by Rafael Medoff
The U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s privately made antisemitic remarks and worked to undermine American Jewish protests against Hitler, according to newly discovered documents.
William E. Dodd, a University of Chicago historian, was chosen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s as ambassador to Germany in June 1933, four months after Adolf Hitler rose to power. A book about Dodd’s years in Germany, Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, was a best-seller in 2011.
Larson did allude to Dodd’s personal prejudice against Jews, but most of the reviews, including those in the New York Times and Washington Post, ignored that aspect of the book. They took a greater interest in the book’s saucy revelations about the affairs that Dodd’s daughter, Martha, carried on with prominent Nazis and others.
In early 1934, Ambassador Dodd was repeatedly harangued by Nazi government officials about an upcoming mock trial of Hitler to be held at Madison Square Garden. The trial was organized by the American Jewish Congress and cosponsored by labor and civil rights groups.
Speakers at the event, held on March 7, 1934, presented evidence of Hitler’s assault on civil liberties and persecution of German Jews. At the conclusion, the Nazi regime was “convicted” of having “turned its face against historic progress and the positive blessings and achievements of modern civilization.”
Documents recently located by this author in the Yale University archives describe efforts by Dodd to prevent a second mock trial from taking place, this time in Chicago. Although several previous historians have mentioned Dodd’s opposition to the second trial, the documents add disturbing new details to those accounts–and shed additional light on Dodd’s own views of Jews.
During a visit to the United States in late March 1934, Dodd turned to his old friend Colonel Edward M. House, a senior adviser to President Roosevelt, to help block a Chicago mock trial. In a letter to House on March 24, Ambassador Dodd reported that former judge James Gerard, who had served as U.S. ambassador in Berlin during World War I, had been invited to take part in the trial. Dodd asked House to “find a way to influence Judge Gerard to decline the invitation.”
Dodd cited several reasons. First, “these Jewish demonstrations [against Nazism] are creating a race issue here and even winning Nazi support” (apparently he believed Jewish protests helped drive other Americans to support the Nazis). Second, Dodd believed Hitler had decided “to ease up on the Jews.” In addition, Dodd told House he had personally assured Hitler “that Chicago Jews were not so wild.” Therefore, Dodd urged House to “let [Gerard] know the risks [and] also the discredit to his own fame.”
Another issue raised in Ambassador Dodd’s letter to House had to do with Jews on the staff of the American embassy in Berlin, something about which Dodd had previously griped. Dodd complained to House that U.S. journalists had been informed that Dodd recently protested to Hitler about Nazi propaganda activities in the United States. “It’s another proof of the risky fact of certain people in confidential positions,” Dodd wrote to House. “I am almost sure the information was given once more by one of the ‘Chosen people.’ ”
An additional and important reason for Dodd’s position was that his main goal was to improve U.S.-German relations. Although the Roosevelt administration disapproved of Germany’s treatment of the Jews, the U.S. was not prepared to protest in any concrete way. FDR personally instructed Ambassador Dodd that while he could “unofficially” take issue with Nazi Germany’s antisemitism, he was not to issue any formal protests on the subject, since it was “not a [U.S.] governmental affair.” Dodd did privately express his views to German officials, but never lodged any formal diplomatic protests over the persecution of the Jews.
House’s intervention with former ambassador Gerard was successful. On March 31, House reported to Dodd: “The Judge will not go to Chicago.” Judge Gerard’s refusal to participate, together with Dodd’s own private pleas to prominent Jewish acquaintances in Chicago, seem to have been the major factors in the cancelation of plans for a second mock trial.