Letters From Minsk: Travellers in the Third Reich

Hotel Adlon, Berlin: In the 1930s a favorite of touring British aristocrats and stay-at-home Nazi hierarchs. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

This is the second in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

On the Train to Minsk

Julia Boyd and her book about “Third Reich travellers” were good company on my Deutsche Bahn trains across Germany, heading for Berlin. On the tracks along the Rhine I looked out the window at hilltop castles and river steamers, but across the great plain between Frankfurt and Hanover I dug into her descriptions of Britons and Americans in Weimar and Hitler’s Germany, few of whom took the measure of the approaching evil.

Boyd writes well and did dogged research in numerous libraries and private collections of papers across England, searching out letters and diaries that confided reactions (sadly, many of them positive) during summer drives to Munich or winter dinner parties in Berlin.

The book begins in the 1920s, when Britons, especially, flocked to postwar Germany, where—beyond the cabaret acts—they were stunned to see street revolutionaries, serious food shortages, and wheelbarrow inflation.

Later came writers and artists, including Britons W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, and the American novelist, Thomas Wolfe (You Can’t Go Home Again).

The essence of the book takes place after Hitler comes to power in winter 1933. The British traveling classes—journalists, diplomats, members of Parliament, and ambassadors—were struggling to understand and explain to those back in England whether Hitler and Germany were a model civilization or a threat to mankind.

To illustrate how divided was opinion, Boyd quotes the impressions of Lloyd George, the British prime minister during World War I. In the 1930s he wrote about Hitler: “He is a born leader of men. A magnetic, dynamic personality with a single-minded purpose, a resolute will and a dauntless heart … He is the George Washington of Germany – the man who won for his country independence from all her oppressors.” This from the man who led Britain during the last years of the First World War.

British Poets Head Toward Germany

Postwar Germany was a country in search of a place in the world. It tried accommodating former enemies (at Versailles) and then donned the raiments of a republic (Weimar), but nothing fit until the Americans, in the mid-1920s, pushed through the Dawes Plan, which stretched out the repayments of German reparations, giving the country a small dose of prosperity. The scars of the war were harder to reschedule, as Boyd writes:

It was difficult for travellers (at least the Anglophones), whatever their personal interpretation of events, not to be touched by the plight of the people they encountered in the immediate post-war years. Germans from all walks of life told them repeatedly how betrayed they felt – by the Kaiser, their politicians and generals and especially by President Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles. Through no fault of their own, they had lost their colonies, their coal, their health and prosperity and – most distressing of all – their self-respect.

Stephen Spender’s Berlin

Outside of books, my only insight into Germany in the late 1920s came from meeting the poet Stephen Spender, who as a young man joined Auden and others in what is now described as the period of decadence in postwar Berlin.

The dean of my undergraduate college, Robert Chambers, somehow had a connection to Spender, and Bob invited him to come to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to have dinner with a group of about six students. I was not either an English major or a poet, but was invited to the dinner, which took place in a private room in the university refectory. I cannot remember all that we discussed but I found the experience intoxicating (although not even sherry accompanied the meal).

Spender wore a tweed suit, Hush Puppies, and a wool necktie, and the part in his wispy white hair wandered. He talked about writing, his love of language, the importance of books, and the influences on his life, which included Auden and his time in Berlin.

So I was pleased to come across in Boyd more details of Spender’s time in Germany, of which she writes: “His old friend W. H. Auden, who had already been in the city some months, introduced him to a world so deliciously unlike stuffy post-war England that by Christmas 1929 he had returned to Berlin for an indefinite stay. As he wrote in his memoir, when asked at the border the purpose of his journey, he could have truthfully replied, ‘I’m looking for my homeland and I’ve come to find out if this is it.’” He didn’t quite find what he was looking for, in part because the Great Depression extinguished any hope that Germany could rejoin the community of nations.

To the British and French, Germany owed war reparations on a scale that it could never pay, and to the Americans it owed interest and principal on commercial loans from the mid-1920s that, briefly, had fueled the giddiness of cabaret Berlin and other amusements.

Boyd explains: “As Spender later wrote, they had entered the ‘Weimardämmerung [twilight in Weimar]’…. ‘Tugged by forces within and without, by foreign powers and foreign money-lenders, industrialist plotters, embittered generals, impoverished landed gentry, potential dictators, refugees from Eastern Europe, the government reeled from crisis to crisis, within a permanent crisis.’”

Hitler Über Alles

Hitler entered government in 1932. Boyd writes: “When, even after his July election success, Hitler had still not been offered the chancellorship, Hindenburg famously remarked, ‘That man for Chancellor? I’ll make him a postmaster and he can lick the stamps with my head on them…’”

There was subsequently a grace period in Anglo-German relations, during which any number of British aristocrats passed through German and came home singing Hitler’s praises (or at least reported that the country was back on track).

Part of the reason that many travellers came away impressed with Hitler and German efficiency was that the Nazis devoted considerable time and expense to what we now might call tourist promotion. They hung Art Deco posters in London tube stations, and when important guests arrived in German, they laid on minders and banquets, all to give the impression that Germany was again the country of Goethe, Wagner, draft beer, and summer hiking. Boyd writes:

Luring them to Germany was therefore a high priority for the Reich Committee for Tourism, founded in June 1933. This powerful bureau rose splendidly to the challenge. Potential visitors were reassured that – whatever they may read in their ‘Jewish’ newspapers – life in the Third Reich was entirely normal. Germany was ‘a peace-loving, trustworthy and progressive nation, a joyful country of festival-goers, hearty eaters, smiling peasants and music lovers’. Travel brochures showing picturesque villages, colourful costumes and friendly policemen were sent abroad stripped of anti-Jewish virulence – now reserved only for the domestic market.

The travel agent Cook, among others, soon helped to put Germany back on the map.

Berlin’s 1936 Summer Olympics

In many ways the apex of this charm offensive was the hosting of the 1936 summer Olympic games in Berlin, which were Hitler’s coming-out party (spoiled only by the American Jesse Owens winning those gold medals).

As my father was there with his student bicycle group, I was pleased to find in Boyd a long description of the games by the American novelist, Thomas Wolfe, who lived on and off in Germany during the 1930s. He’s one of the few in her book not taken in by the Nazis, and he wrote at length about the Olympics. Boyd writes:

On 1 August 1936, hundreds of thousands crowded the streets of Berlin hoping to catch a glimpse of the Führer as he was driven to the Olympic stadium. ‘At last he came,’ wrote Thomas Wolfe, who attended the Games with Martha Dodd. ‘Something like a wind across a field of grass was shaken through that crowd, and from afar the tide rolled up with him, and in it was the voice, the hope, the prayer of the land.’ Wolfe noted how Hitler stood in his car erect, motionless and unsmiling, ‘with his hand upraised, palm outward, not in Nazi-wise salute, but straight up, in a gesture of blessing such as the Buddha or Messiahs use’. As the Führer descended the Marathon steps into the stadium, escorted by top Nazis and members of the IOC, the spectators rose as one, noted Birchall in the New York Times, ‘their arms outstretched and voices raised in frantic greeting’. At that moment the orchestra and military bands burst into Wagner’s March of Homage. Then, as Hitler took his seat, the crowds roared out ‘Deutschland über Alles’ followed by the inevitable ‘Horst Wessel’ song.

Among those in Hitler’s box at the games was the American aviator and icon Charles Lindbergh, whose celebrity (and right-wing political sympathies) earned him the royal treatment whenever he and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, got close to Germany.

Boyd writes: “The Lindberghs’ visit was a gift to the Nazis – especially coming as it did one week before the opening of the Berlin Olympics. The next few days were packed with tours of airfields, factories and far too many social events for Charles Lindbergh’s liking.”

It was Lindbergh, not President Donald Trump, who helped to coin the phrase “America First,” and in the 1930s, it did not just mean tending to the home fires and isolation in world affairs. It also expressed a large dollop of admiration for fascism, in Italy and Germany particularly, societies that understood how a little law and order could do wonders for an obeisant society and the corporate bottom line. In Charles Lindbergh the Nazis found their ideal ambassador to convey the good news from Hitler’s Germany. (I suspect they might have gone for Trump as well.) Boyd writes:

The Germans were… delighted since it was clear they had succeeded in convincing Lindbergh that the Luftwaffe was more powerful than it really was. And of one thing they could be certain. Any intelligence transmitted to Washington and London by Colonel Lindbergh could not fail to impress. The Lindberghs, although initially adamant that they would not attend the Olympic Games, were spotted on 1 August by the New York Times correspondent seated – surrounded by Nazi uniforms – among the sprinkling of privileged foreign guests invited to watch the opening ceremony from Hitler’s box. The next day they left Germany in their own aeroplane. But they would soon be back.

After the Olympic stage sets were taken down, Hitler got down to the serious business of redrawing the boundaries around Europe so that the German people would have Lebensraum [“living space”] at the expense of the neighboring Austrians, Czechs, Slovaks, and Poles.

Rewriting Versailles

Many travellers to the Third Reich in the late 1930s were French and British diplomats attempting to broker a revision to the Treaty of Versailles that might circumvent another world war.

Their remit was to “appease” Hitler rather than to confront him, and it led to a series of diplomatic missions, culminating with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s trip to Munich in 1938, in which a succession of English politicians wanted to believe that, behind all the bluster and stormtroopers by his side, Hitler was a rational international statesman.

Among the most celebrated missions to Germany in the 1930s was that of Lord Halifax—later foreign minister but then head of the House of Lords—who was sent to Germany in November 1937, to assess Hitler’s appetite for war or peace. Boyd writes:

When Halifax agreed to go, no one was fooled as to the real purpose. To avoid war by dealing constructively with Hitler was, as he later wrote to Henderson, ‘easily the most important task before this generation’. But first, to give credibility to his alibi, he toured the Sporting Exhibition. It was, in the words of Halifax’s biographer, ‘a gruesomely Teutonic affair’. Hanging beside several huge portraits of Göring was an equally vast map of Germany’s lost colonies.

In many ways the mission only confirmed that Hitler was prone to what was called “carpet chewing” (hysterics and long monologues), and the Halifax mission should have been the end of Britain’s policies of appeasement.

As the alternative was another war with Germany, and the possibilities of millions dead in battle, the British kept sending over more envoys, perhaps with the hope that they might catch Hitler in a good mood. It never happened.

Toward the end of her book Boyd writes:

Even in the late 1930s it was still possible for a foreigner to spend weeks in Germany and experience nothing more unpleasant than a puncture. There is, however, a difference between ‘not seeing’ and ‘not knowing’. And after Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938, there could be no possible excuse for any foreign traveller to claim that they ‘did not know’ the Nazis’ true colours.

Still, right up until the declaration of war in September 1939, there remained a number of British aristocrats for whom Hitler could do no wrong, just as Hitler himself, until he signed the non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, held out hope that he could reach an accommodation with England and between them divide the spoils of the western world.

Robert Byron Drives Across Germany

It was late by the time I changed trains in Hanover and headed for Berlin (a two-hour run), by which time I was tired of reading, working on my computer, and plotting my progress on the timetables that Deutsche Bahn scatters around its cars (as if pamphlets for some by-election).

Dinner revived me, and to relieve the gloomy darkness outside the train windows I went back to Boyd’s book, where I was pleased to find that she makes mention of Robert Byron, an English writer I have come to admire in recent years.

I first heard his name mentioned by the essayist Paul Fussell, who in the early 1980s used to tell me that Byron’s The Road to Oxiana (about Persia) was one of the finest travel books in the English language.

At his recommendation I bought a copy in 1980 but bogged down immediately in it and only got around to finishing it in 2015, when I went to Iran with Byron’s book in my backpack. Then I loved it, perhaps more than if I had read it without having seen the likes of Tehran or Isfahan. (He writes: “The start of a journey in Persia resembles an algebraical equation: it may or may not come out.”)

Byron only published a handful of books—all of which are erudite and witty—of which he is remembered only for The Road to Oxiana, published in 1937. His first book, which came out in 1926, was entitled, Europe in the Looking-Glass: Reflections of a Motor Drive from Grimsby to Athens (1926), and he wrote an account of travels across Russia to Tibet, which came out in 1933.

In Boyd, Byron is mentioned for attending the Nuremberg rallies in 1938 (two summers after my father was there). He went in the company of Unity Mitford, Nancy’s sister, who was starstruck with Hitler and Nazi iconography. His presence at the rally allowed Boyd to write:

It was for anyone, even an outsider, impossible to react objectively to the Nuremberg rallies. The spectator was either… swept up in an orgy of emotion or, as in the case of the writer Robert Byron, utterly repelled. ‘There can be no compromise with these people,’ Byron wrote from Berlin after attending the 1938 rally. ‘There is no room in the world for them and me, and one has got to go.’

Sadly, Byron died at age 35, in the early days of World War II, his ship torpedoed by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic. In the choice between Hitler and Byron, he should not have been the one to go.

Next: Back in Berlin.

Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.