FBI files detail the story of ex-Chicagoan Martha Dodd Stern who became a Soviet spy
Her father was U.S. ambassador to Germany as Hitler rose to power, and she was romantically involved with the Nazis’ secret police chief before embracing the Soviet Union.
Moving to Berlin in her 20s when her father was named U.S. ambassador to Germany before World War II, Martha Dodd Stern initially got swept up in Nazi fervor, “the new regime working like wine in me,” as she later wrote.
She became romantically involved with Nazi secret police chief Rudolf Diels and met Adolf Hitler but quickly became disenchanted with their cause.
She fell in love with a Soviet press attaché and was recruited by Soviet intelligence. That began a decades-long pre- and post-war spy drama — perhaps as intriguing as any Cold War novel — that’s detailed in once-secret government records now part of the Chicago Sun-Times’ “The FBI Files” database.
Stern’s story begins in Chicago, where she was living when her father William E. Dodd, who worked for the University of Chicago, was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as ambassador in 1933.
Married and working for the Chicago Tribune as an assistant literary editor, Stern left behind her job and husband to move to Germany with her parents and brother.
In a 1939 memoir “Through Embassy Eyes,” Stern wrote of leaving Chicago “in a flurry of flowers and friends, under a nervous strain which we thought unbearable but which was only the beginning and a poor approximation of what we were to know of gnawing nerves, raw and exposed sensitiveness, and grief.”
In pre-war Europe, Stern lived a life of privilege, socializing often and interacting with Germany’s elite.
Erik Larson — whose 2011 book “In the Garden of Beasts” tells the story of Stern and her father — characterizes her as “charismatic, smart, self-involved . . . who reveled in her own sexuality and demanded to be the center of attention.”
As she shifted her sympathies from the Nazis to the communists, Stern began helping the Soviets, taking advantage of her ties to the American government and embassy to pass along information, according to the records and previously published accounts.
After moving back to the United States, she worked as something of a Soviet talent scout, recruiting people she thought might be valuable, according to John Fox, the FBI’s historian.
But Fox says he thinks Stern was possibly more “wrapped up in the romance” of Soviet espionage than she was an effective spy herself.
Larson had a similar take, saying: “She always thought she was more than she was . . . She was never quite willing to put effort to become that full thing.”
One figure she did bring into the Soviet sphere was wealthy former Chicagoan Alfred Stern. She married him in the late 1930s after divorcing her first husband. Their activities drew the interest of the FBI, whose records show Alfred Stern invested $130,000 in a “music company” that was a cover for Soviet spying in the United States.
The couple was charged with espionage in 1957 but not convicted.
They already had moved to Mexico and eventually fled to Prague — then under communist control — where they spent their final years. Alfred Stern died in 1986. Martha Stern died in 1990.
Fox views Stern’s life as a tragedy — her fascination with communism fueling her efforts at espionage. When she had to flee and live behind the Iron Curtain, her experience living in a communist society didn’t seem to live up to her idealized notions.
Fox says Stern’s later correspondence shows she didn’t regret her actions or life but was saddened by the impact her life in exile had on her writing career.
Amanda Ohlke, director of adult education at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., describes Stern as “much more influential I think than she might be given credit for.”
For instance, in Stern’s 1939 book, she laid bare the realities of Hitler’s regime at a time much of the world was still in denial about what was happening in Germany.