Wednesday, October 22, 2014

They Thought They Were Free

They Thought they Were Free: the Germans, 1933-1945
346 pages
© 1955 Milton Mayer

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. 


  1. "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...."

    The Divine Right of Kings only really fell away after the Civil War almost 100 years later. Until that time Monarchs where still pretty much (mostly) above the law. Different times, different rules.

  2. What about the idea that the king SHOULD be held under the law? Would it be accurate to say it was made normal practice after the Civil War, but still considered an ideal before?

    (Rather like the American ideal that the president is subject to the Constitution and can't executive-order anything he has a mind to, I suppose... )

  3. Pre-Civil War (AFAIK) there where isolated calls for Kings (and Queens) to be bound by law but this was very much a minority opinion. As Monarchs where supposed to be God's representative on Earth binding them by imperfect human law was pretty close to blasphemy.

    Kings/Queens could, until the mid-17th Century, do pretty much what they liked and their only limits where imposed by the other nobles - depending how powerful they where allowed to become - and how much money the Monarch could generate through taxation...and, of course, not even the Catholic Church could control Henry 8th.


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