Julia Boyd’s book Travellers in the Third Reich is a meticulously researched history of travels by non-Germans to the Third Reich between the First and Second world wars and during the first part of the Second World War. It includes letters, journals, tourist information and newspaper articles from a very wide range of sources, from casual visitors and students on exchange visits to journalists and more serious researchers.
The book adds a human touch to many of the purely historical accounts of the period with contributions from young and old, who provide highly personal impressions of their time in Germany. Many loved the country for its orderliness and the politeness of the people while others show an increasing sense of alarm at the authoritarian nature of the regime.
I was particularly impressed by the account of a visit by three Quaker men who felt moved to travel into the heart of the regime after the shocking events of Kristallnacht, in an attempt to set up food aid and emigration for Jewish people and I will quote this here.
Meanwhile, shortly after Kristallnacht, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) met urgently in Philadelphia to consider how best to respond to the shocking news. Worried that starvation would follow the violence, their first concern was how to provide enough food for the Jews. Those present at the meeting were oppressed by a sense of déjà-vu. Was it really possible that another Quaker feeding programme was required in Germany only twenty years after the last?
They held a number of ‘quiet’ conversations before deciding to send a small delegation to Germany as quickly as possible, avoiding all publicity. Rufus Jones, an eminent writer and historian, was chosen to lead the group. Accompanying him were Robert Yarnall, a manufacturer who had been involved in the 1919 child feeding in Germany, and a schoolmaster, George Walton.
Before they went, Jones put their mission in perspective: There must be no illusions in our mind about this venture of ours. The difficulties of space, of distance, of stubborn ocean stretches we can probably overcome. Mountains can be tunnelled; they can even be removed. Matter is no doubt stubborn, but nothing in the universe is so utterly unconquerable as a mind possessed by a set of ideas that have become entrenched and sacred … Whether we can influence minds or soften hearts or make spiritual forces seem real – that remains to be seen. We shall do our best and wisest and we shall go in the strength of God.
It was an extraordinarily brave – if lunatic – undertaking. The three men had no idea how they would be received in Berlin or if indeed they would be received at all. There was a real risk that they might be physically harmed or arrested. The weather was bitterly cold and Jones was only weeks short of his seventy-sixth birthday. But on 2 December, full of faith, they sailed from New York on the Queen Mary. Yarnall spent the voyage reading Mein Kampf. He did not find it encouraging. Jones bought a beret and learned a ditty: De Valera with his Green Shirts and his back against the wall Mussolini with his Brown [sic] Shirts and riding for a fall Hitler with his Black [sic] Shirts lording over all Hurrah for Gandhi with no shirt at all!
Despite every attempt to keep their mission secret, Jones was summoned mid-ocean to take a call on the ship’s radio-telephone from the Philadelphia Record. Although he gave nothing away, the next day sensational headlines announced that three Quakers were to intercede with Hitler on behalf of the Jews. Picked up in London, the story soon reached Germany, prompting Goebbels to write a scathing article – ‘The Coming of the “Three Wise Men” to “save” Germany’. The little delegation had not even reached Europe and its mission was already in deep trouble. After a quick transit through Paris, the valiant three boarded a sleeper for Berlin.
At the frontier they had to dress hurriedly in order to deal with customs officials. Next morning, as they approached Berlin, Jones was engulfed in a crisis. He could not find his pyjamas. The other two joined in the search but with no success. Jones was so distressed (his wife had made them) that he wanted to send a telegram to the last railway station in the hope that they might have been left there. His colleagues, fearful that this would provoke the wrong kind of publicity, dissuaded him with difficulty by assuring him that as the train went on to Warsaw they would later telegraph the station there. Greeted in Berlin by a group of international Friends, the three men were soon installed in the Continental Hotel. Next morning Yarnall and Walton joined Jones at breakfast. He said quietly, ‘I found them.’ ‘Where did thee find them Rufus?’ ‘I had them on.’
The Quakers’ first attempt to contact the authorities was made at the German Foreign Office. But when the German ambassador to the United States (recalled to Berlin) spotted them in a corridor, he fled. ‘We never actually found him,’ reported Jones, ‘for he was always out when we called, which we did often.’ After many fruitless visits, they decided to give up on the Foreign Office.
Meanwhile in consultation with leading Jews, they learned that the greatest need was not for food but rather to find ways of facilitating emigration. ‘It was soon clear’, he wrote, ‘that only the chiefs of the Gestapo could issue the permission we were seeking.’ Having reached this daunting conclusion, it was the American consul-general, Raymond Geist, who made the breakthrough. ‘If ever there was a good man, he was one,’ noted Jones. After failing repeatedly to reach Gestapo headquarters on the telephone, Geist ‘seized his hat’ and disappeared into the worst storm and coldest temperatures recorded in Berlin for eighty years. Half an hour later Geist summoned the little band of Quakers. ‘We leaped into a taxi and drove to the huge building,’ wrote Jones.
‘Six black-shirted soldiers with helmets and muskets escorted us to the great iron doors. We were given tickets and told that we did not need them to get in but we would need them to get out!’ They were led through seven corridors, each one opening on to an uncovered square. They then climbed five flights of stairs to a room where Geist was waiting for them. He had achieved the impossible. Two senior Gestapo officers – Dr Erich Ehrlinger* and Major Kurt Lischka† – had been detailed to listen to the Quakers’ plan. Through a window, Jones could see Reinhard Heydrich‡ working at his desk in the next room. George Walton described the leading actors in the ensuing scene. ‘Rufus, clear, positive, brief, daring: Geist, crusty, clever direct, a magic open sesame: Lischka, tall, quick earnest, responsive, partly bald, punctilious.’
Jones handed the ‘granite-faced’ men a statement that he had already prepared. It was a reminder of the warm relationship the Germans had enjoyed with the Friends after the Great War; and of how the Quakers had fed over 2 million children a day, importing hundreds of cows to supply milk to children in hospital, and coal to keep the hospitals heated. The document emphasised the fact that the Friends did not represent any government, international organisation, political party or sect. Nor did they have any interest in propaganda.
As Jones watched the Gestapo men read the paper ‘slowly, carefully and thoughtfully’, he was convinced that it had ‘reached’ them, adding, ‘We noted a softening effect on their faces – which needed to be softened.’ There followed a long detailed debate before the two men announced that they would now discuss the Quakers’ proposals with Heydrich and return in half an hour. ‘During this awesome period,’ Jones wrote, ‘we bowed our heads and entered upon a time of deep, quiet meditation and prayer – the only Quaker meeting ever held in the Gestapo!’
To their astonishment, Heydrich agreed to everything in their plan. But when Jones asked for written confirmation, he was informed that, while the Gestapo never gave its decisions in writing, every word of their discussion had been taped. ‘We were glad then’, Jones wrote, ‘that we had kept the period of hush and quiet and had uttered no words for the record.’ Each police station in Germany, Lischka told them, would be telegraphed that night with instructions that the Quakers be permitted to investigate the sufferings of Jews and to initiate a relief programme. It seemed too good to be true. And, of course, it was. Even Jones – forever the optimist – did not believe that the message was ever sent. Nevertheless, he was convinced that their mission had not been totally unsuccessful.
Two Quaker commissioners received permission to go to Germany and oversee the disbursement of Quaker relief funds and, in particular, to help those Jews not affiliated with a synagogue to emigrate. And for a brief period, at least, a new freedom was granted to the Quaker office in Berlin in their efforts to accelerate Jewish emigration. As Jones wrote, It will always be something of a mystery why the Gestapo, which was itself deeply involved in producing the tragic situation we went to relieve, should have received us respectfully, listened to our plea and finally have granted our unusual request to try to repair some of the damage they had done.
Certainly Jones continued to believe that they had touched the hearts of their cruel interlocutors. ‘The gentleness of the men at the end of our meeting, the fact they went and got our coats and helped us put them on and shook our hands with goodbye wishes and with a touch of gentleness made me feel then and now in retrospect, that something unique had happened in their inside selves.’ It was as well that Jones, who died in 1948, never knew that it was Lischka himself who, in the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, led the operation to incarcerate 30,000 Jews.
Apart from being highly informative, this book is a fascinating read with many personal insights which would not normally be found in history books.