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- a reader review of Mental Clarity


They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45

Milton Mayer

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 28, 2015
Category: Non Fiction

Seventy years since the liberation of Auschwitz. For many of those years, writers and historians focused on fact-gathering: What happened? Why it happened — that’s been the thornier question, for it forces us to ask whether the Holocaust was a peculiarly German phenomenon or proof of an intractable darkness in the human enterprise. [If you can bear it, you might consult a recent book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.] Recently, with a new burst of anti-Semitism in Europe, the most urgent question has changed. Is the past prologue — how can we keep the Holocaust from happening again? What was the method a small group of lunatics devised to transform one of the highest cultures on the planet into a death cult? And could that method work now? Of the many books I’ve read about the Holocaust, this one lays that process out in simple, human terms.

In 1935, a Jewish reporter from Chicago went to Germany in the hopes of interviewing Adolph Hitler. That didn’t happen, so he traveled around the country. What he saw surprised him: Nazism wasn’t “the tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions” — it was a mass movement.

In 1951, the Jewish reporter from Chicago returned to Germany. This time Milton Mayer had a different goal: to interview ten Nazis so thoroughly he felt he really knew them. Only then, he believed, might he understand how it came to be that the Germans exterminated millions of their fellow citizens.

He found ten Germans. And interviewed them at such length they became his friends. Reading his daughter’s memories of her father, I can understand how that happened. “His German was awful!” wrote Julie Mayer Vogner. “And this was a great aid in the interviews he conducted: having to repeat, in simpler words, or more slowly, what they had to say made the Germans he was interviewing feel relaxed, equal to, superior to the interviewer, and this made them speak more freely.”

In 1955, Mayer published "They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45." It was a disturbing book then. It still is. For one thing, Mayer had only the warmest feelings for the men he interviewed:

I liked them. I couldn’t help it. Again and again, as I sat or walked with one or another of my ten [Nazi] friends, I was overcome by the same sensation that had got in the way of my newspaper reporting in Chicago years before [in the 1930s]. I liked Al Capone. I liked the way he treated his mother. He treated her better than I treated mine.

The ten interviewees were quite the diverse crew: a janitor, soldier, cabinetmaker, Party headquarters office manager, baker, bill collector, high school teacher, high school student, policeman, Labor front inspector.

“These ten men were not men of distinction,” Mayer notes. “They were not opinion makers…. In a nation of seventy million, they were the sixty-nine million plus. They were the Nazis, the little men…” [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

What didn’t they know, and when didn’t they know it?

They 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 [in 1951]. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we knew it, and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it.

And none ever thought Hitler would lead them into war.

Why not?

– They had never traveled abroad.
– They didn’t talk to foreigners or read the foreign press.
– Before Hitler, most had no jobs. Now they did.
– The targets of their hatred had been stigmatized well in advance of any action against them.
– They really weren’t asked to “do” anything — just not to interfere.
– The men who burned synagogues did not live in the cities of the synagogues.
– Hitler was a father figure, right to the end. (He was “betrayed” by his subordinates.)

The more you read, the more your jaw drops. How many people did it require to take over a country? “A few hundred at the top, to plan and direct…. a few thousand to supervise and control…. a few score thousand specialists, eager to serve…a million to do the dirty work….”

There’s more, much more. Some of it is quite specific to the German character (yes, there apparently are national characteristics). And some of it might stand as universal metaphor. If you’re not a history buff, that’s the reason to read this book — it’s a revealing study of “little” people, people who seem insignificant, good citizens who do as they’re told.

Who knew nobodies could be so important — or so dangerous?

To read an excerpt of “They Thought They Were Free”, click here.

Short takes

A Natural History: dances about relationships

Catherine Tharin is a triple threat. She choreographs, she dances, and she’s endured my friendship for more than a decade. She created and performs in “A Natural History,” dances about nature and relationships (but not about ours) on February 5-7 at 8:30 PM and Sunday the 8th at 4 PM, at the West End Theater, 263 West 86th Street. For information and tickets, click here.

Lyrics by Bob Dylan, Music by Marcus Mumford

Performed by Marcus Mumford. At the end, is that sweat in his eye — or tears? (Yes, that’s Johnny Depp on guitar.)

Common and John Legend: “Glory,” from the film “Selma”

The movement is a rhythm to us
Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtaposition in us
Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down” and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up

Two Days, One Night

A film by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, starring Marion Cotillard — that alone should motivate you to see if the art theater near you is showing this film. The Dardenne brothers are master writer/directors; “Two Days, One Night” is Belgium’s nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. As for Cotillard, as A.O Scott writes in the Times, “Her performance is as fine a piece of screen acting as you will ever see.” Like this: After a medical leave, Sandra is ready to return to her job. But the boss has set an impossibly high hurdle: He makes the workers choose between a 1,000 Euro bonus or Sandra’s continued employment. Predictably, they vote for their bonuses. Sandra convinces her boss to have a second, secret vote on Monday. She now has two days to convince her co-workers to give up their bonuses. The film is her life over that weekend. Be warned: “Two Days, One Night” will rip your heart out. It might — it should — also inspire you. At the very least, it will remind you what a great film looks like.