The walls have ears . . .and this is the eery feeling one has when
reading this book about pre World War II days in Berlin under
Hitler’s ascending role of power. The author, citing letters and
diaries of the time, reveals the lives of the family of William Dodd,
ambassador to Germany in the 1930s.
Dodd is portrayed as a quiet, modest man more interested in writing
his thoughts on the Old South than in pursuing a life in politics, but
Franklin Roosevelt makes him his choice and the Dodds–William, wife
Mattie, daughter Martha and son Bill all go to Berlin to live for what turns
out to be a four year stint.
Dodd’s salary will be $17,500 a year, and he intends to live within his
means, unlike the other members of the diplomatic corps who throw lavish
parties and spend money frivolously.
The house they settle in, however, at Tiergarten strasse 27a, seems to belie all
modest intentions. “At the front, behind the curved facade, was a ballroom
with an oval dance floor of gleaming wood and a piano covered in rich, fringed fabric…..One reception room had walls covered in dark green damask, another,
pink satin. A vast dining room had walls sheathed in red tapestry. . . ”
The daughter, Martha, happily enters the wild stunning life available to her–
partying late, enjoying amorous friendships with foreign diplomats, or local Nazis.
Among her visiting American beaus were Carl Sandburg, and Thomas Wolfe.
William Dodd embarrasses the family by insisting on driving himself in his old
yellow Chevrolet instead of a chauffeured limousine. He enters the position of
ambassadorship with no illusions about a “peaceful-minded” Germany. Anti-
semitic activity is rife and Dodd can see that Hitler is trying to build/rebuild a
vast army. He finds it difficult to act in diplomatic friendly fashion with such
a country that is visibly testing the peace treaties written after Germany’s defeat
in World War I. Dodd’s pleas to Roosevelt to turn a cold shoulder to Berlin are
met with noncommital actions. Roosevelt’s advisors want to recoup the millions
of dollars of Germany’s war debt, and the US is in the throes of an isolationist
bent with no stomach for new hostilities which might lead to a war.
Erik Larson is the author of The Devil in the White City and other books. His
writing, journalistic in tone,
carries sweeps the reader along right up to the last
page. Because of the writing, even though we have read about this horrid situation
over and over again, Larson makes it important once more. There are a few
photos in the book, but I wish there had been more.
This was the selection, last minute substitution, for our October book club meeting which is next Tuesday night.
We’ll see what the members thought about it.
POSTSCRIPT: Book club gave it a unanimous thumbs up!
Both for writing and content and point of view of an
historical period–from the ambassador’s perspective.
There was lots of discussion—bottom line—strong
recommendation for your own book club.
Next month’s selection is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.
Third Tuesday of November . . .I’ll save you a seat.