When novelist, essayist, and travel writer Sir Philip Gibbs visited the Germany of 1934, he encountered a county still reeling from a decade of financial depression and demoralization, a country that had only recently found itself under the rule of Hitler and his omnipresent Nazi foot soldiers, with their collection boxes and their labor camps and their endless street parades. Everywhere he went, Gibbs, a veteran journalist of World War I, found ordinary Germans both optimistic about the present and wary of the future.
At a youth rally in Munich he reflects on these people. “They seemed to me friendly, intelligent, and good-humoured, though doubtless they could be made brutal and cruel – as most men may be – by a propaganda of hatred,” he wrote in his "European Journey." “Above this mass of enthusiastic boys were evil-minded men with sinister designs and a streak of madness.” It's a chilling moment, a few pages later, when Gibbs and his party drive over the border and leave German territory.
Gibbs is briefly mentioned in historian Julia Boyd's new book Travelers in the Third Reich, in an aside noting that a Frenchmen he met during his 1934 visit tried to describe the tribal, quasi-religious leader-worship at the heart of the Nazi's Führer-cult then spreading through Germany. "Travelers in the Third Reich" is filled with the same chills Gibbs conveyed over 80 years ago; the reader always knows the horrifying fate that awaits the many everyday Germans they encounter in these pages, even though all but the most pessimistic of the Germans themselves have no conception that Hitler's control over their country will lead to its destruction.
Boyd's readers meet those Germans through the accounts of foreigners traveling to the Third Reich in the years leading up to the war. She sifts through a massive amount of primary documents – accounts from tourists, teachers, diplomats, students, and enterprising journalists who visited Germany after the National Socialist rise to power. These people were bombarded by ceaseless Nazi propaganda – swastika flags waved everywhere, Nazi Brown Shirts smilingly bullied civilians and charmed foreign visitors, and Hitler's speeches extolling the Fatherland and excoriating the Jews could be heard in every restaurant and movie theater.
It's a kind of book readers have seen before – "The Coming of the Third Reich," by Richard Evans, for instance, or "What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany" by Eric Johnson, Karl-Heinz Reuband. Boyd's book distinguishes itself not only for the breadth of its investigation but also for the palpable tone of frustration that runs throughout. Historians are professionally wary of hindsight, and Boyd never blames her subjects for not knowing the future. But even so, her moral outrage is often obvious. When she recounts British academic Philip Conwell-Evans's description of a 1933 Munich book-burning, for instance: “It is hard to understand how an academic like Conwell-Evans (who held a doctorate from Oxford University) could have viewed such barbarism with equanimity. 'I was an interested witness of the burning of the books by the [Königsberg] university,' he wrote, as if commenting on a football match.”
For Boyd, the “baffling disconnect” between expectation (“their traditional regard for German culture”) and the brutal realities of Nazi Germany was often a matter of ideology, of left-right political leanings; people either focused on the alleged achievements of the Nazis in power or on their thuggish violence. “By the mid-1930s,” she writes, “most visitors, even before they arrived, had made up their minds as to which camp they belonged.”
As the book progresses, a fixed predisposition to favor the Nazi state becomes increasingly difficult for any visitors to maintain. The marches, the screamed public addresses foaming with hate, the militarization on every street corner, and perhaps most of all the worsening oppression of Jews in Germany, a ratcheting savagery so movingly chronicled in Victor Klemperer's "I Will Bear Witness." In the wake of 1935's Nuremberg Laws depriving Jewish Germans of their citizenship, it was largely impossible for objective visitors to see Nazi Germany as any different from the world's other dictatorships. “To the untrained eye,” Boyd writes, “Hitler's suppression of all personal freedom, control of every aspect of national and domestic life, use of torture and show trials, deployment of an all-powerful secret police and outrageous propaganda, looked, superficially at least, remarkably similar to Stalin's.”
The final chapters of Boyd's book take the story past the point of no return, into the war-days and their ruinous aftermath. Far fewer travelers were free to move about the country during those years, and the accounts they left behind are, as Boyd puts it, “both horrifying and touching.” Those terms apply intensely to the whole of "Travelers in the Third Reich," and readers will likely share Boyd's quiet outrage that more Germans didn't see – or weren't willing to admit – what was happening right in front of their eyes.