“They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945” This is a book written by Milton Mayer. He interviewed ten Germans extensively and wrote down how ordinary Germans felt during the years 1933 to 1945. This was done in the 1950’s.
Here are some notes I took from this book:
This point about how we (in later ages and different countries) know Nazism and how the people who lived and were the Nazis knew it is important:
“As we know Nazism, it was a naked, total tyranny which degraded its adherents and enslaved its opponents and adherents alike; terrorism and terror in daily life, private and public; brute personal and mob injustice at every level of association; a flank attack upon God and a frontal attack upon the worth of the human person and the rights which that worth implies. Those nine ordinary Germans knew it absolutely otherwise, and they still know it oberwise. If our view of National Socialism is a little simples, so is theirs. And autocracy? Yes, of course, an autocracy, as in the fabled days of “the golden time” our parents knew. But a tyranny, as you Americans use the term? Nonsense.”
As one man interviewed said “no one imagined it would lead to war”.
As for how the Germans came to a point where they openly persecuted the Jews, Mayer had this to say:
“Ordinary people – and ordinary Germans – cannot be expected to tolerate activities which outrage the ordinary sense of ordinary decency unless the victims are, in advance, successfully stigmatized as enemies of the people, of the nation, the race, the religion. Or, if they are not enemies (that comes later), they must be an element within the community somehow extrinsic to the common bond, a de-compositive ferment (be it only by the way they part their hair or tie their necktie) in the uniformity which is everywhere the condition of the common quiet. The Germans’ innocuous acceptance and practice of social anti-Semitism before Hitlerism had undermined the resistance of their ordinary decency to the stigmatization and persecution to come.”
The author then goes on to point out the incidences of social prejudice and discrimination against various groups in the USA, and how these were publicly tolerated and unchallenged in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Mayer speaks about how this continuing assault on a certain groups (Social Democrats, Jews, Communists) were guided to the point that they never overstepped the boundaries of the ordinary German’s awareness, thereby leaving them tolerated by the mass of the population. There really was not much active resistance, as people continued going to work, live their lives, go to public celebrations, and pay taxes. He also spoke about how the pressure of conformity pervades throughout the community. All of this, plus a growing prosperity for most of the people, lead to an acceptance of the Nazi program - and certainly prevented any resistance from becoming wide spread.
And how exactly did the government of
“What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believe 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.”
And how did the German people react – again, some clues:
“To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it – please try to believe me – unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, then most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion ‘regretted’….. Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow….. Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing)…. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.”I recommend the book.