They Thought They Were Free
and why "decent men" became Nazis. Written by an
American journalist of German\Jewish descent.
Mr. Mayer provides a fascinating window into the lives, thoughts and
emotions of a people caught up in the rush of the Nazi movement.
It is a book that should make people pause and think
-- not only about the Germans, but also about themselves
discrepancy between the kind of society many Germans thought they were building
and the reality of the horror of the Third Reich presents one of the most
intriguing questions of our age.
"How could it -- the Holocaust -- have happened in a modern,
industrialized, educated nation ?
The genesis of my interest in the Third Reich lies in my search for an
answer to that enigmatic question.
excerpt reproduced below is one of the most insightful I have yet discovered.
I share it with you -
Pass it on - Lest we forget.
Then It Was Too Late
no one seemed to notice," said a colleague of mine, a philologist,
"was the ever widening gap, after1933,between the government and the
people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany.
And it became always wider. You know it doesn't make people close to their
government to be told that this is a people's government, a true democracy, or
to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote.
All this has little, really nothing to do with knowing one is governing.
happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to
being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to
believing 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 he people could understand it, it could not be released because of national
security. And their
sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen
this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.
separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so
gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even
intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true
patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and
reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the
slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and
will understand me when I say that my Middle High German was my life. It was all
I cared about. I was a scholar, a specialist.
Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the universe
was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies,
and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists,
on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had
to, was "expected to" participate that had not been there or had not
been important before. It
was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one's energies, coming on top
of the work one really wanted to do.
You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things.
One had no time."
I said, "are the words of my friend the baker. "One had no time to
think. There was so
much going on." "Your friend the baker was right," said my
colleague. "The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into
being, was above all diverting.
It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think
anyway. I do not
speak of your "little men", your baker and so on; I speak of my
colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you.
Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had.
There was no need to.
Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about - we were
decent people - and kept us so busy with continuous changes and
"crises" and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of
the "national enemies", without and within, that we had no time to
think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all
around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful.
Who wants to think?
live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it - please try to
believe me - unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness,
acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop.
Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on
occasion, "regretted," that, unless one were detached from the whole
process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in
principle, what all these "little measures" that no "patriotic
German" could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing
from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing.
One day it is over his head.
is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men?
Frankly, I do not know.
I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have
pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice
- "Resist the beginnings" and "consider the end."
But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the
beginnings. One must
foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary
men or even by extraordinary men?
Things might have changed here before they went as far as they did; they
didn't, but they might have.
And everyone counts on that might.
"little men," your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism
in principle. Men
like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that
would be too much to say) but because we sensed better.
Pastor Niemoller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me
when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked
the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist,
and so he did nothing: and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a
little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and
then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier,
but still he did nothing. And
then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something -
but then it was too late."
see," my colleague went on, "one doesn't see exactly where or how to
move. 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 the one great shocking
occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in
resisting somehow. You
don't want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don't want to "go out of
your way to make trouble."
Why not? - Well, you are not in the habit of doing it.
And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it
is also genuine uncertainty.
is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it
grows. Outside, in
the streets, in the general community, "everyone is happy.
One hears no protest, and certainly sees none.
You know, in France or Italy there will be slogans against the government
painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps,
there is not even this. In
the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to you
colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say?
They say, "It's not so bad" or "You're seeing things"
or "You're an alarmist."
you are an alarmist. You
are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it.
These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you
don't know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end?
On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate
you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even
neurotic. You are
left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought
as you have.
your friends are fewer now. Some
have drifted off somewhere or submerged themselves in their work.
You no longer see as many as you did at meetings or gatherings. Informal
groups become smaller; attendance drops off in little organizations, and the
organizations themselves wither.
Now, in small gatherings of your oldest friends, you feel that you are
talking to yourselves, that you are isolated from the reality of things.
This weakens your confidence still further and serves as a further
deterrent to – to what? It
is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an
occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker.
So you wait, and you wait.
the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join
with you, never comes. That's
the difficulty. If
the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first
and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked
– if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in "43" had come
immediately after the "German Firm" stickers on the windows of
non-Jewish shops in "33".
But of course this isn't the way it happens.
In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them
imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next.
Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand
at Step B, why should you at Step C?
And so on to Step D.
one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush
in upon you. The
burden of self deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my
case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying "Jew swine,"
collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed
and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in – your nation,
your people – is not the world you were in at all.
The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the
shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the
holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong
mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed.
Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and
fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is
transformed. Now you
live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.
The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in
order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.
have gone almost all the way yourself.
Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events
at all. It has flowed
to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part.
On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every
day, with new morals, new principles.
You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a
year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.
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 do
nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university
when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood.
A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this
one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks.
Too late. You
are compromised beyond repair.
then? You must then
shoot yourself. A few
"adjust" your principles.
Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however.
Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame.
This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism:
shame. Many Germans
became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares
said nothing. I
thought of nothing to say.
can tell you," my colleague went on, "of a man in Leipzig, a judge.
He was not a Nazi, except nominally, but he certainly wasn't an
anti-Nazi. He was
just – a judge. In
"42" or "43", early "43", I think it was, a Jew
was tried before him in a case involving, but only incidentally, relations with
an "Aryan" woman. This
was "race injury", something the Party was especially anxious to
punish. In the case a bar, however, the judge had the power to convict the man
of a "nonracial" offense and send him to an ordinary prison for a very
long term, thus saving him from Party "processing" which would have
meant concentration camp or, more probably, deportation and death. But the man
was innocent of the "nonracial" charge, in the judge's opinion, and
so, as an honorable judge, he acquitted him.
Of course, the Party seized the Jew as soon as he left the courtroom."
the judge. He could
not get the case off his conscience – a case, mind you, in which he had
acquitted an innocent man. He
thought that he should have convicted him and saved him from the Party, but how
could he have convicted an innocent man?
The thing preyed on him more and more, and he had to talk about it, first
to his family, then to his friends, and then to acquaintances.
(That's how I heard about it.)
After the "44" Putsch they arrested him.
After that, I don't know."
the war began," my colleague continued, "resistance, protest,
criticism, complaint, all carried with them a multiplied likelihood of the
greatest punishment. Mere
lack of enthusiasm, or failure to show it in public, was "defeatism."
You assumed that there were lists of those who would be "dealt
with" later, after the victory.
Goebbels was very clever here, too.
He continually promised a "victory orgy" to "take care
of" those who thought that their "treasonable attitude" had
escaped notice. And
he meant it; that was not just propaganda.
And that was enough to put an end to all uncertainty.
"Once the war began, the government could do anything "necessary" to win it; so it was with the "final solution" of the Jewish problem, which the Nazis always talked about but never dared undertake, not even the Nazis, until war and its "necessities" gave them the knowledge that they could get away with it. The people abroad who thought that war against Hitler would help the Jews were wrong. And the people in Germany who, once the war had begun, still thought of complaining, protesting, resisting, were betting on Germany's losing the war. It was a long bet. Not many made it."