Gullible Guests of the Nazis

Julia Boyd's meticulously-researched Travellers in the Third Reich shows visitors to Hitler's Germany saw only what they wanted to see

David Pryce-Jones

Ostensibly this is a book about visitors to Hitler’s Germany, most of them British but a few French or Americans thrown in too, and for good measure a Swiss with the curious name of Numa Tetaz. Ji Xianlin, a Chinese scholar of Sanskrit at Göttingen university, was prevented from returning home and recorded his disillusion with Nazism in a diary from 1935 to the end of the war. An exhaustive researcher, Julia Boyd has made good use of unpublished correspondence and privately printed or obscure publications. With an almost novelistic touch, she presents a range of stories of human interest in themselves and which also serve to weigh up the responses of men and women who suddenly found concentration camps and murderous anti-Semitism thrust right in their face. A friend of Julia Boyd’s identified only as Alice was in Germany in 1936 when a Jewish woman with a teenage daughter wearing a thick built-up shoe approached her in evident distress and begged her to take the girl to England. Alice did so, setting the standard of humanity against which to judge the other choices and decisions considered in this book.

The British had to ask themselves whether Nazism would lead to peace or war. The uncertainty of it conditioned relationships with Germans and a memorable, even emblematic, example comes in Richard Hillary’s memoir The Last Enemy. An Oxford undergraduate shortly before the war, he was one of a crew racing German rivals on the river at Bad Ems. They were losing until a spectator spat in contempt at the stroke of the boat and so galvanised him that they overtook the Germans. Victory had its price: a year or two later and an ace pilot by then, Hillary was shot down in his Spitfire.

The Duke of Windsor, formerly King; David Lloyd George, formerly Prime Minister; Lord Londonderry, Secretary of State for Air; and Lord Allen of Hurtwood, Labour peer were among those who believed Hitler was a man of peace and they went to Germany to pay their respects. In the course of stage-managed meetings with Hitler in Berlin or Berchtesgaden, they did not discuss preparations under way behind their backs for one or another blitzkrieg, they knew little or nothing about the persecution of Jews and cared even less. Mouthpieces, they spread Hitler’s misrepresentation of reality.

Even at the time, their self-importance and credulity attracted amazement, if not ridicule. “Adolf Hitler: A Man of Peace” is the title of a chapter in a book by Wyndham Lewis. Sir Thomas Moore, a Conservative Member of Parliament, made a particular exhibition of himself, as in this sentence written in September 1933, by which time the ceremonial burning of books had taken place and Dachau was in operation: “If I may judge from my personal knowledge of Herr Hitler, peace and justice are the keywords of his policy.” In his passport, the writer Robert Byron gave his occupation as “warmonger” and at a white-tie occasion in London he put Sir Thomas on the spot by asking, “Are you in German pay?”

Those whose careers obliged them to be familiar with what was happening in Germany included Sir Maurice Hankey, Cabinet Secretary since 1916. Travelling under cover of a holiday there in the mid-Thirties, he wrote to Sir Eric Phipps, the British ambassador, “Hitler had sown the dragon’s teeth.” Right up to the outbreak of war, Sir Nevile Henderson, Phipps’s successor, held that Hitler was biddable and a deal with him could be reached. The testimony of such foreign correspondents and journalists as Sefton Delmer and William Shirer is part of the historical record. George Ward Price of the Daily Mail, however, is singled out as a “Nazi toady”.

For most men and women, the reasons for going to Germany were what they had always been. Things over there were assumed to be normal; in Boyd’s words, “One had always to look on the bright side.” Thomas Cook advertised, “Life in Berlin is as peaceful and pleasant as it is in London,” and continued organising package holidays right up to the war. Thousands happily watched Alois Lang, a committed Nazi, take the part of Christ in the Oberammergau Passion Play. No sort of Nazi but out for kudos, Sir Thomas Beecham conducted at the Bayreuth Festival, and he dropped Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony from a programme in Berlin because the composer had been Jewish.

Maurice Baring, a social arbiter par excellence, says in one of his books that educated people were expected to speak German as well as French. Photograph albums in English country houses are likely to display the young of that day having the time of their life in some German setting, the girls in dirndls and the boys in lederhosen.

Biddy Barlow’s parents, for example, were intellectuals who hated Hitler and everything he stood for, but nevertheless sent her and her sister and two brothers to study in Germany. Joan Wakefield, 17 and enrolled at Berlin university, went to hear Hitler address the crowd after the Anschluss, did not give the requisite Nazi salute and got kicked by some brownshirts. She nonetheless spent the summer of 1938 in one great schloss after another, playing tennis, riding and flirting mildly with a young aristocrat who was killed in the invasion of Poland a year later.

In people like these, to quote Julia Boyd once more, there is “a baffling disconnect between their traditional regard for German culture and the realities of National Socialism”. At the same time, of course, even larger numbers of men and women, the clever and the stupid alike, were in rhapsodies about their guided tour of the Soviet Union, in practice Nazism’s totalitarian twin.

It was exceptional of Alice to respond as she did to that Jewish girl with her built-up shoe. The uncomfortable moral of Travellers in the Third Reich is that people see and hear only what they already want to see and hear.

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