They Thought They Were Free:
The Germans, 1933–45
Milton Mayer was an educator and writer who gained fame for his long running column in Robert M. La Follette, Sr.'s The Progressive Magazine. Although he attended the University of Chicago, he never graduated due to an incident where he threw beer bottles out his dorm room window at the dean. Mayer was a pacifist, was against going to war, and became a Quaker after the war. After leaving the University Mayer became a journalist and in 1935 went to Germany to try to get an interview with Hitler. Instead he interviewed ordinary Germans to try to figure out why they supported Hitler. Mayer muses that, his German ancestry made him ashamed, as a Jew he was shocked and yet as a reporter he saw a story. Mayer returned to Germany after the War and spent time interviewing ten ordinary Germans - the little people - about why and how they became Nazis and what they thought. The result is They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933–45. I first read the book in high school after watching the House Unamerican Activities Committee hearings and grappling with Jim Crow, Viet Nam, Joe McCarthy and our own Japanese concentration camps during the World War. Milton Mayer moved me then and the book moves me more now as we grapple with the new terrifying possibilities opened up by Trump and his minions. Mayer interviews a tailor, a tailor's apprentice, an unemployed salesman, a high school student, a baker, a bill-collector, an unemployed bank clerk, a teacher and a policeman. Only a couple were cuckoo Nazis - Mayer estimates that perhaps 1 million out of a total population of 70 million were "Fanitiker" true believers or fanatical Nazis. Most Germans were just little men, trying to get by and until the war life was better under Hitler than before Hitler. Atrocities happened in little bits. Things that might have cause open rebellion in 1933 or 1934 gradually became the norm. Mayer's journalistic skill opens a door into their heads and gets them talking and we learn a lot. Mayer interviews little men and among them some good men. Nazism swallowed up Germany not by an attack from without or internal subversion, but as Mayer notes "with a whoop and a holler." You see in Mayer's subjects many qualities you find in those now wearing MAGA hats. Hitler gave people an illusion that they wanted and it inspired enough of the population - the Fanitikers - to open the door for him. Nazism absorbed Germany gradually. From 1935 to the outbreak of war several of Mayer's subjects joined the party not out of belief but to keep their job - as the party absorbed functions such as the police and the schools or they joined the party to get a job. As you read Mayer, you get the feeling that for many Germans accepting Hitler was like the boiling frog - a frog dropped into a pot of boiling water will jump out but if you put a frog into a pot of room temperature water and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will boil to death. Years of stigmatizing various groups as enemies of the German people preceded the atrocities committed against them and made the atrocities more acceptable. The book gives some ideas about the spread of authoritarian ideas and might provide insights of slowing its spread. Mayer falls short in focusing on men and ignoring women and he falls flat in tying to develop the German mind or the German character as a reason for the spread of Nazism. Mayer's discussion of the Nazi need for anti-intellectualism invite comparisons with our current administration. Hitler,the antipolitician, promotes the purification of Germany from politics, just as Trump has called for draining the swamp. Likewise, many of Mayer's subjects attributed problems withing the Nazi regime to the fact that there has been a secret war against Hitler within the regime. They blamed Hitler's henchmen and not Hitler himself for the atrocities. What is most chilling about his book as you read it is the growing realization that these normal people could be anywhere and do not need to be German to wreck havoc on the world. This is an important book and very sobering book for the times we live in. Mayer writes well and will grab your attention from the first page to the last.