Saturday, September 19, 2020
In the NY Review of Books (recently republished online):
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. . . .
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. [H]is 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. All of them referred to themselves as "we little people.”
Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” ... 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 [in 1952].” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.
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.”...
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....
Nonetheless, people flirted, enjoyed romances, “went to the cinema, had a meal in a small wine bar, drank Chianti, and went dancing together.” [I]t was the “automatic continuation of ordinary life” that “hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror...
[M]emoirists referred to their “happy times” in the Hitler Youth, focusing not on ideology but on hiking trips, camaraderie, and summer camps....[But then] things got much worse for Germans [when the war began].
After the war, defeat meant a new beginning for many, a kind of opportunity...Germans—grim, shell-shocked, determined—returned to ordinary life and bet on a better future. Avoiding nationalism or even national pride, they succeeded in rebuilding their economy and their morale...many Germans have been transformed “into sincere democrats and pacifists."