THE ROMANCE OF THE REICH
In the 1930s, many English families sent their daughters to finishing school in Hitler’s Germany. Rachel Johnson, who interviewed several for her most recent book, spoke of Britain’s enthusiasm for The Third Reich.
The British press has praised the book for being both entertaining and historically accurate. Johnson, who is the sister of London Mayor Boris Johnson, only recently discovered that her own family had close ties to the Reich.
Germany was probably our closest European partner at that time.
George V. changed the name of his family from “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha” to “Windsor” only in 1917, during the First World War. There were still aristocratic connections and friendships to Germany between the wars.
Two newspapers dealt with Anglo-German relations and printed articles about how wonderful Germany was, how amazing the scenery and how great Hitler was. The British liked that Germany was very clean. Some British girls moved to Berlin or Dresden, but Bavaria with its mountains, castles, museums and beer cellars was more attractive. Oberammergau was well known in England.
My maternal grandmother was in Bavaria in the 1930s, she was Jewish. She enjoyed the opera in Munich, skiing in the mountains and later fell in love with a ski instructor from Freiburg, a member of the National Socialist party.
The women I interviewed say, “We had the best time of our lives.”
They felt fantastic being in Germany during the Third Reich. “It was the highlight of my life,” one told me. To them, it was a rich experience, because England was very stuffy at that time, lots of unemployment, terrible food, and nasty weather. In Bavaria they had the crisp mountain air, a healthy life, the opera, the mountains and handsome Germans in uniform. They couldn’t believe their luck! No chaperons, no parents. They had everything, including sex.
They loved the Germans. I asked the women: “Were you in love at that time?” And they said: “All the time, with everybody.” They typically spent six months there, went to parties and were celebrated.
My mother-in-law’s family was typical of aristocratic attitudes of this period. They were very pro-German. My mother-in-law’s father was chairman of the Anglo-German Alliance, which was set up to bring the two countries closer together. He would make speeches in the House of Lords saying Hitler is a sound chap.
To them, it was the perfect time. Maybe they saw the SS marching on the street, but basically, they enjoyed themselves. You have to remember England in the 1930s suffered from a widespread depression. And then these girls go to Germany, and on the surface everything looks good.
The English turned against Germany in September 1939, after the invasion of Poland. Most Britons had to leave Germany that summer. The only one left in Munich was Unity Mitford, a prominent British National Socialist and part of his inner circle.
In some way, Unity was an example of the English fascination and admiration for Hitler. Her parents went to Germany and tried to get her to return to England, but she refused. They had to leave without her.
I went to Berchtesgaden, where many of the top National Socialists had vacation homes. Johnson: By accident, I went there on Hitler’s birthday. People lit candles on the site of the Berghof, his former residence. That was quite weird. The mountains and the scenery around the Königsee Lake are beautiful, but it’s very hard to avoid the history, or, as the tourism people call it, “the challenging past.”
It remains a period of great fascination, a time of great danger, but also of great English bravery. I thought it was important to try to tell this part of our past from the perspective of some young women.