Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Citizens of Nazi Germany "Thought They Were Free": A Brief Review and Analysis of Milton Mayer's Classic Book


Nazi Germany, under Hitler, has become accepted, in modern times, justified or not, as the epitome of an evil, tyrannical government.  Growing up we would all hear, in America at least, about the terrible things the Nazis did to the Jews, and others.  Thank God, we all thought, or learned to think, that America came in and saved the "good people" during World War 2, or else Hitler would have taken over the world, and we would all be speaking German right now, those of us who would have survived anyway!  Older, and aware of propaganda, I now realize that wars are often atrocious on ALL sides, and usually arise off of the basis of "old men lying", and lead to "young men dying", as the old expression notes.  With that said, there does seem to have been an extreme brutality carried out by the Nazi regime, on their enemies.  The images of starving human beings in a Nazi concentration camp, or the videos of whole families being shot in a pit, ready for immediate burial, can be haunting.  One question that would always come to my mind, when hearing, or seeing, stories like this, is, what could make these people so evil, and how could a whole country full of people support a government like this?

They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer attempts to answer the question of how and why 'decent men' became Nazis (National Socialists).  Published in 1955, Mayer interviews ten former Nazis, in Germany, after the fall of Hitler's regime, in an attempt to understand what their mind state was before, during, and after National Socialism, and try to comprehend how they could let the evil that took place, happen. 

The ultimate conclusion seems to be that everything happened in such small steps, and with the right amount of propaganda, that nobody really seemed to notice the big change that was occurring in their society.

In the beginning, after a spark of antisemitism began to kindle in Germany, Jews began getting rounded up for their own "protection", and nobody seemed to really care, or notice.  A newspaper titled Kronenberger Zeitung, published an article dated November 11, 1938, at the bottom of page four, under a very small headline reading "Protective Custody", which stated:
"In the interest of their own security, a number of male Jews were taken into custody yesterday.  This morning they were sent away from the city."
Mayer had shown this newspaper article to each one of the ten former Nazis that he was interviewing, and not one of them recall hearing about this event, or anything like it.

This level of ignorance by the citizens, in important affairs that are taking place, in their society, is unnerving, but should not come as a surprise to anyone, at least anyone living in America.  The vast majority of Americans could not tell of specific violations of human rights that are being carried out by their own government, of which there are many.  Most Americans, I would think, do not even know that the current President of the United States, Barack Obama, has assassinated American citizens.  When you are not looking for the truth in government affairs, or of anything, for that matter, you will not find it.

It is important to note that many people became Nazis, not because they generally agreed with the principles of National Socialism, but it was a way of getting ahead in German society, to be a part of "the party".  If you were German, you didn't necessarily have to become a Nazi, but by not doing so, you accepted that you would never get promoted in your job, and lose out on other privileges.

When Mayer pressed his interviewees on why they didn't do more to stop the atrocities, they would ask, "What would you do?".  Touche.  Mayer understands the complexity of the situation, and chronicles, excellently, in the book, how it would be difficult for one person to know what was really going on, never the less do something about it.

At the time of this book's publishing (1955), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was a fairly new organization in America, and Mayer makes a frightening comparison:
"The Federal Bureau of Investigation, with its fantastically rapid development of a central record of an ever increasing number of Americans, law-abiding and lawless, is something new in America.  But it is very old in Germany, and it had nothing to do with National Socialism except to make it easier for the Nazi government to locate and trace the whole life-history of any and every German."
Other interesting topics discussed in They Thought They Were Free:

  • Even the fire fighters became militarized, and became branches of the SA, or police departments.  They became "fire-fighting police"!
  • People eventually didn't feel comfortable discussing politics in Germany.
  • Overtime, Nazi Sunday-morning services began to replace the church.
There is obviously much more discussed in the actual book, and of course, at a greater depth.  The only critique I have of the book is that Mayer, at times, gives his opinion of certain things, that I do not entirely agree with.  Also, in small instances throughout the book Mayer seems to indicate that he is some sort of secret government agent, operating in Germany.  One such passage caught my attention, when referring to the ten former Nazis that he was interviewing, Mayer states:
"I did lie to all ten of them on two points: on the advice of my German colleagues and friends, I did not tell them that I was a Jew; nor did I tell them that I had access to other sources of information about them than my private conversations with them." [emphasis added]
Mayer never does elaborate on what his "other sources of information" were, which leaves this topic open for speculation.

I do not pretend to be an expert on Nazi Germany, therefore I can't get into a debate on how accurate a picture this book paints of the times, and the people.  As my knowledge of history increases, I will likely benefit from another reading of this work, understanding more of the wars, and people, mentioned throughout, though I do not think a major understanding of world history is needed to grasp the main point of this book, and highly recommend it to everyone.