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A family and friends on holiday in 1935 at Berchtesgaden had a chance encounter with Hitler.
A family and friends on holiday in 1935 at Berchtesgaden had a chance encounter with Hitler.Private collection

In 1932, a year before Hitler’s assumption of power, a conservative member of the British Parliament, Bob Boothby, described the German people, hammered by the Great Depression, as the embodiment of “orderly desperation.” By the end of World War II, a Chinese scholar of Sanskrit, Ji Xianlin, sharing the privations of the homefront in Göttingen, would note that “[f]reezing is as unpleasant as starving.”

In between these nadirs of economic catastrophe and incipient military defeat, foreign visitors found much to admire — as well as to abhor — in the transformations wrought by the Nazification of Germany. Drawing on fresh sources, Julia Boyd’s “Travelers in the Third Reich” (first published in Britain) shows the extent to which reactions to the regime varied, both over time and as a function of ideological proclivities, relative sophistication, and specific itineraries.

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Despite the residual trauma of World War I, many Europeans (and Americans) retained a great fondness for German culture, as well as the country’s picturesque landscapes. Even as political considerations began to dampen tourism, the Third Reich still welcomed visitors, especially sympathetic ones. Student exchange programs and other forms of tourism continued until the late 1930s, with travel agencies such as Thomas Cook & Son advertising Germany’s pastoral charms as late as 1939.

Many travelers, Boyd reports, had trouble squaring the pageantry, patriotic spirit, and economic revitalization of Nazi Germany with its dark undercurrents — its repression of opposition and, above all, the virulent anti-Semitism that would precipitate the Holocaust. The Third Reich’s ubiquitous propaganda and skillful deceptions — including the removal of anti-Jewish signs during the 1936 Berlin Olympics — made connecting the dots that much harder.

At times Boyd seems to suggest that these travelers — some of whom chronicled the 1933 boycott of Jewish shops, witnessed mass book burnings, or listened to Hitler’s vituperative speeches — should have known better. One of her literary tics is to juxtapose an upbeat report about the new Germany with a reference to the tightening noose around the Jewish population.

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But the narrative also conveys how challenging it must have been to forecast the dimensions of the impending tragedy. Boyd notes that, in 1936, even so astute and well-intentioned an observer as the African-American educator W.E. B. DuBois — who should have been particularly attuned to race-baiting and prejudice — stopped short of demonizing the regime. Instead, in common with the European political leaders who failed to arrest Hitler’s momentum, he temporized. “It is extremely difficult,” he wrote, “to express an opinion about Germany today which is true in all respects without numerous modifications and explanations.”

Boyd’s project owes something to the recent historiographical impulse to chronicle the lives and attitudes of ordinary people under Nazism. She begins in the Weimar period, as the Nazis began to gain adherents, and proceeds both chronologically and thematically, noting the varieties of outsiders who ventured to Germany.

Boyd’s subjects range from celebrities and intellectuals to students and the English wives of German aristocrats. They include the pro-Nazi Norwegian writer and Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, who went so far as to send his prize medal to the Reich’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels; the brave opera-loving sisters Ida and Louise Cook, who helped smuggle out both Jewish refugees and their valuables; and Harry W. Flannery, CBS’s Berlin correspondent during the early war years.

Much of what Boyd tells us isn’t exactly news: that it was possible to travel through Nazi Germany and admire the country’s newfound spirit and optimism; that the 1936 Berlin Olympics were a propaganda triumph; that Kristallnacht, in November 1938, with its widespread violence against Jewish persons and property, made Nazi terror impossible to ignore; and that Hitler’s popularity rested not just on full employment and social welfare initiatives but on his initial ability to achieve his expansionist foreign policy aims without war.

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But her travelers highlight more surprising aspects of the regime as well. While the establishment of Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, in 1933 was never a secret, it is jolting to learn that visitors were routinely offered tours of the facility — and that, as a form of misdirection, the Nazis had guards dress up as prisoners. It’s a subterfuge that foreshadows the more famous sanitizing of the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt, outside Prague, prior to a visit by the Danish and International Red Cross in June 1944.

Sometimes Boyd’s research unearths intimate anecdotes. In the summer of 1936, after enjoying a delightful honeymoon in the Rhineland, an English couple in Frankfurt was approached by a Jewish woman who begged the pair to take her teenage daughter with them to England. “But although it is easy enough to imagine our response in such circumstances,” Boyd writes, “do we really know how we would react? How we would interpret what is going on right in front of our eyes?” And thus she plunges us into the confusions and moral dilemmas of that time and place.

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TRAVELERS IN THE THIRD REICH:

The Rise of Fascism: 1919-1945

By Julia Boyd

Pegasus, 456 pp., illustrated, $28.95

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Julia M. Klein is the Forward’s contributing book critic. Follow her @JuliaMKlein.