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draws on a comprehensive collection of mainly American and English (but also French, Chinese and other) sources, often unpublished materials, to describe the rise of Fascism in Germany from 1920 until its collapse at the end of WW2.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.
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.