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Archive for the ‘Julia Boyd’ Category

When I first heard about Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd I was delighted.  A book about foreigners in Germany from the end of WWI to the end of WWII?  Yes, please.  I didn’t manage to get my hands on a copy last year (which is why it made my list of The Ones That Got Away) and the book won’t even be published in North America until August but, thankfully, the university library was as eager as me to read it and ordered the British edition.

Boyd wisely begins her story with the start of the problem: a Germany crippled by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.  One of Boyd’s strengths is highlighting how awful these post-war years were for Germans: how much they struggled, how shamed they felt, and how much they longed for something better:

For Violet [Bonham-Carter], as for so many other observers of inflation-ridden Germany, it was the plight of the middle classes that aroused her greatest sympathy.  As no one could any longer afford their professional services, and as inflation destroyed their capital, many were reduced to total penury…When hyper-inflation reached its peak in November 1923, even the sceptical Lady D’Abernon was moved at the “distressing spectacle of gentlefolk half hidden behind the trees in the Tiergarten, timidly stretching out their hands for help.

But there were advantages among the chaos.  The extreme liberalism of Weimar-era Berlin, with its cabarets and cross-dressing, attracted many, as did the liberal attitudes towards sex and nudity.  Women were active in politics (they had more female parliamentarians than any other country) and in the workforce.  But outside Berlin, it drew a very different, more traditionally-inclined type of traveller, ones in search of “quaint houses, cobbled streets, brass bands, and beer.”

The book is full of familiar figures observing these scenes and unfortunately Boyd never quite delivers on her subtitle’s promise of “The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People”, unless you count (largely British and American) journalists, diplomats, and socialites as everyday people.  We hear from the fascist members of the Mitford clan (Tom, Diana, and Unity), Violet Bonham-Carter, Robert Byron, Chips Channon, Knut Hamsun, Brian Howard, Christopher Isherwood, the Lindberghs, the Windors, Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West, Eddy Sackville-West, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.  It’s an interesting variety of perspectives – everything from Bloomsbury to passionate Nazis – but class-wise it’s rather homogenous.

What is sadly lacking are the views of other Europeans (aside from a couple of French and the odd Nordic Nazi), other foreigners, and the everyman.  Boyd mentions the Nazi push for foreign tourism by offering cheap holiday tours for the working classes but we hear from no one who actually went on them.  Instead we only see them observed:

[Sibyl Crowe, the daughter of a British diplomat] had travelled out from England by train and had been much struck with a group of her fellow passengers, bound for a small town on the Mosel.  ‘They were a party of thirty from Manchester, mostly shopkeepers, shop assistants, typists, and factory-hands – quite simple and poor persons’ […] To her surprise, she discovered that most of them had already travelled many times to Germany.  ‘One man, a draper, told me he had been there seven years running; he sang the praises of the Germans, said what nice people they were.’  A young shop assistant from a Manchester department store had hiked all over the Bavarian Alps, staying in youth hostels.

These are the voices that are missing.  Boyd quotes the gushings of teenage girls but ignores the equally unsophisticated but better-informed views of these return visitors.

The greatest variety of sources comes during the infamous Olympics, particularly from the American athletes.  American journalists were keen to report back on the discrimination faced by their black and Jewish athletes.  With overt signs of anti-Semitism tightly locked down while Germany played host, both groups reported that the only discrimination they faced came from their American coaches, not the Germans.  Many of them left the country with only good memories of the German people who had chanted and cheered for them.

The best outsider – true outsider – accounts come from W.E.B. Du Bois and Ji Xianlin.  Du Bois was an African-American scholar, a professor at Atlanta University who chose to spend a six-month sabbatical in Germany in 1936 to seek inspiration on educational methods, revisit a country he loved from his graduate student days at Berlin University in the 1890s, and take in the Bayreuth Festival with fellow opera lovers.  Ji Xianlin had come to Heidelberg from China to study Sanskrit (he obtained his PhD in 1941) but found himself trapped in the country until 1946 due to the war.  Both offer fascinating observations and well-informed ones given that both men had lived in the country for years (albeit at very different times) and had a more nuanced understanding of both the culture and the politics than many of Boyd’s other sources.

Another Chinese student, Shi Min, was studying in Paris but came on holiday to much cheaper Germany with a group of fellow Chinese students in 1935.  His group marveled at the clean streets and athletic, inelegant women (very unlike both the French and Chinese ideal), and, embarrassed, corrected policemen who asked if they were Japanese: ‘They dislike the Japanese but respect them.  They are sympathetic to Chinese but look down on them.’

It is through all these eyes that Boyd guides the reader through the 1930s as Germany turns from a depressed and downtrodden country to a nation brimming with energy and optimism – and deeply, deeply troubling politics.

What rankled me most was Boyd’s overt judgement that it was morally wrong for people to be travelling in Hitler’s Germany, especially post-Olympics.  She criticizes American schools for sending exchange students, British mothers for sending their daughters to be finished by impoverished German noblewomen, and, despite having significant written evidence to the contrary, insists ‘to any non-believer visiting Germany in the late 1930s, it must have seemed as if National Socialism had permeated every last nook and cranny of human existence.’  She is incredulous that any visitors or foreign students managed to contrive to ‘ignore the Nazis while at the same time extracting the best out of Germany.’

Her conclusion drives home everything that irritated me about this book:

Perhaps the most chilling fact to emerge from these travellers’ tales is that so many perfectly decent people could return home from Hitler’s Germany singing its praises.  Nazi evil permeated every aspect of German society yet, when blended with the seductive pleasures still available to the foreign visitor, the hideous reality was too often and for too long ignored.

I hate that she doesn’t try to explain how it came about that ‘perfectly decent people’ felt this way when she is making such sweeping criticisms.  Either let the letters speak for themselves or try to draw a conclusion but don’t damn without making the effort to understand.

Despite this frustration, it is still a fascinating book – just not a definitive one.  It’s simplistic and needlessly judgemental but it does compliment other books on the subject.  I’d hate to think of people reading it in isolation from other books about Germany at the time but if read alongside more nuanced works (like the novel Manja, the oral history Frauen, and The Germans, the unsurpassed guide to the national identity) I think the reader can properly appreciate its strengths and weaknesses.

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