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Summer Reading: Travellers in the Third Reich

September 5, 2018

Thus far, I’ve declined to get into the debate over the alleged anti-Semitic tendencies of Jeremy Corbyn and his some of his supporters in the UK Labour Party. But I will say that to doubt the loyalty to Britain of the three hundred thousand Jews among us is to insult a group of people who are as British as I am, and without whose contribution to our society we would be infinitely the poorer.

I also believe that many British Jews, including those who describe themselves as Zionist, would be horrified at the policies of the State of Israel, even though they would argue to the death over its right to exist. That doesn’t make them less British. And if loyalty to more than one nation is unacceptable, then what right did we have to expect the invaluable support of Australia, New Zealand and Canada in both world wars? Were the Canadians less Canadian because they fought and died with us against the Nazis?

That’s not to say that I have any love for Netanyahu and his government, and for their treatment of Palestinians. Far from it. But I see no point in constant references to the term Zionist, because Zionism means different things to different people. Its use only causes confusion. And to debate the right of Israel to exist is pointless. It does exist.

As for Jeremy Corbyn, he may or may not be anti-Semitic. I have no way of looking into his heart to determine the truth. But some of his supporters undoubtedly are. And I can fully understand why members of Britain’s Jewish community feel hurt and threatened by hatred expressed against them in the social media.

But where did this latest British iteration of an ancient hatred come from? Is it largely fuelled by the plight of Palestine? Or does it have deeper roots, stretching back before the creation of the State of Israel, perhaps to the Blackshirts? The question is hardly worth debating. Pick any point in time from rise of Christianity, and you will be able to construct a genealogy of anti-Semitism.

What is undeniable is that whatever the narrative, the Holocaust dominates. It sears the Jewish soul, just as Hiroshima and Nagasaki have left an indelible mark on the Japanese.

What has always interested me is the ambivalent attitude of many in Britain in the 1930s towards the eventual perpetrators of the Holocaust. I remember once asking my father whether he was in favour of appeasement in 1938. I was quite shocked when he said that he was. But why should I have been so surprised, given that he was among those who stood to lose their lives in another war against Germany?

Julia Boyd’s Travellers in the Third Reich – The Rise of Fascism is a compilation of first-hand accounts by visitors to Germany between the 1920s and the end of the Second World War. Her sources are wide-ranging. They extend well beyond the British, whose well-heeled classes thought that sending their young to Germany was a good cultural education.

The approach is similar to that used by Oliver Hilmes in Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August. Hilmes stitches accounts both of Germans and foreigners during the Berlin Olympics into a powerful narrative. Boyd concentrates on foreigners, including British women who were married to Germans, over a much longer time-frame.

What struck me in both books was the Germany many visitors described: clean, welcoming (especially to the British), dynamic and enthusiastic. But equally striking was the casual anti-Semitism reflected in the writings both of senior British officials and ordinary visitors. And so many who were not overtly anti-Semitic nonetheless felt either that the persecutions would pass, or were a price worth paying for the resurgence of what they believed would be a key ally in the struggle against Bolshevism.

Boyd’s book ends with the defeat of Germany in 1945. But that streak of anti-Semitism in Britain survived the shock of the Holocaust, and was given a boost immediately after the war with the Irgun attacks on British forces policing the Palestinian Mandate. Casual prejudice persisted. Incredible as it may seem today, there were still golf clubs in the 50s and 60s who would not accept Jewish members.

Travellers in the Third Reich covers much more than Nazi persecution of Germany’s Jews. But through every story the Holocaust was the elephant in my room. How could so many of that generation, and not just the British, have slept-walked as Hitler and his thugs tightened their grip on Germany?

And as we make allowances for the tyrants and would-be tyrants of today, are we setting the stage for, or actually enabling, the persecution of other hapless minorities: the Rohingya, the Yazidis, the Kurds, the Uyghurs, and yes, the people of Palestine, for whom I have boundless sympathy?

As for Britain’s Jews, should they really feel threatened and insecure?

Logically, no. Despite the current kerfuffle about the Labour party, I don’t believe there is widespread support beyond the extremes of British politics for institutional anti-Semitism, and there are too many powerful forces, not least in in the United States, that could bring the country to its knees if an anti-Semitic faction gained the whip hand.

But emotionally? Absolutely. The Holocaust is not an elephant in the room for them. It’s pictures of relatives who died in the camps displayed on the walls of  survivors and their loved ones. It’s stories passed down generations, and tears that will flow for centuries.

The State of Israel was founded partly on the principle that, no matter what, no individual power would ever be able to repeat the atrocities committed against Jews by the Nazis. The “no matter what” imperative has spawned its own injustices, and the aspirations and values of Israel’s current leaders may have strayed far from those of the founders. But insecure as Israelis might continue to feel, as Julia Boyd’s excellent book illustrates, it’s also not hard to understand why Jews of other nations are constantly on the alert for warning signs of new threats, and why, as Corbyn’s arch-critic Margaret Hodge said recently, parents advised their children always to have a bag packed by the front door in case they needed to make a rapid exit.

The saddest thing is that throughout the world there are so many other minorities with good reason to fear a knock on the door.

From → Books, History, Politics, Travel, UK

  1. Great post

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