If you have an interest in Weimar and Third Reich history, enjoy histories with views from the bottom—of how real people experience it, or like travel writing, you can’t go wrong with this thoroughly compelling book. Julia Boyd weaves together stories and anecdotes with such skill and fluidity, reading her account seemingly takes no effort whatsoever. It’s like sitting down with a good storyteller. We know where this story will eventually end, but the stories she recounts seem so fresh because they are written from the points of view of the travelers in their times and not “with the clarity of post-war hindsight.”
Most of the travelers Boyd describes generally fall into three categories: those who “had made up their minds as to which camp they belonged”, those who were naively or willfully ignorant “because Germany’s cultural heritage was simply too precious to renounce for politics, however unpleasant those politics might be”, and those who were just plain confused and baffled by what they experienced and observed. I also liked the fact that she didn't shy away from being judgmental when it was appropriate as in her comment, “The historian Sir Arthur Bryant was another notable foreigner whose benign view of the Nazis lasted longer than was decent.”
Boyd is a British writer, so at times this does have the feel of being Anglo-centric, but this is by no means a criticism. Because of the proximity between Britain and Germany and the relative ease with which people of middle class means could travel in the twenties and thirties. Many contemporary readers might be shocked with the number of prominent British citizens who were not only sympathetic to Nazi rule, but actively supportive, even up to the start of WWII. Often their views were tempered by latent-to-enthusiastic anti-Semitism and/or anti-Communism. The latter chapters about the time during the war were less about travelers than they were about people who had either married into German families, Chinese students who were stuck, or true believers who stayed.
The other inescapable aspect of this book is that I can’t, as an American living through a period where neo-fascism has taken hold of many parts of my nation (and perhaps Brits going through and opposing Brexit or Israelis who are horrified by Netanyahu feel the same way), read this without imposing it on the narrative of our times. Over and over again I read passages that seemed eerily contemporary. The feeling of history repeating never left me as I was reading. I can readily imagine a Studs Terkel of this age one day writing Travelers in the Age of Trump. And I feel that readers of that book may well have similar feelings and views that I had reading Travelers in the Third Reich.
Boyd’s writing certainly doesn’t have the intellectual heft of a Hannah Arendt. But it certainly causes corresponding moments of reflection and contemplation. Man, this is one damn good read!