The nine, decent, hard-working, ordinaryily intelligent and honest men, 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. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we knew and know it; and they lived under it , served it, and indeed, made it.

They Thought They Were Free, Milton Mayer

The thing that fascinates me most about World War Two isn’t the military strategy, the political wrangling, or the historical figures that were created. What fascinates me most is how does a liberal, modern democracy, as Germany was at the time, transform into a global threat, and how did so many average people become cogs in the killing machine of the Third Reich?

They Thought They Were Free

Milton Mayer’s book, They Thought They Were Free, gets closer to this answer than anything I have read before, and draws a chilling picture that Germany in the 1930s isn’t the outlier that we might hope. Instead, the story told in They Thought They Were Free is a very real possibility for any society that takes their freedom for granted.

In 1935, Mayer, an American journalist of German and Jewish descent, travelled to Germany in an attempt to secure an interview with Hitler. He failed in this task, but what he saw in Germany terrified him enough to know that Hitler wasn’t the person he needed to speak to. Instead, he interviewed ten everyday Germans — a tailor, a cabinet maker, a salesman, a student, a baker, a bill-collector, a teacher, a policeman, and a bank clerk — to decipher how it was that the Nazi movement had swept the country.

Little Men Gone Wild

In the book, Mayer makes the case that, the average German citizen was responsible for the mass complicity which allowed the power of the Nazis to ferment and take hold. In the German population he sees not wayward, innocent sheep, lead down an evil path, but an abdication of moral authority which allowed for the slow accretions of change eventually leading to the horrors of the 1940s.

On every page of They Thought They Were Free exists a plethora of quotes which are horrifying when read in their historical context, and chilling when read with modern eyes.

They Thought They Were Free provides convincing evidence that the political and societal circumstances which lead eventually to the slaughter of six million Jews and other Nazi dissidents weren’t a one-off; it can happen and will happen again in countries that we currently consider civilised democracies.

Remember — none of these Germans had ever traveled abroad (except in war); none had ever known or talked with a foreigner or read the foreign press… None of them had ever heard anything bad about the Nazi regime, except, as they believed, from Germany’s enemies…

You only have to look to the situation of the US – Mexican border in 2019, where children and families are herded into, what is in everything but name, concentration camps to understand how a modern society can be so quickly warped and twisted to allow the types of atrocities that we assume are lost to history.

The parallels with current western societies, particularly in the US and UK are striking. Wealth inequality, the distancing of the people from the political establishment, the increasing distrust of long-standing organisational institutions, distrust of the media — these are all elements which lead to the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

They Thought They Were Free is probably the most important book on the rise of totalitarianism, and the signs to watch out for, that you could read. The stories told are instantly recognisable — there are no heroic war achievements here, just the everyday experiences of people living within a spreading totalitarian state.

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