A gripping collection of reports by mostly Anglophone travellers in Germany between the two world wars, trace the rise of Hitler and Nazism.
One of the remarkable things about the years just after the First World War, as travellers quoted in Julia Boyd’s Travellers in the Third Reich observed, was the lack of resentment among most Germans. It is largely between the lines that one understands this “lack of resentment”. The resentment of Germans was turned towards the French and the Belgians, who were seen as the “villains” who had imposed harsh treaty conditions on Germany. The Americans were seen as potential allies, and there was, as one German is quoted as saying, a feeling that “in the next war” Germany and England would fight on the same side.
Travellers in The Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People
Elliott & Thompson
Price: Rs. 776 (paperback)
In the light of the next world war, this might seem strange. But it made good sense in the 1920s, and, as some historians have suggested, enabled the rise of Hitler and Nazism. The racism that is often solely attributed to Nazis was shared by many across north Europe and in America. Just as many Germans felt that “racially” they were aligned to the English and the Scandinavians, and sections of white America, there were English people who felt that the colour line started not in Turkey or Africa, but actually in eastern Europe and southern Europe, maybe even in Ireland.
Hence, when the French picketed their African troops in Germany after the First World War, this horrified not just many Germans but also English commentators. Add to this the fact that, as Hitler often proclaimed (and Boyd stresses), Germany was seen, both by England and by America, as the last bulwark against Bolshevik (Soviet) communism.
The rise of fascism
Much of Boyd’s illuminating, gripping collection of reports by mostly (but not only) Anglophone travellers in Germany between the two world wars covers the Hitler years. The subtitle of the book is “The rise of fascism through the eyes of everyday people”. But in the first few pages, the above “unresentful” prelude to the rise of fascism is almost left without commentary.
This might be because of the nature of such books, in which, of late, heavy editorial commentary seems to have become unfashionable. Or it could be because of the Anglophone slant of the reports selected and reported. But it remains a slightly jarring note in an otherwise fascinating and admirable book. It almost seems that there are many in the Anglophone world who are still not willing to face up to its complicity in the rise of fascism.
Once the book enters the Hitler years, there is nothing to complain about. It documents, with various nuances, how National Socialism (Nazism), the purported antidote to communism, ends up becoming a poison that cannot be distinguished in its effects from Stalinism: “Many foreigners wondered how it was possible that two such violently opposed political movements could share so much common ground.” The rise of Hitler starts slowly and innocuously, with most of the middle class essentially looking away and many foreign dignitaries, especially from England and the US, essentially hoping that the rougher edges of Nazism would be smoothened with power and experience.
Anti-Semitism is seldom an issue, probably because, as Boyd notes, it is often shared by other foreigners too. Some foreign visitors who find it offensive, nevertheless often distinguish between the refined “European” Jew and the bad, detestable Jew, who is always from eastern Europe, and hence, though I do not think Boyd comments on it, this fits into a larger framework of racism. Such foreigners fail to notice, until it is too late, that Nazi thugs do not distinguish between these “good” and “bad” Jews.
Hitler’s Nazism exfoliates. Criticism is silenced to begin with. “Hostile criticism from a German was suicide—more often economic, sometimes physical,” notes the British journalist and author Owen Tweedy, driving across Germany with a friend from Cambridge University soon after Hitler’s inauguration. But, apart from a handful of leftist writers, visitors like Tweedy remain confused about it all. Tweedy opines that, despite having a streak of “hysterical madness”, Hitler is not a “bad man”, and considers Nazism as ushering Germany into a modern and more vigorous phase.
Most Germans make the switch pretty soon. The writer Christopher Isherwood remarks about his German landlady: “If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith.” The situation is further muddied by the existence of people like the British academic Philip Conwell-Evans. Boyd wonders a bit innocently about him: “It is even now not clear whether Conwell-Evans was a genuine Nazi supporter or working for the British intelligence.” It seems to me, given the political and racial shades that permeated both British and American intelligence in those years, that “or” is misplaced; he easily could be both at the same time.
- Much of Boyd’s illuminating, gripping collection of reports by mostly (but not only) Anglophone travellers in Germany between the two world wars covers the Hitler years.
- The racism that is often solely attributed to Nazis was shared by many across north Europe and in America.
- Germany was seen, both by England and by America, as the last bulwark against Bolshevik (Soviet) communism, which was seen as the primary enemy and it indirectly contributed to the rise of fascism in Germany.
The years get worse; the Nazis, while being praised for efficiency, fill in posts, especially in the provinces, with inefficient yes-men and “riff-raff”. The burden on the German middle class increases, but as one visitor notes, “the willingness of the middle class to accept the extra burdens imposed on them by the Nazis” was surprising. The British Embassy’s first secretary, Ivone Kirkpatrick, is not alone in remarking that any “popular criticism was directed at the [Nazi] party – not the Führer”.
Along with the rising tide of anti-Semitism, racism, and militarism, many ordinary Germans also retain the decency that was earlier attributed to them, and African Americans like some of the athletes going to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and the writer-activist W.E.B. Du Bois note that they actually face less racism in German buses than in (segregated) American ones.
But the writing is well on the wall by then. The Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont, then teaching at Frankfurt University, notes the “demagogic violence” of the articles being published in Germany and “their determination to chase the opposition and beat them down to the very last resort, even to their deepest inner life”. Soon, the curtain will rise on the Second World War.
Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.