I’ve just finished reading a book of compelling interest - “Travellers in the Third Reich”, by Julia Boyd. I understand that not everyone is as fascinated as I am by twentieth-century European history, but bear with me; there is some contemporary relevance.
The book is a collection, or a distillation, of the reports and reminiscences of a whole raft of foreign visitors to Germany during the Nazi period, although it does actually stretch its beginning date to include some of the Weimar Republic background against which the Nazi rise was at least partially a reaction. So far, so not unique, you may say; we’ve all seen lots of this stuff. Yes, but what is different here from all the others I’ve read is that those quoted don’t get to enjoy the luxury of the benefit of hindsight. In other words, these are accounts written before the Second World War exposed the depravity of the regime for all to see.
Some, of course, did see and understand what was going on. Isherwood, for example, was out and gone from Berlin by 1933 (and the title of his most famous novel probably gives a clue to his thinking). On the other side, nothing was really going to change the sadly rose-tinted views of the Nazis of the likes of Unity Mitford or the Marquess of Londonderry. What this book makes us see, though, is how many travellers, particularly from the UK and the US, but also from other European - and indeed non-European countries: there’s a series of records from a Chinese, for example, in Germany through to the bitter end in 1945 - were either blind to what was happening to the country and its people or were wilfully prepared to turn a deliberate blind eye.
From our modern perspective, it’s difficult to grasp this; after all, the SA had been marching from the 1920s, the book-burning began in 1933, Kristallnacht was five years later, camps - called ‘labour camps’, euphemistically - were set up in the mid-30s. The uniforms, the apparatus of a police state - could travellers really have been blind to all of that?
The British middle- and upper-middle-classes sent their sons, and, particularly, daughters to Germany to finish their education pretty much right through until the time of the Munich agreement persuaded them otherwise; by then, a war probably looked too sure to come. The letters home and the letters to each other as well as diary entries are well represented in this book, and present a picture of how it was - seemingly - indeed possible to live a life of studies, parties, fun, all without noticing what was happening; or, while seeing Hitler and his cohorts as an example of German patriotism and a buffer against both the depravity and bankruptcy of the latter part of the Weimar Republic and the red peril to the east. In that context, perhaps a bit of marching seemed a fair price to pay.
There was also the effect of the First World War. Sentiment in Britain had consistently been that Reparations and the War Guilt Clause in the Treaty of Versailles were excessively onerous, and perhaps that feeling supported a view, which was quite widely held, that the Nazis were simply restoring a bit of pride to Germany, which was understood in the UK and the US but perhaps not in France.
But you do wonder at how far people were prepared to fool themselves, for a variety of reasons. During the 1930s, there were quite a number of visits by groups of WW1 veterans; their aim was to ensure the horrors of war were not unleashed again - a laudable target - but one wonders how much they could overlook in pursuit of that aim. It’s also worth saying that - after the 1929 Crash and the implosion of the Weimar finances - Germany represented an extremely cheap option for finishing education for those well-bred British children.
The book spans many opinions - and lots of them would no doubt wish they had been able to amend with hindsight. One omission that did surprise me, though, was that of Christabel Bielenberg; still, there’s plenty of material despite that.
On a personal note, some did see. My maternal grandfather moved the whole family from Germany to England in the mid-1930s, precisely because he could see only too clearly what was going on.
So what’s the contemporary relevance of the story of the growth of extremism in Germany? Well, as I mentioned above, the book-burning started in 1933. They burned books because they were written by people whose ideas or origins they didn’t like. They wanted to stop ideas and thoughts being spread, if they were in conflict with the Party’s ideology. I’ve written before about destroying statues, about #rhodesmustfall and the rest. What’s the difference between ‘no-platforming’ speakers who don’t conform to the (supposed) majority view, tearing down statues, and burning books? It’s all the same desire to destroy the ‘other’, the one who has different opinions. It’s come to be called ‘cultural marxism’, and it starts like this, and leads to very dark places indeed. Genuine democracies don’t have a problem with myriad different opinions; totalitarianism does, and even if putting a match to a book or pulling down the statue of (not very nice) Cecil Rhodes seems a long way from over-bearing state control, this book shows the way the path leads.
So here’s a final question, that has bothered me for a very long while. Why is it (rightly) beyond the pale to exhibit the swastika, yet ‘edgy’ to wear the red star on your cap? I would treat them both with equal contempt; between them, they represent probably the two most depraved, murderous regimes in history. They also mark the point where extreme left and extreme right blur together in a totalitarian nightmare; and kill the non-conformists.
This book shows how, like the frog in the water brought to the boil, we can be unaware.
“Travellers in the Third Reich”, by Julia Boyd, is published by Elliott and Thompson Ltd.