Review published on August 13, 2017.
This is an entertaining popular history that casts an original eye over the history of the Third Reich. It will appeal both to general readers and students of history. Travellers in the Third Reich is a compendium of thoughts and observations by visitors to Germany during the inter-war years. Some living there for a time, others just passing through the country. First hand accounts show us what individuals thought of Weimar, the Nazis and their leader, Adolf Hitler. Boyd has collated a wealth of material from a variety of people – from the very rich tourist to the poorest migrant worker. There are accounts from familiar and expected sources, such as Unity Mitford, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden and Neville Chamberlain, but also a wide range of ordinary people are represented. These visitors shed light on the day to day life under Nazi rule as well as the wider political context. The focus is largely on American and British sources (they make up a substantial part of the foreign influx during the period). Boyd lets the voices from the past speak to us, knitting their stories, some serious others just light observations, into their historical context. An easy flowing narrative style make the book very readable.
We have many preconceptions about what people from Britain, the United States and the rest of the world thought about Germany and it’s political upheaval during the 1930s. However, Boyd illustrates how real people felt on coming into contact with the country, the people and the Nazi party. Opinions that are sometimes shocking and often thought provoking. Here are the brave, the romantic, the ignorant and the astute. People are often contradictory and conflicted in how they feel. American journalist J.A. Cole (visited in 1937/38) disliked the Nazis but stated “I cannot see a German town for the first time on a sunny morning without a raising of the spirits…..” Demonstrating his capacity to distinguish the regime from the people and place.
Bizarrely, a lot of intelligent liberal British parents sent their children to Nazi Germany for a cultural education: music, philosophy and language (e.g. the opera at Bayreuth, the Oberammergau passion plays). Boyd presents diverse views and what emerges is as complex as it is varied, a truly eclectic and cosmopolitan mix. Some deluded (Thomas Cook was still advertising German holidays as the war approached in 1939), others seduced by the country and people or simply conned by the highly efficient propaganda. Many found the camaraderie and fitness regimes of the young inspiring, ignoring the more subversive elements of Nazi control of the family and the future. Even though deplorable in practice some welcomed the ideological bolster against communism in the East. Overall, this is a fascinating book.
The travellers are soldiers, academics, diplomats, journalist and tourists – Nazi sympathisers and Communists. The only common link is that they shared their experience in writing. Boyd takes us from the end of WWI to the death of the Reich in 1945. The first ‘visitors’ were the soldiers stationed in Germany after the Armistice. The Germans liked the British and the Americans but were not keen on the French; they were courteous and civil. Reactions to French colonial troops was far less cordial and the onerous burden of Versailles led to a backlash against the Jewish population.
Boyd tells us that several of the top German hotels were marketing the idea of visiting Germany to American tourists only months after the end of the First World War. The country boasted beautiful unspoiled countryside and exciting cities. Yet, the British blockade had caused mass starvation and food shortages, people relied upon ersatz goods and soup kitchens, there were mass strikes and influenza. Politically the country polarised, Communist party on one side and right wing militias on the other. Still Germany was popular with the British and the Americans tourists and by 1937 almost half a million Americans visited Germany.
Whether you are interested in the political or social there are thoughts on the Third Reich that cover the whole gamut of issues, from Kristallnacht to seaside holidays, concentration camps, book burning, sterilisation and censorship. From meeting the Fuhrer to staying with ordinary Germans and seeing how people’s attitudes changed over time. From the underestimation of the National Socialists to the role of women in the authoritarian society. There are many little nuggets of information to enjoy. In 1932, Brandon J Wright, an African-American completing a PhD at Heidelberg University met Hitler only to be told he was a third-class person because of his race. He was, however, given a signed photograph of the Fuhrer when dismissed.
I felt the coverage of the 1936 Summer Olympics to be brief; I would have expected more. Still, Boyd notes that US journalists spent time trying to find fault with the German treatment of African American athletes but found few of them willing to say that they were not being well treated. The incident of Hitler refusing to shake the hand of four-time gold medallist Jessie Owens showed the petty nature of the man. However, Owens was loved by the German crowds.
As Boyd covers the war there are fewer voices to be heard because fewer foreigners visited or remained. I love the story of Ida and Louise, British women who kept visiting Germany up until August 1939, ostensibly for the opera. They would fly in with the bare essentials and then take the train out (to avoid meeting the same customs officials), bedecked in jewellery and furs. The women were helping Jewish people smuggle their possessions out of the country. The American journalist Howard J Smith noted the change in the German people after the invasion of Russia, showing ‘unmitigated fear’ at the prospect of a long war. Americans were forced to leave or face internment after Pearl harbour on 7th December, 1941. After that most of the travellers were drafted labour from the East and France. They speak of the bombing, of food shortages, of destruction and chaos. Eventually, the returning ‘travellers’ are the invading allied armies. If I have one qualm it is that for the casual reader the chronology of events underlying the narratives may not be clear enough.
Boyd is clearly a traveller who loves exploring place, people and history. Travellers in the Third Reich shows that she is a researcher of some skill and dedication – seeking original, interesting and relevant material. One of the big achievements of the book is that traveller attitudes to Germany and the Nazis give an insight into the feelings before the war. Often at odds with or in more depth than many standard histories. The notes, index and list of traveller are very good.
Julia Boyd is the author of the highly acclaimed and well loved The Excellent Doctor Blackwell (2013), which is about the first woman physician, and A Dance with the Dragon (2012), which is about the Peking foreign community of the 1930s.
Paul Burke 4/4
Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd
Elliott & Thompson 9781783963461 hbk Aug 2017
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