Martha Dodd wasn’t particularly happy when her father was appointed U.S. ambassador to Germany in 1933. When the family arrived in Berlin, Martha found the city irresistibly fascinating, and she immersed the tour guide in a steady stream of questions about architecture, history, and culture.
The touring car soon arrived at the Reichstag building, which four months earlier had been the scene of an arson attack that precipitated a politically convenient crisis. The terrorist incident, which was supposedly the work of a small knot of saboteurs led by a Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe, provided the impetus for passage of the “Law for Removing the Distress of People and Reich” – the “Enabling Act” that served as the legal foundation for the national socialist dictatorship.
At this point – July 1933 – the National Socialist Party had not fully consolidated its power, and many Germans publicly speculated “that the Nazi regime itself had orchestrated the fire to stir fears of a Bolshevik uprising and thereby gain popular support for the suspension of civil liberties,” observes Erik Larson in his recent book In the Garden of Beasts. “The upcoming trial was the talk of Berlin.”
Martha noticed that “contrary to what news reports had led her to expect, the building seemed intact,” Larson relates. “The towers still stood and the facades appeared unmarked.”
“Oh, I thought it was burned down!” she commented to the agitated protocol secretary who was conducting the tour. “It looks all right to me. Tell me what happened.”
In reply to Martha's request, the protocol officer grabbed the young woman by the arm and hissed: “Young lady, you must learn to be seen and not heard. This isn’t America and you can’t say all the things you think.”
People who challenged the government’s official version of events by asking impertinent questions faced the prospect of “protective custody.” In Berlin circa 1933, this was called schutzhaft. In the contemporary American Reich this procedure is called “emergency custody.”