- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2010

TRAVELS IN THE REICH
Edited by Oliver Lubrich
University of Chicago Press, $30, 336 pages

Although the United States had adopted the Neutrality Act in the late 1930s in response to aggressive dictators on the march, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was even more than usually acute in saying that he couldn’t ask Americans to be neutral in their hearts and minds. When it came to Nazi Germany, there was little doubt where most Americans stood, and this certainly applied to U.S. press coverage.

In marked contrast to the shameful reportage on Russia by such correspondents as the New York Times’ Walter Duranty, which turned a blind eye to the savagery of Soviet policy from the show trials to the mass starvation engendered by its economic programs, American correspondents in Berlin, represented here by William L. Shirer and Howard K. Smith, did an excellent job of resisting the unparalleled diabolical and effective propaganda machine of Joseph Goebbels.

In this, they mirrored the American people as a whole, many of whom understandably wanted to avoid war but nonetheless disapproved wholeheartedly of Nazi practices even before they descended into the true horrors of genocidal extermination. Yet, compared to other institutions in the United States, notably academe, the press corps come out particularly well. The great universities in this country, such as Harvard and Yale, actually sent representatives to the 550th anniversary festivities of Heidelberg University, which had recently followed Nazi policy by summarily dismissing all Jews on its faculty. (Oxford and Cambridge universities in England refused to do so in protest against the anti-Semitic purges.)

But “Travels in the Reich” goes far beyond the press in finding the reactions of foreigners to Nazi Germany, although many of the most incisive pieces in it come not from the greatest writers represented in its pages - the likes of Virginia Woolf, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Thomas Wolfe - but from journalists, perhaps because they tended to live within its borders rather than just visiting. Smith begins by describing the foul smell of Berliners struggling to manage on a tiny monthly soap ration and builds on this theme to describe the mighty military state that was hellbent on world domination:

“If I had to describe Hitler’s Reich in one figure, I would compare it to a fine-looking fat apple with a tight, red, shiny skin, which was rotten in the core. The strong, polished hull is the army and the Gestapo, which has become the main constituent of the Nazi Party. It is a strong, very strong cover. The rotten inside is THE WHOLE FABRIC OF NAZI SOCIETY.”

Those who remember the rather bland Smith on our television screens when he was with ABC in the 1970s will be astonished by the power and passion, not to say the penetrating insights, of what he has to say in this book. Like so many of his confreres in this finest hour of American foreign correspondents, he rose magnificently to the occasion.

Also, like so many observers in this volume, Smith notes that most Germans are not convinced Nazis and are rather fighting bravely out of a mixture of simple patriotism and fear of the disastrous consequences of once again losing a global conflict, going along with the regime largely out of fear and intimidation. Unlike Smith, some American writers of course had allowed the small proportion of convinced Nazis to lead them astray into underestimating the power Nazi ideology had to direct the nation’s course. H.L. Mencken, not represented in this book, is a prime example of this, as is Wolfe. But unlike Mencken’s, Wolfe’s travels in Nazi Germany were sufficient to mug him into reality, as demonstrated by his powerful “I Have a Thing to Tell You,” excerpted in “Travels in the Reich.”

Paradoxically, some of the strongest pieces in this book come from Scandinavians, some of whose Nazi sympathies led them not merely to visit, but to live and work in the Reich, some of them right through the war. The least attractive is Sven Hedin, guiding light for so long in the awarding of Sweden’s Nobel Prize for Literature, whose up-close-and-personal views of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering are nauseatingly sycophantic, though even a sympathizer like him cannot help conveying the Fuhrer’s solipsistic arrogance.

Swedish journalist Gosta Block, who had voluntarily served in the German military during World War I, came to Berlin to work in the Reich broadcasting service in 1942. But already by 1943 he knew the score, and what he has to say, especially coming from a one-time sympathizer, is as pungent an indictment of Nazi Germany as you will find in these pages:

“It is clear that in the Third Reich, it is neither productive nor healthy to speak out and work for what is right. This means that so much that is wrong in Germany is allowed to stay wrong. No one wants to burn his fingers in vain … to make the wrong choice in the Third Reich is more dangerous than [in] most other places in the world. … If conditions in the Third Reich are anything but heavenly for most people, for certain categories of people they are completely hellish. This is especially true for the Jews, but in many cases, foreigners as well are reminded that they do not belong to the “master race,” and this in spite of the fact that they work for Germany. Jews in today’s Germany are truly hunted animals.”

But perhaps the last word should go to the great Danish writer Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), a visitor to Berlin in the spring of 1940 to write articles, who asks a chilling question:

“I wonder if there has ever been anything comparable to this Third Reich? Of all the phenomena which I have known personally during my life, the one that approaches it most closely is Islam, the Mohammedan world and its view of life. The word Islam means SUBMISSION, which is the same thing that the Third Reich expresses with its upraised arm.”

Blixen’s insight reminds us that this book is not only an important historical record, but a warning to us all that yes, it could happen again.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.