Witnesses to Nazi Germany
Amongst the avalanche of books published in recent years about Nazi Germany, Julia Boyd’s ‘Travellers in the Third Reich’ (2017) stands out for its readability and for the fresh perspective it offers on the subject. Boyd compiles a myriad of eye-witness accounts from the diaries and correspondence of British and American visitors to Germany in the 1930s. She sets visitors’ experience of friendly hosts and exquisite scenery alongside the reality of an increasingly militarised and totalitarian society, and remarks on the paradox.
Boyd’s book draws from a wide range of sources, so necessarily does not describe individual visitors’ experiences in depth. I thought it would be interesting to look at four specific, book-length accounts of Nazi Germany by English speaking visitors and consider to what extent they got behind the paradox and analysed what was really happening. Their conclusions would be particularly instructive, being based on contemporary observation: unlike us, they did not have the benefit of hindsight, knowing what we know about World War II and the Holocaust.
The source accounts that I have used are four books published about Nazi Germany between 1936 and 1943 by English speakers who spent significant amounts of time in the country: Stephen Roberts, ‘The House that Hitler built’ (1937); Martha Dodd, ‘My Years in Germany’ (1939); Amy Buller, ‘Darkness over Germany’ (published 1943 but based on material from pre-war visits to the country); and Arnold Wilson, ‘Walks and Talks Abroad’ (1936). The authors were respectively an academic, an aspiring novelist, an educationalist and a politician.
Stephen Roberts (1901-1971) was an Australian academic who wrote extensively on European history. He was appointed a professor at Sydney University in 1929 and went on to have a distinguished career as a university administrator, developing and expanding Sydney University after World War II as its Principal. Sydney University gave Roberts study leave between November 1935 and March 1937 to allow him to visit Germany and write a work of contemporary history about the Nazi regime. The book was not a purely academic treatise: it was intended to inform the public at large about what was happening in Germany, and it enjoyed a wide international readership.
The Aspiring Novelist
Martha Dodd (1908-1989) came to Germany in 1933 when her father was appointed as US Ambassador to Berlin. She was ambitious to become a writer, and wrote short stories and poetry before publishing ‘My Years in Germany’, based on her experiences, when her father was recalled to the US by Roosevelt in 1937. Her book is a terrific first-hand account of life at the heart of Berlin’s diplomatic community, with tantalising hints about her exotic double life as a sexual adventuress and Soviet spy, details of which only emerged many years later.
Amy Buller (1891-1974) grew up in South Africa and moved to England in 1911. She studied history at Birkbeck College and, after graduating, worked for the Student Christian Movement, for whom she organised many study trips to Germany. By the 1930s she was the warden of a Student Hostel at Liverpool University. After the second world war she founded Cumberland Lodge as a place where people could meet to discuss the pressing social, moral and spiritual issues of the day. Buller described in ‘Darkness over Germany’ her pre-war encounters with individual Germans, both supporters and opponents of the Nazi regime.
Before becoming an MP, Arnold Wilson (1884-1940) had enjoyed a stellar career as a colonial administrator before his over-assertive administration of Iraq led to a full-scale insurrection against imperial rule in 1920. He became a National Conservative MP in 1933, but took a stridently independent political line and never served in government. He was a prolific author: ‘Walks and Talks Abroad’ was a successor to a number of other books including ‘Walks and Talks’, which was based on diaries kept of journeys around his Hertfordshire constituency. As an MP with a passionate interest in European affairs, he developed many international contacts. He took advantage of these to travel around Europe, meeting senior politicians and officials, and to describe what he saw and heard.
All four writers reveal the often painful process that they went through of learning about Nazi Germany. The starting point for all of them, as with other contemporary observers of Germany in the 1930s, was that the Nazi takeover of power appeared to have catalysed a national rejuvenation. Buller recalled seeing young men take part in a rally in Berlin in 1936 and reflecting that before 1933 ‘many of their older brothers had just lounged at street corners with no particular aim in life and no prospect for the future . . . .the calling forth of this energy and enthusiasm was very attractive’. At the start of her stay in Germany, Dodd admitted to being intoxicated by the apparent enthusiasm of the Nazi regime’s supporters: ‘The excitement of the people was contagious, and I ‘Heiled’ as vigorously as any Nazi’. Of all four witnesses, Wilson’s enthusiasm for the Nazi ‘revival’ was the deepest and most long-lasting: ‘In face of the immense outpouring of energy, sustained by fervour which has a genuinely spiritual inspiration, we cannot safely maintain a self-satisfied and pharisaic complacency in our own modest achievements’. Roberts, the historian, was more circumspect. He showed an understanding of the gap between myth and reality by starting an analysis of the ‘balance sheet of Hitlerism’ with five chapters entitled ‘what the onlooker sees’, before going on to describe in four further chapters ‘what the onlooker does not see’: control of the media, persecution of the Jews and subversion of the rule of law.
The four authors were ready to see the rejuvenation of Germany as a positive development. Although Germany had been Britain and America’s enemy in World War I, rejuvenation was not necessarily a threat to the Anglophone world. First, many observers could empathise with German resentment at the treaty of Versailles, and were prepared to concede its reassertion of great power status. Second, there was a tradition of Anglo-German friendship which pre-dated World War I and even survived it. This desire for friendship was reinforced by the wish to avoid future wars. Buller promoted Anglo-German friendship vigorously through her work in the 1920s with student exchanges. The desire for friendship was reciprocated, although this was partly because Nazis saw the British as (in Ruskin’s words, quoted approvingly by Wilson) ‘undegenerate in race, a race mingled of the best northern blood’. Finally, Hitler himself was careful to assert that he wished for peace with Britain. So Germany’s renewal did not have to be at Britain’s expense.
What Hitler said, although belied by future events, was important at the time because of the attention that witnesses paid to the Nazi regime’s leading figures. These personalities gave the regime a face and appeared to express what it stood for. All four authors cited here were fascinated by the top Nazis. Roberts, in general a discerning observer, was blinded to Himmler’s brutality by his ‘example of quiet dignity . . . personally I found him kindlier and much more thoughtful for his guests than any other Nazi leader’.
However, Roberts, as an historian, looked beyond the personalities, and examined many different aspects of the Nazi regime – its philosophy, party organisation, its management of the economy, and its foreign policy. He recognised how unwieldy were the structures of party and government, with many competing fiefdoms, but saw how this suited Hitler, who ‘knows what a mess it all is, but prudently does nothing’. This was a percipient observation, predating what academics would say later about the ‘organised chaos’ of Nazi rule.
Robert was also prophetic in his conclusions. He took the trouble to understand Nazi philosophy and realised that ‘Hitlerism cannot achieve its aims without war . . .The nation has been duped in the sense that it has been launched along a road that can only lead to disaster’.
Of the four authors, Dodd had the closest contacts with senior Nazis. She used her charm and vivacity, together with her entrée to government circles as the US ambassador’s daughter, to get to know many key figures in the regime. Rolf Diels, head of the Secret Police under Goering, became her lover. She was introduced to Hitler himself by his friend ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl, who told her: ‘Hitler needs a woman. Hitler should have an American woman – a lovely woman could change the whole destiny of Europe. Martha, you are the woman!’ She found Hitler not unattractive. He was ‘unobtrusive, communicative, informal [with a] certain quiet charm’, although Hanfstaengl’s attempt at matchmaking led nowhere.
Dodd’s influential friends inadvertently revealed to her the viciousness of the regime, leading her rapidly to lose her enthusiasm for Nazism. Diels shared with her his fear of being murdered, a victim of intra-party intrigues. He took her to the trial of the Reichstag fire ‘conspirators’, which demonstrated to her the flimsiness of the case against them. Meanwhile, Dodd’s friendships (and more) were nothing if not eclectic, so she met men like the French diplomat Armand Berard who were much less sympathetic to the regime. By the Spring of 1934, so Dodd says, she realised that ‘the most complicated and heartbreaking system of terror ruled the country’.
Buller’s friends and contacts were very different, and unlike Dodd’s, they went back to well before the Nazi takeover in 1933. Her contacts were typically teachers and clerics, so she heard directly about how Nazi ideology was imposed in schools and the church. Her account of the regime was largely based on what her contacts told her. Her book is full of reported conversations, presumably not accurate word for word given the absence of recording technology, but no doubt written down soon after the event. In her descriptions, her own personality and views only surface occasionally. She asks open questions about conditions in Nazi Germany, while her interlocutors (names changed for their protection) tell her about their fears and their struggles to adapt to the Nazi regime.
Whilst Roberts looked at Nazi Germany with the objectivity of a historian, and Dodd through the prism of Berlin high life, Buller achieved something much subtler and more profound: an exploration of the psychological impact of the regime on private individuals. For example, in her chapter ‘tragedy of the unemployed student’ she showed how Nazism gave meaning to to the life of a student she had met in the 1920s, whilst elsewhere she describes a heart-rending conversation with an old Jewish woman whose family want her to leave Germany, but who can’t bring herself to go.
Buller, like Roberts, realised where Nazism was leading, having been told: ‘The really tragic thing about this movement . . . is that I believe it must end in war’.
While Buller explored the inmost thoughts of her friends, Arnold Wilson was impressed with all the physical signs of progress in Nazi Germany: new roads and hospitals, waste ground cleared by labour camps, reduced unemployment. Many doors were opened to him, as an MP, and he met Hitler, who ‘left on my mind an indelible impression of single-mindedness, with great reserves of strength’.
Wilson wasn’t blind to the regime’s less attractive features. He was taken to visit Dachau, then predominantly a concentration camp for political prisoners, and noted ‘in the atmosphere of the camp something against which my soul revolted’, but saw incarceration of prisoners there as ‘a necessary concomitant of revolution’. He acknowledged the ill-treatment of Jews in 1934 and wrote ‘things were being done of which no reasonable person could approve'. But in the last analysis he felt that this mattered less than the re-establishment of order by the Nazis after the Weimar years and by the material improvements that he was convinced had been achieved. As a nationalist and imperialist himself, he saw much in Nazism with which he sympathised, and hoped ardently that Britain and Germany would never go to war again.
Wilson’s ‘Walks & Talks Abroad’ was originally published in 1936. My copy of the book is the third edition, published in June 1939, and contains two successive, rather desperate, further prefaces. The preface to the second edition notes a recent Nuremberg party conference, which, Wilson says, inspires confidence about working with Germany ‘on a basis of mutual trust and concession’. The preface to the third edition noted Hitler’s recent invasion of Sudetenland, flouting the Munich agreement with Neville Chamberlain, but concludes in hopeful tones by saying that: ‘I am unwilling to believe that Herr Hitler will not prove equal to the greatness of the opportunity that lies before him’ of a negotiated peace.
Given these hopes, the outbreak of war a few months later must have been a terrible shock to Wilson. His response was to volunteer to serve in the RAF, although he was by then 55 and under no obligation to do so. He became a rear gunner with a bomber squadron, and was shot down and killed on 31 May 1940.
Wilson’s life was turned upside down by the Nazis, but for both Buller and Dodd the experience of Nazi Germany was transformative. Buller was inspired to establish Cumberland Lodge, believing that an understanding of the kind of issues that enabled Nazism is essential if another catastrophe is to be avoided. Dodd rebounded from Nazism to Communism and became a Soviet spy, fleeing the US in 1947, never to return, once her activities risked being uncovered.
Roberts was not so obviously influenced by his experiences. He returned to the other side of the world and became a successful university administrator in Sydney. But the thorough and perceptive analysis typified by ‘The House that Hitler Built’, and his dedication to the expansion of higher education, are responses to totalitarianism as good as any.
In their different ways, the four witnesses to Nazi Germany that I have chosen provide a powerful argument for contemporary history. Taking an historian’s approach, Roberts provides many insights about Nazi Germany that have stood the test of time. Dodd provides the 1930s equivalent of reality TV. Buller offers subtle insights into what ordinary people thought at the time. And Wilson illustrates how positive motives – a desire for peace and friendship between nations - can nevertheless lead to wrong conclusions.
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