*They Thought They Were Free* by Milton Mayer

My notes from They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer. Published in 1955, this book is a collection of stories by Mayer, a Jewish-American, as he interviewed 10 Germans in Kronenberg. Each of them were involved with Nazism in some form, but none of them were very high in the ranks of leadership, in fact they called themselves “little men”. Given that he was Jewish, and this was published so close to the date of the tagic Holocaust, I’m impressed at his journalistic ability to remain objective in his questioning and analysis.

My overall impression of the book is very good. The first half especially is worth a read, if only to get inside the mind of regular German people from the WWII days. Mayer does some very good journalism and storytelling in order to capture the characters, actions, and belief systems of his Nazi friends. The second half of the book is not so as great, it reads like a combination of rushed journalism and bad historical analysis.

What follows is a write up of my notes, each heading is a chapter or collection of chapters with summaries, observations, and quotes from each chapter. Page numbers are in parentheses. Enjoy…

2. The Lives Men Lead

There are striking parallels between Nazism and 1950s-era McCarthyism or racial prejudices in America. The difference is that Nazism was much worse – they had no freedome of press, a very us-versus-them mentality, passivity toward social injustices. People would look at the injustices comitted on Jews and think “I’m glad I’m a Nazi and not a Jew”. Or sometimes, because of state-controlled media, they didn’t even know about the crimes. This chapter was a bit fear-mongering I thought, but id does make some striking observations about minority repression. What would I do if a minority was being targeted? Would I think “Glad I’m not that minority”? This is the kind of thinking that causes problems in the first place.

“But modern tyrants all stand above politics and, in doing so, demonstrate that they are all master politicians.” (55)

“In America, your wife collects or distributes clothing, gives an afternoon a week to the Red Cross of the orphanage or the hospital; in Germany she did the same thing in the Nazi Frauenband, and for the same reasons. The Frauenband, like the Red Cross, was patriotic and humanitarian; did your wife ask the Red Cross if ‘Negro’ plasma was segregated from ‘white’?” (57)

3. Hitler and I

The figure of Hitler, and the German society at large, was institutionalized patriarchy. Fathers had complete control in the household and in the state, and this reflected back on the psychology of the German people. At the top of the State patriarchy was Hitler, who was deluded by his advisors. Public relations (i.e. propaganda) raised him to the level of the ultimate father figure, with obvious psychoanallytic consequences.

“None of these 9 ordinary Germans thought then or thinks now that the rights of man, in his own case, were violated or even more than mildly inhibited for reasons of what they then accepted (and still accept) as the national emergency proclaimed four weeks after Hitler took office as Chancellor.” (63)

“Hitler was a spellbinder, a natural orator. I think he was carried away from the truth, even from truth, by his passion. Even so, he always believed what he said.” (65)

“The clue to the change (and a radical change it seems to be) may be the emancipation of the German woman and, in particular, of the wife, which Nazism tried to overcome.” (67) More material ripe for psychoanalysis.

4. What would you have done?

Again, this could happen to anybody. Mayer stresses that only a few people at the top were responsible for the crimes against Jews; the millions of other citizens didn’t know or literally could not do anything about it. It didn’t start with Jews though, it started with Communists and anti-Nazi’s, enemies of the State.

German before/during/after Nazism takes very detailed records of every person. Policeman Hofmeister: “Consider how nearly impossible it is, and always has been, in Germany for someone to escape or ‘lose’ himself. In such a country, my friend, law and order rule always.” (77)

“There was no open trial for enemies of the state. It was said it wasn’t necessary; they had forfeited their right to it.” (82)

5. The Joiners

The vast majority of German citizens joined the Nazi party because everyone else was doing it, or some other similar non-reason. Also Mayer seems to have some guilt about not doing anything during the American Japanese internment camps — he keeps mentioning it as an off-hand aside. He is obviously drawing parallels in a sort-of moral equivalence between Japanese camps and Jewish camps. This was some edgy stuff for 1955, I imagine.

“In the Weimar Republic the German tradition of the nonpolitical, nonparty civil servant (always safely conservative) was broken down; the Nazis finished the politicalization of the government workers which the Social Democrats began.” (85)

The (volunteer) fire fighting department name changed to “fire fighting police” even though the workers wanted to remain independent. Four years later they were put under the Ss, effectively making them Nazi SS. (92)

6. The Way To Stop Communism

Mayer explains how Nazism was presented as a way to stop Communism in Germany.

“Hitler talked always against the government, against the lost war, against the peace treaty, against unemployment. (95)

“It was the Arbeiter, Sozalist party, the Party of workers controlling the social order; it was not for intellectuals.” (95)

Nazism was the opponent to Communism/Bolshevism, Us-versus-them mentality. (97-8)

Nazi Party Program demanded “positive Christianity” for Germany. (100)

“The reluctant Nazis had a disdain for the entire system, as if it were fixed, and the elites were just going through the motions.” (101)

“My friends wanted Germany purified. They wanted it purified of the politicans, of all politicians.” Drain the swamp? (102)

“And Hitler, the pure man, the antipolitician, was the man, untainted by ‘politics’, which was only a cloak for corruption.” (102)

7. We Think With Our Blood

Always in Germany, before Nazism, and again now, the title is a genuine reflection of class distiction.” (106)

Socitey in Germany is/was much more stratified than America: “In the villages the parents are still literally afraid of the teacher”. (108)

German communities have a much stronger emphasis on authoritarian structure than American. This potentially allowed the Nazis to hijack the authority and rule without question. (110)

Mussolini’s “official philosopher Giovanni Gentile: “We think with our blood.” (111)

“Thus Nazism, as it proceeded from practice to theory, had 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 inferrior or irresponsible caliber whose views conformed dishonestly or, worse yet, honestly to the Party line. […] In order to be a throy and not just a practice, National Socialism required the destruction of academic independence.”

8. The Anti-Semitic Swindle

The German people were (seemingly) mostly ignorant as to what Jews are, what they do, what they believe. This ignorance lead to fear of the Jewish people. (123-4)

“The propaganda didn’t make me think of him as I knew him, but of him as a Jew. And it was as a Jew, praying alone, that he frightened us.” (124)

9. “Everybody knew.” “Nobody knew.”

Mayer is basically drivin ghome the point of anti-Semitism: “The one passion [the people interviewed] seemed to have left was anti-Semetism,” despite losing the war and the end of Nazism. In fact, the end of Nazism did nothing to change their perceptions of the Jews. They were still ignorant and even (as the last chapter showed) afraid of the Jews: afraid of their religious practices, afraid of their language and their customs.

10. “We Christians Had The Duty”

Mayer repeatedly points out the contradictions in his Nazi friends’ belief systems and worldview, as he investigates and explicates their beliefs. (139)

“Have you seen the ‘race purity’ chart?” “Yes,” I said. “Well, then, you know. A whole system. We Germans like systems, you know. It all fitted together, so it was science, system and science, if only you looked at the circles, black, white, and shaded, and not real people.” (142)

11. The Crimes of the Losers

On “the day after the Nazi leaders were hanged the New York Times said: ‘Mankind has entered a new world of international morality.'” (144)

“Herr Damm had a mandate from Hitler, the head of the government, to boycott Jews.”

12. “Thats the way we are”

Germans don’t understand the American view of government “in which the enduring fact of society, the will of the people, is represented by an instrument which is here today and gone tomorrow.” (152)

Mayer is saying that the German people are not yet inclined (capable of?) self-government: “Their experience with even the outward forms of self-government does not, as yet, incline them to it.” Seems like a sweeping generalization. In any case, Germans tend to be authoritarian, is his point. (159)

13. But then it was too late

“What happened here was the gradual habitutaion 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 understand it, it could not be released because of national security.” (166)

“Nazism… kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.” (167)

In the early days of the rise of Nazism, outspoken opponents were accused of being “alarmist” for speaking against Nazi terror, even in university. (169)

This entire page (170-1) is a quote about how it feels to suddenly realize xenophobia has been institutionalized, and the entire country has slowly been brainwashed to believe 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 has 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.
“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. Then 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 mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, 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 live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.
“You have gone almost all the way yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effor on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortable every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.”

14. Collective Shame

Mayer here explains how the Germans feel a “collective shame” — almost like a sense of guilt — for what happened to the Jews. Mayer juxtaposes this with American racism, and then ends by claiming that this post hoc shame is a hypocrisy because none of them cared enough to stop it as it was happening.

“I was employed in a defense plant (a war plant, of course, but they were always called defense plants).” (177)

“My education did not help me,” he said, ” and I had a broader and better education that most men have had or ever will have. All it did, in the end, was enable me to rationalize my failure of faith more easily than I might have done if I had been ignorant.” (181)

“The six extremists all said of the extermination of Jews, ‘That was wrong’ or ‘That was going too far’ as if to say, ‘The gas oven was somewhat too great a punishment for people who, after all, deserved very great punishment.'” (183)

Mayer on comparing himself with the Germans: “My being less bestial, in my laws and practices, than they were does not make me more Godly tan they, for difference in degree is not difference in kind.” (185)

15. The Furies: Heinrich Hildebrandt

This chapter was Hildebrandt’s personal story of why he felt so shameful. Really well-told, Mayer is a great writer.

“…his knowledge of foreign cultures made him anti-Nazi.” (189)

“…having to teach everything, they [primary school teachers] had been trained thoroughly in nothing. This half-educated condition made them excellect Nazi material…” (196)

“Every student had to take a biology examination to be graduated, and the biology course was a complete distortion of Mendelianism to prive that heredity was everything.” (198)

“The talk always avoided politics.” (203)

16. The Furies: Johann Kessler

It seems that Nazism was becoming a religion — literally taking people away from Catholicism and Christianity.

Gottgläubig — non-church-connected believer in God.” (226)

17. The Furies: Furor Teutonicus

A German joke: Who would trade Asia or Africa for Germany, “a region hideous and rude, under a rigorous climate, dismal to behold or cultivate?” Answer: the Germans. (227)

This chapter was more talk about how the Catholic church faired against Nazism. Quasi-theology, not utterly convincing.

18. There Is No Such Thing

Mayer is definitely assuming a linear progression of history. This makes it hard to take his analysis seriously. (243)

Now Mayer seems to be painting broad stokes over all Germans. His point in this chapter is to say that the “German spirit” is a “fantasy”. This whole chapter is weird, not rigorous or clear at all. Too much rhetoric. (244)

19. Pressure Cooker

Mayer is still pursuing this analysis of German history relying solely on stereotypes about German people and their differences with Engilsh, Swedish, Swiss, etc people. The entire rhetoric is so naive and amateur — it’s difficult to read. Was this how people thought in 1955? Or is this just how poor historians think? (249)

20. “Peoria über Alles”

Summary: Mayer users a fictional state “Peoria” as a rhetorical device to illustrate how the Germans became so nationalistic. Not very convincing.


“wie Gott in Frankreich” -> “like God in France” is the German expression for “care free” (276)

“It is the Germans’ ideals which are dangerous.” (279) I thought there was “no such thing” as German spirit? Is “spirit” all that different from “ideology”? Mayer is not convining here, the entire second half of the book is very poor.

Chapter 27. Mayer points out that Americans can’t know what it was like to be Germans in the war, setting the stage for the next chapter, which deals with our treatment of post-war Germany the Occupation, etc.

“Marx is talking to the man whose house and savings are gone, who has nothing to sell but his labor.” (335)

34. The Uncalculated Risk

Mayer ends undramatically with a rambling discussion of the possibility of a “Europa Union”, which obviously became the European Union. This chapter is interesting from a historical perspective, although not terribly enlightening.

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