I received a copy of Julia Boyd’s Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Facism Through the Eyes of Everyday People for Christmas 2018, and it only took me some months to get to it due to my copy being at my parents’ house whilst I was away at University. Boyd’s work of non-fiction has been called variously ‘fascinating’ (Spectator), ‘compelling’ (Daily Telegraph) and ‘meticulously researched’ (Literary Review).
The core question asked in Travellers in the Third Reich is as follows: ‘Without the benefit of hindsight, how do you interpret what’s right in front of your eyes?’ Boyd refers back to this throughout, using a wide range of ‘accidental eyewitnesses to history’ – from students and journalists to tourists and celebrities – in order to try and pinpoint an answer. Boyd has included such diversity with regard to the accounts selected, in order to ‘create a remarkable three-dimensional picture of Germany under Hitler – one so palpable that the reader will feel, hear, even breathe the atmosphere.’ She notes, in her introduction, that the ‘impressions and reflections of these assorted travellers naturally differ widely and are often profoundly contradictory’, and has deliberately used accounts from people with very different political leanings.
The Third Reich was what Germany was known as between the First and Second World Wars, when the National Socialist Party (more widely known as the Nazis) came to power, and cruelly changed the face of history. Emphasis is placed in Boyd’s study upon impressions each ‘foreigner’ had of Hitler and the Nazi Party. Few were disgusted outright by Hitler’s behaviour, and could see what was happening, but many were blinded by the propaganda campaign, and seemed genuinely shocked when they discovered later what the Nazi Party was capable of. Boyd wonders: ‘How easy was it then to know what was really going on, to grasp the essence of National Socialism, to remain untouched by the propaganda or predict the Holocaust?’
As the title suggests, Boyd focuses upon those travelling to Germany for a particular purpose – either to spend time there as part of a holiday or as a government representative, amongst other reasons – but she also considers those who chose the country as their adopted homeland whilst studying there, for example.
Germany consistently encouraged tourism, as they understood its vital importance ‘as a propaganda tool. It was essential that their negative image abroad be countered… Foreign tourists must be given such a memorable experience in the Third Reich that once back home they would spontaneously sing its praises. Luring them to Germany was therefore a high priority…’. This led to the formation of the Reich Committee for Tourism in 1933.
Boyd takes into account both the positives and negatives that she came across in the firsthand accounts. Several aristocratic or otherwise famous visitors adored Berlin and the Nazi Party – Unity Mitford is perhaps the most striking and well-known example – and others hated it; Vita Sackville-West ‘spent as little time there as possible during her husband’s posting to the British Embassy, while Virginia [Woolf] declared [Berlin] to be a “horror” and one she would never visit again.’ Other visitors were impressed by the way in which Germany embraced modernity, and admired what the country stood for in the wider world. In 1933, for example, Boyd writes: ‘Even the politically sophisticated found Hitler’s Germany ambiguous.’
Travellers in the Third Reich is a considered and measured work of non-fiction. The structure which Boyd has used, focusing on different groups of people, and different reasons they had for visiting Germany between the wars, is so effective. She looks at such examples as the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, and the draw of Germany as a fertile land for both authors and scenery, to those on the other side of the spectrum, who visited the country in order to take advantage of the sexual freedoms which it offered.
Boyd wonderfully situates all of the firsthand accounts, and her own commentary demonstrates that she has such strength in this subject. Her prose is absorbing; her style is easy to read, whilst also being very intelligently written. I know much about this period already, having studied it for many years, but Travellers in the Third Reich has given me as a historian so much to consider that I had not thought of, or come across, before. Boyd offers such food for thought in Travellers in the Third Reich, and I very much look forward to what she publishes next.