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They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45

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“When this book was first published it received some attention from the critics but none at all from the public. Nazism was finished in the bunker in Berlin and its death warrant signed on the bench at Nuremberg.”   That’s Milton Mayer, writing in a foreword to the 1966 edition of They Thought They Were Free. He’s right about the critics: the book was a finalist for the Na “When this book was first published it received some attention from the critics but none at all from the public. Nazism was finished in the bunker in Berlin and its death warrant signed on the bench at Nuremberg.”   That’s Milton Mayer, writing in a foreword to the 1966 edition of They Thought They Were Free. He’s right about the critics: the book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1956. General readers may have been slower to take notice, but over time they did—what we’ve seen over decades is that any time people, across the political spectrum, start to feel that freedom is threatened, the book experiences a ripple of word-of-mouth interest. And that interest has never been more prominent or potent than what we’ve seen in the past year.   They Thought They Were Free is an eloquent and provocative examination of the development of fascism in Germany. Mayer’s book is a study of ten Germans and their lives from 1933-45, based on interviews he conducted after the war when he lived in Germany. Mayer had a position as a research professor at the University of Frankfurt and lived in a nearby small Hessian town which he disguised with the name “Kronenberg.” “These ten men were not men of distinction,” Mayer noted, but they had been members of the Nazi Party; Mayer wanted to discover what had made them Nazis. His discussions with them of Nazism, the rise of the Reich, and mass complicity with evil became the backbone of this book, an indictment of the ordinary German that is all the more powerful for its refusal to let the rest of us pretend that our moment, our society, our country are fundamentally immune.   A new foreword to this edition by eminent historian of the Reich Richard J. Evans puts the book in historical and contemporary context. We live in an age of fervid politics and hyperbolic rhetoric. They Thought They Were Free cuts through that, revealing instead the slow, quiet accretions of change, complicity, and abdication of moral authority that quietly mark the rise of evil.


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“When this book was first published it received some attention from the critics but none at all from the public. Nazism was finished in the bunker in Berlin and its death warrant signed on the bench at Nuremberg.”   That’s Milton Mayer, writing in a foreword to the 1966 edition of They Thought They Were Free. He’s right about the critics: the book was a finalist for the Na “When this book was first published it received some attention from the critics but none at all from the public. Nazism was finished in the bunker in Berlin and its death warrant signed on the bench at Nuremberg.”   That’s Milton Mayer, writing in a foreword to the 1966 edition of They Thought They Were Free. He’s right about the critics: the book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1956. General readers may have been slower to take notice, but over time they did—what we’ve seen over decades is that any time people, across the political spectrum, start to feel that freedom is threatened, the book experiences a ripple of word-of-mouth interest. And that interest has never been more prominent or potent than what we’ve seen in the past year.   They Thought They Were Free is an eloquent and provocative examination of the development of fascism in Germany. Mayer’s book is a study of ten Germans and their lives from 1933-45, based on interviews he conducted after the war when he lived in Germany. Mayer had a position as a research professor at the University of Frankfurt and lived in a nearby small Hessian town which he disguised with the name “Kronenberg.” “These ten men were not men of distinction,” Mayer noted, but they had been members of the Nazi Party; Mayer wanted to discover what had made them Nazis. His discussions with them of Nazism, the rise of the Reich, and mass complicity with evil became the backbone of this book, an indictment of the ordinary German that is all the more powerful for its refusal to let the rest of us pretend that our moment, our society, our country are fundamentally immune.   A new foreword to this edition by eminent historian of the Reich Richard J. Evans puts the book in historical and contemporary context. We live in an age of fervid politics and hyperbolic rhetoric. They Thought They Were Free cuts through that, revealing instead the slow, quiet accretions of change, complicity, and abdication of moral authority that quietly mark the rise of evil.

30 review for They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45

  1. 5 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    They Wanted It; They Got It; And They Liked It Milton Mayer was that rarest of writers: a journalist who knew his job was to create interesting facts; and a philosopher who knew that facts are meaningless without a theory, a coherent narrative, that connects them. His phenomenological analysis of ten Everyman Nazis was remarkable but largely unremarked when it was first published in 1954 during the Red Scare of McCarthyism. The book may be even more relevant today in understanding the Red Scare o They Wanted It; They Got It; And They Liked It Milton Mayer was that rarest of writers: a journalist who knew his job was to create interesting facts; and a philosopher who knew that facts are meaningless without a theory, a coherent narrative, that connects them. His phenomenological analysis of ten Everyman Nazis was remarkable but largely unremarked when it was first published in 1954 during the Red Scare of McCarthyism. The book may be even more relevant today in understanding the Red Scare of a different sort: Trumpism. Mayer's central conclusion is profoundly simple: "Nazism was a mass movement and not the tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions." It is easy to forget that Hitler was democratically elected and that his regime was a Rechtsstaat, a constitutional state in which the exercise of governmental power is constrained by the law. But perhaps few know what Mayer discovered in his year of interviews in post-war Germany, that the 'average' German working stiff not only welcomed the rise of Hitler but looked back fondly to the rule of National Socialism as the best days of his life. Nazism was what most Germans wanted - or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it." In the same way it's easy to forget that Donald Trump has been elected by a people, perhaps not by a majority but by enough of them. And despite his demonstrated racism, misogyny, narcissism, vulgarity, and incompetence, he still demands the loyalty of those who elected him and even of those who have been humiliated by him. As Mayer points out, "Responsible men never shirk responsibility, and so when they must reject it, they deny it." This is precisely what the American people are doing at the moment, rejecting responsibility for a situation that they created and want still. They Thought They Were Free is a prophetic book in an authentically biblical sense: it articulates a fundamental flaw in democratic society, namely that such societies, like every other, from time to time embrace pure evil without even becoming aware of it. Perhaps William Burroughs was right, the evil in North America was there waiting before the first European settlers, even before the first inhabitants. It has now become part of the national character. The self-absorption of the American people ensures that this evil can only fester and grow until it bursts like a boil. God help the rest of us when it does. Americans will undoubtedly find someone else to blame.

  2. 5 out of 5

    abby

    "They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it." In 1952, American journalist Milton Mayer moved his family to Marburg, Germany, a small town near Frankfurt. There, he set about to answer the question plaguing the world since Hilter's rise in 1933: how did a modern, western democracy fall prey to Nazism? Mayer was from German decent himself and a Jew, and he decided the answer to this quandary might lie in the "little man." Mayer made friends with ten such men in Marburg, men who had average job "They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it." In 1952, American journalist Milton Mayer moved his family to Marburg, Germany, a small town near Frankfurt. There, he set about to answer the question plaguing the world since Hilter's rise in 1933: how did a modern, western democracy fall prey to Nazism? Mayer was from German decent himself and a Jew, and he decided the answer to this quandary might lie in the "little man." Mayer made friends with ten such men in Marburg, men who had average jobs and lived average lives. Tailor. Police officer. Baker. Schoolteacher. What Mayer discovered, and documented in his book, was the story of how fanaticism can overtake us all. "[They] did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now." There is an old saying that no one could find a single Nazi in all of Germany the day after the war. Hilter, who? Oh, no, I was always against that stuff. Shame what happened to those poor Jews. You don't think they'll come back here to claim this house I stole from them, do you? Well, Mayer finds a very different post-war Germany. Even in all the turmoil, the poverty and the destruction, eight of his ten friends were unapologetic about their support for National Socialism. They remembered it as the best time of their lives, the time a "little guy" like them kept a job and even have money for a vacation now and again. Most were against the war, and very sorry about the whole genocide thing (but those Jews and Gypsies really did bring it on themselves), with one going as far as to blame all the Nazi bad deeds on Himmler. Hitler was just a fine chap who had nothing to do with it. He'd looked out for the "little man." The book starts with the burning of the Marburg synagogue on Kristallnacht. One of Mayer's subjects, an elderly tailor who the author suspects lies to him, at least a little, spent three years in prison for the arson. Mayer sought to get to the root of why each of his ten friends joined the Nazi party. For some, it was a true belief, but others were so-called March Violets, latecomers to the party who joined when their victory was inevitable, and because everyone else did. For the schoolteacher, the most thoughtful and remorseful of all Mayer's subjects (and I would argue his favorite), it was a matter of keeping his job. He'd been a social democrat in another town and wanted to be above suspicion himself. But, even he admitted to enjoying the feeling of belonging and took pride in wearing the Nazi uniform. "My friends wanted Germany purified. They wanted it purified of the politicians, of all the politicians. And Hitler, the pure man, the antipolitician, was the man, untainted by 'politics,' which was only a cloak for corruption." I don't know if this seems familiar to anyone else. Drain the swamp! We need an outsider! Both sides are the same! The two party system is corrupt and broken! Of course, before there was President Donald Trump, there was Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Governor Jesse Ventura. What we see in this book is the road map for outsiders to take advantage of western democracies under the right socio-economic conditions. It happened in 1930s Germany. It's happened across the world since. It can happen to you. Interestingly, although Mayer's book makes the case that any one of us can be the next crop of "little men" taken in by a charismatic leader who provides us an outlet for our frustrations, that's not what the author set out to suggest. In fact, Mayer argues that there's something unique about the German national character that turned them into Nazis. He was also profoundly concerned that the continued American occupation of Germany (as of 1954) would turn the country again into Nazis, under a new anti-communist heading. Readers in 2018 will recognize little of what Mayer suggests is the German national character. We also know the occupation didn't turn out the way he feared, and that Germany is one of the most successful, stable and prosperous democracies in the world. "Mayer's rambling final chapters are weak, less interesting than the earlier ones, and dated." The above quote is from the new afterword added to the latest re-release of the book (2017), which I highly recommend reading (I often skip such things). I'm in perfect agreement, and it made rating this book difficult, because the first 250 pages are so, so good, and the last 100 near worthless. But I suppose that's the risk you take when you read a book written 60 years ago. I do wish in the re-release the pseudonyms for the town and the ten subjects had been dropped, like with Anne Frank's diary. There's only an outside chance one of the ten is still alive and no more need to protect identities. For my review, I have chosen to call the town Mayer wrote about by it's real name, Marburg. Throughout the book, Mayer refers to it as "Kronenberg." Imagine my frustration when I tried to Google that. This is the kind of book people talk about and quote but don't read. Read it.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Maru Kun

    I've seen the rise of Nazism described as a "warning from history" on many occasions. Well this book is that warning, written in clear and concrete terms soon after the events occurred by people who experienced them directly, most of them Nazi sympathizers. "What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on I've seen the rise of Nazism described as a "warning from history" on many occasions. Well this book is that warning, written in clear and concrete terms soon after the events occurred by people who experienced them directly, most of them Nazi sympathizers. "What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it. Many of the interviewees say the same thing - unless you are more politically astute than average you won't notice the gradual wearing down of your rights and expansion of government propaganda. To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head. I was introduced to this book through Reddit in the r/politics subreddit where, I am pleased to see, it is often quoted by people who are aware of the dangers of the current populist regimes such as are seen in Trump's America. But the question remains, whether it is too late to do anything about it. "But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D. More quotes can be found at this link.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Beata

    I came across this book by accident. It was on GR Friend's to-read list and the title and theme somehow got me interested. No regrets here! The book, published ten years after WW2, is truly surprising for a reader in the 21st century. I've read several books with witnesses' accounts but this one is exceptional. Through lives of ten 'little men' we learn how ordinary people, living in a small town, are drawn into the totalitarian system and how they reflect upon nazism some years after the war. T I came across this book by accident. It was on GR Friend's to-read list and the title and theme somehow got me interested. No regrets here! The book, published ten years after WW2, is truly surprising for a reader in the 21st century. I've read several books with witnesses' accounts but this one is exceptional. Through lives of ten 'little men' we learn how ordinary people, living in a small town, are drawn into the totalitarian system and how they reflect upon nazism some years after the war. The reasoning behind their actions is what keeps me reading and thinking about the book while not reading it. For me, it is a measure of a good book. I guess this book is food for thought if you consider all the shifts taking place in the contemporary world.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    Shortly after the war Milton Mayer, an American Jew of German heritage, and his wife, Jane, moved into a mid-sized German city. Concealing his religious background, Mayer passed as an authentic, returning German and was thereby afforded an easy intimacy with the inhabitants. What he was aiming for was some insight into how Hitler came to power and how Germans of all walks of life thought of his regime. He apparently got it. I've approached the German experience from 1933 to 1945 with similar ques Shortly after the war Milton Mayer, an American Jew of German heritage, and his wife, Jane, moved into a mid-sized German city. Concealing his religious background, Mayer passed as an authentic, returning German and was thereby afforded an easy intimacy with the inhabitants. What he was aiming for was some insight into how Hitler came to power and how Germans of all walks of life thought of his regime. He apparently got it. I've approached the German experience from 1933 to 1945 with similar questions and believe that They Thought They Were Free has given me more plausible insight into their thinking than any other book I've ever read. First and foremost, the majority appear, circa 1950, to have felt that the reign of the National Socialist Workers' Party was, except for the war, generally good. While the rest of the capitalist West was in depression, German living standards improved and jobs became available. Capital improvements were evident and national pride had been restored. Beyond this, however, was something more subtle. The Nazis were, from their perspective, democratizing. Were once class distinctions had divided the population, now people had more equal opportunites and felt more generally connected to one another. Indeed, Mayer cites one person, a man of an aristocratic background, who himself felt relieved of alienating formalities by the leveling effect of National Socialist leadership. Mayer himself converted to Quakerism during his lengthy stay in Germany researching this book and went on to become prominent in world pacifist circles.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Robert Palmer

    You should read this book if you think that you are free. This is an old book, originally published in 1955, but it is more relevant today than ever before. Today the U.S. government openly arrests people without probable cause, detains them indefinitely without trial, tortures them, assassinates citizens and non-citizens alike with "predator" drones, and spies on everyone, all in the name of "freedom." What is the reaction of the American people? Most of the mainstream media fails in reporting t You should read this book if you think that you are free. This is an old book, originally published in 1955, but it is more relevant today than ever before. Today the U.S. government openly arrests people without probable cause, detains them indefinitely without trial, tortures them, assassinates citizens and non-citizens alike with "predator" drones, and spies on everyone, all in the name of "freedom." What is the reaction of the American people? Most of the mainstream media fails in reporting the flagrant abuses and largely ignores the important issues (if you don't believe me, ask yourself why we know more about where Edward Snowden is and what will happen to him rather than the large scale, indiscriminate, and grossly unconstitutional spying that he reported). And what about the ordinary person? He rushes to throw out the little actual news that is reported as he frantically searches for the sports section of the newspaper. In this book, Milton Mayer tells a chilling tale about a creeping totalitarianism that most did not notice until it was too late. People were too distracted to even notice an "ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people." "What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security.... "This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter." You should read this book if you think that you are free.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kimba Tichenor

    Seven years after the collapse of Hitler's regime, Milton Sanford Mayer, an American Jewish journalist of German heritage, traveled to Germany in an effort to understand how and why Nazism had developed in Germany. He spends a year in a small Hessian town (whose identity he disguises by calling it Kronenberg). Here he works to develop contacts with "kleine Leute", i.e. ordinary Germans who enthusiastically or reluctantly embraced the Nazi cause. He wanted to understand why they had done so. And Seven years after the collapse of Hitler's regime, Milton Sanford Mayer, an American Jewish journalist of German heritage, traveled to Germany in an effort to understand how and why Nazism had developed in Germany. He spends a year in a small Hessian town (whose identity he disguises by calling it Kronenberg). Here he works to develop contacts with "kleine Leute", i.e. ordinary Germans who enthusiastically or reluctantly embraced the Nazi cause. He wanted to understand why they had done so. And through repeated interviews with 10 ordinary Germans, he concludes that he did develop "a little better" understanding of why they chose Nazism. But he also walked away afraid for his country, the United States: " I came back a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, under combined pressure of reality and illusion. I felt and feel -- that it was not German man that I met, but man" (19). In short, he recognized that Nazism was not the product of a peculiar German path (Sonderweg); under the right conditions, it could happen anywhere, including the United States: “What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.” "This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. ...(196)." Given the book was first published in 1955, it is of course dated in some respects. However, this warning to future generations of Americans that their nation is not immune to authoritarianism is timely in the current political climate of nationalist populism: "The [Peorian] individual surrenders his individuality without a murmur, without, indeed, a second thought - and not just his individual hobbies and tastes, but his individual occupation, his individual family concerns, his individual needs. The primordial community, the tribe, re-emerges, it's first function the preservation of all its members. Every normal personality of the day becomes an 'authoritarian personality.' A few recalcitrants have to be disciplined (vigorously, under the circumstances) for neglect or betrayal of their duty. A few groups have to be watched or, if necessary, taken in hand - the antisocial elements, the liberty-howlers, the agitators among the poor, and the criminal gangs. For the rest of the citizens - 95 percent or so of the population - duty is now the central fact of life. They obey, at first awkwardly, but, surprisingly soon, spontaneously" (296). Kronenberg, Germany in the future could be Peoria, Illinois. As Mayer's friend pointed out the challenge faced by average Germans at that time, and by peoples across the world today, as governments are taken over by authoritarian, corporatist, or populist/nationalist regimes is how do you recognize and resist. As one former Nazi that Mayer interviewed noted: "I do not see, even now [how we could have stopped it]. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice - 'Resist the beginnings' and 'consider the end.' But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men?" Let us hope that we realize before it is too late the liberties and rights that are being pushed so roughly to the side in multiple nations, including the United States.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Don Nelson

    They Thought They Were Free-the germans 1933-45 Milton Mayer – author. Published by the University of Chicago Press First published in 1955 the book has the advantage of being a collection of recollections about the conditions of life in the small town of Kronnenberg. The citizens of Kronneberg were of the most conservative of ordinary people. In fact they were not even Germans, according to ‘real’ Germans. Kronnenberg was in Hesse. Its people were sometimes referred to as blinder Hesse – Blind He They Thought They Were Free-the germans 1933-45 Milton Mayer – author. Published by the University of Chicago Press First published in 1955 the book has the advantage of being a collection of recollections about the conditions of life in the small town of Kronnenberg. The citizens of Kronneberg were of the most conservative of ordinary people. In fact they were not even Germans, according to ‘real’ Germans. Kronnenberg was in Hesse. Its people were sometimes referred to as blinder Hesse – Blind Hessian – when needing to call some one backward or stupid. Milton Meyer interviewed ten members of this community, as he said in his forward “It was the newspaperman’s fascination that prevailed. . . and left me dissatisfied with every analysis of Nazism. I wanted to see this monstrous man, the Nazi. I wanted to talk to him and to listen to him. I wanted to try to understand him.. . . In 1935 I spent a month in Berlin trying to obtain a series of meetings with Adolf Hitler…..but without success. . . Then I travelled in Nazi Germany for an American magazine…..for the first time (I) realized that Nazism was a mass movement and not a tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions…By the time the war was over I had identified my man: the average German.” He goes on to explain that “I never found the average German, because there is no average German. But I found ten Germans sufficiently different from one another in background, character, intellect, and temperament to represent, among them, some millions or tens of millions of Germans and sufficiently like unto one another to have been Nazis.” Mayer begins his book with a short historical over view of Kronneberg. The date is November 9, 1638 and all is well in Kronnenberg. The town watchman is calling out the hour and walking the streets of the town. The picture is of a very old and very proud people and town. Times have been hard. “Pestilence and famine recur in Kronnenberg – as where don’t they? – and where there are Jews, what is one to expect?” As this scene unfolds the reader becomes aware that the German people have long had a dislike and distrust for the Jew. As far back as one can remember – problems follow the Gypsy and the Jew. Next the history lesson brings us to November 9, 1938. The scene is pretty much the same. But this night November 9, is “the greatest of all Nation Socialist Party celebrations. January 30 (the day the Führer came to power) and April 20 (the Fuehrer’s birthday are national celebrations. November 9 is the Party’s own.” One of the themes that sounds so familiar to my American ears is that this is a quiet country town. Small in size and population. Described as “. . .old and changeless, off the main line and the Autobahn, is conservative even for Hesse. But its very conservatism is a better guaranty of the Party’s stability than the radicalism of the cities, where yesterday’s howling Communists are today’s howling Nazis and nobody knows just how they will howl tomorrow. A quiet town is best.” Kronnenberg had a Catholic Church, a Protestant Church and a Jewish Synagogue. It was the Synagogue that would signal the change that was settling over the Nation. November 9, 1938 – it was burned to the ground by a group of local members of the Party at the Command of the head of the SA Kronnenberg. Having lived in both large metropolitan cities, Tulsa, my birthplace in 1942 and Oklahoma City where my undergraduate B.A. degree was earned and in such towns as Enid – where I earned my graduate degree M.Div. and Ada, Okemah and Covington and presently in a place that has the desire to be metropolitan but has yet to achieve that status, I can attest to the ‘stability’ of the small community. Oft times comfortable in the seclusion from the ‘hustle and bustle’ and ‘business’ of places with more people and diverse views. It’s just a better, less confusing, existence when one does have to be bothered with the ideas of a ‘big city.’ Kronnenberg was such a small town. Attempting to review this book thoroughly would take more time and space than I have inclination to invest. So, I am going to pick and chose my high points – with the hope that you, the reader, will have your interest aroused. Before diving into my review I want to state my only criticism of this work. Mayer, it seems to me, presumes to describe a vastly diverse population using his interviews of ten very specific ‘ordinary germans’ supported by other research that serves as a frame work for his book. Seems to be a bit like coming to rural Oklahoma and selecting ten diverse individuals of conservative mindset and trying to understand why the State is run by Republicans. I realize there is or ought to be a discernable difference between rural conservatives in Oklahoma and rural conservatives in Germany – but then, again, maybe not. To the points of interest – and since I am driving – they are my points of interest. Germany was and is a country on the defensive. Mayer traces this characteristic back to the date 9 A.D. and 1555 in the twice plundering of Rome. “In year 9 the Germans expelled the founders of secular Europe; in 1555 they cut themselves loose from the Weltanschauung which the age of the Mediterranean fused in Italy from the Greco-Hebraic break with Syria and Egypt.” Mayer in his research points to the history of German Nationhood going back to 1871 when a sort of forced unity was enacted by Prussia over dozens of sovereign German States. It was here that the diverse nature of the population originated. Not even the language was unified, but a Mischmasch as it was called by Leibniz. This diverse character contributed to a separateness that eventually led to a Nationalism that was the door through which the NSDAP was able to enter. As Mayer, at one point, writes, “Hitlerism was a mass flight to dogma, to the barbaric dogma that had not been expelled with the Romans, the dogma of the tribe, the dogma that gave every man importance only in so far as the tribe was important and he was a member of the tribe.” Geographically Germany had, sense anyone had memory, been on the defensive. National security required a strong defense. Theirs soon became an offense for defense. Nazism did not show up in the life of the ordinary German as a theory. It first engaged the ordinary German as ‘practice.’ It – “Nazism, as it moved from practice to theory has to deny expertness in thinking and then (this second process was never completed), in order to fill the vacuum, had to establish expert thinking of its own – that is, to find men of inferior or irresponsible caliber whose views conformed dishonestly or, worse yet, honestly to the Party line.” It is an unfortunate fact of history that Adolf Hitler was correct when he observed that Germany was encircled and, of necessity had to defend herself. That defense was to go on the offense. The practice was to infiltrate every fiber of the ordinary germans life with the power and control of the State. That did not always manifest itself in brute force – but oft times in much more subtle ways. Joining the Party often meant having a job. Joining the party could mean gaining new status, though that sometimes had a negative outcome. It wasn’t the big man Hitler that spread the Party line through out Germany. It was the countless numbers of ‘little Hitler’s’ that were the source of Nazism success. It was only for the ordinary german to go about their daily lives and not get in the way. I was sort of reminded of the admonitions heard in the US of A when catastrophe strikes – natural or man made – “Go about your Business” “Don’t worry” “Go shopping, Go out to Eat” “Do what you always do to occupy yourself.” In Germany, in these days it was not for the ordinary german to be concerned about anything – the State would take care of them. Mayer discusses, at length the topic of how the Jewish people were part of the German experience off and on through the history of the Nation. Anti-Semitism was nothing new for the ordinary german. As in most developing Fascist or Totalitarian States there must be a scapegoat on which all the blame for all that is wrong, can be placed. Germany had more than just the Jew. There were the troublesome Gypsy Bands – that were reviled and hated. There were the Russians, whom many ordinary germans blamed for the Jewish problem. . . . “they knew Bolshevism as a specter which, as it took on body in their imaginings, embraced not only Communism but the Social Democrats, the trade-unions, and, of course. The Jews, the Gypsies, the neighbor next door whose dog had bit them, and his dog; the bundled root cause of all their past, present, and possible tribulations.” Needing a scapegoat, upon which to load all of the problems, one had only to look next door or across a convenient border and the Big Men in the Nazi Party did just that. Mayer wrote, at the end of one of his chapters: “I asked my friend Simon, the “democratic” bill-collector, what he liked best about Hitler. “Ah,” he said at once, “his ‘So –oder so,’ his ‘Whatever I have to do to have my way, I will have my way.’ “ This in no way adequately covers a review of this book, but it is my hope that some interest has been created. Milton Mayer has written a book that tells a story. It is a story that is as timely today as it was when he first wrote it.

  9. 5 out of 5

    James

    Excellent, sad, and troubling. The author, a Jewish American, lived in Germany after World War II, in the 1950s, as a professor at a small provincial college. This book is an account of his many conversations with ten different German men about their experiences and memories of the pre-war, war, and immediate post-war periods, and their attitudes about the Nazis and their actions. They knew he was American, but not that he was Jewish. Unsurprisingly, they almost uniformly minimized the scale and Excellent, sad, and troubling. The author, a Jewish American, lived in Germany after World War II, in the 1950s, as a professor at a small provincial college. This book is an account of his many conversations with ten different German men about their experiences and memories of the pre-war, war, and immediate post-war periods, and their attitudes about the Nazis and their actions. They knew he was American, but not that he was Jewish. Unsurprisingly, they almost uniformly minimized the scale and nature of the Nazi regime's crimes, and most claimed to have known little or nothing about what was going on (although things they said at other times about the arrests and disappearances of local members of the Jewish community contradict that.) In some cases, their stories changed almost every time he talked with them. Most felt no guilt or qualms about having supported the Nazis or been active in the party's actions, even against neighbors. They were also deeply cynical about the Cold War, its impact on the then-two Germanies, and the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. They seemed to see little or no difference among the western democracies, the Warsaw Pact, and the fascist powers before and during the war. They talked a great deal about the supposedly unique German character and its superiority to other nationalities. The author speculated about a national character and how it might have made Germans especially susceptible to falling under Hitler's spell. However, looking at history, that argument is weak - one of the important lessons, I believe, is that no society is immune to this kind of perversion and free of the need for reflection and self-questioning. One thing that surprised me was that even a decade or so after the war ended, many of the Germans insisted that Hitler had been a good man and a great statesman. When asked about the atrocities of the Third Reich, they insisted that these had been perpetrated by Hitler's senior officials but that he himself had known nothing about them. Given Hitler's penchant for micromanagement, this idea is absurd, but they clung to it. Unsurprisingly, the author's anger and disgust are quite clear at many points in the book. I was, as a result, puzzled and intrigued by his also taking pains to emphasize that he considered these Germans personal friends before, during, and after all the conversations he relates. Finally, the most depressing aspect might be that for the most part they didn't even seem to have learned anything - I got the impression that if they found themselves in a similar situation again, the whole thing might unfold again in a similar way. A bleak commentary on human nature.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    I found it a little difficult to rate this book. The first part, relating personal interviews with former Nazi party members was fascinating (and a little troubling when looking at some of the events in terms of modern developments.) The second half of the book, though, read like an attempt at psychoanalysis of an entire country's population that just didn't work for me (although he did admit there might be "a few exceptions" to some of the generalizations.) The final section made a lot of predi I found it a little difficult to rate this book. The first part, relating personal interviews with former Nazi party members was fascinating (and a little troubling when looking at some of the events in terms of modern developments.) The second half of the book, though, read like an attempt at psychoanalysis of an entire country's population that just didn't work for me (although he did admit there might be "a few exceptions" to some of the generalizations.) The final section made a lot of predictions about Germany's political future which, in today's context, were interesting. It seemed like Mayer was almost saying that Germany would never be able to take care of itself and would always require supervision by another nation. Again, a lot of very broad generalizations that may have made some sense in the context of the Cold War. It would be very interesting to hear his thoughts now.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

    Great book, if not a bit frightening. Frightening because you can really see that tyranny can happening anywhere and at any time. It really puts you in the shoes of ordinary Germans. Would I really stand up to tyranny if it meant the death of my wife and children? Also interesting is that many Germans referred to the "30 Year War" WWI and WWII were, in many Germans' minds, the same war.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Susanna Sturgis

    They Thought They Were Free was first published in 1955. In 1966 it was reprinted with a new foreword by the author. I read it for the first time as a college undergrad and activist in the early 1970s. It exerted a lasting influence on my emerging view of the world. Perhaps its most important lesson was this: People who are content with, or at least resigned to, the status quo have no need of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, or the right to not incriminate oneself. M They Thought They Were Free was first published in 1955. In 1966 it was reprinted with a new foreword by the author. I read it for the first time as a college undergrad and activist in the early 1970s. It exerted a lasting influence on my emerging view of the world. Perhaps its most important lesson was this: People who are content with, or at least resigned to, the status quo have no need of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, or the right to not incriminate oneself. More, many USians are suspicious of anyone who invokes these rights: who but a guilty person or a traitor would need them? Having recently seen Margarethe von Trotta's 2012 film Hannah Arendt and read (or reread) Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, I decided it was time to go back to Milton Mayer's book, to see what it had to say about the times we're living in. The answer, I think, is "a lot." Mayer, Jewish and of German descent, had visited Germany as a boy. Traveling in Germany as a journalist in 1935, he writes in the foreword to the first printing, he "for the first time realized that Nazism was a mass movement and not the tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions." This is what he sought to understand when, seven years after the war ended, he went to live in West Germany with his family. They Thought They Were Free is built on his interviews and conversations with "ten Germans sufficiently different from one another in background, character, intellect, and temperament to represent, among them, some millions or tens of millions of Germans and sufficiently like unto one another to have been Nazis." The book opens with the burning of the town's synagogue on what came to be known as Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, an arson in which at least one of Mayer's informants played a part. Another, a member of the volunteer fire department, was on the scene and immediately recognized that the fire was not accidental. The news reaches the others in various ways, including the policeman, who the next day is ordered to carry out an order requiring that all male Jews between the ages of 18 and 65 be taken into protective custody. Yet these events remain on the periphery of the lives of these "ordinary" men. Through their lives and reflections Mayer explores the perhaps startling paradox: With the exception of the high school teacher, "the other nine, decent, hard-working, ordinarily intelligent and honest men, did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we knew and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it." "Men think first of the lives they lead and the things they see; and not, among the things they see, of the extraordinary sights, but of the sights which meet them in their daily rounds." So Mayer muses, and so the reader nervously begins to think of the things she doesn't notice because she doesn't encounter them in her daily rounds. With Nazism had come employment and stability, both in short supply in the post–Great War years. "That Nazism in Germany meant mistrust, suspicion, dread, defamation, and destruction we learned from those who brought us word of it – from its victims and opponents . . . There were two truths, and they were not contradictory: the truth that Nazis were happy and the truth that anti-Nazis were unhappy." Mayer notes, without forcing the comparison, that something similar might be said of the U.S. during the McCarthy era, during which he was writing. The Germans who "thought they were free" took their cues about right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable behavior, from the community around them. If no one else is making a fuss, is there anything to make a fuss about? In any case, "they had their own troubles" and weren't looking for more. "A man can carry only so much responsibility. If he tries to carry more, he collapses; so, to save himself from collapse, he rejects the responsibility that exceeds his capacity." Thus few USians protested the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, and even the Supreme Court said it was OK. "National Socialism," Mayer writes, "was a revulsion by my friends against parliamentary politics, parliamentary debate, parliamentary government – against all the higgling and the haggling of the parties and the splinter parties, their coalitions, their confusions, and their conniving." Representative government was new in Germany when the Nazis came to power. It is much older in the U.S. and presumably has correspondingly deeper roots, yet I suspect similar currents are at work here today, a weariness of the hurly-burly, a desire to throw all the rascals out and start afresh – if only someone would tell us how to do it. History has continued to unroll, or perhaps unravel, since They Thought They Were Free was published in 1955, and since Mayer wrote his new foreword in 1966. (Mayer died in 1986.) Both the Cold War and the rearmament of Germany are old news, and the German national character, if there is one, has continued to evolve, with several more decades of representative government under its now-reunified belt. But this book remains thoughtful and thought-provoking, not least for observations like this one: "Men under pressure are first dehumanized and only then demoralized, not the other way around. Organization and specialization, system, subsystem, and supersystem are the consequence, not the cause, of the totalitarian spirit. National Socialism did not make men unfree; unfreedom made men National Socialists. "Freedom is nothing but the habit of choice. . . ."

  13. 5 out of 5

    Peter Mcloughlin

    What is it like to be an ordinary person under totalitarianism? Not someone in a targetted minority group or political party. It is scary that it can seem normal enough. You kept your head down stayed out of trouble and obeyed and your life would go on. You would rationalize and push to the side things that were happening to the unlucky ones. You tried not to be too curious about what the authorities were doing. You were sure they would handle these problems better than you and besides, you don' What is it like to be an ordinary person under totalitarianism? Not someone in a targetted minority group or political party. It is scary that it can seem normal enough. You kept your head down stayed out of trouble and obeyed and your life would go on. You would rationalize and push to the side things that were happening to the unlucky ones. You tried not to be too curious about what the authorities were doing. You were sure they would handle these problems better than you and besides, you don't want to oppose the government. Best live your life maybe join the party to get ahead. You can always make fun of some of the absurdities of public policy in private but don't publicly question the authorities best stay out of trouble. The people that were being targetted probably had it coming to them anyway. And even if people get taken away for making trouble that is none of your business. They are probably up to no good anyway. Don't make waves, keep your head down and live your life. Such was the lot of ordinary people in the Third Reich. Scary in its normalcy.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Josh

    I really enjoyed this book, but it does take a bit of effort to stay engaged in what's going on. The author's style isn't very direct until later in the book. This book really opened my eyes to how the Germans were manipulated very carefully by the National Socialist movement. It serves as a chilling reminder that this could happen to anybody, that anything less than standing on principle regardless of the consequences makes a people vulnerable to usurpation and slavery.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Charlene Mathe

    Milton Mayer writes wonderful profiles of ten Germans who lived through the Third Reich. His analysis is very human; compassionate, yet to some extent damning. I liked Mayer in these chapters, but liked him less in the opening and closing chapters when he writes, not so much about the individuals caught up in the war, but about the nations involved and especially the United States. Mayer joins other Blame-the-USA critics in imagining some better(undetermined) solution to winning WWII than bombin Milton Mayer writes wonderful profiles of ten Germans who lived through the Third Reich. His analysis is very human; compassionate, yet to some extent damning. I liked Mayer in these chapters, but liked him less in the opening and closing chapters when he writes, not so much about the individuals caught up in the war, but about the nations involved and especially the United States. Mayer joins other Blame-the-USA critics in imagining some better(undetermined) solution to winning WWII than bombing Dresden and Tokyo, let alone Hiroshima and Nagasaki! Mayer is a wonderful writer and thinker. I'd like to read his other book, What Can a Man Do? If you have a chance to read They Thought They Were Free, you will not be disappointed!

  16. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    Mayer - An American Jewish journalist - performs what may be nearly a supernatural feat of grace as he profiles 10 ordinary Germans shortly after the war - my '10 Nazi friends' as he puts it. Mayer quotes the prayer of the publican as a warning to all of us. The book is powerful and revealing of human nature, but in an unexpected way. The Nazi problem is indeed a human problem.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Bryant

    Illusion can very easily overcome ones reality. In these times in which we look at the state of the union, we would do well to remember this. This book is eerie because of how blinded they were to the reality of what they were supporting.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ietrio

    The premises is fallacious. From a cherry picked bunch expand to explain a far larger group. The rapport is about one to 10 million! The style is in sync with the era: opaque and wordy. So at first glance I had a hard time distinguishing the voice. Is Mayer who talks about "the nation" or the Nazi friends? I still have no idea, maybe I'll give it a second go some time later. Anyway, never mind whose voice is heard, the text itself is a monstrosity: "destroy a nation". Well, the destroyed are over The premises is fallacious. From a cherry picked bunch expand to explain a far larger group. The rapport is about one to 10 million! The style is in sync with the era: opaque and wordy. So at first glance I had a hard time distinguishing the voice. Is Mayer who talks about "the nation" or the Nazi friends? I still have no idea, maybe I'll give it a second go some time later. Anyway, never mind whose voice is heard, the text itself is a monstrosity: "destroy a nation". Well, the destroyed are over 80 million right now.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Henry

    The other reviewers explain what the book is about. Mayer's discussion of the experience of his Nazi sources, which forms about the first half of the book, is its best part. Some of the stories are moving; all are frightening, showing how ordinary, generally decent people became Nazis, in some cases in spite of themselves. His further discussion of the "German character" is weaker, and his predictions concerning the future of Germany have proven to be incorrect, something for which we may be gra The other reviewers explain what the book is about. Mayer's discussion of the experience of his Nazi sources, which forms about the first half of the book, is its best part. Some of the stories are moving; all are frightening, showing how ordinary, generally decent people became Nazis, in some cases in spite of themselves. His further discussion of the "German character" is weaker, and his predictions concerning the future of Germany have proven to be incorrect, something for which we may be grateful. However, one might well consider whether the characteristics of the "little people," as they called themselves, under Naziism, might say about the future of the European Union. Mayer stresses the historic German respect for (or, one could say, subservience to) authority and legality as the basis for their acceptance of, and in some people, enthusiasm for, National Socialism. The new authorities are the technocratic experts of the EU, whose rule supersedes not only national governments but even the European Parliament. Germany is the economic and political heart of the EU, and it is in Germany that the European Central Bank operates. Do Greeks and Italians see the measures forced on them by the ECB as German domination? I don't know, but it does appear to me that the supine acceptance of bureaucratic regulation by the EU mirrors the response of the ordinary Germans in Mayer's book to Nazi rule. He constantly points out that his sources did not think they lived in a totalitarian dictatorship; as his title says, they thought they were free.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jim Williams

    Given the current state of American politics, this book, now 61 years old, is eerily relevant. The author lives for a time in postwar Germany, hiding from his "10 Nazi friends" that he is Jewish, to examine how average citizens could become supporters of a brutal dictator. The books strength is in the profiles and interviews with these 10 men (no women were profiled), who each have supported the Nazi movement to varying degrees, from local strongmen to go-along-get-along types. That so many Germ Given the current state of American politics, this book, now 61 years old, is eerily relevant. The author lives for a time in postwar Germany, hiding from his "10 Nazi friends" that he is Jewish, to examine how average citizens could become supporters of a brutal dictator. The books strength is in the profiles and interviews with these 10 men (no women were profiled), who each have supported the Nazi movement to varying degrees, from local strongmen to go-along-get-along types. That so many Germans believed strongly that their best bet was this path, and that many still believed after the war that things were just fine under this government shows how it is quite possible, if not probable, that another strongman, somewhere (ahem) can emerge to convince the masses that following them will lead to greatness. The later sections of the book tended to go a little broad-brush in examining the "German character," and the section that dealt with the potential direction of Germany should it become unified have been proven wrong, so they lost me. I think this is an important read for our times, and highly recommend it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jamie King

    Working through this book was a very intense exercise. It requires you enter it with an objective perspective that then must be balanced by an empathy of the characteristics of the timeline. I believe any reader would at several points in this book be challenged to look into themselves and question many of their misconceptions. The exercise is made all the more riveting while trying to relate to his 1955 Orthodox Quaker Pacifism cultural perspective/solutions with the 50 years in cultural developm Working through this book was a very intense exercise. It requires you enter it with an objective perspective that then must be balanced by an empathy of the characteristics of the timeline. I believe any reader would at several points in this book be challenged to look into themselves and question many of their misconceptions. The exercise is made all the more riveting while trying to relate to his 1955 Orthodox Quaker Pacifism cultural perspective/solutions with the 50 years in cultural development that really accelerated after this book was published that made up a lot of our modern society.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Daddio

    An unsympathic, somewhat unemotional view of the average German from 1933 - 1945. The book was written by a Jew, posing as a non-Jew, who interviewed average Germans in the early 50s. The German system was "ripe" for National Socialism (Nazi Party). Under Hitler, the average German was fed, had a job, and became Someone. Hitler was their "Father" figure. At some point, the state becomes more important than the individual, and this can be the result. One can easily draw several parallels between An unsympathic, somewhat unemotional view of the average German from 1933 - 1945. The book was written by a Jew, posing as a non-Jew, who interviewed average Germans in the early 50s. The German system was "ripe" for National Socialism (Nazi Party). Under Hitler, the average German was fed, had a job, and became Someone. Hitler was their "Father" figure. At some point, the state becomes more important than the individual, and this can be the result. One can easily draw several parallels between German of the 30s and our own post 9/11. Highly recommended.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Briansmom

    This book is scary, entertaining, and enlightening, all at the same time. The author is an American journalist who was very curious (as many people, since the end of WWII, have been) about how Nazi Germany could have happened. He had his publisher obtain a university teaching position for him at a northeastern German university (unnamed) and the book evolved from conversations with former Nazi friends. Written in 1955, it still has the power to shock, amaze, and educate. Much can be learned from This book is scary, entertaining, and enlightening, all at the same time. The author is an American journalist who was very curious (as many people, since the end of WWII, have been) about how Nazi Germany could have happened. He had his publisher obtain a university teaching position for him at a northeastern German university (unnamed) and the book evolved from conversations with former Nazi friends. Written in 1955, it still has the power to shock, amaze, and educate. Much can be learned from this book. I have recommended it to all of my friends.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Devan

    A Jew posing as a non-Jew writes an interesting, scary, and sad book about the Germans of 1933-45. Written after the war, Milton Mayer befriends 10 Germans to gain understanding of their action, thoughts, and roles in the years of 1933-45. Although this book is written without real feelings toward the Germans, I felt it almost gave the underlying vibe of sympathy. What was not surprising was the fact most of these Germans turned their heads and still believers of a "good" Hitler.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Marks54

    This is a reissue of a classic 1955 study of the experiences of ten typical Germans under the Nazi regime. The author was a journalist and education writer who was on the faculty the University of Chicago. Milton Mayer is not well remembered but was the person who introduced the phrase “speaking truth to power” into journalism terminology, where it has remained ever since. He originally tried to get an interview with Hitler after he came to power in 1933 but was unsuccessful. This interest morph This is a reissue of a classic 1955 study of the experiences of ten typical Germans under the Nazi regime. The author was a journalist and education writer who was on the faculty the University of Chicago. Milton Mayer is not well remembered but was the person who introduced the phrase “speaking truth to power” into journalism terminology, where it has remained ever since. He originally tried to get an interview with Hitler after he came to power in 1933 but was unsuccessful. This interest morphed into an interest in how the typical German came to support the Nazis and enabled them to come to power and prosper, at least for a while. There is a huge literature on the Nazis, their concentration camps, Einsatzgruppen (SS murder squads), and the Holocaust more generally and one line of inquiry that comes up a various forms is how could so many apparently normal and undistinguished people have participated in such heinous atrocities. Were all the Germans evil? If not, how could these events happen and how could members of a large and civilized population take part in the barbarism? This literature has continued to this day but began in the early 1950s. One of the earliest groups was associated with the Frankfurt School and researchers like Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, who helped to arrange Mayer’s study as a related set of case interviews to further develop ideas related to their work.. Mayer was an American of German and Jewish descent who did not speak German. His initial idea was to identify a typical or average German who had been associated with the Nazis and find out what life was like during the 12 years of the Third Reich. How was the life of ordinary Germans affected? What was the balance of cooperation and coercion? How were their lives affected by antisemitism or exposure to more extreme Nazi behaviors (such as orchestrated campaigns against the Jews or the outbreak of WW2 with attacks on Poland). Not surprisingly, the identification of a “typical” German proved more complicated than initially anticipated and the sample for interviews ultimately expanded to ten people. Mayer got to know these individuals and engaged in extensive interviews with them, with his data collection ending in late 1952, after which he began writing up his results for articles and an eventually book. Some general protocols were developed prior to the study and generally followed in conducting the study. Interviews were conducted in informal settings where Mayer had built a relationship with the different interviewees. This book is a general summary and discussion of Mayer’s results. Mayer was generally effective in explaining how the Nazi regime depended on the engagement of the general population to a sufficient degree that the principal Nazi program could proceed out of the public spotlight. Some of the central concerns of Nazism with antisemitism aligned closely enough with the sentiments of the interviewees that it was brought up during the course of interviews without the need for any prompting. As to the more extreme aspects of Nazi rule, the accounts in the boook are credible but consistent with a desire to stay out of trouble and not have any more contact with the SS and the camps than was necessary. Were some of the interviews avoiding the difficult aspects of Nazi rule? That is likely. There is enough to make Mayer’s account credible. It is an interesting study of what life was like in the Third Reich. There are all sorts of issues with the study design and this is not how these sorts of studies would be conducted today by reputable scholars. As a result, the book comes across as more traditional journalism than research and one hopes that norms regarding the accurate repetition of quotes and the like were followed. In fairness, these norms were just developing at the time. For a comparison, one could look at the books of Arlie Hochschild for how these sorts of studies are done today. Mayer has his own limitations as an analyst. He did not tell his interviewees that he was Jewish, which may have influenced his ability to build relationships with them. He seems prone to making global judgements about the German national character as part of his discussion of results, and his conclusions have not aged well relative to his initial focus on how these individual people came to interact with the Nazi regime. Even with these limitations, the book garnered considerable support from reviewers, although it did not achieve much popular success. It continued to be important in some intellectual communities and was reissued in the 1960s. The current reissue includes a nice postscript by Richard Evans, a major historian of Nazi Germany. Why the book was reissued in 2017 is not immediately clear although the insight it provides about how normal people relate to the establishment of potentially authoritarian regimes that must build their legitimacy on popular support may still be seen as a valid question in the U.S. today.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    How could ordinary, decent people abide the Nazis for the span of twelve years -- to allow a baby born at the NSDAP's seizure of power to practically come of age under their banner? Shortly after World War II, Milton Meyer traveled to Germany and attempted to answer that question for himself. Omitting his Jewish heritage, he cultivated friendships with ten German citizens and approached them with questions about their life during the war. His mission was to understand their experience.Though pri How could ordinary, decent people abide the Nazis for the span of twelve years -- to allow a baby born at the NSDAP's seizure of power to practically come of age under their banner? Shortly after World War II, Milton Meyer traveled to Germany and attempted to answer that question for himself. Omitting his Jewish heritage, he cultivated friendships with ten German citizens and approached them with questions about their life during the war. His mission was to understand their experience.Though primarily writing for the western world of the 1950s, urging the powers not to turn the Germans into the anti-Soviet front line, virtually none of the import achieved here has faded with the decades. He searched for insight about the German soul under the Nazi state, but discovered man. Today Hitler and the Nazis are a byword for evil, but for Meyer's Germans, this was not so. The totality of the Nazi evil was not revealed until after the Allies had swept across Germany and discovered the camps, those ghastly factories of obscenity where families were slaughtered with hellish efficiency. For the Germans interviewed, Hitler was a bolt from the blue, a strike of leadership in a time of self-indulgent parliamentary quibbling. He was a leader who believed in Germany, who could inspire the kind of discipline needed to rebuild and recover from the Great War and depression. He advanced a siege mentality, but stirred up the fortitude requited to endure a struggle. Judging from his friends, Meyer believes that most Germans knew little about the atrocities that would be committed under that threatened mindset; for them, Hitler was the man who had cured unemployment, who had restored national pride; such was his stature in their imaginations that even when it became obvious that the NSDAP was leading Germany into ruin, he was beyond reproach. Disconnected from the party, he was the Kaiser, the head of state, the man above politics; when things went awry, it was his advisers who were held liable, his administrators deemed malevolent. “If only Hitler know what was happening,” some thought. The belief that the king can do no wrong seems to have deep roots in the human psyche, appearing seemingly everywhere. Even if Hitler was not known then as the source of evil, no one could deny that something was amiss in Germany. Here Meyer examines how the Jews could be subjected to such desolation. . The Nazi cultivation of antisemitism worked not only to marginalize Jews, to keep the mind from lingering too long on where they kept disappearing to, but simultaneously gave baser instincts a target to fixate and build on. Urges for casual petty violence, normally inhibited by the law, were given legal sanction against Germany’s Jewish population; but violence, once unleashed, is rather difficult to rein back in. That violence was not only physical, but psychological, eroding the civil soul; Meyer's interviewees report how they were steadily compromised. Merely conflicted when the Nazi campaigns were set in motion, torn by a sense that something was not right but unsure as to whether attacking the triumphant Party was worth it. That inaction only reinforced itself as Germans were slowly prised apart from conscience, either out of fear or moral sloth. Some values, like free speech directed against the government, were so new and existing only on the periphery that when they disappeared their absence was as dimly noticed as that of the marginalized Jews. Though elements of the book are specific to Germany, the study of man compromised by rule is more generally applicable. Meyer believes the veneration of Hitler was tied to the German veneration of the Kaiser, but what society has been spared a leader who acts as if he is above the law? Even England, which prizes the Magna Carta and its supposition that the king is subject to laws greater than he, has had its Henry VIII; in the modern age the power and influence of rulers is even more strongly expressed. Of general interest, too, is the conflict of moralities at play when the state is doing things that are obviously wrong. People want to do the 'right' thing,but so utterly basic is tribal preservation instinct that we hesitate; how can we attack 'ourselves'? We must separate the players in our minds, must create a new 'us' and relegate the government to the status of 'them', but that doesn't alter the fact that those enabling the evil are still our countrymen. The tide of fear and uncertainty has an awful strength, sweeping away all but the most strident stands. It is a struggle not finished, and one which will never be finished; we are never relieved from the possibility our instincts may lead us in the wrong direction. They Thought They Were Free strikes me a must-read for beginning to grasp the German mind and the human soul in its darkest hour. Historically it alters a bounty of insight into what Germans were enduring now, but can be applied to human travails through the centuries.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    A better title for this book might have been “They Thought It Was All Good”. Milton Mayer’s study of ten former Nazis, ordinary people from a variety of walks of life and of a variety of education levels, was an attempt to understand how such a heinous regime could have risen to power and maintained the loyalty of the German citizenry throughout such a disastrous (for the Germans especially) war. From the perspective of 2013, it may be easier for Americans to imagine how gradual encroachments by A better title for this book might have been “They Thought It Was All Good”. Milton Mayer’s study of ten former Nazis, ordinary people from a variety of walks of life and of a variety of education levels, was an attempt to understand how such a heinous regime could have risen to power and maintained the loyalty of the German citizenry throughout such a disastrous (for the Germans especially) war. From the perspective of 2013, it may be easier for Americans to imagine how gradual encroachments by the State may be acquiesced to in a time of “crisis”. (Think of how patiently we all endure the indignities of the TSA despite its manifest silliness.) People want to get on with their lives, and a lot of mischief from the government can be done before outrage boils over. But the surprising part of this book was the extent to which these German Everymen still believed that National Socialism was fundamentally right for Germany, even while living through the squalor and deprivation of the immediate postwar period. Sure, some tactical and strategic mistakes might have been made, and yes the country had been reduced to rubble. But none of them saw the Nazi regime or Hitler as fundamentally evil, and none saw the Allies as liberators and “good guys”. Hard to imagine, in light of the black versus white characterization of the Good War that we Americans have been taught. Mayer offers some conjectures about Germany and German culture to help explain “how it happened there”. Some seem plausible, others seem forced. (The anti-Semitism was almost universal, and also not regretted by Mayer’s ten friends.) But after all, “National Socialism could have happened elsewhere in the modern world, but it hasn’t yet. Up to now [1954] it is unique to Germany. And the deception and self-deception it required were required of a people whose civilization, by common measurement, was very highly advanced. German music and art, German belles-lettres and philosophy, German science and technology, German theology and education (especially at the highest levels) were part and parcel of Western achievement. German honesty, industry, family virtue and civil government were the pride of other Western countries where Germans settled.” [243] The history of the twentieth century, particularly the first half of it, is a story of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale, perpetrated by governments run amok. It is wise and instructive to try to understand this history from the point of view of real individuals leading real lives. So this book is important. Perhaps the best summary comes from the Forward to the 1st Edition (written in 1954): “I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusion. I felt – and feel – that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.” [xix] I encourage you to read this book.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    I don't know what to think about this book - as so many people have recommended it to me. I thought it would go more in depth in how the nazi party managed to indoctrinate people on an individual level, not just interviewing people about the beginning of the war. What lead up to it, and what was the breaking point for these people? The first part of the book was worth reading - some chapters are extremely scary and chilling, especially since the author himself is jewish and the nazis he's intervi I don't know what to think about this book - as so many people have recommended it to me. I thought it would go more in depth in how the nazi party managed to indoctrinate people on an individual level, not just interviewing people about the beginning of the war. What lead up to it, and what was the breaking point for these people? The first part of the book was worth reading - some chapters are extremely scary and chilling, especially since the author himself is jewish and the nazis he's interviewing has no clue, and continues to spew hate. But the second part of the book was just plain confusing, where the author rambles about different nationalities and how they behave (!?).

  29. 4 out of 5

    Marie

    Milton Mayer traveled to Germany 10 years after the end of the second world war and conducted extensive interviews with a group of "ordinary" Germans living in Kronenberg. This book provides some answers to the question of "how could this have happened?". Opression came gradually, affected "the other" and in the meantime life for the average German (Aryan) improved under the Nazis during the 1930's. This book also leads to the some uncomfortable questions for the reader, especially "what would I Milton Mayer traveled to Germany 10 years after the end of the second world war and conducted extensive interviews with a group of "ordinary" Germans living in Kronenberg. This book provides some answers to the question of "how could this have happened?". Opression came gradually, affected "the other" and in the meantime life for the average German (Aryan) improved under the Nazis during the 1930's. This book also leads to the some uncomfortable questions for the reader, especially "what would I have done"? I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in history or in human psychology.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tom Cunniff

    Chilling and Indispensable To learn from history, it's not enough to understand events. It's critically important to understand human weakness -- and how quickly our institutions and ideals can fail us. This book is both surprising and unsurprising. To read it is to understand that not only can it "happen here", but it can happen more quickly and easily than we might imagine.

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