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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Reading List: They Thought They Were Free

Mayer, Milton. They Thought They Were Free. 2nd. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1955] 1966. ISBN 0-226-51192-8.
The author, a journalist descended from German Jewish immigrants to the United States, first visited Nazi Germany in 1935, spending a month in Berlin attempting to obtain, unsuccessfully, an interview with Hitler, notwithstanding the assistance of his friend, the U.S. ambassador, then travelled through the country reporting for a U.S. magazine. It was then that he first discovered, meeting with ordinary Germans, that Nazism was not, as many perceived it then and now, “the tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions” (p. xviii), but rather a mass movement grounded in the “little people” with a broad base of non-fanatic supporters.

Ten years after the end of the war, Mayer arranged a one year appointment as a visiting professor at the University of Frankfurt and moved, with his family, to a nearby town of about 20,000 he calls “Kronenberg”. There, he spent much of his time cultivating the friendship of ten men he calls “my ten Nazi friends”, all of whom joined the party for various reasons ranging from ideology, assistance in finding or keeping employment, to admiration of what they saw as Hitler's success (before the war) in restoring the German economy and position in the world. A large part of the book is reconstructed conversations with these people, exploring the motivations of those who supported Hitler (many of whom continued, a decade after Germany's disastrous defeat in the war he started, to believe the years of his rule prior to the war were Germany's golden age). Together they provide a compelling picture of life in a totalitarian society as perceived by people who liked it.

This is simultaneously a profoundly enlightening and disturbing book. The author's Nazi friends come across as almost completely unexceptional, and one comes to understand how the choices they made, rooted in the situation they found themselves, made perfect sense to them. And then, one cannot help but ask, “What would I have done in the same circumstances?” Mayer has no truck with what has come to be called multiculturalism—he is a firm believer in national character (although, of course, only on the average, with large individual variation), and he explains how history, over almost two millennia, has forged the German character and why it is unlikely to be changed by military defeat and a few years of occupation.

Apart from the historical insights, this book is highly topical when a global superpower is occupying a very different country, with a tradition and history far more remote from its own than was Germany's, and trying to instill institutions with no historical roots there. People forget, but ten years after the end of World War II many, Mayer included, considered the occupation of Germany to have been a failure. He writes (p. 303):

The failure of the Occupation could not, perhaps, have been averted in the very nature of the case. But it might have been mitigated. Its mitigation would have required the conquerors to do something they had never had to do in their history. They would have had to stop doing what they were doing and ask themselves some questions, hard questions, like, What is the German character? How did it get that way? What is wrong with its being that way? What way would be better, and what, if anything, could anybody do about it?
Wise questions, indeed, for any conqueror of any country.

The writing is so superb that you may find yourself re-reading paragraphs just to savour how they're constructed. It is also thought-provoking to ponder how many things, from the perspective of half a century later, the author got wrong. In his view the occupation of West Germany would fail to permanently implant democracy, that German re-militarisation and eventual aggression was almost certain unless blocked by force, and that the project of European unification was a pipe dream of idealists and doomed to failure. And yet, today, things seem to have turned out pretty well for Germany, the Germans, and their neighbours. The lesson of this may be that national character can be changed, but changing it is the work of generations, not a few years of military occupation. That is also something modern-day conquerors, especially Western societies with a short attention span, might want to bear in mind.

Posted at September 21, 2006 00:39