By the summer of 1933 the confusion surrounding the Nazi revolution had deepened. While those travellers with entrenched political views – right or left – found ample proof to support their respective agendas, many others returned home not knowing what to believe. Was the implementation of socialist principles inspired by idealism or dictatorship? Were voluntary labour camps genuine philanthropy or a front for something more sinister? Were the endless marching bands, swastikas and uniforms joyful expression of restored national pride or harbinger of renewed aggression?
Even the politically sophisticated found Hitler’s Germany ambiguous. As for reports of people taken from their homes in the middle of the night, of torture and intimidation, many foreigners simply looked the other way, hoping that if they focused on the positive in National Socialism, the nastier aspects might soon disappear.
It was much harder to ignore the persecution of Jews. But then many foreign visitors to Germany in 1933 were themselves anti-Semitic, if only casually. To them, the discomfiture of a few Jews seemed a small price for the restoration of a great nation – a nation, moreover, that was Europe’s chief bulwark against communism.
However, French left-wing journalist Daniel Guérin had no doubts about the true nature of Nazi Germany. In May he set out to bicycle from Cologne to Leipzig via Hamburg and Berlin. Only the year before he had been on a long walking tour through what was then the Weimar Republic, so was well qualified to chart the changes that had taken place in the short time since Hitler had assumed power. He found them devastating:
For a socialist Germany beyond the Rhine was like exploring a city in ruins after an earthquake. Here only a short time ago was the headquarters of a political party, a trade union, a newspaper, over there was a workers’ bookstore. Today enormous swastika banners hang from these buildings. This used to be a Red street; they knew how to fight here. Today one meets only silent men, their gazes sad and worried, while the children shatter your eardrums with their “Heil Hitlers!”
Only one year before, the Essen youth hostel had been full of peaceful backpackers. Now it overflowed with young Nazis in boots and belts – “the tie of the Hitler Youth lying across their khaki shirts like a black stain”. On his previous visit Guérin had listened to Bohemian songs sung softly to guitars. This time “The Storm Troopers are on the March” and “Hitler’s Flag Calls Us to Battle” were bellowed out in a suffocating room that reeked of sweat and leather. But, as Guérin noted, “When you sing in chorus you don’t feel hunger; you aren’t tempted to seek out the how and why of things. You must be right since there are 50 of you side by side, crying out the same refrain.” When he did challenge one Hitler Youth, the young man’s only response was: “Look, haven’t we saved the planet from Bolshevism?”
It was a claim, endlessly repeated by the Nazis, that resonated with many foreigners, especially the likes of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Thomas Moore MP, who had served two years in Russia immediately after the Revolution. He travelled regularly to Germany in the 1930s and after meeting Hitler for the first time, in September 1933, wrote, “If I may judge from my personal knowledge of Herr Hitler, peace and justice are the keywords of his policy.”
Moore’s hatred of communism was extreme, but the political views of Sir Maurice Hankey, cabinet secretary to the British government since 1916, were a model of measured judgement. Yet even he assumed that the astonishing renewal of confidence he and his wife observed everywhere, as they drove through Germany that August (singing Bach chorales), was a result of Hitler having delivered the country from Bolshevism.
It was a theory bluntly rejected by Sir Eric Phipps, Rumbold’s successor as British ambassador. He maintained that Hitler had vastly overplayed the communist card but had done so to great effect. The Nazis knew perfectly well that the threat had in fact been minimal, but by harping on it ad nauseam had succeeded not only in brainwashing the German public but convincing many foreigners that the Führer had single-handedly prevented the “red tide” from sweeping across Germany and the West.
Although Hankey insisted that his only motive in going to Germany was to have a holiday, feedback from his trip was naturally taken very seriously in Whitehall. He soon realised that, despite the intense campaign to ensure that every German citizen, high school, university, government office and institution devoutly embrace Nazi doctrine, enthusiasm for it differed noticeably from one Land [region] to another. The citizens of Baden-Württemberg, for instance, still clung to a liberal tradition that in some respects had more in common with France than Prussia. In towns like Darmstadt, Heidelberg and Karlsruhe the Hankeys spotted many fewer swastikas on the houses and cars.
Dresden, with its stubbornly “Red” reputation, was another city where support for Hitler was far from universal. As for the Rhineland, Hankey thought it a particularly prosperous and cheerful region – a view shared by Nora Waln, the best-selling American writer who lived in Bonn during the mid-1930s. National Socialism had arrived relatively late in the Rhineland and even then was tempered by Catholicism and by fear that any overt display of militarism might provoke another French invasion.
“These Rhinelanders have wine in their veins, not blood,” a Berlin friend told Waln shortly after her arrival. “They care more about carnival than politics.” He made clear that as soon as Germany reoccupied the Rhineland this attitude would have to change, adding ominously, “Their life and vigour must be harnessed more practically to the service of the State.”
But despite such regional variation, there was in the summer of 1933 no escaping the overwhelming Nazi presence throughout Germany. “Looking back,” Hankey concluded a few weeks later, “the impression I have is that of a non-stop pageant; incessant marching and counter-marching by the Nazis; brass bands; singing, not musical, but of a jerky, staccato kind; patrols; Fascist salutes; khaki uniforms everywhere.” The whole country, he reported, was in a state of extraordinary exaltation.
“Hitler has put us on the up-grade again” was a phrase constantly repeated to him by everyone from prominent lawyers to garage attendants. The willingness of the middle class to accept the extra burdens imposed on them by the Nazis surprised him. Women too seemed happy to give up the freedoms that they had so recently won under the Weimar government. Not only were they now discouraged from working, but they were also heavily censured if they smoked in public or wore make-up.
Nevertheless, in general, everyone seemed remarkably prepared to make any sacrifice demanded of them provided, Hankey noted, it was in the interests of the German people. And it was by no means all sacrifice. He reported the shops full of goods, the trams spick and span, hot water flowing in hotel bedrooms, and everywhere well-dressed people consuming vast quantities of beer and wine. It was, he remarked, “as if the whole of Germany was on holiday”.
Excerpted with permission from Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Seen Through the Eyes of Everyday People, Julia Boyd, Simon and Schuster India.