Wednesday, July 29, 2009

B.W.'s Book Report:
They Thought They Were Free

Milton Mayer's book subtitled "The Germans 1933-45" is a remarkable bit of work. Mayer lived in Germany for a few years after the close of World War II and wanted to know how ordinary folks could have allowed the oppressive regime led by Adolf Hitler to seize control of their country and their lives.

The title of the book says it all: They thought they were free.

Mayer writes about his friendship with 10 men and his conversations about their everyday lives in a relatively small town. He paints a plausible portrait of people only tangentially aware that their government was descending into totalitarianism and tyranny — because they were busy living their lives and it usually didn't affect them directly.

He is at his best when he compares the slow, insidious progress of the Nazi regime with everyday events of the early 1950s in the United States, when he wrote the book — always with the caveat that "not that we're as bad as Germany was getting in the 1930s, of course." For example, introducing the question of how millions of Jews could be spirited away without most people understanding what was happening:
When people you don't know, people in whom you have no interest, people whose affairs you have never discussed, move away from your community, you don't notice that they are going or that they are gone. When, in addition, public opinion (and the government itself) has depreciated them, it is still likelier that you won't notice their departure or, if you do, that you will forget about it. How many of us whites, in a white neighborhood, are interested in the destination of a Negro neighbor whom we know only by sight and who has moved away?
After a spellbinding couple of hundred pages in which Mayer outlines precisely how it may have happened — and writing around the edges of the similarities to, say, McCarthyism — he then spends the last portions of the book theorizing about how something in the German character made that country more susceptible than other cultures to the emergence of a Hitler. The writer is less convincing at that stage of the book.

But it's interesting to hear the Kronenbergers' descriptions and explanations of what life was like in the 1930s and early '40s, and to imagine how a free people could be drained of their freedoms without losing the sense that they were still free.

Standing in line to have their persons and property searched before they can proceed, answering questions they are forbidden by law to refuse to answer, applying for permits that will allow them to build on their own land, and standing in the rain smoking a cigarette, Americans can be heard to proclaim their country is the symbol of freedom around the world.

Someday, perhaps, a Milton Mayer will befriend 10 of us and write a book about everyday life in these times.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have often wondered how the USG could have interned the Japanese and Germans without anyone standing up and saying, "This is wrong."

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Tom Ender said...

You beat me to that one. My copy still sits waiting on the shelf.

3:50 AM  

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