Julia Boyd | Travelers in the Third Reich | Pegasus Books | 16 minutes (4,230 words)

There can have been few foreigners who “Heiled Hitler” with more enthusiasm than Unity Valkyrie Mitford. Ever since she first became infatuated with the Führer at the 1933 Nuremberg Rally, her arm would shoot out on every possible occasion. Even Sir Eric and Lady Phipps, all too familiar with distressed upper-class parents whose daughters had fallen in love with “dreadful SS types,” were taken aback by Unity’s brisk “Heil Hitler” as she entered their Berlin drawing room. Sir Eric, who was a good head shorter than the strikingly built Unity, responded by standing on tiptoe and shaking her outstretched hand. Some months later, Jessica Mitford shared a cabin with her sister on a Mediterranean cruise. She described how Unity would lie on her bunk at night and after saying her prayers to Hitler would solemnly raise her arm in the Nazi salute before falling asleep. The story of Unity — the fifth of Lord and Lady Redesdale’s famous brood of seven — is that of an unhappy, not particularly bright young woman finding glamour and purpose in a cult religion. She might have become prey to any number of eccentric beliefs or deities but unfortunately for her, and those around her, she fell for the Führer.

An unsophisticated groupie, Unity was a famous special case but countless other young people of similar background traveled and studied in Germany between the wars, giving rise to the question — why were they there? That the British establishment should have seen fit to prepare its offspring for adult life by sending them to such a vile totalitarian regime is puzzling, to say the least. Even those in sympathy with Hitler’s aims of defeating communism and restoring his country to greatness would hardly have welcomed a Brown Shirt as a son-in-law. Yet, despite the Great War and growing awareness of Nazi iconoclasm, Germany’s traditional grip on British intellectual imagination remained as strong as ever. Here, in the midst of Nazi barbarity and boorishness, these gilded youths were expected to deepen their education and broaden their outlook. What better way for a young man to prepare for Oxford or the Foreign Office than to immerse himself in Goethe, Kant, Beethoven and German irregular verbs? Moreover he could do so very cheaply by lodging with one of the many impoverished Baroninnen [Baronesses] offering rooms in university towns such as Munich, Freiburg or Heidelberg.

One of the first decisions any traveler had to make when crossing the border in the mid-1930s was whether or not to “Heil Hitler.” By 1934, when Unity first moved to Munich, the Nazi salute was so pervasive that it had become impossible to duck the issue. In the early years of the Third Reich it was still just defensible to salute in a spirit of goodwill and without feeling politically compromised. After all, many of the Nazis’ “achievements” appeared, on the surface at least, highly commendable, leading optimists to assume that the brutality and antisemitism, so harped on by Hitler’s critics, would abate as conditions continued to improve. John Heygate, in his late twenties, had no hesitation in giving the frontier guards a Nazi salute as he drove his sports car into Germany one sunny March day in 1934. For some months he had been employed at the UFA studios in Berlin directing and writing English scripts but on this occasion he was bound for Prague. Feeling conspicuous in his open Magna MG, he played safe by heiling everyone in sight:

“I enjoyed it. It was a game. And the youths and children in the villages enjoyed it. They stood by the roads and in the fields with right arms solemnly stretched towards the enemy’s motor car and laughed when the enemy appeared a friend … My right arm grew stiff with replying. I prayed for a device like a direction indicator, which would flap aloft a metal hand while I got on with the job of driving.”

Heygate, an old Etonian, had a few years earlier caused a scandal by absconding with Evelyn Waugh’s wife, whom he later married. As with many in his social circle, his political sympathies were well to the right. Consequently, although there was much to make fun of in the new uncouth Germany he also found much to admire. The flags fascinated him. Driving along village streets “roofed with swastikas,” he passed “like a modern knight beneath crusades of ruddy banners.” It occurred to him that it might be “fun” to fly his own Hakenkreuz so he had one fitted to his car by a delighted garage attendant. But the fun faded when, as he watched the tiny swastika beat “proudly” in the wind, he experienced a “sudden awe.” For a moment the flag seemed to him “much more than something to be waved and draped from windows. It was a fighting banner which went before and men followed after.”

When he reached the Austrian Tyrol, he wrote to his friend Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter (1927). Except for Germany, he told him, all the European countries were in a desperate state. And given the strength and purpose of German youth, he was not in the least surprised that they were terrified. He went on to describe how Austria was now organised into secret lodges. Runners from Germany were sent across the mountains every day to pass on Nazi propaganda to Austrian villages. Vast swastikas would suddenly flare all over the Tyrol or be visible on a mountainside carved out of the snow. Heygate admitted that even he was carrying copies of the forbidden Nazi paper (given him by the exiled head of the Austrian Nazi party in Munich), which he was distributing clandestinely. The underground fight for Nazism in Austria, he told his friend, was a fascinating story.

Heygate’s contemporary, Robert Byron, moved in similar circles (they both knew the Mitfords) but reacted very differently. “I hardly know how to contain myself,” he wrote to his mother from Danzig, “when they say Heil Hitler to one another down the telephone. And that salute, when a couple of friends happen to part in a crowded bus, also has an hysterical effect, but I suppose I will get used to it.”

That the British establishment should have seen fit to prepare its offspring for adult life by sending them to such a vile totalitarian regime is puzzling, to say the least.

In fact failure to salute, even for a foreign tourist, became increasingly risky. “I had a curious experience the other night,” Geoffrey Cox informed his brother in New Zealand. “A Brown Shirt hit me because I didn’t salute a Nazi flag.” It had been close to midnight when, on a dark Berlin street, the young New Zealander had met a column of SA troops marching to a railway station on their way to the Nuremberg rally. “He hit me from the side, unseen, while I was arguing with two others,” recounted Cox, adding that because he had not felt frightened he even remembered the incident with some pleasure. He had, he explained to his brother, experienced “a kind of elation standing there in the middle of a hostile crowd and not feeling scared. Of course I could have been braver — I should have hit them back, even if it meant I was properly beaten up. But that’ll come next time.”

Given Cox’s robust views, it was as well that he did not visit the Feldherrnhalle [Field Marshals’ Hall] in Munich — the Nazis’ most sacred monument. Here, at the site of Hitler’s abortive putsch, two temples of white stone had been erected to house the massive lead-colored coffins of the sixteen “martyrs” who had died that November night in 1923 when the police had opened fire on Hitler and his followers. “All day and in all weathers there are pilgrims to this place,” wrote British writer and journalist, J. A. Cole. “They may come as laughing coach-loads of tourists, or happy family parties out on a trip, but as they draw near their demeanour changes, they mount the steps slowly and quietly, look for a minute or more at the coffins below, give the Nazi salute and then slowly make their way to the other shrine.” Everyone who passed the Feldherrnhalle — whether on wheels or on foot — was required to salute the monument. Eighteen-year-old Tim Marten, who had just left Winchester College and was studying for the Foreign Office, thought it hilarious when he spotted a fat man falling off his bicycle while trying to heil and steer at the same time.

When, on a visit to Munich, Derek Hill’s mother told him how much she would like to catch a glimpse of Hitler, he took her to the Carlton tearooms — one of the Führer’s regular haunts. Just as they were about to give up, Hitler arrived with Goebbels and Hess. Derek immediately telephoned his friend Unity to let her know that Hitler was there. A few minutes later she appeared in a taxi — trembling with emotion at the prospect of seeing her idol at close quarters for the first time. “This is the kindest thing that’s ever been done for me in my life,” she told Derek. “I’ll never forget it.” Arguably Unity was mentally unstable but the apolitical Mrs. Hill, a Scot, was emphatically not. Yet even she was so caught up in the moment that, to the astonishment of her son, she gave a Nazi salute as they left.

Eighteen-year-old Joan Tonge was made of sterner stuff. Wearing her “fetching stripy ocelot fur coat and Cossack hat,” she attended an SA rally escorted by a smart Prussian officer. All had been well, she recalled, until the “Heil Hitlers” started. Then, “like an offensive bit of rhubarb,” she had stood — arms rigidly at her side — refusing to salute. Within seconds “several squat and ugly Brown Shirts came galloping up, shouting ferociously and windmilling their arms” until “Helmut stamped over with his ankle-length overcoat swirling, shouting even louder at them that I was an Engländer.”

Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit and “Matthew” (his real name was probably Robert Dummett) were already undergraduates at Trinity College, Cambridge, when they decided to spend the summer of 1934 bicycling from Hamburg to Salzburg. On disembarking from the SS Kooperatzia (a Soviet ship was the cheapest way of travelling to Hamburg), they walked into town, bought bicycles for £3 each and set off. Despite having agreed to join forces, they hardly knew one another and soon discovered how little they had in common. Thanks to an affair with the wife of his former Heidelberg professor, the right-wing Dummett spoke excellent German. Sinclair-Loutit did not. Furthermore, since witnessing a recent hunger march in Cambridge, his politics had moved decisively to the left. Locked in this uneasy partnership, the two young men headed south. Dummett was immediately impressed by German discipline (“so lacking in England”), by the autobahns and labor camps, and by the high standard of cleanliness everywhere. Sinclair-Loutit, on the other hand, found the trappings of National Socialism increasingly repellent. “The two of us managed well enough until we got close to the newer Germany,” he recalled. “I can still feel the surprise that shook me in Lüneburg when Matthew gave the Nazi salute at an improvised shrine containing a bust of the recently deceased Hindenburg.” It was, his companion suggested, a simple act of politeness like taking off one’s hat when going into a church. But to Sinclair-Loutit the salute was nothing less than public endorsement of a thoroughly unpleasant regime.

The incessant cry of “Heil Hitler” eventually got on the nerves of even the most tolerant traveler. Edward Wall was a young schoolmaster who, with his friend Tom Iremonger, spent April 1935 touring Germany in a Baby Austin. He recorded how in Helmstedt their excellent lunch

“was rather spoilt by the insistent way everybody, would on entering or going out, give the Heil Hitler greeting and then salute everybody else in turn. Sitting near the door, we had more than our fair share of these salutations. One must perhaps expect that the inhabitants, of what the AA route described as ‘a level countryside with many industrial centres’, should show their Nazi enthusiasm rather more aggressively.”

However, the fact that not every German was a dedicated Nazi became clear a few days later in Bayreuth (described by Wall as a “German Cirencester”) when an elderly couple entered the café where the young men were eating. “He flapped his hand loosely from the wrist up to face level,” noted Wall, “and let his forearm bend feebly from the elbow, saying at the same time, as modestly as could be, and as if he were saying ‘sleep well’ to a child, ‘Heil Hitler.’”

The German authorities, initially at least, proved so willing to show off their concentration camp to foreigners that by the mid-1930s Dachau had become something of a tourist attraction.

Wall and Iremonger were not particularly political but through the Schlauch family, whom Wall knew from an earlier holiday, they discovered how hard life could be for those on the wrong side of the regime. Herr Schlauch, a Lutheran pastor, had recently served a short term in prison for having preached against the worship of Teutonic pagan deities. A Nazi minder in the congregation — there was one now present to vet every sermon in every church — had denounced him. Since his release, the blacklisted Schlauch had been unable to find a job. This experience, so commonplace by the mid-1930s, did not, as might be expected, automatically lead to a sense of solidarity with fellow victims. Wall noted that Frau Schlauch, despite her husband’s predicament, was full of praise for the Nazis for having banned Jewish novelists — “thereby cutting much unhealthy sexual literature out of circulation.”

Wall’s account of their holiday is full of vivid images: the white sandy road winding through a dark, mysterious pine forest, the group of factory workers delighted by King George V’s birthday greetings to Hitler and the cigarette cards depicting French military police brutalizing German civilians in the Ruhr. Der Triumph des Willens [Triumph of the Will], watched in a smoky cinema “chock full and terribly overheated,” was as unpleasant as the stuffy opera where old ladies hissed at a fidgeting Iremonger to have more “Rücksicht [consideration]” for others. They warmed to the burly Bavarian policemen in their “blue blue tunics” and shiny black helmets adorned with pointed silver knobs, but feared for a recklessly outspoken anti-Nazi bookseller in Aachen. One impression stood out from all the others — the extraordinary profusion of signs proclaiming a single message: “Juden sind nicht erwünscht [Jews not wanted].”

The two young Englishmen spent a particularly pleasant day on the shores of the Ammersee. “The clouds had rolled back and a stiff breeze made the huge expanse of lake look more like some inlet of the sea,” Wall wrote on 28 April 1935, as they sat enjoying Kaffee und Kuchen [coffee and cake] looking out across the water. Some way to the north-east of the lake. Sinclair-Loutit and Dummett had a few months earlier been nearing Munich when fifteen miles short of the city Dummett suddenly insisted that they pedal a long stretch without pause. Only afterwards did he give his reasons. On examining the map, he had noticed how close they were to Dachau, the concentration camp that had opened shortly after Hitler became chancellor. Dummett was anxious lest their presence in the area arouse suspicion. Sinclair-Loutit had never heard of Dachau so Dummett had to explain that the camp was the Nazis’ method of dealing with “wasters, idlers, social undesirables, Jewish profiteers and riffraff” by re-educating them through work. Hugh Greene, who was in Munich at the time trying to establish himself as a journalist, picked up a cautionary verse from the family he lodged with: “Lieber Gott, mach mich stumm, Dass ich nicht nach Dachau komm! [Dear God make me dumb, so I won’t to Dachau come!].” A few months later the infamous sign “Arbeit macht frei [Work Sets You Free]” was erected over Dachau’s entrance.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

Dummett need not have worried. The German authorities, initially at least, proved so willing to show off their concentration camp to foreigners that by the mid-1930s Dachau had become something of a tourist attraction for American and British visitors, particularly politicians and journalists. Relieved not to have detected any undue misery or discomfort, Victor Cazalet MP thought the camp “not very interesting though quite well run.” In his diary he noted, “adjutant says most prisoners Communist. If that is the case, then they can stay there for all I care.” Nevertheless, he thought the Nazis “fools” for not freeing the majority of prisoners since it was obvious that any opposition to the regime was now utterly impotent in the face of “Hitler’s complete and overwhelming power.” Cazalet’s fellow Member of Parliament, Sir Arnold Wilson, was more ambivalent. Wilson traveled extensively in Germany between 1934 and 1936 seeking to understand the new Germany through countless in-depth conversations with the widest possible range of people. The many articles he produced as a result were published in Walks and Talks Abroad (1939). In July 1934 he addressed a large audience at Königsberg when he spoke of National Socialism in glowing terms:

“During the past three months I have watched Young Germany at work and at play in every part of the country. I admire the intense energy evoked by the National Socialist Movement. I respect the patriotic ardour of German youth. I recognize, I almost envy, the depth and earnestness of the search for national unity which inspires your schools and colleges: because it is wholly unselfish, it is wholly good.”

Yet he did not let his enthusiasm for the Nazis cloud his impressions of Dachau. Having observed that the men seemed as well housed and fed as in any of the voluntary labor camps, he wrote that “there was in the atmosphere of the camp something against which my soul revolted.” James Grover McDonald (American High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany) agreed. As the prisoners snapped to attention before him, he had looked into their eyes. “What I read there, I shall not forget,” he wrote that evening in his diary. “Fear, haunting fear, a sense of utter subjugation to an arbitrary ruthless will.” But his guide, when pressed on why the need for such a camp, was keen to point out that Germany was still in the throes of a revolution, and that whereas in most revolutions political prisoners were shot, at Dachau “we try to reform them.” After the tour, McDonald was thankful to find the Munich art gallery still open, “thus enabling me to get the taste of terror of the camp out of my mouth.”

Throughout the 1930s a steady stream of ‘nice English girls’ arrived in Munich to be ‘finished.’

Decades after the war, commando, writer and poet Michael Burn unearthed his account of a visit to Dachau in 1935. He was appalled to discover how indifferent he had been to the more brutal aspects of the camp. The commandant’s account of the horrific punishments meted out had at the time caused him merely to comment: “Those who may shudder will remember that the cat-of-nine-tails is even in England not yet obsolete.” Why, he wondered years later, had he not, as a reporter for the Gloucester Citizen, demanded to know what kind of trial or defense the prisoners had been allowed; or how the Nazis could morally justify incarcerating an individual simply for criticizing the government? Equally shocking to the older, wiser Burn was his hypocrisy in subsequently convincing himself and the wider world) how traumatized he had been by Dachau. But he was not the only foreign visitor at the time to shrug off the camp’s hideous implications. Antisemitism was rife among the English upper classes, as it was in France and large sections of America. By the same token, the fate of the communists, gypsies, homosexuals and “lunatics,” who ended in Dachau alongside the Jews, was by no means a burning issue for everyone. Certainly eighteen-year-old Derek Hill, swept up in the thrill of studying stage design in Munich, did not dwell on the intrinsic evil of the place. He spent a day at the camp in 1934 observing it for the near blind Morning Post journalist, Peter Matthews. They lunched in the same room as the prisoners but were seated at “high table” with Commandant Theodor Eicke — an arrangement that reminded Hill of dining in an Oxford or Cambridge college.

Throughout the 1930s a steady stream of “nice English girls” arrived in Munich to be “finished.” A number of them attended Baroness Laroche’s school where Unity also lodged for a while. Their days, spent in gentle study of art, music and German, were punctuated with picnics, cultural expeditions and tea-dancing. “We met a great many young army officers,” recalled Joan Tonge. “They were madly elegant, arrogant and conceited, and had tremendous presence. Their uniforms were immaculate and their self-esteem Perspex strong.” Ariel Tennant, another teenager in Munich at the time, studying art, was struck by how many people in England refused to believe her accounts of Nazi aggression. When, on a brief visit home, she described some of her more alarming experiences, she was dismissed as being too young to understand. Like her cousin, Derek Hill, she was also a friend of Unity’s and remembered walking with her in the Englischer Garten when Unity seized her arm and demanded that she admit to liking Hitler — “If you don’t I shall give your arm another twist.”

A couple of evenings a week the girls would go to the opera — only a few miles from Dachau. For Sarah Norton (later briefly married to Viscount Astor), Wagner’s Ring cycle was torture, but after hearing Tristan for the first time, Lady Margaret Boyle, daughter of the Earl of Glasgow, wrote fourteen ecstatic pages home. “So glad you enjoyed the opera darling,”’ her mother replied. Sarah Norton was acutely conscious of the “atmosphere of fear” haunting the city. Hating the Nazis, she would go with like-minded friends to the Carlton tearooms where they would sit as close as possible to Hitler’s table and pull faces at him. “It was a pretty senseless occupation,” she later recalled, “because I do not think they noticed us but it gave us vicarious pleasure.” Hitler’s table always had a card placed on it saying “RESERVIERT FÜR DEN FÜHRER.” On one occasion, a young English art student pinched it and stuck it on his girlfriend’s coat. She was lucky to get back to her Baronin’s establishment without being arrested. Sarah Norton was eventually caught vandalizing a publicly displayed copy of Julius Streicher’s virulent anti-Jewish newspaper Der Stürmer and sent home by the Foreign Office. Her mother’s reaction was better than expected: “Well done, despite your nuisance value. I hope you learned the language.” She had in fact learned it well enough to be employed at Bletchley Park during the war.

Although Hugh Greene was implacably opposed to the Nazis from the moment he set foot in Germany, it was important that as an aspiring young journalist he observe them as closely as possible. On 11 January 1934 he wrote to his mother,

“Things are becoming considerably more interesting here with the New Year. I have taken to going to a café where Hitler often is in the hope of seeing him. Last week I went in one evening and there he was in his corner. Later Goebbels came in as well. Goebbels is a little man with a limp but most attractive looking with a charming smile.”

The “café” in question was the Osteria Bavaria — the Führer’s favorite restaurant. It was here that Unity famously stalked Hitler for months until finally, one Saturday in February 1935, she was invited to join him at his table. They discussed his favorite film, Cavalcade, and how the Jews must never again be allowed to start a war between two Nordic races. Later that day, in a letter to her father, Unity announced that she was so happy she wouldn’t mind dying.

In her memoir, Biddy Barlow, who herself came from an intellectual family and was married to Erasmus Barlow, one of Charles Darwin’s grandsons, reflected on the oddity of her parents sending her to Germany at such a time:

“It was a paradox of the thirties that parents with liberal left wing views almost invariably sent their children to Nazi Germany when they wanted their minds broadened by a spell abroad. My sister had studied art in Stuttgart, my brother attended Tübingen University and Erasmus stayed near the Black Forest with a schoolmaster’s family after he left school.”

Did the parents of these fresh-faced young people not read newspapers? Or was it that they simply thought of Nazi violence and philistinism as an irrelevant sideshow compared with the joys of Schiller and Schubert? In Biddy Barlow’s case it seems that it was largely a matter of pragmatism. Her family hated Hitler, dreaded him beginning another world war and despised the idea of a master race, “but the exchange rate was good.” Whatever the wider explanation, it is clear that for many British people there existed a baffling disconnect between their traditional regard for German culture and the realities of National Socialism. The result was that, despite the deteriorating political scene, young people continued to explore Nazi Germany right up until the eve of the Second World War.

* * *

Julia Boyd is the author of A Dance with the Dragon: The Vanished World of Peking’s Foreign Colony; The Excellent Doctor Blackwell: The Life of the First Woman Physician; and Hannah Riddell: An Englishwoman in Japan. Previously a trustee of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, she now lives in London.

Editor: Dana Snitzky