Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich

What a fascinating book this is! The author draws on a comprehensive collection of mainly American and English (but also French, Chinese and other) sources, often unpublished materials, to describe the rise of Fascism in Germany from 1920 until its collapse at the end of WW2. You get a full caleidoscope of experiences here: from political leaders and celebrity artists and musicians, to students and Quakers, holidaymakers and even children on school trips.

Almost everyone is familiar with the broad outlines of historical progression towards Fascism (although perhaps not as well as they should be, hence history repeating itself today). What surprised me about this book is how enamoured many ordinary and perfectly decent foreign travellers were with Nazi Germany. Of course we do have the benefit of hindsight now, and perhaps some things were not obvious at the time unless you went looking for them really hard. Also, the Germans were very enthusiastic about greeting tourists warmly right until the eve of the war (they badly needed the money). And yet… the dangers and threats were minimised and the ugly reality was ignored for far too long.

Why? In the case of Britain, it started off with them feeling sorry for the Germans and the harsh conditions of the Versailles Treaty, which led to grinding poverty and near-starvation in the years immediately after WW1. Besides, the English and Americans have traditionally felt more affinity with the Germans and their culture than with the French. They forgot all that France had suffered at the hands of the Germans in the First World War and saw that they were being overcharged and cheated in France, while in Germany the towns were cleaner, the people more diligent and disciplined, and the plumbing worked.

Vintage poster for Dutch audiences: Germany, land of music

They also loved German literature, music, art and very soon started admiring the ‘splendid physique and sense of purpose’ of the vigorous young people rising from the ashes of the war. The German love of uniforms and marching was perceived as an endearing foible rather than something to worry about (after all, one had been or rather still was an Empire oneself) – and those uniforms were so goddamn sexy, weren’t they? As for Jews or gypsies or Communists, well, one didn’t like them very much anyone, so why should they meddle in a country’s internal affairs? Instead of squabbling over such minor issues as a few Jews or disaffected radicals, Britons and Americans should be standing shoulder to shoulder with their Anglo-Saxon German brothers, ready to fight the common enemy – communism.

Even thoughtful people empathised with the German’s envy of the Jews.

A people that has suffered and is bitterly poor sees a race that climbs and flourishes upon the ruin of its own fortunes. Small wonder if envy does stir in its heart and it snarls accusations of profiteering against all who belong to this race.

Even John Maynard Keynes, friend to Einstein and banker Carl Melchior, said:

Yet if I lived there, I felt I might turn anti-Semitic for the poor Prussian is too slow and heavy on his legs for the other kind of Jews, the ones who are not imps but serving devils

And the new doctrine was giving people what they wanted: instead of messy complexity, uncertainty and only gradual improvements, it provided simple, clear answers and scapegoats. It gave the people a sense of direction, a feeling (or illusion) that they were going somewhere. Many people did not like Hitler but were seduced by the message:

It was buoyant, exciting and alive. It was not patronising. It broke down social barriers, provided pageantry and stimulus. It was, in a nutshell, a new gospel. Furthermore… the police are quite charming.

The book is so well written, with both a chronological and a thematic narrative flow, that it felt like I was reading a novel at times. Ultimately, however, it chilled me to see how easy it is to flatter and seduce people with lies, simplistic promises and unrealistic solutions (sunlit uplands and sovereignty) and how the ‘powerful or dominant nations’ of the world will support each other against the cries of desperation of the weak and powerless. As someone who has grown up with daily blasts of propaganda, who has seen doublespeak in action every single day of my childhood – and had to learn to use it myself – this was a very powerful reminder that we need to learn more from the past and condone less of what is happening in the present.

32 thoughts on “Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich”

  1. This sounds absolutely fascinating, Marina Sofia! And, yes, much that we can take for today’s society. I like those more people-based accounts, too – I think it makes it all more real, if that makes sense. This sounds sobering as well as enriching.

    1. Yes, one of the principal delights is that it includes diaries and letters of ordinary tourists rather than just famous names. We are all witnesses to history, whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not.

  2. Great review, Marina. Those bells have been ringing loud and clear for me too, even down to the trigger of a global financial collapse. I’m reading Elisabeth Asbrink’s 1947 When Now Begins which would make an interesting continuation of the theme, if you’re interested.

  3. I just love your posts. I always leave your blog having learned something new. Fantastic review of what seems to be a book to put in many hands to refresh memories, teach the younger generations, and have a better understanding of the subject.

    1. Such a sweet thing to say, my dear! I just saw a documentary last night with archive material about the Irish border (which is now in danger of being reintroduced), and it always surprises me that people forget the lessons of history so quickly.

  4. So interested to read this, Marina. I’d seen mixed reviews of the book, but it sounds fascinating and very relevant to the pickle we’re in at the moment. It stuns me how we can be allowing the right to flex its muscles again… 🙁

    1. Mixed reviews? I wonder why? It is well-researched, informative and yet written in a very accessible, interesting way, which can appeal to a wider audience.

    1. It’s the perfect book for the general public, not too heavily academic, although it has all of the references. As for the timeliness issue… did you see the documentary last night on the Irish border? That was such a short while ago and people have already forgotten.

  5. I confess that I haven’t read the post yet–want to savor it. Just want to say how thrilled I was to see your familiar blog-name in my inbox!

  6. My dad, who would have been twenty when the war started, always said that ordinary Brits didn’t really know about what Germany was doing to Jews and other groups in the ’30s, certainly not politically unaware young ones like him anyway. At least now with the internet it’s harder for these things to be hidden, if we could only filter out the mad conspiracy theories and see which reports are the true ones we should be really concerned about.

    1. More access to information has led to information overwhelm and lack of filter and ability to determine what is valuable and what not. However, even nowadays it is still possible for young (and not so young) people to be uninformed if they choose to be so. And, to be fair, it wasn’t just the Brits who were unaware in the early stages.

  7. This sounds both fascinating and sobering, quite an eye-opener in many respects. The breadth of experiences makes it all the more remarkable.

    1. It certainly was an eye opener for me. One positive: it made me feel less guilty about the Romanian blindness towards Fascism as demonstrated in Mihail Sebastian’s diaries. Seems like a lot of nations were seduced by the neat solutions and razzle-dazzle displays of the Nazi power.

  8. Thanks for this very interesting review. I avoid books about Germany and WWII and repression of the Jewish people, Roma and socialists, communists and labor unionists. It’s enough to know that the Nazis arrested and sent elected left-wing members of the Reichstag to prison and worse after the Reichstag fire. And then it all got worse.
    I once read an excellent essay by the writer, John Lawton, about anti-Semitism within the British upper classes and government. I know about Oswald Mosley. And my mother, who was always right, told me that the Windsor who had to abdicate due to his “marriage” to an Aerican divorcee, was a Nazi sympathizer. And one day she showed me a photo of him wearing a Nazi uniform.
    And then Lawtonn’s essay said that Nazi sympathizers and spies were exiled to the same place, possibly the Isle of Man, where Jewish refugees were sent! That was shocking, but then again not when thinking about the thinking of the British establishment.

    1. To be fair, it wasn’t just the Brits who were seduced by the ‘active sense of purpose’ that Hitler seemed to offer the German people at that confused moment in time. Other European countries had their own dictators at the time as well (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Hungary). I can see why the simple solutions proposed by a dictatorship become attractive in ‘messy’, unstable and poor countries – which I suppose explains the prevalence of military coups in South America and Africa.

      1. Well, in Spain, many people opposed Franco’s brutal dictatorship. There was a civil war and a lot of people were in the anti-Franco resistance. Nazi Germany helped Franco by bombing Guernica. But it’s not like the masses of people were fascists there. So many resisters were tortured and killed by Franco, thousands. People from the U.S. and Europe went to Spain to fight Franco before the civil war ended.
        And in Latin America, many military juntas simply took over and ousted or killed democratically elected governments, as in Chile. Democratically elected and popular President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup. The majority supported him and had voted for him.
        This has been true throughout the history of Latin America.
        Tons of people out in the streets now since Jair Bolsonaro was “elected” president of Brazil. And he was elected but is an ultra-right-winger. But the whole country is in protest against his policies, has been continually.
        I’m half Jewish, grew up knowing about the Holocaust. I don’t have any sympathy nor do I want to know about people in Germany or elsewhere who were sympathetic then or now to fascist, racist propaganda. There are basic ethics and human morality.
        Look what just happened in New Zealand. The vast majority of people oppose white nationalism of the killer and support the Muslim community, as was shown by the brilliant PM Jacinta Ardern and the 20,000 in the multinational group who came to the memorial service.
        When some fascists whipped up a xenophobic frenzy in Chemnitz, Germany last year and beat up immigrants of color, a crowc of 65,000 people turned out for an anti-racist, anti-Nazi rally and concern in response. A group far greater than the ultra-right.
        And when a neo-Nazi murdered 11 Jewish people in Pittsburgh, vast numbers turned up to support the community and oppose the hatred.

  9. Also, throughout Europe, there was anti-fascist resistance during WWII. Greece said “no” to Italy occupying their country and fought back. I’ve met many Greek immigrants here who are proud their country did that.
    And even in Germany, there was resistance. The NY Times reported a few years ago that there were 800.000 political prisoners in Germany, lots of resistance.

    1. This book doesn’t talk too much about the society within Germany, or about resistance movements (which, I agree with you, were quite strong in many countries), but about foreigners’ reaction to what they saw. Very often they were travelling to Germany because they loved the country and the culture, so confirmation bias must have been at work there, but of course they also had the tourist’s typical reaction: as long as I am comfortable while visiting here and don’t see anything upsetting, why should I worry about this country’s human rights record? Which is something that we still see with tourism nowadays.

  10. I’m glad to hear such a positive review, Marina! I received this for Christmas, and haven’t picked it up yet, but am now itching to do so.

    1. It’s such a seductively easy read that you only realise as you get further into the book that it asks profoundly serious questions. How might we have been blinded if we’d been living there at the time? And was it really blindness or was it so ambiguous and contradictory that it was difficult to disentangle the truth?

  11. Lots of people over here are conscious of the guy in the White House’s dog whistles to the ultra-right. Some don’t get it, but an awhile lot do get it. Hence the big women’s marches and other protests, as well as objections in the print, TV and Internet media. So many people objected to his anti-immigrant policies from the beginning, whether anti-Muslim in the travel ban or anti-Central Americans, Haitians and Africans.

  12. I look at Germany from a different perspective, because as someone who mother’s family is/was Jewish, no one could have ignored what was going on in Germany, as they would have been victims of the genocide and eugenics. Jewish or Roma tourists, if there were any, wouldn’t have ignored anything. But Jews, Roma, leftists, union organizers, student activists, gay people, disabled people, etc., couldn’t ignore anything. They were the victims. The Nazis started rounding up leftist MP’s after the Reichstag fire in 1933, when they also issued discriminatory laws against Jewish doctors, lawyers, business owners, and also eugenics rules against disabled people.
    So it was pretty early on that this crap started. How long could people go without seeing the reality of what was happening?
    I don’t get it. I feel so much empathy with immigrants here who face so much abuse and with all who are being slandered by the guy in the White House, senators and the right-wing media.

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