Holidays with Hitler: The Seduction of Nostopia

Travellers in the Third Reich, Julia Boyd

This week, I have been reading Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd.  It might sound like a grim read, but actually it's fascinating.  According to the blurb:

Travellers in the Third Reich is an extraordinary history of the rise of the Nazis based on fascinating first-hand accounts, drawing together a multitude of voices and stories, including students, politicians, musicians, diplomats, schoolchildren, communists, scholars, athletes, poets, journalists, fascists, artists, tourists, even celebrities like Charles Lindbergh and Samuel Beckett. Their experiences create a remarkable three-dimensional picture of Germany under Hitler – one so palpable that the reader will feel, hear, even breathe the atmosphere.
And it's true.  You really do feel like you're there, all the way from 1919 to 1945.  What may seem incredible to some is that foreigners (especially British and American) kept on holidaying in Germany and sending their young people there for cultural exchanges and education, right up to the outbreak of war.  And it wasn't necessarily because they were fascists.  Many had happy memories of honeymoons or student days in Germany before the Great War, which they wanted to relive.  Many didn't even notice (or excused) the sinister aspects of the regime, such as anti-Semitism, brainwashing, or preparations for another war.  What they saw were medieval towns, mountains, castles, singing peasants in traditional costume, clean streets and polite young people.  They could put Brown Shirt violence and the endless marching and heiling to one side, because what their cared about was "their" Germany, the "real" Germany.  The Germany of Goethe, Schubert and the Brothers Grimm.

A vintage travel poster

It's easy to be seduced by this idea.  Even now, it's easy to put the Nazi regime to one side and tell ourselves that the rich heritage of music and story is the "real" Germany, and that other thing with the jackboots was just a bad dream.

Except, that seduction was the Nazis' most powerful tool.  Most people didn't come to support and revere Hitler because they wanted to march in perfect formation all day holding flags (although some did).  Even less because they wanted to send people to the gas chambers (although some wanted that too).  What they wanted was the same as what the tourists wanted: an ideal Germany of castles, forests, and pretty little villages, straight from the pages of a fairy tale book.  A Germany of what we would today call nostopia.  A place where they didn't have to worry about debt or unemployment or Soviet Russia, or be made uncomfortable by people on the fringes, who thought, worshipped or loved differently from the average.

On one level, this is an innocent, childlike desire. "It was all lovely, and now you've gone and spoilt it."  On another, it is a noble, even a heavenly desire, the vision of Revelation, of a world with no more crying or sorrow or pain.  BUT where it is far from innocent or noble is in the idea that you can create such a world by sweeping all that is undesirable into the bin, and turning your fellow-countrymen into unthinking automata, who WILL be happy, because you say so.  After all, one person's dream is another's nightmare.

An early cover for Grimm's Fairy Tales

I didn't go into this book intending to reflect on present-day politics.  I actually intended it as research for a story I've been trying to write since the noughties.  But, travelling with Julia Boyd through the Third Reich, I could understand the seduction of everything from "Islamic State" to Trump's America.  The idea that you can somehow put the world back to factory settings, and it will all be perfect again.  You can't do that.  You have to go on and change the world slowly, one person at a time.  And embrace suffering.  Your own suffering, not a suffering forced on others.

I won't lie.  I find the idea of a fairy tale world deeply seductive.  But all fairy tale readers know that pretty gingerbread houses contain witches, that wolves lurk in the forests, that the castle holds something unspeakable behind a closed door.  We mustn't be taken in.  We must journey with the protagonist, not get seduced by the frontispiece.


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