Tag Archives: history

*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 tragic 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…

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February Reading

Currently finishing A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manuel DeLanda. Fascinating re-thinking of history using nonlinear metaphors, but sometimes I wonder if he pushes the metaphors too far; I don’t have enough background knowledge to say either way. I’ve got They Thought They Were Free (via pushcx) from the library which I’ll start this weekend. I’ve been very into history lately.

For fiction, Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Just started it a few days ago. It’s entertaining, but I don’t know how historically accurate it is. Follett was previously a thriller writer, and you can tell from some parts of the story. Much faster moving than Great Expectations and Dharma Bums, both of which I allowed to go half-finished from last month…

From the chapter on Leonardo da Vinci in Visari’s Lives:

Da Vinci would buy and the immediately release birds…

He was so pleasing in conversation, that he attracted to himself the hearts of men. And although he possessed, one might say, nothing, and worked little, he always kept servants and horses, in which latter he took much delight, and particularly in all other animals, which he managed with the greatest love and patience; and this he showed when often passing by the places where birds were sold, for, taking them with his own hand out of their cages, and having paid to those who sold them the price that was asked, he let them fly away into the air, restoring to them their lost liberty. For which reason nature was pleased so to favor him, that, wherever he turned his thought, brain, and mind, he displayed such divine power in his works, that, in giving them their perfection, no one was ever his peer in readiness, vivacity, excellence, beauty, and grace.

Was it karma? In another story, a Prince had commissioned a work from da Vinci, but da Vinci was not working on it, and the Prior grew worried…

Leonardo, knowing that the intellect of that Prince was acute and discerning, was pleased to discourse at large with the Duke on the subject, a thing which he had never done with the Prior: and he reasoned much with him about art, and made him understand that men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least, seeking out inventions with the mind, and forming those perfect ideas which the hands afterwards express and reproduce from the images already conceived in the brain.

What can history teach us? From Chapter 1 of Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History:

Rulers, statesmen, and nations are told that they ought to learn from the experience of history. Yet what experience and history teach us is this, that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, nor acted in accordance with the lessons to be derived from it. Each era has such particular circumstances, such individual situations, that decisions can only be made from within the era itself. In the press of world events, there is no help to be had from general principles, nor from the memory of similar conditions in former times—for a pale memory has no force against the vitality and freedom of the present. In this respect, nothing is more trite than the repeated appeal to Greek and Roman examples, which was so commonplace at the time of the French Revolution. No difference could be greater than that between the nature of those ancient peoples and our own time.

The translator, Leo Rauch, footnotes an interesting quote from Hume:

See Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VIII, Part I, “Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English. … Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular.”

It’s worth noting that Hume lived in rather extreme poverty until he published a multi-volume history of England, after which he skyrocketed to fame and fortune in the intellectual atmosphere of his time. Surely such a deep study of history helped to inform his other writings.

Pride and Cosmopolitanism

Colourful army

Around 170 A.D., Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when he has you in his spell.” Even in religion, “pride” is listed as the most detrimental of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride is the insidious parasite that sidles into your consciousness when, as Marcus said, you believe too strongly that the work you do is all-important. Examples from history abound: Maximilien Robespierre, after spearheading the French Revolution and sending the royal family to the guillotine, tried to push his deistic beliefs—“the Cult of the Supreme Being”—on the French citizenry, and was promptly sent to the guillotine himself; Cyrus the Younger, in an attempt to usurp the title King of Persia from his brother, Ataxerxes II, was slain by his own blood in a civil war; Louis Borders, co-founder of Borders Bookstores, had all the money, investors, and connections needed to create a successful online grocery delivery service, but Webvan nonetheless failed in plain view, in fact voted the largest dot-com flop in history by CNET.

“Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when he has you in his spell.”
Marcus Aurelius

The common thread among all of the above examples is the extreme sense of pride that one’s ambitions could not possibly go awry. Every failure believes that they are meant to be doing the work they’re consumed by; and if they fail—no, when they fail—they fail in grandiose fashion.

This is the thought that occupies the back of my mind as people talk of “American Pride.” I’m sure al-Qaeda had pride in the job they did on September 11th. Who’s to say that their pride is wrong and ours is right? Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals obviously comes to mind: “While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself.’” This “slave morality”—Is it not the same morality that says No to those races that are different from ours? Is it not the same morality that condemned “colored people” for centuries? Is it not the same morality that manifests in the typical portrayal of “pride in one’s country”?

“…slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself.’”
—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

I’ve always observed that the overwhelming majority of people don’t know why they do or think what they do or think, and this is obviously the case in how Muslims are portrayed in the media. Maybe this is just the macro manifestation of a mob mentality gone completely apeshit crazy over a threat to their precious pride: the reporters need a story, and the American Pride is always a good headline, so even now, ten years after the threat, we rejoice over the loss of a life, we celebrate over the murder of a man of our own species. Or perhaps this is the kind of anti-cosmopolitan world we live in: whenever there is an inter-race conflict, the media will serve as cheerleaders to our cause, as a rallying point for our narcissistic, head-phone-wearing, screen-staring, detached generation that won’t dare to step outside its cultural vacuum.

Or maybe, just maybe, we can find a thought leader that has actually studied the classical philosophies and histories—not simply trained to smile in front of audiences and preach hope—and appreciates, no, affirms and embraces the cultural diversity that will collide with our generation like a plane into a building.

Let’s instead take a step back and learn from the man that wrote the book on cultural synergy, Cosmopolitanism. In the following clip from Examined Life, Kwame Anthony Appiah talks about how to reconcile clashing cultural customs with ever-growing globalization. I beg of you, watch the video, and then read the book.

Watch on YouTube.

Case Study: Two Leaders, One Strategy, Centuries Apart

The Colloseum, Rome, Italy

The Colloseum in Rome, Italy. (Photo: jonrawlinson on flickr)

Gods, epic myths, heroes, and damsels in distress. The history of ancient times fascinates me.

Below is one of my favorite stories from Greek history. The story of Xenophon’s mission to return 10,000 Greek mercenaries to their homeland.

And for entertainment’s sake—and to display a fantastic parallel in strategy—I compare Xenophon’s tactics with those of the infamous abolitionist, John Brown.

Enjoy!


Xenophon was not a mercenary. He was a philosopher with a need for adventure. In the spring of 401 B.C., a friend invited him to join Cyrus’ army on a mission to quiet a few rebellious cities within the Persian Empire. Some 10,000 Greek soldiers had signed up for the expedition, and Xenophon decided to join them as a historian. Perhaps he could write a book about the march afterwards.

After traveling deep into Persia, Cyrus told the army his true purpose: to march on Babylon, dethrone his brother Ataxerxes, and take the crown. Continue reading