Germany in the late summer of 1938 (1)

In the autumn of 1938 I was 2 years old, and my brother Peter, who followed my father into politics, was 4.  That summer my mother and father deserted us for two months – I greatly resented it at the time – when they went on a trip around Germany.  They had befriended a young German graduate student at LSE, whom they had taken on a grand tour of England and Scotland a year or two earlier.   In return he arranged this tour of Germany for them.

He had been a member of a fraternity at the University in Heidelberg, whose members pledged themselves to offer hospitality to any member of the fraternity, or their friends, who asked for it, and my parents moved from place to place, benefiting from the great kindness of their various hosts and learning as much as they could about the condition of Germany in the days that immediately preceded the agreement at Munich.  They ended the tour by staying with their friend’s father who had been a member of the last pre-Nazi administration, and was later to become the first German Ambassador to London after the war.

When they got back, my father wrote two unsigned articles for The Times.  They were published on October 3rd and 4th 1938, and later reprinted at a cost of one penny.  I have just read them for the first time, and I believe that some of the readers of these blogs might be interested in them, as a small contribution to the history of those troubled times.

In November 1938 my father entered the House of Commons for the first time as the Conservative MP for West Lewisham.

Here is the first of these two articles:



A detached and experienced observer who was travelling throughout Germany during the recent crisis contributes his reflections in two articles, the first of which follows. In a second article he considers the present currents of German feeling and the conditions, on either side, of a permanent understanding.

From a Correspondent

It is important for the permanent peace of Europe that the British and the German peoples should learn to understand each other’s minds more completely. These two peoples, whose unquestionable desires are to live at peace, were last week brought to the edge of war by the working out of a philosophy which neither of them now can control, although both (the one wittingly, the other unwittingly) helped in years past to shape it and raise it to power.

If there exists any anti-British feeling in Germany it is certainly not apparent.  On the contrary, one profoundly hopes that the ordinary foreign visitor to England receives as much consideration and authentic kindness as does an Englishman in Germany.  There are cherished convictions which a very short stay will shatter.  Three of the commonest are that German officials are brusque and overbearing, that the word verboten is inscribed wherever possible, and that there is no litter in the country. It must be as strange for a German to discover that these crude beliefs still fill English minds as it is for an Englishman to find educated, untravelled Germans apprehending that England still thinks in terms of Boche and Hun.



Of course, first days in any foreign country bring home all sorts of outward differences. Why does almost everybody in a German train spend the journey standing up and looking out of the window? Why have the countless level crossings over railway lines and the ubiquitous single-decker trams been endured on the roads so long?  Why are commercial lorries pulling enormous trailers so abundant, long-distance motor-coaches so rare?  Why is Germany so far behind us in the development of the flower garden, so far ahead in the use of window-boxes?  Why are English standards of forestry so deplorable in comparison? Why is the German town so much noisier through the night?  Why is German bedding so apparently unsuited for comfortable sleep, and why are Germans so curious as to make the same criticism of English bedding?  Why do the hotels, on the whole giving surer value for money than ours and incomparably superior in the enterprise of their cooking, still provide no soap in bedrooms or bathrooms?  Finally, most difficult of all, how is one to remember that it is unmannerly to cut potatoes with a knife?

But hardly even for the tourist who comes and goes will the easily perceived dissimilarities obscure the essential identity and (as an Englishman might say) normality of life.  In the streets there is no consciousness, outside Bavaria and Austria, of being among people wearing foreign clothes.  Germany and England share a common acquaintance with a familiar shopfront bearing the name F. W. Woolworth, just as Persil advertisements are among the most frequent to be seen.  The dressing of the main shop windows in large cities reaches a standard rare to this country.  Posters concerning public events and affairs seem more strikingly artistic and less consciously artificial than ours.  Here and there one will see a map of Africa with the reminder that “Germany Needs Colonies.”  The total absence of newspaper placards is a welcome difference; it spares the nerves, especially at such times as these, and the Englishman who reads of scare headlines in the German Press must bear in mind that anyone returning to England from Germany will find himself sharply critical of the manner in which London is sensationalized by news-bills.


The shortage of labour and the rationing of building materials and raw material for industry cut deeper at the present time in Germany than anything that affects the housewife.  Food is not expensive, and in most places everything except butter can be bought without restriction; one will remark merely the low quality of the wrapping paper. The fruit crop, as in England, has been poor, and one notices the comparative scarcity of imported fruits—bananas, oranges, and apples.  Bookshops and toyshops emphasize war and its realities in a manner alien to us, but one may read too much psychology into sets of toy soldiers- which include dead men, wire entanglements, flame-throwers, and exploding bombs, unless one realizes, first, that Nazi pressure will use any means to make the nation proud of the defence forces which Herr Hitler, defying Versailles, has restored to it, and, secondly, that the Germans are a thorough race; after all, the same sets include also a soldier lathering his face to shave, and another, stripped to the waist, washing.

All towns have their Adolf Hitler Platz now, most their Herman Göring Strasse and Horst Wessel Strasse.  Occasionally a street is named after Rudolf Hess, never after Joseph Goebbels or Heinrich Himmler.  Outward signs of Nazification intensify as one nears Austria, where a process of National Socialist education (if that word may be used) which in Germany was spread over years is being hastened through within a few months.  A placard that ” Our Greeting is Heil Hitler ” adorns every Austrian village and most shops, and for the time being “Grüss Gott ” has almost disappeared.  Crossing the now open frontier, into a poorer land where everything looks to need a fresh coat of paint, one cannot but be conscious of the material advantages which union with Germany offers.  Yet, politics apart, will the Austrian character ever come into line?  One would like to watch the introduction into Innsbruck of the German rule (the one regulation which irks an Englishman) that pedestrians must never cross a street against the traffic lights, even though there are no vehicles near.

The Times, which has not been confiscated for weeks, is on sale almost everywhere in Germany one or two days after publication.  Hence it is much simpler for anyone who knows English to discover foreign opinion than it is to obtain a German paper in England outside the large cities.  The German Press gives a greater proportion of its space to events abroad, so that, although nothing appears which is adverse to National Socialism unless it is patently ridiculous, at normal times the German is better informed about public affairs in England than the Englishman, with his three or four definite ideas, could claim to be in regard to Germany.  Neither Press offers a justly proportioned picture of the other country, for the unhappy reason that the common life and the everyday thoughts of a people have no news value.  Events which bear upon a popular conception, or possess an international aspect, or are capable of a sinister interpretation eat up the daily space to the exclusion of the background without which their significance is not assessable.  An Englishman in Germany reading the German news in English German papers is often left with a slightly acid taste which he regrets, just as he equally notices the Press reporting Palestine disturbances or British air exercises with excessive emphasis.

Whereas the German countryside lacks hedges, the towns lack smoke-laden air and slums.  There are dismal spots with a long industrial history, but, generally speaking, her later development, combined with her stricter watch against purely self-seeking individualism, has spared Germany the typically drab areas of England, Scotland, and South Wales, just as somewhat similar causes operating in the last 20 years have largely saved her from unplanned sprawling of towns, ugly speculative building, and ribbon development.  The widespread new estates of workmen’s cottages with tiled and high-pointed roof, though they are simply constructed and have no bathroom, much surpass in outward attractiveness the average dwellings erected over here by local authorities.

In a largely arable country hedges are considered a waste of precious land.  We are apt to dismiss German arguments based on land-hunger by quoting the heavier density of population in this country, forgetting that English agricultural politics are based on the tenant-farmer system, German on the determined existence of millions of peasants, cultivating their own land by laborious methods and at the same time rendering their country far less dependent on imported foodstuffs than we are.  In some parts one perceives their low standard of livelihood by the miserably unkempt conditions of villages dependent solely on the land; and in a country where hygienic ideas are generally so high it is strange to see noisome farmyards, pigs and goats kept just by the living rooms, and piles of rotting manure immediately under the windows.  Roadside notices giving sad evidence of the presence of foot-and-mouth disease are to be found almost all over Germany.

It is significant of the willingness in all nations to read the worst into every foreign action (a habit of the Imperial German Government which gravely troubled Edward Grey) that most Englishmen regard the Autobahnen as primarily military in intent.  Their construction obviously served three great Nazi purposes—to provide employment, to improve transport facilities, and to afford spectacular proof of National-Socialist achievement.  No doubt they enhance Germany’s potential strength, but would a Government thinking only of war have felt no concern about furnishing hostile aircraft with a system of un-mistakable pointers to all the chief cities?


Their cost, though reduced by standardization and large-scale planning, is far from justified by the traffic they carry.  Travelling on the 35 miles of Autobahn from Hamburg to Lübeck in the middle of a fine August day (smooth, lazy driving, especially in an English car with right-hand drive) one passed fewer than 80 vehicles, including motor-cycles, going in the opposite direction.  Reminded of the Great North Road and the still truncated Western Avenue, one realizes how National Socialism has shown up the English mistake of trusting far too long to local authorities to carry through in proper time work of national importance.  But whatever its value for rapid travelling out of great cities, through industrial districts, or between neighbouring towns, for lengthy journeys an Autobahn is intolerably boring.  However lovely the surrounding country, one is psychologically cut off from it.  Imagine what one would lose of England by driving to Cornwall without passing through a single village.

Driving standards are fair, but lower than in England.  One sometimes wonders whether it is a fundamental German characteristic to be insensitive about anybody or anything that is in the way—a certain lack of imagination which causes the German nature to appear callous, ruthless, cruel.  Cars do not slow up for dogs or fowls in the road; they ought not to be there, and must move or be run over.  It is so suggestive of the reputation ever attaching, in other countries, to German foreign policy.  But if an Englishman wishes to begin to understand German instincts in international affairs there is another lesson which he must let the roads of Germany teach him.  All of them, except northwards, lead eventually to that curious barrier resembling a level crossing gate, that national fact of which we English have no experience—a land frontier with foreign country beyond.



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