Staff Book Review: Travelers in the Third Reich

Big thanks to David Ownby in Technical Services for sharing his thoughts on this book! You can find it here and on our New Books shelf across from the Circulation Desk.

In Travelers in the Third Reich, Julia Boyd uses firsthand accounts to provide an innovative analysis of pre-war Germany and the rise of Hitler. The book includes accounts of foreigners visiting Germany, especially during the 1920s and 1930s, across a broad range of classes, education, fame, and notoriety. It includes the letters and diaries of diplomats, politicians, students, social workers, and authors prior to the war’s outbreak. Germany was a frequent tourist destination for Americans and Europeans prior to the First World War, and the nation quickly tried to reclaim this status in the early 1920s, even when its economy remained shattered and many daily goods remained scarce. However, the effort to restore the status quo crumbled because of the Weimar Republic’s chaotic politics and Germany’s descent into totalitarianism.

During the growth of Nazi influence, Germany was still promoted as an ideal vacation destination for much of the world. Agents, posters, and travel guides emphasized the people’s friendliness, its legacy of theater, music, and youth culture throughout the 1930s. Boyd notes that almost a half million Americans visited Germany as late as 1937. Some visited out of political affiliation with the Nazis and Hitler but more attended out of curiosity or with the belief that Nazi extremism would pass in the face of a booming economy and the desire to avoid another war. Others visited because economic pressures at home meant Germany was an inexpensive option to visit Europe.

While Nazi propaganda sought to dissuade diplomats and foreign dignitaries of its true intentions, the group’s stranglehold on the nation and its people grew tighter. Nazi efforts to allay concerns included the 1936 Olympics and visits by former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (who described Hitler as a saint) and even civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (who was ultimately not enchanted with the Nazi state but noted that their repression was more open than the Jim Crow laws in the U.S.). Boyd’s carefully curated and researched accounts show how these Nazi efforts became blunter as tourists were expected to respect the more repressive aspects of their laws, and to participate—or at least attend—public displays like the Nuremberg party rallies. But many visitors’ visions remained warped by their remembrances of pre-Hitler Germany and presumptions that war could be avoided. Boyd notes that veterans, priests, and peace advocates continued to seek dialogue with the Germans even up until 1939.

Boyd’s account highlights the corrupting force of creeping totalitarianism and how easily it skews reality. Her book also shifts the narrative of history to people who experienced it firsthand. For those interested in further exploring history at its roots, Travelers in the Third Reich is a perfect companion to E. Amy Bueller’s Darkness Over Germany or Elie Wiesel’s Night trilogy.

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