Eye-Witnesses to History: Julia Boyd on Travellers in the Third Reich
Julia Boyd, the author of our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for June, Travellers in the Third Reich discusses the importance of eye-witness sources and recommends the best history books based on first-hand accounts.
If you want to know what it was really like to live in a period of history other than your own, there is surely no better way than to immerse yourself in the letters, diaries and memoirs of that time – particularly those written with no thought of publication or posterity. Tucked away in the manuscript collections of countless libraries and public record offices – and quite possibly in your own attic – there exists a wealth of this raw, unfiltered history waiting to be uncovered.
While such material is unlikely to cast light on international treaties or government policy, it does give the would-be time traveller an unrivalled sense of the period in question, its mood and vision, humour and touch – even smell. When I was researching Travellers in the Third Reich, one ninety-seven year old lady I interviewed recalled being overwhelmed by the stench of ‘sweat, feet and high leather boots’ as she made her way through crowds of swastika-waving Hitler supporters in Bayreuth. The importance of these records lies not in the quality of the writing nor the author’s brilliant perception, but in the fact that they were written there and then, without benefit of hindsight.
While it is reassuring for those of us who care about such things to know that so much grass-roots history survives, the problem remains of how to track it down. In my own case, a number of my most rewarding finds have been the result of sheer luck. A random conversation at a party or a chance encounter on an aeroplane has led to a remarkable diary or a clutch of revealing letters. Then there are the hours spent either trawling the Internet looking for clues, or hunting down every possible reference, no matter how insignificant or unpromising.
For an archives addict like me, time used in this way is pure pleasure despite frequent disappointments, many dead ends and the fact that even when you do find relevant material it is often boring, repetitive or banal. But then, just at the moment you are about to give up after a fruitless day working through endless boxes, you open a file of un-catalogued papers and find yourself instantly absorbed in a total stranger’s life. If you are lucky, out of all the mundane detail will emerge some incident, name or experience that provides an exciting new insight. To most people, your ‘discovery’ may seem ridiculously unimportant but for just a brief moment you feel like Christopher Columbus.
Of course it is not only unpublished material that throws fresh light on the overlooked corners of history. Long-forgotten books, obscure publications (such as The Regimental Chronicle of Prince of Wales Volunteers; South Lancashire) and newspaper correspondence columns are all indispensible sources for this kind of history. A glance at the letters section in any 1930s provincial newspaper is a sharp reminder of just how much our convictions, assumptions and ethics change from one generation to another. So next time you feel the urge to chuck out all those cobwebby letters crammed into decaying cardboard boxes in your cellar, I beg you to think again.
Suggested eye-witness based books:
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
A brilliantly researched study of the Nazis’ rise to power that reads like a thriller.
The Berlin Diaries by Marie (Missie) Vassiltchikov
A White Russian émigré’s gripping account of how she survived living in Berlin and Vienna during the War.
Safe Passage by Ida Cook
The touching story of two sisters who used their love of opera as cover to rescue Jews from Germany.
Travels in the Reich 1933–45: Foreign Authors Report from Germany by Oliver Lubrich
These accounts of Nazi Germany recorded by some forty writers, including Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf, make a compelling but chilling read.