They Thought They Were Free

They Thought They Were Free

The Germans, 1933-45

Book - 2017
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"When this book was first published it received some attention from the critics but none at all from the public. Nazism was finished in the bunker in Berlin and its death warrant signed on the bench at Nuremberg."

That's Milton Mayer, writing in a foreword to the 1966 edition of They Thought They Were Free . He's right about the critics: the book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1956. General readers may have been slower to take notice, but over time they did--what we've seen over decades is that any time people, across the political spectrum, start to feel that freedom is threatened, the book experiences a ripple of word-of-mouth interest. And that interest has never been more prominent or potent than what we've seen in the past year.

They Thought They Were Free is an eloquent and provocative examination of the development of fascism in Germany. Mayer's book is a study of ten Germans and their lives from 1933-45, based on interviews he conducted after the war when he lived in Germany. Mayer had a position as a research professor at the University of Frankfurt and lived in a nearby small Hessian town which he disguised with the name "Kronenberg." "These ten men were not men of distinction," Mayer noted, but they had been members of the Nazi Party; Mayer wanted to discover what had made them Nazis. His discussions with them of Nazism, the rise of the Reich, and mass complicity with evil became the backbone of this book, an indictment of the ordinary German that is all the more powerful for its refusal to let the rest of us pretend that our moment, our society, our country are fundamentally immune.

A new foreword to this edition by eminent historian of the Reich Richard J. Evans puts the book in historical and contemporary context. We live in an age of fervid politics and hyperbolic rhetoric. They Thought They Were Free cuts through that, revealing instead the slow, quiet accretions of change, complicity, and abdication of moral authority that quietly mark the rise of evil.
Publisher: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780226525839
Branch Call Number: 943.086 M46t
Characteristics: 378 pages ; 22 cm
Additional Contributors: Evans, Richard J.


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Jun 09, 2018

Journalist Milton Mayer visited Germany in the '30s, reporting on developments there and attempting, unsuccessfully, to get an interview with Hitler. He returned a decade later to a very different Germany, now occupied by the Allies. This time, instead of staying in Berlin, he settled in the town of Marburg, where, with some difficulty, he befriended and extensively interviewed ten men who had lived through the Nazi era. The results form the basis of They Thought They Were Free.

The first half of the book concentrates on the interview subjects and their experiences, the second half on Mayer's own analysis of Germany and the German people. The former is far more interesting than the latter, especially given the passage of time. The personal testimony of the ten men, all of whom had joined the Nazi party at some point, some before but most after Hitler's rise to power, provides a compelling witness to how gradually "decent" men were convinced to accept the unthinkable, how the acceptance of lesser outrages today can lead to the acceptance of greater crimes tomorrow, and how easy it is to ignore injustice when it is happening to someone else. Movingly, two of the subjects recall moments before the war when they deliberately avoided Jewish acquaintances, not out of fear of being associated with them, but out of shame at their own complicity in the rising tide of anti-Semitism.

The second portion of the book is dominated by Mayer's own views on the effectiveness of the Allied occupation, which are extremely pessimistic. While the experience of subsequent decades seem to contradict this, it is perhaps worth asking how much the German character has actually changed beyond the rejection of militarism. Unfortunately, the analysis in this section also raises the suspicion that Mayer's conclusions predated (and therefore partially predetermined) his experiences.

Jul 14, 2017

EXCELLENT! I encourage every CONCERNED CITIZEN to READ THIS BOOK, especially in light of what seems to be these days a creeping (creepy?!) fascism throughout The West. While exploring themes and posing questions raised around the 'mystery' of how this arguably most highly civilized European country could have trod the path to Fascism, World War II, and The Jewish Holocaust, the author draws out these mens' thoughts on a wide range of social themes. These 'conversations' on community, religion, family, work, 'the Jewish question,' and so much more are often sad, poignant, horrifying, astonishing, but also page-turning compelling and absorbing CAUTIONARY TALES FOR OUR TIME.

The author, Milton Mayer, an American journalist of German Jewish extraction, moved into a small west-central German town, Königsberg, c. 1953-ish, became part of the community, and befriended TEN German men of different ages and backgrounds who at some point became members of The Nazi Party (National Socialists), under Adolph Hitler. As these men came to trust the author, and invite him into their homes and lives, stories of wrenching change, loss, pain, fear, even rare but occasional hope unfold before him and are transmitted to us, the readers in simple, direct prose that nevertheless impel us to consider how such a state of affairs as occurred in post WWI Germany came to pass.

I CAN'T RECOMMEND THIS BOOK TOO HIGHLY! Published in 1955, while memories were still fresh, the book was revised in 1961 and again in 1966.

Aug 13, 2013

moving book. i read it before and it is unique book. i recommitted to everyone likes to read, not just about history but in to humanity. i also recommend Willful Blindness - by Margaret Heffernan.

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