A Time of Gifts: the Historian’s Cut


I posted an entry a few weeks ago about a fabulous book by Patrick Leigh Fermor, called A Time of Gifts, his account of travelling from Rotterdam to Istanbul, beginning in 1933 at the age of 18.  Any account of the journey would be remarkable, as it was mostly made on foot, but every page of the book bursts with beautiful writing and the anecdotes are both precious and nicely paced.But as a Historian in a former life, there were two things that struck me.

The first surprise was that the accounts of life in Germany feel closer to a medieval existence than to Germany of today – or even of the 1970s when I first visited the country. Villagers of the Rhine valley are described as wearing clogs; the old tradition in Germany of benevolence to the wandering young results in kindness and hospitality, including places to stay and provision of food; medieval towns along the banks of the Rhine and further south are intact and without later urban sprawl; industry, on any scale, seems to be non-existent.  I hadn’t appreciated the extent of the differences that must have been wrought as Germany was rebuilt after World War II.  A significant distance must have been travelled in a very short period and perhaps it was more achievable at a time when the country would have preferred to build its future than reflect on its past.

Secondly, I was expecting to find more observations on political events in Germany. After all, the book was written in the 1970s and I assumed that we-all-know-happened-next would loom too large to escape comment.

There’s certainly commentary and there’s an account of a march through Goch, Westphalia, by a column of the far right. But it’s the lack of material that’s striking.

It could be that an outsider wouldn’t be admitted to any concerns locals might have about the political direction the country was taking. It’s possible, but I don’t think so.  Mr Leigh Fermor describes the prevailing mood in the country as a bewildered acquiescence and, when nobody was in earshot, as finding utterance in pessimism, distrust and foreboding, and sometimes in shame and fear but only in private.  That suggests that a certain amount of information was in circulation.

There seems to be more looking back to World War I and the outcome of that conflict than looking ahead to World War II. That’s understandable, as World War I had happened and people in 1933/4 didn’t know that World War II would occur.  Few people want to think that war will repeat itself or that one’s fellow countrymen will inflict atrocities on an immense scale on fellow human beings.