Thursday, July 26, 2018

Julia Boyd - Travellers in the Third Reich

It is a cliche to say it but "hindsight is a wonderful thing". It's a phrase that repeatedly came to mind as I read Julia Boyd's highly interesting and critically lauded book that looks at Hitler's Germany through the eyes of visitors in the 1930s. It is with only a slight amount of tongue in cheek that she can write in an opening line to one of the final chapters that the "year 1939 was not a good one for Germany's tourist trade" because for much of the 1930s the opposite was true. With Hitler's grabbing of power in 1933 the regime was keen to promote itself was positively as possible around the globe and expanded its promotional work enormously. Thousands of people travelled to the country, encouraged by posters from travel agents like Thomas Cook who urged people to see the country for themselves. In particular many tourists came from England - Germany had been a popular pre-WW1 destination and the 1920s saw a resurgence of this.

The 1930s bought a variety of people. From political activists and diplomats trying to understand, change or negotiate with the Nazi regime to tourists, musicians, academics and fascists who each had their own reasons for travelling to the country. As Boyd explains many of them were bemused, but then caught up into the sights and spectacles of the Nazi state. The regime was adapt at linking propaganda with the tourist experience, and many travellers, not just politicians or diplomats received a heavy dosage of Antisemitism and anti-Communism with their operatic performances or encounters with Nazis. Even people from the left seemed unable to clearly understand what was taking place, and while they rarely feel under Hitler's spell, they often found their experiences jarred with their expectations. More often than not though, many visitors simply found their latent anti-Semitism confirmed:
John Mynard Keynes... who readily sang the praises of Jewish friends... wrote, 'Yet if I lived there, I felt I might turn anti-Semitic fr the poor Prussian is too slow and heavy on his legs for the other kin of Jews, the ones who not imps but serving devil, with small horns, pitch forks and oily tails'. He added how unpleasant it was to see a civilisation 'so under the ugly thumbs of its impure Jew who has all the money and the power and the brain'.
Boyd has an eye for anecdote and plenty of ironic humour. But beneath much of these accounts is a real sense of dread. Not everyone was blind the regime. The Summer Olympics of 1936 allowed many to get an understanding of what was taking place, even though the experience was heavily choreographed and sanitised of Antisemitism. One athlete remained behind after the games and went swimming to suddenly see signs forbidding Jews to enter, he was told that this was because the Olympics were finished. Others used the opportunity to tell the world what they thought of Hitler. Halet Çambel was the first female Muslim to take part in the Olympic games and "was astonished by her fellow athletes' apathy to National Socialism". She loathed the Nazis and would have preferred not to be in Berlin at all. When asked if she would like to meet Hitler, she famously said, 'No.' Others noticed the hypocrisy of their own countries. Archie Williams, a black 400 meteres gold medalist from the USA returned home and was asked in a newspaper "How did those dirty Nazis treat you?" He replied that he had not met any, "just a lot of nice German people. And I didn't have to ride in the back of the bus."

Nonetheless the over-riding theme of Boyd's book is that very few travellers actually did hate the regime and many came away after expecting to hate it, finding much to celebrate. In the case of some, like academics, Boyd argues that they
chose to travel int he Third Reich because Germany's cultural heritage was simply too precious to renounce for politics... They allowed their reverence for the past to warp their judgement of the present. As a result they wilfully ignored the realities of a dictatorship that by 1936 - despite the Olympic mirage - was unashamedly parading itself in all its unspeakable colours.
While this is no doubt true, I also think that one of the other factors is that the material Boyd works from tends to come from the higher class end of the spectrum who tended to have right-wing inclinations. This is not to say the lower classes did not travel to Germany in the period, on the contrary I was fascinated to find that 1000s did go on package tours. But the material that survives, letters, articles, diaries tends to come from the middle and upper classes, and their prejudices were more inclined towards the regime. Some of these were extremely anti-Semitic, and many of them approved of the key political line of the regime which was that Germany was a bulwark against Communism.

But it is also true that the Nazis were adapt at hiding their true faces. I was quite shocked by how many people visited Dachau concentration camp. It was a veritable tourist destination, yet few of these visitors realised that they weren't meeting real inmates, well fed and looked after. Instead they were meeting SS men in costume. The reality dawned for many, far to late, with Kristallnacht in November 1938 which Boyd sees as a moment of profound realisation for many of the naive visitors.

Boyd points out that even a serious a left-wing black thinker as W.E. Du Bois was confused by his time in Germany. That said, on his return to the US, he noted that he detested the antiSemitism, but enjoyed his time in the country, but realised that "It would have been impossible for me to have spent a similarly long time in any part of the US without some, if not frequent, cases of personal insult or discrimination. I cannot record a single instance here.... It was not at all deceived by attitudes of Germans towards me and the very few Negroes who happened to be visiting them... Theoretically their attitude towards Negroes is just as bad as towards Jews, and if there were any number of Negroes in Germany, would be expressed in the same way." He did conclude though, that "ordinary Germans were not naturally colour prejudiced".

With hindsight, many of the accounts in Boyd's book are shocking in their naivety (or for their latent racism). Hindsight gives us a much clearer picture, but it is still surprising that so many people accepted without question the demands of the regime when they visited - joining in the with Hitler salute, adorning their caravans with Swastikas, or even, for one highly respected conductor acceding to demands that he remove music by the Jewish composer Mendelssohn from his programme. It is easy to say "I would have behaved differently" and perhaps many readers of this blog would have. The question is why didn't more people behave differently then?

Today, as we witness a new growth in fascist and far-right movements in Europe and beyond, we should read Julia Boyd's book for its insight into how fascists organise and can conceal their horrific plans with more acceptable politics. But I also was struck by the similarities with a generalised acceptance of antisemitism in the 1930s by large numbers of people, and the way that a general Islamophobic mentality has been created by governments and the media today. We will do well to learn the lessons from Julia Boyd's book which uses a previously ignored set of materials to illuminate the darkest period of European history. An excellent, if frightening read.

Related Reviews

Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Moorhouse - Berlin at War
Kershaw - To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Mazower - Hitler's Europe

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