Book Review - They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer
From the outside looking in, the vast majority of world opinion on Hitler's regime identifies it as evil. But what about the people who lived within the system? Did they realize the path they were going down? Did they have choices? And after the fact, have they changed? Milton Mayer examined those (and many more) questions in his 1955 book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. I found it a fascinating read, not necessarily as an indictment on German behavior, but as a warning that we are susceptible to the same trap. And I wouldn't immediately disagree with the assertion that we're already well down that path.
Mayer found ten typical Germans in the town of Kronenberg in the early 50's, spanning a range of occupations and status. He became friends with them over the time he was there, and had many talks about their thoughts and views of what had happened in Germany with Hitler and the National Socialist party (more commonly known as the Nazis). Someone outside of Germany, looking at this after the passage of years, would think that the people would be contrite and ashamed over all that had happened. I would think that there would be an acknowledgement that the Jewish people were treated wrongly, and that one man's hatred of the Jewish race led to six million deaths.
And of course, that would be my national, ethnic, and cultural bias projecting onto others, and it would be incorrect.
It's impossible to make a blanket statement about *all* Germans (just as it's impossible to accurately stereotype any group), but there was a common feeling that Hitler was one of the "little people", and that he properly represented the goals and aspirations of the common population. Coming out of the depression, he and his party fed the people and boosted employment. Those who were not actively political looked at their lives as benefiting from the ruling party, and as such tended to downplay the incremental decisions and actions that ultimately led to the occupation and division of the country after World War 2. Even more disturbing was the attitude of "those people" (the Jews) being responsible for many of the problems of society, and the ready acceptance that relocating them to other areas would be to their own benefit. Yes, there was probably something going on with camps and genocide, but it was best not to ask or talk about it, for fear that you yourself could get caught up in the issue. Best just to mind your own business and let everyone else take care of themselves.
In no way do I think I have any insight or wisdom into the German psyche, either from the 50's or now. Others can debate as to how much has changed. But what this book *does* do is point out how easy it is for a nation to be led down a path of decreasing freedoms and increasing abuse of power. Far too many citizens want to be fed and entertained, and beyond that they don't really care much. They will buy into the prevailing attitudes told to them from on high, never questioning where it all may lead. They Thought They Were Free is an excellent study to apply to our own nation, making the correlations between the past and the present. If read thoughtfully, it should deeply trouble you as to where we're headed...