Dodd, an established historian, had hoped for a quiet State Department posting in a region with little strategic importance (the Netherlands, perhaps), something that would leave him largely free to work on what he really cared about: an ambitious four-volume history of the American South.
President Franklin Roosevelt, however, was desperate to find someone to send to Berlin. The newly appointed Chancellor Hitler had already created an air of menace that caused several more likely candidates to turn down the job. Eventually Roosevelt turned to Dodd.
The new ambassador, a “humble Jeffersonian,” grew up a farm boy and lacked the typical Ivy League background and résumé. He eschewed finery and pageantry and became a State Department joke when he shipped his family’s battered Chevrolet to Berlin to navigate among the Mercedes-Benzes that ferried Nazi officials.
Dodd also economized by leasing a four-story mansion owned by a Jewish banker on the edge of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s Central Park. (“Tiergarten” translates, literally, as “garden of animals” – or beasts.)
Dodd and his family – his wife, Mattie; his son, Bill; and his daughter, Martha – paid a paltry $150 per month for the first three floors of the mansion. The banker, a man named Panofsky, squeezed into the top floor with his family, hoping that living with the American ambassador would make persecution much harder, even for Hitler and his goon squads.