They Thought They Were Free: Some Things Never Change, Totalitarianism and Support for Evil

they thought they were free

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the most powerful books I have ever read was Milton Mayer’s “They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945.” Mayer was a visiting professor at the University of Frankfurt in the 1950s and lived in a small Hessian town near the city. The book is about the relationships that he built with ten ordinary citizens in the town and how they lived under Nazism and how most saw little wrong with it in the end.

The book is well worth the read and very timely when one compares the attitudes of the men who became Mayer’s friends and many people in the United States today. The last few chapters of the book are a reflection of the author’s opinions of the future of Germany at the time of his writing and he was mistaken on how the Germans would eventually become a society that embraced democracy and rejected authoritarianism (at the time he felt that it was very possible that democracy would fail in Germany,) they do not take away anything from the heart of the book and its message about how people adjust to authoritarian rule.

One chapter in particular struck me, it was a conversion that Mayer had with a colleague at the University who also reflected what it was like to live in the Third Reich and how in doing so he compromised himself and lost the opportunity to resist when resistance might have changed the course of events as Germany proceeded down the road to dictatorship and destruction. The chapter is particularly painful to read as the man understood that he should have known better but didn’t recognize the warning signs of the gradual nature of how life was changing with each new law or dictate from the Fuhrer.

In reading the chapter I see parallels in American society today. There are the Trump loyalists, many of who openly call for restrictions of liberty and crushing opposition to the President’s policies using extra-constitutional means including violence. Many are quite extreme while others, persuaded by years of right-wing talk radio, politically charged sermons by their pastors, and the daily dose of Fox News believe everything said by the President even when confronted by facts. Then there are Trump’s opponents, but many of the opponents are divided and cannot get along with each other. Some of these opponents actually helped Trump into office by circulating the Russian anti-Clinton conspiracy theories and falsehoods throughout the campaign. Each of these groups probably composes about 25-30% of the electorate each. The remaining segment are the people who simply go with the flow because life is too busy and crisis laden to get too deeply enmeshed in the political debate, and many have become so cynical that they see no difference in either side and are much more concerned about making it in a still uncertain economy.

So I invite you to read this and draw your own conclusions. Have a great day.


Padre Steve+

Chapter 13: But Then It Was Too Late

“What no one seemed to notice,” said a colleague of mine, a philologist, “was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider. You know, it doesn’t make people close to their government to be told that this is a people’s government, a true democracy, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote. All this has little, really nothing, to do with knowing one is governing.

“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.

“You will understand me when I say that my Middle High German was my life. It was all I cared about. I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the university was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was ‘expected to’ participate that had not been there or had not been important before. It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one’s energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time.”

“Those,” I said, “are the words of my friend the baker. ‘One had no time to think. There was so much going on.’”

“Your friend the baker was right,” said my colleague. “The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?

“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late.”

“Yes,” I said.

“You see,” my colleague went on, “one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not?—Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

“Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, ‘everyone’ is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there would be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’

“And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. You are left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as you have.

“But your friends are fewer now. Some have drifted off somewhere or submerged themselves in their work. You no longer see as many as you did at meetings or gatherings. Informal groups become smaller; attendance drops off in little organizations, and the organizations themselves wither. Now, in small gatherings of your oldest friends, you feel that you are talking to yourselves, that you are isolated from the reality of things. This weakens your confidence still further and serves as a further deterrent to—to what? It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.

“You have gone almost all the way yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.

“Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

“What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.”

I said nothing. I thought of nothing to say.

“I can tell you,” my colleague went on, “of a man in Leipzig, a judge. He was not a Nazi, except nominally, but he certainly wasn’t an anti-Nazi. He was just—a judge. In ’42 or ’43, early ’43, I think it was, a Jew was tried before him in a case involving, but only incidentally, relations with an ‘Aryan’ woman. This was ‘race injury,’ something the Party was especially anxious to punish. In the case at bar, however, the judge had the power to convict the man of a ‘nonracial’ offense and send him to an ordinary prison for a very long term, thus saving him from Party ‘processing’ which would have meant concentration camp or, more probably, deportation and death. But the man was innocent of the ‘nonracial’ charge, in the judge’s opinion, and so, as an honorable judge, he acquitted him. Of course, the Party seized the Jew as soon as he left the courtroom.”

“And the judge?”

“Yes, the judge. He could not get the case off his conscience—a case, mind you, in which he had acquitted an innocent man. He thought that he should have convicted him and saved him from the Party, but how could he have convicted an innocent man? The thing preyed on him more and more, and he had to talk about it, first to his family, then to his friends, and then to acquaintances. (That’s how I heard about it.) After the ’44 Putsch they arrested him. After that, I don’t know.”

I said nothing.

“Once the war began,” my colleague continued, “resistance, protest, criticism, complaint, all carried with them a multiplied likelihood of the greatest punishment. Mere lack of enthusiasm, or failure to show it in public, was ‘defeatism.’ You assumed that there were lists of those who would be ‘dealt with’ later, after the victory. Goebbels was very clever here, too. He continually promised a ‘victory orgy’ to ‘take care of’ those who thought that their ‘treasonable attitude’ had escaped notice. And he meant it; that was not just propaganda. And that was enough to put an end to all uncertainty.

“Once the war began, the government could do anything ‘necessary’ to win it; so it was with the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem,’ which the Nazis always talked about but never dared undertake, not even the Nazis, until war and its ‘necessities’ gave them the knowledge that they could get away with it. The people abroad who thought that war against Hitler would help the Jews were wrong. And the people in Germany who, once the war had begun, still thought of complaining, protesting, resisting, were betting on Germany’s losing the war. It was a long bet. Not many made it.”

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 166-73 of They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1955, 1966 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)


Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

13 responses to “They Thought They Were Free: Some Things Never Change, Totalitarianism and Support for Evil

  1. Steven

    Hey Padre,

    I have a read for you, although I suspect you may already have read it: William Shrirer’s “Collapse of the Third Republic”. The “other half” of the slow-growing disease in our nation shows itself to be no more new than the “other, other half”.

    Much that the German professor talked about is laid bare in the French attitude towards France—not just the infamous “Better Hitler than Blum”, but the repeated attempts of the French electorate to get a radical government that would bring about real reforms, and the unceasing hostility of the moneyed elite to halting any progress at all, and how these forces alienated the majority of French voters from the government—yet the elite (by which I mean real elites, bankers, capitalists, industrialists, and the old aristocracy) were not made loyal by the government’s submission, and they learned the hard way that Blum was far better than Hitler after all.

    Anyway, if you hven’t read it, move it up on your reading list, because it is a better book than Rise and Fall.

  2. I used to own this book; I confess that I had forgotten about it. But reading the excerpt, it came back to me with lightning vividness. I am going to order it today. But I have to say … we are almost at that point the excerpt describes.

    If Trump manages to pull us into a war … especially before the 2020 election … I fear we may be totally doomed. & there may not even be a 2020 election.

    • Steven


      Firstly, I urge you to review what you know about the state of our Republic, because Trump is not the problem so much as he is the last opportunity we have to see the complete bankruptcy of the Republican Party—who, after all, largely support, protect, and enable him. The GOP has not engaged in governance since GHW Bush interrupted the Right’s plan to place sock puppets in the White House (Reagan, GW Bush, Trump).

      When faced with an active and effective President—Clinton—they resort to desperation. Faced with an inexperienced but active President, they simply stonewalled.

      The problem with a two-party system is it absolutely REQUIRES two parties, one of which is the Loyal Opposition, not simply the greedy opposition.

      The one thing we have in our favour at the moment is that even in the Second World War, we held an election; I do not believe the GOP can convince the Army to support a coup, nor does Trump himself have that kind of support; the intelligence community also seems unwilling to support a departure from normal.

      And I wish very strongly to urge you not to think of it as “Trump pulling us”, so much as “if we allow Trump to pull us”.

      A soldier bleeds for their nation. But it is the citizen who must have the moral courage to stand up to tyranny, to defy and expose the hypocrisy and manipulations that pass for patriotism.

      We must stop using “Trump” when what we mean is the GOP. We must say Trump and the GOP, or better still, the GOP and their stalking horse, Trump.

      Trump by himself is exactly what Joe Biden called him—an aberration. But Trump is not by himself. No more than GW or Reagan were. In the Army we taught Fire and Manoeuver—you hold an enemy frontally with a strong, obvious attack that poses a true danger if unopposed (fire), but you kill them with a deep thrust by mobile forces into the flanks and rear, which leave the enemy shattered and unable to recover.

      That’s what the GOP—and really, the Reactionary Right IS the GOP and the GOP IS the Reactionary Right now—is doing. Mitch McConnell is not passing legislation, he’s confirming federal office-holders for offices his control of the Senate allowed him to block-open for six years (not just the Supreme Court Justice). And we let him.

  3. maryplumbago

    Seems there are three elements at work and they each use each other to gain control they see as their “right.”

    The trump cult while willfully ignorant ( a portion anyway) wants mostly their religious views and their racism sanctified into law, so they support the republicans and trump. They call the shots for both because they know trump and the republicans need their support.

    Republicans want to control everything in our lives and field the spoils to themselves, so they play to trump and moreso, the cult. They use them both for power.

    Trump wants constant praise and adoration and loves ginning up his cult, which is so easy to do. He panders to them for the vote and continued support, so he uses them for their votes.

    It’s a vicious circle…I see no way out, as I feel we are past the point of return and it will have to play itself out, which could mean many hard, dangerous roads ahead for us all.

    • Steven


      Some thoughts about your thoughts!

      I believe that the only people “calling the shots” for the GOP are the rich old white men who run it. They simply serve their own interests. That often includes aspects of Reactionary Religion, but it also includes plenty of plain old secular greed.

      I actually know, personally, a guy who is a actual narcissist—the real kind. And though he calls himself a socialist “hippy” (at maybe 40), he’s exactly the same as Trump—reality for him IS him, and it changes to suit him and his needs. Actual truth, even if you were standing right there when it happened, is “untrue”. But being unstable and in desperate need (psychologically) of affirmation and reinforcement, he was both wildly arbitrary and easily manipulated. Trump.

      Details aside…I feel your overall conclusions really resonate—that the three legs of the Reactionary triad GOP-Trump-Christians are all mixed up together to such an extent that we can no longer pull them apart. As you wrote, it will have to play itself out. And that will be hard times, indeed.

      I don’t really know why, though. And that does worry me. What happened to the Republican Party that turned it into the Party of Hate, Reaction, and Greed? When did being a Republican come to mean being a Fascist oligarch? And how deep does that run? When the 80-somethings finally croak, will the 60-something be any better?

  4. Chris

    Thank you Padre Steve. I tell everyone who will listen to read They Thought They Were Free if they want to get a glimpse of how the thinking of average people can be poisoned drop by insidious drop into a society that can produce horrible atrocities. We are doomed to repeat history when we forget it…thanks for reminding us that the history has been written, if we care to listen to what its telling us.

  5. I read quite often comparisons with Nazi÷Germany which I do not regard as appropriate because Trump and Hitler are completely different persons with diverging policies. Moreover, Trump is a product. of US-American society and the idea of white supremacy the driving force from its ery beginning in the 17th century. Till today the original and native population is suffering and living not under nice living conditions in reserve. So something is wrong deep in the heart of society. Therefore looking on Nazi-Germany just misleading and confusing.

    • padresteve

      I appreciate your comments and would agree in some ways. That being said the comparison is not so much about Trump and Hitler, but the societies that embraced them and agreed with their race hatred. Yes, Hitler and Trump are products of different societies and cultures, but both play race cards that their supporters are happy to embrace, and their opponents, even learned ones don’t fully understand. But you are wrong in one way, both are extreme nationalists, and racists. It drives their policies. Trump’s favorite President is Andrew Jackson, who defied the Supreme Court and dispatched the Cherokee on the Trail of tears. Hitler admired the extermination of the Native American tribes and used it as a model for his extermination of the Jews and others he considered “subhuman.” But the greater issue is those who let it happen, be they the Germans who Milton Meyer knew, or the people who support Trump’s policies, which will lead to genocide, maybe not the Jews, but any of a host of races Trump despises. Humanity doesn’t change, cultural differences aside human beings don’t change much. Trump and Hitler are different, the countries they led are different, but at the same time very similar in terms of racial superiority, ours goes back to Colonial times, slavery, the extermination of native Americans, and the anti-immigrant movements that were part of the Know Nothings, the second KKK, the America First movement and so many more. A simple comparison of Trump and Hitler allows us to not look at deeper issues. Milton Meyer knee that, and it is why his book is so timeless.

      • Trump is a racist indeed, but not an Anti-Semite like Hitler. Hitler did also only what he has written down in “Mein Kampf”, so the genocide and Holocaust were planned by an evil will. I do not recognize something like that in the person of Trump who would like to become a nationalist autocrat with the support of fundamentalist and extremist Christians. And the question you raise is of course very important, but who speaks for example of Stalin’s tyranny who is regarded in Russia still as a big hero although being the 2nd big massmurder of history?!

  6. Steven

    @Suburban Tracks: Your post seems to tie the White Supremacist movements of today to American attitudes of the 17th Century. If I read that correctly, I remind you that those attitudes were European—in the case of the colonists of the 17th Century, directly so; for their descendents, by derivation and cultural norm.

    One of the reasons Trump does not draw comparisons with Stalin, is that Trump’s approach and that of his followers is entirely dissimilar. And as far as your argument goes, Stalin was also an anti-Semite.

    The salient point of the article is not Adolph Hitler, per se; it is how Adolph Hitler did not make much effort to conceal what he was, yet everyday people responsible for the weal of their nation were nonetheless willing to ignore or deflect his underlying pathology and ugly hatreds because they were not directly targeted as individuals. By the time they were, they no longer had either the moral authority or the numerical support to stand against the authoritarianism of Hitler and his enablers.

    You ought not to delude yourself that there is anything inherent in the American system that makes Trump “safe”; a government is as strong as its support in the people. Trump is actually a product of an elitist Capitalism that sees a Democratic Republic as little more than a source of funds at best, as an enemy to be defeated at worst. Trump has no ties or loyalty to this Republic, full stop.

    So, if you want to see Trump as a Stalinist danger, great—so long as you understand him as a danger to this Democratic Republic. I believe your assessment is inaccurate and misleading, but we almost agree on how Trump conducts himself—I believe he already IS an autocrat with the unflinching support of Corporate Capitalists, Fundamentalist Christians, and of course, all the Far Right, including White Supremacist/Nationalists.

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