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Abroad in Dark Times

Americans confront Nazi evil — and sometimes accommodate it — in two gripping new histories

Wick’s narrative of how Shirer tricked the Gestapo into clearing for departure two trunks containing that diary and other compromising documents is as exciting as the best le Carré. So is the nail-biting description of his exit via a turbulent plane ride from Berlin to Barcelona in a December snowstorm. Though The Long Night’s author spends some time wondering whether Shirer and his peers did enough to alert their audiences to the plight of Germany’s Jews, overall Wick’s book is an unambiguous account of an honorable man doing his best under agonizing constraints.

Far more discomfiting is Larson’s portrait of two naïve Americans slowly awakening to the genocidal core of Nazism. The reason: Larson’s technique is to report their often-blinkered views without commentary. Martha Dodd saw the Nazis as romantic revolutionaries in the early going, while her ambassador father made morally tone-deaf accommodations to German racism: Dodd père rented, for a bargain, the mansion owned by a wealthy, terrified Jewish family. More shameful still, he complained to his superiors that the excessive number of Jews employed by the American embassy was hampering his ability to work with the German government.

Such political myopia was corrected by the crush of events within a year of the Dodds’ arrival in Berlin. Shocked by Hitler’s bloody consolidation of power on June 30, 1934 (“The Night of the Long Knives,” which closes Larson’s main narrative), Ambassador Dodd became a vocal opponent of the Nazi regime. (Indeed, FDR ordered him home in 1937 for just that reason.) Martha, meanwhile, morphed from Nazi apologist to Soviet spy. Never mind Larson’s defense of Martha as “not precisely a hero, but a woman of principle.” Vapid quotes from her memoirs and personal papers will prompt many readers to agree with Wick’s more critical assessment: She was “a party girl in Berlin” whose politics “were bizarre to the extreme.”

Larson states in his preface that his goal is “to accompany my two innocents through the world as they experienced it.” But when does refusing to judge your subjects cross the line to apologizing for them? His vivid, readable text induces a moral queasiness that the author may well have intended. We like to believe we’d behave with Shirer’s principled firmness, yet the Dodds’ confused stumbles are not inconceivable when rendered in context. In an age of extremism, these two books remind us, seldom is it simple to do the right thing.

Wendy Smith is a contributing editor of The American Scholar.

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