Travels in the Reich, 1933-1945: Foreign Authors Report from Germany

June 10, 2010

Given the glut of books about Nazism that rehash familiar ground, Oliver Lubrich's Travels in the Reich achieves no mean feat in approaching the subject in a new way. Through a collection of accounts by foreigners who happened to visit Germany sometime between 1933 and 1945, this book gives readers the rare opportunity to peer into Nazi Germany through the eyes of outsiders.

There is undoubtedly much that we can learn from these essays, letters and articles. But Lubrich's introductory essay makes him a hostage to fortune by overstating what the accounts can tell us. There are certainly advantages in considering what foreigners made of Hitler's Germany. By attending mass rallies, Lubrich is keen to point out, the non-native could set himself apart from the crowd and observe what occurred in a detached manner because he was not part of the community.

But along with the upsides to being an outsider for reporting on the inside situation, however, there are inevitably drawbacks. Visitors to a country, however hard they may try to engage in the local culture, will only gain impressions of the place - some of which may be false or misleading. A more forensic interrogation of the nature of the sources used, with an acknowledgement of some of the challenges and limitations that they pose, would have been helpful to readers who are ultimately left to draw their own conclusions from the extracts that follow.

In spite of this, Lubrich introduces us to an impressive array of writers including Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus, each of whom offers valuable insights into the workings of the Third Reich. Their accounts throw up numerous and often conflicting answers to some of the main questions posed by historians of the period: What was everyday life like under the Nazis? What was the level of support for the regime? How, and to what extent, did the party control the populace?

The vivid descriptions in these reports convey a real sense of the contrasting atmospheres in which they were written. Swiss correspondent Konrad Werner describes the mass hysteria with which a crowd greeted Hitler in 1935. Another Swiss journalist Max Frisch observes an entirely different, almost zombified German population at The Miracle of Life, a deeply anti-Semitic art exhibition in Berlin. Noting that Berliners would normally be the first to shout abuse at cyclists who disobeyed the rules of the road, he was astounded by the silent expressionless faces at the exhibition.

In between ardent enthusiasm, fear and passivity, some reports note "revealing lapses" in loyalty to the regime, whereby a moment's hesitation could betray a person's true feelings about the regime. Several accounts also suggest that discontented Germans felt safer confiding in foreigners. American correspondent William Shirer, for example, obviously won the trust of at least one German, who candidly remarked that "this isn't the Third Reich of which we dreamed". Through these accounts, the many faces of the Third Reich come to life.

Two authors' experiences of visiting Germany offer particularly penetrating insights into what it was like to live in the Nazi state: American novelist Thomas Wolfe described a moving encounter with a Jew trying to flee Germany by train with all his savings. Having enjoyed this man's company, not realising he was Jewish, Wolfe felt complicit in the persecution of the Jews when he stood by as this man was hauled out of the compartment and arrested. Also visiting from America, 24-year-old Martha Dodd soon noticed the difference in atmosphere from her homeland. Fired with enthusiasm at the start of her stay, she peppered a taxi driver with questions, to which he replied: "Young lady, you must learn to be seen and not heard. You mustn't say so much and ask so many questions. This isn't America and you can't say all the things you think." Complicity, caution and fear were evidently part and parcel of life under Hitler's dictatorship.

Travels in the Reich sets out to inform us about day-to-day life in Germany between 1933 and 1945, and it is certainly successful in its mission. The writers' observations offer often contradictory impressions of life in the Third Reich and overall demonstrate that there are no simple answers to the question of what kept the Nazis in power.

Travels in the Reich, 1933-1945: Foreign Authors Report from Germany

Edited by Oliver Lubrich. University of Chicago Press 336pp, £19.50. ISBN 9780226496290. Published 15 June 2010

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