A Chevy raises Nazi eyebrows
The old Chevrolet was not considered an appropriate car for the man who became the U.S. ambassador to Germany in 1933 -- but then many did not consider William Dodd a suitable man to represent his country anyway.
Dodd and his family arrived in Berlin in July 1933, just as Adolf Hitler was consolidating his stranglehold on power. Dodd was a mild-mannered academic, not a professional diplomat, and newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt's decision to appoint a relative unknown to such a key post puzzled many.
Dodd idolized Thomas Jefferson and prided himself on his frugality. The Chevrolet would become the foremost symbol of that thriftiness, according to In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson's riveting tale of Dodd's brief tenure in Berlin during a turning point in history. Larson's book recently topped The
New York Times best seller nonfiction list.
The book features two central characters: the bookish Dodd and his extroverted, sexually adventurous daughter Martha, who quickly becomes enamored of the new Nazi regime and begins a series of affairs, including one with Rudolf Diels, first chief of the Gestapo.
Modest man among storm troopers
Prior to his departure for Berlin, Dodd expressed his desire to live "most inconspicuously and modestly," but a U.S. State Department official believed that "the German officials and German people would not understand it." An ambassador was expected to throw lavish parties and be whisked around in a chauffeur-driven limousine. But Dodd stuck to his guns, and shipped the Chevrolet to Berlin. Larson does not specify what year or model the Chevy was. In response to an e-mail query, Larson said he had no further details about the car.
The Chevrolet played a part in the Dodd family's adventures in a Germany that was becoming an increasingly frightening place. Martha and some friends drove the car from Berlin to Nuremburg. To the dismay of her American companions, the naive Martha responded in kind to the exuberant "Heil Hitler" salutes of Germans they met along the way.
It was in Nuremburg that Martha got her first glimpse of the regime's dark side. The group of friends witnessed storm troopers dragging a woman through the streets by the hair while a festive crowd laughed and jeered.
Dodd himself was never under any illusions about Hitler and his party, especially after storm troopers attacked several American citizens, forcing him to lodge protests with the government. He became a kind of Cassandra, repeatedly warning isolationist-leaning Washington that the Fuhrer was preparing for war.
During his brief tenure in Berlin, Larson wrote, Dodd became an object of scorn among "senior Reich officials," who were "already disposed to belittle Dodd's frugal habits -- his plain suits, the walks to work, the old Chevrolet." The contrast between the humble Dodd and Nazi leaders like the strutting, vain and pompous Reich Marshall Hermann Goering could not have been more stark.
In 1934, Dodd and 15 other U.S. ambassadors became the subject of an article in the April issue of Fortune magazine. The article referred to the wealthy former merchant Jesse Isidor Straus, U.S. ambassador to France, as $$$$ Straus. Beside Dodd's name there was a single ¢ sign.
'Weary old Chevrolet'
"The article poked fun at his cheapskate approach to diplomacy" and noted he had "brought his weary old Chevrolet to Berlin," writes Larson.
Dodd's son Bill was supposed to drive him to evening functions but frequently took the Chevrolet for his own purposes, forcing his father to "cadge rides from junior embassy officers."
Dodd became disgusted with the warlike Nazis and their persecution of Jews. He increasingly refused to have anything to do with men he perceived as murderers and gangsters.
Dodd eventually was undone by his critics in the State Department. They didn't see the point of having an ambassador who refused to present himself before the government of the host country, no matter how repugnant. His days in Germany were numbered.
Sadly, the old Chevy would not return to its country of origin. During one of his final home leave trips to Chicago, Dodd received a cable from his wife telling him that "his old Chevrolet, icon of his ambassadorship, had been totaled by his chauffeur."
So Dodd had to buy a new car before returning to Germany one last time. He chose a Buick, which he initially deemed as too pricey at $1,350.
Writes Larson: "The car, he wrote, was a basic model that his embassy protocol experts disparaged as 'ridiculously simple for an ambassador.'"
However simple, Dodd's decision to step up from a Chevrolet to a Buick would have pleased Alfred Sloan to no end.
You can reach Bradford Wernle at firstname.lastname@example.org.