How to be a German: German text books published in Britain, 1931 – 1939


Fragment: Two German language text books, each entitled ‘Brush Up Your German’, one first published by J.M. Dent and Sons of London on 1931, and written by John, Brownsdon, Clowes Grundy, the other, also published by Dent, also written by Grundy, in September 1939. Grundy is described as the head of the Modern Languages Department at Shrewsbury School.

‘Brush Up Your German’ is one of series of ‘Brush Up’ texts published by Dent – the others were for Italian, Spanish, Russian, Swedish and English – intended particularly for tourists, of which the general editor was W.G. Hartog.

The first issue of ‘Brush Up Your German’, published in 1931 and running through four editions by 1935, was built around the conversations of a fictional Dr. Helmuth Meyer, a German solicitor living in a block of flats in London, before and during a visit to Germany with his wife. There is nothing unusual about it. Arriving in Berlin, the Meyers visit shops, hire a baby-car, have lunch in a café, visit a cinema, and attend an informal dinner party to which they are invited by an old friend of Helmuth. They visit the races, a cabaret, a ‘hat shop’, a men’s outfitters, a camera shop and a travel agency. They take a trip by air to Munich, visit Oberammergau for the Passion Play, take a short trip to the Alps, listen to Wagner’s Gotterdammerung at the opera, travel on a steamer down the Rhine and end with a train journey to Bremerhaven for the boat back to England. It is packed and varied visit, no doubt to increase the value of the book as a teaching tool.


The conversations are followed by a section of ‘useful information’ on such matters as the German alphabet, abbreviations, coinage and sending a letter to Germany’, a list of German festivals, and a short vocabulary.

The Meyers see nothing untoward. There is no mention of Hitler or the Nazis. 50, 000 copies of the book were sold.

This all changes in the 1939 version. The embossed image of an SS man with a swastika arm band replaces the Meyers on the outside cover, a map of the Greater Germany (including Czechoslovakia) replaces the map of the Meyer’s route on the inside covers.


The author clearly experienced some difficulty in dealing with the Nazi regime. In his introduction he writes, ‘Meyer is no Nazi, not even when he returns; but, as he comes across the new institutions of the Third Reich, he begins to realise that they are not all humbug. If others follow him in this the author will be more than content.’

The book as a whole, built again around a visit of the Meyers to Germany, now with their son, Werner, more than conforms to this intention. Not only is the regime portrayed as ‘no humbug’, it comes across as an acceptable new reality.

At the start of the visit, part of the purpose of which is to decide whether or not their son, aged nine and a half, is to go to school in Germany, Helmuth worries that things in Germany are unsettled.

‘Frau M: Nonsense, my dear. Why do you believe everything in the papers?

Herr M: It is easy for you to be so enthusiastic. Being a Munich woman you come from the so-called ‘capital of the Movement’, and so you think everything these Nazis get up to just wonderful.

Frau M (offended): And am I to change my opinions just because your old Hamburg has lost its Free State privileges?

Frau M pouts and buries herself in a periodical.’

Herr M then explain to his wife that his great-grandmother had an uncle who married a Jewish woman named Rebecca..

‘Frau M: Let’s go and see if it’s as bad as you think in Germany…We will take the car and make a little tour. During it we will discuss the matter thoroughly with our friends. If you are satisfied, we’ll send Werner to school over here after Easter.

Herr M: Right. I agree. ‘

As the visit proceeds, it seems that the author is inclined to Frau M’s views. Nazi atrocities have been exaggerated by the British Press. It’s not as bad in Germany as Helmuth thinks. They are impressed by the Autobahn, by Winter Help, by the Strength-through-movement, and by the politeness of German officials. Werner is envious of the uniform of Hitler Youth. They visit the National Political Education Establishment in Spandau, where they are welcomes by young brown shirts and where every pupil wears a Hitler Youth Uniform. Questioned about his ancestry the Principal decided that his Aunt Rebecca was ‘too remote’ to matter, she was not a blood relation.

Frau M (to Helmuth): Aren’t you glad in your heart of hearts that my name is Ilse and not Rebecca?

Herr M squeezes his wife’s hand.’

At the prompting of a German friend, the Meyers decide to buy copies of Mein Kampf and Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century.

The Meyers return to England on the SS Hamburg, but without Werner, who they have left in the school they visited in Germany, from which he ‘writes so cheerfully.’

The appendices reinforce the notion that the author wishes to convey a more positive view of Nazi Germany than British propaganda proposes. There is a section on Nazi uniforms, another on ‘Nazi anniversaries and holidays’ (including Hitler’s birthday) and glossary of Nazi terms, which include (without comment) der Ariernachweis (certificate of Aryan blood), entartete Kunst (defined as ‘impressionism and expressionism’), and Judisch-marxistisch (defi
ned as ‘Jewish and Marxist’, hostile, bad), die Rassenschaude (‘racial shame eg. of marriage to a Jew’) and ‘Ein Volk!’ Ein Reich! Ein Fuhrer!’ (one people, one state, one Fuhrer) – not, one would have thought, words likely to enter the everyday speech of tourists.


The least that one might say is that the second ‘Brush Up Your German’ represented gross insensitivity in the light of the actual atrocities being perpetrated by the Nazi regime; the most, that Dent was giving currency to a dangerously positive image of Nazism.

One Comment

  1. Sally Wilson

    Hello – writing from Australia. I found book 2 amongst a boxful of German language books which I’d bought from a charity shop. It was absolutely riveting. Hindsight is a fine thing of course but it was still hard to believe that it was published in Britain as late as 1939.

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