytechnic institutes but failed in his quest to secure an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point; a tragedy that in his mature years the unmilitary professor considered a distinct blessing.

    After receiving a Bachelor's degree from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute he stayed on for two more years as an instructor of history before sailing at age 28 to Germany with money from a rich uncle to study at the University of Leipzig. There he grew his first beard, was seen with a woman of doubtful repute, and wrote a thesis of 90 pages--long for its day--on the origins of the Democratic party. In 1899 he received his doctorate, cum laude, and returned home to see the turn of the century but no job offers.

    American history when Dodd came to it in 1900 was largely the history of England in America. Compiled by the patrician sons of wealthy New England families, it traced the influence of English thought and culture in America from the Discovery to the second administration of Jefferson. Geographically, these multi-volumed works saw the pageant of America as unfolding along the rock-bound coast of New England and the gentle inlets of the Middle Atlantic States. The existence of lands west of the Ohio River was recognized but unchronicled. As for the South, it extended no further than Jefferson's pleasant valley plantation in Virginia. Specialized studies such as European or diplomatic history were unknown. America's historians, like her newspaper editors, showed no great interest in the European continent until 1917, when large numbers of their countrymen returned to the Old World to fight and to die.

    Dodd's first position was as an instructor of history and economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, a town without paved roads, electricity or running water. He lived in a small house by the railway tracks, lectured 15 hours a week and in his first year sent out more than a dozen appeals for employment elsewhere.

    Fifty years earlier he might have tried his hand at writing popular history, but by 1905 the historical romance had lost its appeal. To be noticed, an historian had to write for his fellow historians. Dodd's first book, a life of Nathaniel Macon, came out in 1903, to be followed by a second on Jefferson Davis four years later. But his true salvation lay in the historical manuscripts he uncovered in the garrets and cellars of southern courthouses and in the papers and diaries he begged from the heirs of southern gentlemen. With these he founded a local historical society and a journal that he and his students filled with the biographies of notable Virginians. Slowly, the south became aware of its past and American academia of William E. Dodd.

    After eight years at Randolph-Macon College and numerous appearances before the American Historical Association he was offered the position of Associate Professor of Southern History at the University of Chicago. He accepted reluctantly, fearing that he might fail in the north. He had married in 1901, above his station, and had two small children.

    He need not have worried. For the next twenty years a sea breeze stirred the waters of American history and blew relentlesly in Dodd's direction. Historians, along with the rest of the nation, had no choice but to follow. Its sirens were the popular novelists and the muckraking journalists of the mass subscription newspapers who drew the nation's attention to the sweatshops of America and the fabulous luxury of the country's iron and railroad tycoons.

    Why did the New World suffer such inequalities of destiny? The traditional reply was that injustice had always existed and would always exist. Its root causes lay beyond the power of the human mind to comprehend or of the human hand to correct. Elder historians offered little insight. The aloof grandeur of their pose hardly touched the grim reality of America's industrial age.

    It was different for historians of Dodd's generation. They had not been born to the powerful families of the Northeast. For the most part they were Southerners and Midwesterners, many of them self-taught men who had made their way in academia against the resistance of Eastern snobbery. To write the history of the deep South or of the California Gold Rush was to set oneself against the interests of an older, established history. The progressive historians, as they called themselves, equated democracy not with Boston's Brahmins or Virginia's one hundred ruling families, but with the inarticulate common man. When they wrote "the people," they meant dirt farmers, indentured servants, missionaries and immigrants, men and women like their own fathers and grandfathers.

    To their eyes society had never been permanent or immutable. American history was conflict and change and American progress the triumph of the common man over privilege and monopoly and the enemies of change. Democracy had only been given a start at the Constitutional convention; and Dodd often remarked that, even in America, democracy had only been tried for a few brief years.

    Enrollment in history courses at Chicago continued slow. Sixty percent of the students left in their first year, siphoned off by the lucrative opportunities in business and finance. The task, as Dodd and the other progressives saw it, was to turn the poorest material into nothing less than the thinking element of the nation. Scholars must concentrate on teaching. Dodd had not preached egalitarianism all his life to disport himself like an intellectual baron in the classroom. He dispensed with the twin goads of the snap quiz and the exhaustive reading list. Instead of formal lectures he delivered narrative, impressionistic soliloquies. Since his platform style was poor--his voice was weak--his new style increased his effectiveness. He talked along as if his students were sitting in his living room, throwing out astonishing insights into the lives of the great figures of the South as if he had been part of their households. His gracious manner and skeptical humor, combined with an easy intimacy, led many of his students to think that they had been remade in his classes. The antebellum South lived in the classrooms of Chicago; and a growing number of history professors and department heads could boast that they had received their graduate training under Dodd's careful tutelage.

    Still, after thirty years of teaching, he was disappointed in his career. Unlike many of his colleagues, he had not gone into the government under Wilson's administration. He was old-fashioned enough to believe that scholars should stand aside from political wars. Increasingly, his own work in Southern history was coming under attack by younger historians who saw that its broad sweep was often supported by too few facts. He was inclined to agree. His commitment to teaching had never allowed him the time to dig exhaustively in the historical record. He still had a three-volume history of the Old South to write. He told reporters after Roosevelt's election that if a diplomatic post were offered he hoped it would be in Holland where it was quiet and he could write.

    For reasons of his own Franklin D. Roosevelt, America's patrician president, passed over the wealthy financiers of his own party and the hardly less wealthy career diplomats in the State Department to choose William E. Dodd, historian, Southerner, a man of moderate means and even more moderate tastes to be his personal representative and America's "standing example" of the democratic faith in the youngest and most exultantly fascist country in Europe. Outside of Dodd's own family few suspected that the history professor with the erect bearing would evince such a steely contempt for those who refused to believe that God had created all men equal.

    The Senate confirmed him without debate, and swarms of reporters descended upon his modest home at 5757 Blackstone Avenue near the university.

    "You speak German fluently?" asked a reporter.

    "... I guess that's what got me into trouble in the first place ..." Dodd replied.

    After some thirty years he did not speak German fluently, but it would have been pointless to explain the complexities of a living language to a newspaperman. He still read it well enough, and he remembered Germany and her history vividly; but then a good memory was part of his equipment. Secretly, he was delighted to be returning. He had once imagined he might return as a minor consular official but never as his country's Ambassador.

    After a week of unceasing publicity and hundreds of telegrams and letters from well-wishers he was grateful to escape to Washington to confer with President Roosevelt and the heads of the State Department.

    Roosevelt was most gracious. At precisely 1 PM a servant entered the oval office, set a luncheon tray before the President and the Ambassador and quietly withdrew. Roosevelt began with the matter of the $1.2 billion that American brokerage firms had enticed Americans into loaning to German businesses and municipalities after 1926. The brokers had reaped enormous and immediate commissions; but now Germany, like the rest of the Western world, was in the midst of the Great Depression and could ill afford to pay even the interest on the loans. Officially the problem was not Washington's. Unofficially the President urged Dodd to do everything in his power to forestall a moratorium on payments. Otherwise, America's recovery would be slowed even further.

    Roosevelt next turned to the problem of the Jews in Germany.

    "The German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully, and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. 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."

    Dodd brought up the subject of the extravagant sums spent by American diplomats abroad. Newspapers in Chicago had recently revealed that American envoys in Paris and London spent $50,000 to $100,000 of their own fortunes each year on palatial residences, servants and social display. Their intention might be to boost American stature abroad, but Dodd wondered if the emphasis on personal wealth and public display did not betray the democratic and egalitarian ideals these men were sent abroad to represent. What were the President's views?

    "You are quite right. Aside from two or three general dinners and entertainments, you need not indulge in any expensive social affairs. Try to give fair attention to Americans in Berlin and occasional dinners to Germans who are interested in American relations. I think you can manage to live within your income and not sacrifice any essential parts of the service."

    The meeting lasted an hour. When it was over Dodd went over to the State Department to study the dispatches from Berlin. That evening he dined with the German Ambassador in Washington. Cocktails were served. Dodd did not drink. He went home late, unimpressed with the level of conversation.

    At the end of the week he returned to Chicago to close up the house and to pack. At a farewell dinner hosted by the German American Society of Chicago, Martha found herself seated next to Carl Sandburg and his wife in the Gold Room of the Congress Hotel. While others taught her amusing remarks to make to the Fuehrer in German, Sandburg crooned the wisest advice of all:

    "Find out what this man Hitler is made of, what makes his brain go round, what his bones and blood are made of. Before your eyes will pass the greatest pageant of crooks and gangsters, idealists, statesmen, criminals, diplomats and geniuses. You will see every nationality in the world. Watch them, study them, dissect them. Don't be frightened or diffident, don't let them or your experiences spoil you or your eagerness for life. Be brave and truthful, keep your poetry and integrity."

    At the end of the evening as her father's colleagues came up to shake his hand in farewell, one of them whispered: "Watch your step, Herr Doktor, Vorsichtig ."

    The German consulate in Chicago wired Berlin that the new Ambassador seemed unduly preoccupied with the tasks ahead; that his wife was a regular " Muetterchen " and his daughter an elegant scamp who would soon turn numerous heads in the capital. Only on the Jewish problem did the new Ambassador maintain a discreet silence.

    The family traveled by train to Round Hill, the farm in Virginia that Dodd had bought to replace the one his own parents had lost. Dodd took Jefferson's dictum literally: to be a citizen of America meant to cultivate the soil. Instead of playing tennis or golf, Martha and Bill spent their summers in Virginia picking and sorting peaches and apples and bringing in the wheat crop with the farm's tenants and Negro hands. The summers in Virginia always brought the family from Chicago closer and left them strong and tanned and spiritually renewed for the academic year ahead. In Chicago her father suffered from headaches and stomach complaints due to overwork that left him fatigued and with little desire for food. At 64 he looked fragile and at least ten pounds underweight. His doctors could find nothing wrong with him and advised that he get plenty of exercise and fresh air and avoid all mental strain, a regimen he would find all but impossible to follow in Berlin.

    As his family strolled along the familiar paths between farm and icehouse, blacksmith shop and dairy pasture and savored the cool evening light over the Southern hills, he motored to Washington each day in the sweltering heat to see Roosevelt again and to revisit the countryside of his birth. He said a final farewell to his 86-year-old father and wandered over the family burial ground in sight of the Valley of Virginia Campaign. At the end of the week they all motored to New York City, where he met with bankers worried about the debt problem and with Jews worried about the Jewish problem.

    Shortly before noon on July 5, 1933, after purchasing several dictionaries for his family's use, he boarded the SS Washington with his wife, Martha and Bill and turned to wave farewell to America.

    As the gangway came up and the tugs swung the great ship into the harbor, the Dodds could not know that their recent brief days at Round Hill and the voyage just beginning would be the last purely pleasurable time they would know together as a family. During the first few days out, as the wake boiled behind the ship, Martha wept bitterly at the thought of her lost life in Chicago, sunken without a trace like the continent behind her. Then she discovered the Roosevelt party and danced and drank and was gay.

    The weather was calm, the sea bright.


Excerpted from 1933 by Philip Metcalfe. Copyright © 1988 by Philip Metcalfe. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1989-01-01:
Germany in the first year of Nazi rule is the setting for this evocation of a period of gathering terror. Unlike most of the recent spate of single-year books, this is not an account of public events. Rather it focuses on five people: U.S. Ambassador William Dodd; his daughter Martha; Jewish society reporter Bella Fromm; Putzie Hanfstaengl, chief of the foreign press; and Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo. Drawing on their own accounts, on newspaper reports, and on archival sources, Metcalfe conveys a vivid sense of a society going awry and of jarring incongruity between the normality of everyday life and the new stark violence. For general collections. Nancy C. Cridland, Indiana Univ. Libs., Bloomington
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1988-09-02:
Using letters, diaries and memoirs, Metcalfe distills the personalities, viewpoints and day-to-day reactions of five alert and often directly involved witnesses to Hitler's consolidation of power. They are: U.S. ambassador to Germany, William Dodd and his high-spirited daughter Martha; Bella Fromm, a glamorous German society columnist who was Jewish and made no secret ot it; Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler's somewhat buffoonish foreign-press chief; and Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo. Events and trends related here include the Reichstag fire, the turning-loose of the Storm Troops, book-burnings and the outbreak of violent, organized anti-Semitism. The bloody Roehm purge of June 30, 1934, when Hitler liquidated the homosexual leadership of the SA, had a shock effect on each of the five witnesses on whom Metcalfe focuses. Their varied reactions form the climax to this exciting, historically important book by a first-time author. Particularly intriguing is the account of the Gestapo chief's ``courting'' of the American diplomatic circle (Martha Dodd found his ``sinister beauty'' fascinating), largely in hopes of protecting himself from his enemies. Photos. Paperback rights to Harper & Row. (October)
This item was reviewed in:
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Publishers Weekly, September 1988
Booklist, October 1988
Library Journal, January 1989
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