Monday, November 26, 2012

They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer

Source of book: Borrowed from my political geek friend Craig. Unfortunately, it is out of print. 

As with any truly serious book about a complex historical issue, it is difficult to distill this book down to a review. Despite the efforts of historians throughout history to reduce the messiness of history and the acts of numerous individuals down to some combination of abstract ideas and forces, it defies easy analysis. Isaac Asimov wrote a series of novels based on the idea that while individual actions were unpredictable, the actions of a mob, or at least the greater mass of human groups, could be predicted. Alas, this has proven to work out better in fiction rather than reality - although one may decide - after the fact, of course - that what actually happened was inevitable.

What the author of this book does exceptionally well is to zoom in on the actions of individuals in Germany during the Nazi era and examine their lives and actions. He then is able to expand from there to look at the larger forces that influenced the individual decisions. While subsequent history has, unsurprisingly, proven the author partially wrong as to his predictions for the future (Germany has yet to become militaristic as a result of the Cold War, for example), his examination of the individual lives of “ordinary men” gives us both insight and a warning as to our own vulnerabilities.

As an American, I was repelled by the rise of National Socialism in Germany. As an American of German descent, I was ashamed. As a Jew, I was stricken. As a Newspaperman, I was fascinated.

Thus begins the introduction to the book. The entire introduction is excellent, although it is too long to quote here. The author traveled to Germany in the early 1950s to interview, over the course of an extended period, a number of ordinary Germans regarding the rise and fall of Nazism in Germany. He chose the town of Kronenburg as an average smallish town with average, ordinary residents, as his location. He and his family lived there for a period of about a year, getting to know residents personally. Although his was mostly candid with his subjects, he did lie on two accounts. First, he did not disclose that he was a Jew. Second, he did not disclose that he already knew some details about his subjects from other sources. He picked ten men of varying ages and social status, with a range of education, and also a range of genuine belief in Nazism.

What he found was disturbing. He discovered that he found it difficult to judge his subjects harshly for their actions, under the circumstances. Worse yet, he realized that even he himself would have been unlikely, as an ordinary man, to have been able to make different decisions. As he puts it, Nazism was what most Germans wanted - or at least came to want under pressure of a combined harsh reality and comforting illusion. It wasn’t so much a defect in the German man as a defect that permeates Mankind in general that makes all of us susceptible to a similar evil, under similar circumstances.

With the exception of the anti-Nazi schoolteacher, however, none of them, even after the fact, saw Nazism as evil. Their experience of it was qualitatively different than the view of those on the outside.
Rather, their experience was that of a positive economic, social, and personal good - not an experience of a tyranny, but of golden age. How could this be? After the post-war economic disaster in the 1920s and 30s, Nazism restored a semblance of normalcy. People were employed again, and times were good. The national self esteem rebounded, and people were able to feel good about themselves and their nation again. Of course, this only applied to a certain majority of the population. The Jews didn’t exactly have it as good as the “real” Germans. As the author points out, it is unusual for even an autocratic system to make the majority of the population miserable. It is impossible for a dictator to feel comfortable without a certain level of comfort in the ordinary man. The cost of maintaining order in a tumultuous society is high, and impossible to bear in the long term. One must eventually rule by default rather than fear. As Machiavelli said, politicians - even tyrants - cannot afford to be hated.

The genius, evil as it was, behind the Nazi system was that it built off of a pre-existing degree of anti-Semitism.

Ordinary people - and ordinary Germans - cannot be expected to tolerate activities which outrage the ordinary sense of ordinary decency unless the victims are, in advance, successfully stigmatized as enemies of the people, of the nation, the race, the religion. Or, if they are not enemies (that comes later), they must be an element within the community somehow extrinsic to the common bond, a decompositive ferment (be it only by the way they part their hair or tie their necktie) in the uniformity which is everywhere the condition of common quiet. The German’s innocuous acceptance and practice of social anti-Semitism before Hitlerism had undermined the resistance of their ordinary decency to the stigmatization and persecution to come.

It is this exclusion of “the other,” wherever it is found, that worries Craig and me, although sometimes for different reasons and in different circumstances. It is this that is disturbing about modern politics. The partisans of either side are unable to view the other as sharing common humanity. I am appalled at those of my friends on both sides who are convinced that one must be evil, or at least stupid beyond belief, to hold to the opposite position. Currently, my country is deeply, and fairly evenly divided. What would be even more worrisome is if one side or the other gained enough numbers to be able to silence - and perhaps eventually exterminate - the other side.

The author correctly notes that at the time the book was written (prior to the civil rights legislation), that Americans had become accustomed to the exclusion of African Americans, even in the northern States. There is little if any difference between “Jews not wanted here” and “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you here” - a common sign in the Jim Crow South.

Not that every German wanted to exterminate the Jews. On the contrary, most probably would have opposed it, had they known about the “final solution” at the beginning. By the time the program  moved from an innocent boycott of non-German businesses to the burning of Synagogues, there was “nothing to be done about it,” as the German saying went.

This is the most disconcerting idea to those, like me, who have a certain wish to avoid trouble, whatever our non-conformist ideals may be. It is good to remember that the United States shipped thousands of Japanese-Americans (even those who had been here for generations) to camps such as Manzanar during World War II. How much protest was there then? Would we have objected had they been exterminated? A sobering thought.

With the vast majority of us interested in avoiding conflict, it was amazing how few truly doctrinaire Nazis it took to subdue a nation. That very small percentage of what we would deem truly “evil” was a miniscule portion of the population. To set up the party structure, all that was further required was to inspire the “joiners” to work at the local level. We all know some people - extroverts usually - who will join any committee, pitch in to help any cause, without really examining the underbelly. It is these who maintained the Nazis at the local level. Many of these joined in equally enthusiastically in anti-Nazi causes after the war.

In contrast to the “joiners” are those who more resemble myself - at least at my present age. During the McCarthy era of anti-Communist witch hunts, many became disgusted with “the whole thing” - with politics in general. I’ll admit, after this last election, I’m there. I’m sick of talking points, sick of the name-calling, sick of the shallow thought and slogans. I’m tired of being told that corporations just want to kill us, or that welfare recipients are bleeding us dry. I’m tired of the problem always being someone else - someone easy to blame and hate. The author does correctly note that this was the state of the Weimar Republic. While they fought over political privilege, the ship of state was sinking. In comparison to this mess, the clear light of Nazism shined, promising something higher and more noble than mere politics. Hitler would clean out the rats - and he did. I can see how the appeal would be great, even today in an era of cynicism, even to myself, a natural sceptic.

And so, Hitler was embrace by otherwise good, decent people.

Earlier this year, I read The Opium of the Intellectuals, a powerful work on the attractions of totalitarian Communism. In that book, the author makes a strong case that doctrinaire Marxism is every bit as much a religion as those which worship a personal deity. Mayer similarly shows the role that Nazism played as a religion. Originally, Hitler seemed to embrace and seek to restore the role of the church. The Weimar Republic stood for separation of Church and State, which Hitler sought to reverse. Later, however, he sought to silence the church as a voice of protest. In this way, all totalitarianism is the same, whether it is atheistic or radically religious. Neither Stalin nor the present day Ayatollahs can tolerate dissent.

Earlier in my life, I was - rightly I still think - concerned of the prospect of a totalitarian state imposed from the left. Certainly the experience of Communism in the last century is adequate proof of the risk. I still believe that it is possible that our nation may succumb to this threat. I do not want to appear as if I am discounting this side of the argument.

However, I have become increasingly aware of the risk from the right as well. My friend Craig is an endangered species - an Australian Conservative. My formative experiences - particularly in my teens and early twenties - are a bit different. As those who have read some of my more personal posts earlier this year know, I grew up very conservative, and very religious. Most of my friends and heroes tended to be in the same direction. I will say that both my faith and my politics have survived to the present time, but with some rejection of the attitudes underlying the most fanatical of each.

What I find to be most worrisome over the last decade or so is the degree to which both political and Christian conservatism have shifted emphasis. I found a number of disturbing parallels in this book.

First of all is the growing hostility toward “the other.” I do not remember such a fixation on the supposed threat and damage caused by those outside of the group. There is a story with delicious sardonic humor, which was told by and regarding the Jews in Germany during the Third Reich. A Jew was riding a streetcar, reading the propaganda newspaper published by Goebbels. An non-Jewish acquaintance sits down next to him, and asks him why he is reading it.

“Look,” says the Jew. I work in a factory all day. When I get home, my wife nags me, the children are sick, and there’s no money for food. What should I do on my way home, read the Jewish newspaper? ‘Pogrom in Roumania.’ ‘Jews Murdered in Poland.’ ‘New Laws against Jews.’ No sir, a half-hour a day, on the streetcar, I read the Beobachter. ‘Jews the World Capitalists.’ ‘Jews Control Russia.’ ‘Jews Rule in England.’ That’s me they’re talking about. A half-hour a day, I’m somebody.”

These days, the hatred of the “rich” is of course, an obvious parallel to Marxist thought. However, I have noticed a corresponding tendency on the right to blame “welfare queens in Cadillacs,” “the 47% who doesn’t pay taxes,” “illegal immigrants,” and other formulations. In certain ultra-conservative Christian circles, there is a push to reject all forms of culture post-dating the Civil War  - particularly African American culture. (I promise that I will post my research on this soon - I’m filling in a few research gaps.) Even among more mainstream conservative movements, there is a readiness to blame some exterior influence for our own failures. I don’t believe that this is just a difference of policy. At its core, I believe it is an issue of attitude. A belief that those who are different are morally inferior. Just as the Jews were - and sometimes still are - portrayed as a morally degenerate, “decadent” race.

Here are a couple of other interesting parallels with what I shall refer to as the “ultra-conservative, Christian culture movement,” for lack of a better term.

First, like the Nazis, this movement requires the destruction of academic independence. Teachers that teach truth that might conflict with the doctrine of the group cannot be tolerated. In both cases, schools were or are to be subordinated to the need to teach doctrine.

In the case of the Nazis, this meant that there was an approved book list. The author quotes from the Nazi manual for upper-school teaching:

[O]nly such selections should be chosen as point in the direction of the New Germany, help prepare the new world outlook [Weltanschauung], or give instances of its innermost will. As we recognize only the vigorous as educationally valuable, everything must be avoided that weakens or discourages manliness. The thought of race will stand out strongest with a vivid knowledge of Teutonism.

One might only add a few “Christianisms” to the above to match the language of a number of leaders in the “ultraconservative Christian” movement.

Key to both movements, in my opinion, is a glorification of a mythical past. As the author puts it, “My friends, like all people to whom the present is unpalatable, and the future unpromising, always look back.”

And later, “ After 1918 the immobile German, incapable of adjusting to the new conditions inflicted upon him, turning romantically and meaninglessly toward the hope of restoring the old, found himself bewildered and increasingly helpless.”

As I hope to point out in a later post, a key element in the ultraconservative vision is a restoration of the romanticised past, which is a natural result of a failure to adjust to changing conditions. The Nazis, quite naturally actually, blamed an outside group for this failure to adjust - and sought to impose a vision radically opposite to the status quo, exterminating all who stood in their way.

The author of this book, in his theorizing as to what went wrong, posits that an element of the problem was the concept of an “idea” that was divorced from reality. An idea that could not be challenged, no matter how grotesque or harmful it became in practice. Isaac Bashevis Singer, in his intriguing short stories, tells of a Judaism based on the Talmud and the Kabbalah that became increasingly insular, completely divorced from reality. Real people and real life were looked upon as intrusions that must be eliminated. Likewise, the Nazi doctrine (and in other circumstances, Marxist doctrine) became unimpeachable by reality. I find the same problems in the modern ultraconservative movement where doctrine has become everything, and reality cannot be allowed to intrude. If the doctrine is right, then we must ignore the damage to real people that occurs. Germany must rise, after all, and if the Jews stand in the way, too bad for them.

I particularly struck by one passage in this book, quoting a German professor:

And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident...collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in - your nation, your people - is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you life in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed.

And this is how it happens. The form is embraced rather than the spirit. The past is worshiped along with the “idea,” and people and reality become casualties in the process. And, as the author aptly notes, this isn’t a German problem, it is a human problem. This isn’t them. It’s us. It’s me, and it’s you.


  1. This sounds like a really FASCINATING read. And I agree with your conclusion. It's not a German problem, it's not "them". It's us. Excellent summary there.

    Obviously I'm interested in the subject matter this book addresses, but I have to say that I was most interested in the paragraph in which you say your religion and your politics from your childhood remain intact with the underlying attitudes eradicated. For someone who likes to avoid trouble ;) you make enough non-conformist statements to invite it and it's hard to place exactly where you are at times. Being familiar with the group you grew up in ("cult" as you say? ;), Jonathan and I have spent quite a bit of time talking about how many people we've seen come out of that and fall away from the faith in general. Anyway, that's going slightly off topic but suffice it to say, I was happy with that statement. It helps put some of the things you've stated into perspective.

    Interesting post over all though. Another book to read.

    1. Carrie, this book is well worth finding. I highly recommend it. It is actually written in a readable style, so although it isn't "light" reading, it also isn't as heavy as it could be.

      I wouldn't go so far as to say that the attitudes have been eradicated. I feel that I have struggled and continue to struggle with them. A part of me wants to feel that I am better, smarter, more moral than others, despite evidence to the contrary. And I really do believe that it is innately human to want to compare ourselves to others, and blame our own faults on everyone else. Our inner two-year-old, perhaps.

      I know like to argue and to exercise my free speech rights. I also have a big non-conformist streak. To use the Gothard phrase, I have always been an independent spirit. However, I also am a bit of a square. In my brief career in private school (2 years), I never once got in trouble. The only times my parents were ever called was when I got sick. I really do like to avoid things that might lead to brushes with the law, and I know that it would be very tempting to just go along with things (while perhaps talking behind closed doors...) I wish I could be sure that I would have harbored Jews or escaped slaves, but I have my doubts.

  2. Autodidact wrote:

    "It is this exclusion of “the other,” wherever it is found, that worries Craig and I,"

    Make that "Craig and me..."

    1. Doh! Good catch, Dex. I should know better than that. One downside to blogging is the lack of time to proofread. Consider it corrected.

  3. This book is on my shelves. It belonged to my dad and after he passed away it ended up first in my sister's library and then in mine. I began to read it but the busyness of mothering kept me from finishing it after I got about half through it. Reading this review makes me think I should pick it back up and finish it.

  4. This is still in print & can be picked up as an ebook as well..