Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free, had long been on my reading list.  By unhappy coincidence this turned out to be the year to pick it up.  Originally published in 1955 with many reprintings following, it was reissued in 2017.  With good reason.  Reading it may scare the bejeezus out of you, or it may give you a vantage point from which to view the events in the United States these past years.  

 Mayer, then a journalist and itinerant university professor, an America Jew with distinctly Quaker connections, went to Germany in 1952 to try to understand

 “…this monstrous man, the Nazi.  I wanted to talk to him and to listen to him.  I wanted to try to understand him.”  

Through determined inquiries and skillful persuasion he found ten ordinary Germans, “little men” as they saw themselves, to interview over the course of one year, though interview is too formal a term.  He had conversations with them at dinner tables, on front porches, and on Sunday walks.  With the exception of one, all became men Mayer referred to as friends.

They Thought they Were Free begins with Mayer’s reportage and analysis of those interviews; it then continues to various observations and assertions Mayer makes with regard to the Germany, the Occupation, to America, and to NATO.  The early chapters are, by far, the most interesting, and most relevant to today. 

The men had occupations such as tailor, cabinet maker, bill collector, bank clerk. One was a volunteer fireman  None were wealthy.  If they had status it was modest in the modest city of Kronenburg (an invented name for the actual town of Marburg.) The highest, and most respected was the teacher with education far beyond the others and accorded the esteem given to teachers for centuries in Germany.  None but teacher had ever traveled abroad; none had ever talked to a foreigner or read the foreign press.  None of them, except the teacher, ever thought, or thought at the time of the interviews, that Nazism was evil.  When asked why he had believed in National Socialism, one said  “Because it promised to solve the unemployment problem”  And it did.  “But I never imagined what it would lead to.  Nobody did.”  “What it would lead to” was the war, not the Holocaust, about which he was still mostly dubious.  Another said, “National Socialism  had a place for me.”  During the interviews he refused to believe so many Jews had been killed. How could there be, he wanted to know, if there were still so many. Continue reading »