What do visitors from democratic countries see and learn when they visit countries that are governed dictatorially? All through the 1930s, up until the outbreak of the Second World War, visitors from elsewhere in Europe, America and beyond traveled to a Germany under Nazi totalitarianism. In a gripping book, Travellers in the Third Reich, Julia Boyd takes us to Hitler’s Germany through the eyes of some of the foreign visitors.
Many were tourists and were by and large impressed and pleased with what they saw. They took in the sights: the beauty of the countryside and the quaint old towns. They met friendliness and generosity. Many of these visitors were not political but were favourably disposed to Germany and were struck by the country’s progress. They saw the Autobahns, the gleaming new airports and rail stations, the modern architecture. People were at work and seemed happy with their conditions.
The visitors were not ignorant of the repression, the propaganda, the censorship, the person cult, the persecution of the Jews. But what is striking in what they told from their visits is that mostly the knowledge of repression in the end did not matter much for the way they saw the regime. It delivered and what it delivered was impressive.
Other visitors were political: officials, parliamentarians, journalists, academics, some pro-Nazi and some anti-Nazi. What is striking in this group is that almost no one changed their opinion about Hitler and his regime as a result of what they experienced. Those who were pro-Nazi, saw what they expected to see and stayed pro-Nazi. Those who were anti-Nazi, likewise saw what they expected and had their opinion confirmed.
Today, tourism in totalitarianism is in China. Visitors come back home starry-eyed of the regime’s achievements and the country’s development. They have met friendliness and generosity. They have seen the high-speed rail, the airports, the city skyscrapers. They have met people whose living standards are improving and who speak well of their political leaders.
These visitors know that they are in a China of repression, but there is generally a BUT, and what follows the BUT – the impressive display of delivery and development – often causes the knowledge of repression to fall by the wayside when they sum up what they have learned.
In the 1930s, the Hitler regime did deliver for many Germans, but at the cost of depriving all Germans of their liberty. In China today, the Xi Jinping regime does deliver for many Chinese, but again at the cost of liberty deprived. The fact of delivery for some, does not erase the fact of repression for all.
The lesson of Julia Boyd’s fine book is that tourists in totalitarianism should remain skeptical. Many who went to Germany were unable to and came to regret their naiveté. Occasional visitors to China, and regulars too, should caution themselves that in a totalitarian regime that is in control, what they see is not necessarily what there is. It is best to stay agnostic and to assume that from what you see and hear you have probably learned next to nothing about how things really are and what Chinese people really think.