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It Can Happen Here

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In the New York Review of Books Cass R. Sunstein reviews a couple of ominous books about how a public can blind itself to what is happening (review also available in complete form here):

They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933–45
by Milton Mayer, with a new afterword by Richard J. Evans
University of Chicago Press, 378 pp., $20.00 (paper)

Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century
by Konrad H. Jarausch
Princeton University Press, 446 pp., $35.00<

Liberal democracy has enjoyed much better days. Vladimir Putin has entrenched authoritarian rule and is firmly in charge of a resurgent Russia. In global influence, China may have surpassed the United States, and Chinese president Xi Jinping is now empowered to remain in office indefinitely. In light of recent turns toward authoritarianism in Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines, there is widespread talk of a “democratic recession.” In the United States, President Donald Trump may not be sufficiently committed to constitutional principles of democratic government.

In such a time, we might be tempted to try to learn something from earlier turns toward authoritarianism, particularly the triumphant rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. The problem is that Nazism was so horrifying and so barbaric that for many people in nations where authoritarianism is now achieving a foothold, it is hard to see parallels between Hitler’s regime and their own governments. Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imaginable series of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought that it can’t happen again.

But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.

Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free, recently republished with an afterword by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, was one of the first accounts of ordinary life under Nazism. Dotted with humor and written with an improbably light touch, it provides a jarring contrast with Sebastian Haffner’s devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, Defying Hitler, which gives a moment-by-moment, you-are-there feeling to Hitler’s rise. (The manuscript was discovered by Haffner’s son after the author’s death and published in 2000 in Germany, where it became an immediate sensation.)* A much broader perspective comes from Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives, an effort to reconstruct the experience of Germans across the entire twentieth century. What distinguishes the three books is their sense of intimacy. They do not focus on historic figures making transformative decisions. They explore how ordinary people attempted to navigate their lives under terrible conditions.

Haffner’s real name was Raimund Pretzel. (He used a pseudonym so as not to endanger his family while in exile in England.) He was a journalist, not a historian or political theorist, but he interrupts his riveting narrative to tackle a broad question: “What is history, and where does it take place?” He objects that most works of history give “the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be ‘at the helm of the ship of state’ and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history.” In his view, that’s wrong. What matters are “we anonymous others” who are not just “pawns in the chess game,” because the “most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large.” Haffner insists on the importance of investigating “some very peculiar, very revealing, mental processes and experiences,” involving “the private lives, emotions and thoughts of individual Germans.”


Mayer had the same aim. An American journalist of German descent, he tried to meet with Hitler in 1935. He failed, but he did travel widely in Nazi Germany. Stunned to discover a mass movement rather than a tyranny of a diabolical few, he concluded that his real interest was not in Hitler but in people like himself, to whom “something had happened that had not (or at least not yet) happened to me and my fellow-countrymen.” In 1951, he returned to Germany to find out what had made Nazism possible.

In They Thought They Were Free, Mayer decided to focus on ten people, different in many respects but with one characteristic in common: they had all been members of the Nazi Party. Eventually they agreed to talk, accepting his explanation that he hoped to enable the people of his nation to have a better understanding of Germany. Mayer was truthful about that and about nearly everything else. But he did not tell them that he was a Jew.

In the late 1930s—the period that most interested Mayer—his subjects were working as a janitor, a soldier, a cabinetmaker, an office manager, a baker, a bill collector, an inspector, a high school teacher, and a police officer. One had been a high school student. All were male. None of them occupied positions of leadership or influence. All of them referred to themselves as “wir kleine Leute, we little people.” They lived in Marburg, a university town on the river Lahn, not far from Frankfurt.

Mayer talked with them over the course of a year, under informal conditions—coffee, meals, and long, relaxed evenings. He became friends with each (and throughout he refers to them as such). As he put it, with evident surprise, “I liked them. I couldn’t help it.” They could be ironic, funny, and self-deprecating. Most of them enjoyed a joke that originated in Nazi Germany: “What is an Aryan? An Aryan is a man who is tall like Hitler, blond like Goebbels, and lithe like Göring.” They also could be wise. Speaking of the views of ordinary people under Hitler, one of them asked:

Opposition? How would anybody know? How would anybody know what somebody else opposes or doesn’t oppose? That a man says he opposes or doesn’t oppose depends upon the circumstances, where, and when, and to whom, and just how he says it. And then you must still guess why he says what he says.

When Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man,” and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”

Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we—you and I—saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.

Mayer suggests that even when tyrannical governments do horrific things, outsiders tend to exaggerate their effects on the actual experiences of most citizens, who focus on their own lives and “the sights which meet them in their daily rounds.” Nazism made things better for the people Mayer interviewed, not (as many think) because it restored some lost national pride but because it improved daily life. Germans had jobs and better housing. They were able to vacation in Norway or Spain through the “Strength Through Joy” program. Fewer people were hungry or cold, and the sick were more likely to receive treatment. The blessings of the New Order, as it was called, seemed to be enjoyed by “everybody.”


Even in retrospect Mayer’s subjects liked and admired Hitler. They saw him as someone who had “a feeling for masses of people” and spoke directly in opposition to the Versailles Treaty, to unemployment—to all aspects of the existing order. They applauded Hitler for his rejection of “the whole pack”—“all the parliamentary politicians and all the parliamentary parties”—and for his “cleanup of moral degenerates.” The bank clerk described Hitler as “a spellbinder, a natural orator. I think he was carried away from truth, even from truth, by his passion. Even so, he always believed what he said.”

Mayer did not bring up the topic of anti-Semitism with any of his subjects, but after a few meetings, each of them did so on his own, and they returned to it constantly. When the local synagogue was burned in 1938, most of the community was under only one obligation: “not to interfere.” Eventually Mayer showed his subjects the local newspaper from November 11, 1938, which contained a report: “In the interest of their own security, a number of male Jews were taken into custody yesterday. This morning they were sent away from the city.” None of them remembered seeing it, or indeed anything like it.

The killing of six million Jews? Fake news. Four of Mayer’s subjects insisted that the only Jews taken to concentration camps were traitors to Germany, and that the rest were permitted to leave with their property or its fair market value. The bill collector agreed that the killing of the Jews “was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did.” He added that “some say it happened and some say it didn’t,” and that you “can show me pictures of skulls…but that doesn’t prove it.” In any case, “Hitler had nothing to do with it.” The tailor spoke similarly: “If it happened, it was wrong. But I don’t believe it happened.”

With evident fatigue, the baker reported, “One had no time to think. There was so much going on.” His account was similar to that of one of Mayer’s colleagues, a German philologist in the country at the time, who emphasized the devastatingly incremental nature of the descent into tyranny and said that “we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.” The philologist pointed to a regime bent on diverting its people through endless dramas (often involving real or imagined enemies), and “the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise.” In his account, “each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’” that people could no more see it “developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”


Focusing largely on 1933, in Defying Hitler Haffner offers a radically different picture, in which the true nature of Nazism was evident to many Germans from the start. Just twenty-five years old that year and studying law with the goal of becoming a judge or administrator, he describes the mounting effects of Nazism on the lives of his high-spirited friends and fellow students, who were preoccupied with fun, job prospects, and love affairs. Haffner says that as soon as the Nazis took power, he was saved by his capacity to smell the rot:

As for the Nazis, my nose left me with no doubts. It was just tiresome to talk about which of their alleged goals and intentions were still acceptable or even “historically justified” when all of it stank. How it stank! That the Nazis were enemies, my enemies and the enemies of all I held dear, was crystal clear to me from the outset.

As Haffner describes it, a form of terror began quickly, as members of the SS made their presence felt, intimidating people in public places. At the same time, citizens were distracted by an endless stream of festivities and celebrations. The intimidation, accompanied by the fervent, orchestrated pro-Nazi activity, produced an increase in fear, which led many skeptics to become Nazis. Nonetheless, people flirted, enjoyed romances, “went to the cinema, had a meal in a small wine bar, drank Chianti, and went dancing together.” Sounding here like Mayer’s subjects, Haffner writes that it was the “automatic continuation of ordinary life” that “hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror.”

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 June 2020 at 12:02 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Government, Law, Politics

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