Legal scholar Cass Sunstein recently reviewed two books on Nazi Germany for the New York Review of Books. (It was a timely review; even Godwin of “Godwin’s law” fame is on record saying that comparisons of contemporary events to the rise of Hitler may be appropriate.)
As Sunstein notes, the accounts of the Nazi period with which we are familiar seem barely imaginable. They portray a nation so depraved–so indifferent to evil–that we think it can’t happen here. The books he reviews–including Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free, recently republished–suggest otherwise.
But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.
Mayer’s book focused on the lives and experiences of ordinary Germans–people who, like ordinary Americans today, found themselves living through events they had little individual power to affect. That focus was, Sunstein writes, a “jarring contrast” to Sebastian Haffner’s “devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, Defying Hitler.” Haffner
objects that most works of history give “the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be ‘at the helm of the ship of state’ and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history.” In his view, that’s wrong. What matters are “we anonymous others” who are not just “pawns in the chess game,” because the “most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large.”
Trump’s grudging (and incomplete) retreat in the face of the public outrage against separating children from their parents underscores the validity of Haffner’s point. In a different way, so does Mayer’s book.
Mayer interviewed ten people who had been members of the Nazi party; those interviews took place over a considerable time-period, and were friendly rather than confrontational. Mayer concluded that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”
Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we—you and I—saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, 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.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.
Mayer’s interviewees spoke of Hitler much as the GOP “base” speaks of Trump; the rhetorical similarities are chilling.
And what of “the final solution”?
Mayer did not bring up the topic of anti-Semitism with any of his subjects, but after a few meetings, each of them did so on his own, and they returned to it constantly. When the local synagogue was burned in 1938, most of the community was under only one obligation: “not to interfere.” Eventually Mayer showed his subjects the local newspaper from November 11, 1938, which contained a report: “In the interest of their own security, a number of male Jews were taken into custody yesterday. This morning they were sent away from the city.” None of them remembered seeing it, or indeed anything like it.
The killing of six million Jews? Fake news. Four of Mayer’s subjects insisted that the only Jews taken to concentration camps were traitors to Germany, and that the rest were permitted to leave with their property or its fair market value. The bill collector agreed that the killing of the Jews “was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did.” He added that “some say it happened and some say it didn’t,” and that you “can show me pictures of skulls…but that doesn’t prove it.” In any case, “Hitler had nothing to do with it.” The tailor spoke similarly: “If it happened, it was wrong. But I don’t believe it happened.”
Fake news. Alternative facts. “Those people.” The incremental nature of the Nazi takeover. The daily distractions that allowed ordinary people to become habituated to the unthinkable. It’s all terrifyingly familiar.