, ,

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.

Nazism kept its promise, they thought. It revived the German spirit and national pride against the predatory demands of their former enemies following WWI; it provided jobs and hope in the world-wide economic catastrophe brought about by the bankers and capitalists (read Jews), and it was a bulwark against communism, which in the nineteen thirties was having great success among the industrial workers, of which there were few in Kronenburg. The news and the propaganda about strikes and armed street battles against the forces of order (read The Nazis) added to the sense of threat these men felt. Then, as now, the threatening ‘other’ was forged, in their view, by the victors, the greedy, and the traitorous insiders – the fifth column.  The response to “throw them all out”  –the older, inept governing class– and replace them with others, tougher and stronger, added thousands to the Nazi Party, and millions of more than passive supporters.

In fact, almost all the men looked back on the years prior to the war “as the best times of their lives.” It was a time of excitement, strong leadership, and rebuilding,  youth festivals, parades and solidarity.  There were summer camps for the children and the Hitler Jugend to organize them and keep them active. There were inexpensive holiday trips to Norway and Spain “for people who had never dreamed of a real holiday trip…”

Mayer recorded on as saying, 

“I remember standing on a Stuttgart Street corner in 1938, during a Nazi festival and the enthusiasm, the new hope of a good life, after so many years of hopelessness, the new belief, after so many years of disillusion, almost swept me … off my feet.” 

 An anti-Nazi woman recalled sitting in a cinema with a Jewish friend. A Nazi parade went across the screen. The thirteen year old daughter whispered “Mother, mother, if I weren’t a Jew, I think I’d be a Nazi!” 

It was not only their sense of belonging, or of finally having work which accounted for their adherence to the Nazi programs, however.  Anti-Semitism had been central, and for many, still was.  As Richard Evans tells us in his Afterword for the 2017 re-publication, the men brought up their animus towards Jews, without prodding by Mayer. 

 Even more unsettling than beliefs and behavior at the time, is that in the early 1950s, the beliefs of many held firm. 

 “None of my friends, even today, ascribes moral evil to Hitler, although most of them think that he made fatal strategical mistakes…”  

It wasn’t Hitler, they thought,  it was those under him who had failed him, had given bad advice, had carried out deeds he had not been aware of.  


 The unfortunate timing of reading it today is the uncanny similarity these men, their opinions and actions, resemble those of a significant portion of the U.S. population.  In fact, in the German’s allegiance to, and passive — not at all begrudging –support of the Nazi government and its war effort, they were perhaps less culpable than their counterparts in today’s America.  They genuinely, at least on the evidence of their testimony, did not know much of what was going on.  Not only did they not know of the Death Camps, they did not know any Jews, at least in a neighborly way.  Those they knew were distant and incidental.  They did know, of course, what was said about Jews, the common currency of thought, which they shared.  Several were sure they could identify a Jew in their presence, though none suspected that their interviewer, and friend, was one.  None of them had ever known, on a personal basis, they said, any member of the Gestapo.

This came home to Mayer in one interchange he had. Mayer spoke of the concentration camps in the U.S. for holding Japanese-ancestry people.

“… he asked me what I had done about it. When I said “Nothing,” he said, triumphantly, “There. You learned about all these things openly, through your government and your press. We did not learn through ours. As in your case, nothing was  required of us—in our case, not even knowledge. You knew about things you thought were wrong—you did think it was wrong, didn’t you, Herr Professor?” “Yes.” “So. You did nothing. We heard, or guessed, and we did nothing. So it is everywhere.

Mayer came back to the U.S. in 1952 very uneasy.

“Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany–not by attack from without or subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.  It was what most Germans wanted–or, under pressure of combined illusion and reality, came to want.  They wanted it; the got it; and they liked it. 

I came back home a little afraid for my own country, afraid of what it might want, and get, under pressure of combined reality and illusion.  I felt–and feel–that it was not German man that I had met, but Man.  He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions.  He might be here, under certain conditions.  He might be, under certain conditions, I.” 

Though the book is non-fiction, with its combination of interviews, background and Mayer’s analysis, it reads much like fiction. Mayer’s experience as a reporter, and non-academic added to the sense that this was not a “study,” but something intended for the general reading public.  The material from the interviews is woven together, not placed sequentially as in Studs Terkel’s well known books.  In fact the appearance of being fiction worried the prospective publishers in 1954.  Substantial re-writing had to be done to satisfy their doubts.

Throughout Mayer reminds the reader that, as it was in Germany, so is it often in 1950s America.

 “In the pleasant resort towns of New England Americans have seen signs reading “Selected Clientele” or “Restricted.” They have grown accustomed to seeing such signs, so accustomed that, unless they are non-Caucasian or perhaps, non-“Aryan”, they take no notice of them and, in taking no notice, accept them.”


Since its publication –multiple times in paperback– much has been said about the book. Principally, and perhaps obviously, though Mayer meant to understand the “average” German, he of course did not.  These were ten men in one town.  As Evans points out in the 2017 Afterword, it was a town in which a very low percentage of the population were industrial workers compared to Germany as a whole; a much higher than average percent were government workers.  There was no mass labor movement, either Communist or Social-Democrat.  Mayer interviewed no women, who almost certainly would have added nuance, if not outright differing opinions about events and strength of support.  Finally, as Evans also points out, even with such close friendships as Mayer created, it is possible, even likely, that the full truth was not told to him.  He suspected as much himself.  The book opens with an account of the burning of the Jewish Synagogue in town, which all the men claimed they had no direct hand in.  Unlikely, indeed, as Evans writes.  

Despite the caveats about Mayer’s project They Thought They Were Free is still a book that will cause a catch in the breath and the reader to understand that Nazi authoritarianism, and its many off-spring, are not simply the jack-booted, leather clad monsters of popular cinema, but a living social organization of many, otherwise unremarkable, even likeable, people. When the signs and signals of the rise of such movements begin, thinking it has nothing to do with me and mine, is a sure way to enable its growth, and eventual domination. 


Large selections of the text are available free on the Internet, here, here and here.  It is available for download on such sites as Scribd  and as audio on Audible Richard J Evans, contributor of the Afterword in the 2017 re-publication is the author of the definitive trilogy on the rise and hold on power of the Nazis, as well as dozens of other related.  For other essays and appreciations of Mayer’s book: Thom Hartman, Andrew Spencer and Padre Steve.