They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45
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They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45

4.01 of 5 stars 4.01  ·  rating details  ·  196 ratings  ·  26 reviews
"Among the many books written on Germany after the collapse of Hitler's 1000 Year Reich, this book by Milton Mayer is one of the most readable & most enlightening."--Hans Kohn, NY Times Book Review
"It is a fascinating story & a deeply moving one. & it is a story that should make people pause & think--think not only about the Germans, but also about themsel...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published May 19th 1966 by Phoenix Books/University of Chicago Press (first published 1955)
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Erik Graff
Apr 28, 2013 Erik Graff rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Westerners
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shortly after the war Milton Mayer, an American Jew of German heritage, and his wife, Jane, moved into a mid-sized German city. Concealing his religious background, Mayer passed as an authentic, returning German and was thereby afforded an easy intimacy with the inhabitants. What he was aiming for was some insight into how Hitler came to power and how Germans of all walks of life thought of his regime. He apparently got it.

I've approached the German experience from 1933 to 1945 with similar ques...more
The other reviewers explain what the book is about. Mayer's discussion of the experience of his Nazi sources, which forms about the first half of the book, is its best part. Some of the stories are moving; all are frightening, showing how ordinary, generally decent people became Nazis, in some cases in spite of themselves. His further discussion of the "German character" is weaker, and his predictions concerning the future of Germany have proven to be incorrect, something for which we may be gra...more
Don Nelson
They Thought They Were Free-the germans 1933-45
Milton Mayer – author. Published by the University of Chicago Press

First published in 1955 the book has the advantage of being a collection of recollections about the conditions of life in the small town of Kronnenberg. The citizens of Kronneberg were of the most conservative of ordinary people. In fact they were not even Germans, according to ‘real’ Germans. Kronnenberg was in Hesse. Its people were sometimes referred to as blinder Hesse – Blind He...more
Great book, if not a bit frightening. Frightening because you can really see that tyranny can happening anywhere and at any time. It really puts you in the shoes of ordinary Germans. Would I really stand up to tyranny if it meant the death of my wife and children?
Also interesting is that many Germans referred to the "30 Year War" WWI and WWII were, in many Germans' minds, the same war.
“‘What is an Aryan?’ ‘An Aryan is a man who is tall like Hitler, blond like Goebbels, and lithe like Göring.’”
They Thought They Were Free pg.228

Sorry, this review ended up choppy and too short to address all of Mayer’s point’s.

Mayer, a Jewish American, spent a year getting to know ten “average” German men. These ten also had a Nazi background. He and his family move to a small town, Kronenberg, were he finds his diverse ten. )It sounds hard to be “diverse” when all ten come from a small town.) A...more
An unsympathic, somewhat unemotional view of the average German from 1933 - 1945. The book was written by a Jew, posing as a non-Jew, who interviewed average Germans in the early 50s.

The German system was "ripe" for National Socialism (Nazi Party). Under Hitler, the average German was fed, had a job, and became Someone. Hitler was their "Father" figure. At some point, the state becomes more important than the individual, and this can be the result. One can easily draw several parallels between...more
This book is scary, entertaining, and enlightening, all at the same time. The author is an American journalist who was very curious (as many people, since the end of WWII, have been) about how Nazi Germany could have happened. He had his publisher obtain a university teaching position for him at a northeastern German university (unnamed) and the book evolved from conversations with former Nazi friends. Written in 1955, it still has the power to shock, amaze, and educate. Much can be learned from...more
A Jew posing as a non-Jew writes an interesting, scary, and sad book about the Germans of 1933-45. Written after the war, Milton Mayer befriends 10 Germans to gain understanding of their action, thoughts, and roles in the years of 1933-45. Although this book is written without real feelings toward the Germans, I felt it almost gave the underlying vibe of sympathy. What was not surprising was the fact most of these Germans turned their heads and still believers of a "good" Hitler.
I really enjoyed this book, but it does take a bit of effort to stay engaged in what's going on. The author's style isn't very direct until later in the book.

This book really opened my eyes to how the Germans were manipulated very carefully by the National Socialist movement. It serves as a chilling reminder that this could happen to anybody, that anything less than standing on principle regardless of the consequences makes a people vulnerable to usurpation and slavery.
Mayer - An American Jewish journalist - performs what may be nearly a supernatural feat of grace as he profiles 10 ordinary Germans shortly after the war - my '10 Nazi friends' as he puts it. Mayer quotes the prayer of the publican as a warning to all of us. The book is powerful and revealing of human nature, but in an unexpected way. The Nazi problem is indeed a human problem.

Illusion can very easily overcome ones reality. In these times in which we look at the state of the union, we would do well to remember this. This book is eerie because of how blinded they were to the reality of what they were supporting.
Dec 27, 2010 Steven added it
Very good read. This book was an interesting perspective from some "ordinary" Germans during the years of the Reich. Do any of us really know how bad our governments can be?
Charlene Mathe
Milton Mayer writes wonderful profiles of ten Germans who lived through the Third Reich. His analysis is very human; compassionate, yet to some extent damning. I liked Mayer in these chapters, but liked him less in the opening and closing chapters when he writes, not so much about the individuals caught up in the war, but about the nations involved and especially the United States. Mayer joins other Blame-the-USA critics in imagining some better(undetermined) solution to winning WWII than bombin...more
Milton Mayer traveled to Germany 10 years after the end of the second world war and conducted extensive interviews with a group of "ordinary" Germans living in Kronenberg. This book provides some answers to the question of "how could this have happened?". Opression came gradually, affected "the other" and in the meantime life for the average German (Aryan) improved under the Nazis during the 1930's. This book also leads to the some uncomfortable questions for the reader, especially "what would I...more
How can a democratic nation with a highly educated populace devolve into barbarism and tyranny? Well, it was barbarism and tyranny to some...for others it was order.

Well written in both style and content. A powerful reminder of what has happened and what can happen again.
Jerry Walsh
Good book interesting information on the German people and the Nazi's. Made valid comparisons between actions in Germany and USA. After reading the book it is very easy to understand how things happened.
Craig J.
"They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (Phoenix Books) by Milton Mayer (1966)"
"Men who did not know that they were slaves do not know that they have been freed."
Mary Catelli
A book possibly unique in what it contains.

The author, a Jewish American, went to Germany shortly after World War II, found a town, and befriended ten Nazis who lived there. Hiding that he was a Jew, and that he had other sources of information about them, he yet honestly told them that in the interests of understanding, he wanted to know about how they became Nazis and lived as Nazis. He also includes some from other sources of information, talking to other, German professors and the like. But...more
Robert Palmer
You should read this book if you think that you are free.

This is an old book, originally published in 1955, but it is more relevant today than ever before. Today the U.S. government openly arrests people without probable cause, detains them indefinitely without trial, tortures them, assassinates citizens and non-citizens alike with "predator" drones, and spies on everyone, all in the name of "freedom." What is the reaction of the American people? Most of the mainstream media fails in reporting t...more
A better title for this book might have been “They Thought It Was All Good”.

Milton Mayer’s study of ten former Nazis, ordinary people from a variety of walks of life and of a variety of education levels, was an attempt to understand how such a heinous regime could have risen to power and maintained the loyalty of the German citizenry throughout such a disastrous (for the Germans especially) war.

From the perspective of 2013, it may be easier for Americans to imagine how gradual encroachments by...more
Douglas Clark
It's a bit challenging to get into and stay through the first third or so. However, after the foundation is laid the real substance comes out and it is well worth investing in the beginning to get to the middle and end of the book.

Here's an excerpt of one of these substantive middle chapters:
A strangely intimate portrait of the lives and minds of ten low-level Nazis brought to light through an American Jew's genuine curiosity to understand these men's motivations, actions, and reflections some 10 years after the war. I found the descriptions of the author's friendships with these ten men and their many shared conversations to be fascinating ("Part I - Ten Men"), although I was less satisfied with his reflections on the German people ("Part II: The Germans") and Germany's path forwar...more
A thoughtful look at the circumstances and conditions that allowed the rise of Nazism in Germany. Sad, but informative.
looking at the view point of German society during the early war
Sarah Sauvageau
World War II book. . .very interesting.
Michele Dimond
Michele Dimond marked it as to-read
Sep 19, 2014
Alexander widrow
Alexander widrow marked it as to-read
Sep 15, 2014
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Goodreads Librari...: Please merge They Thought They Were Free 3 16 Jan 27, 2014 07:07PM  
  • The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945 (Social Studies: History of the World)
  • The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich
  • The Meaning of Hitler
  • The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them
  • Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939
  • Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil
  • The Nuremberg Interviews
  • Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience
  • The Nightmare Years 1930-40
  • The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War
  • The Rommel Papers
  • Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust
  • Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial
  • Hitler
  • Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich
  • The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945
  • Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial
  • Hitler's Second Book: The Unpublished Sequel to Mein Kampf
Milton Sanford Mayer, a journalist and educator, was best known for his long-running column in The Progressive magazine, founded by Robert Marion LaFollette, Sr in Madison, Wisconsin.

Mayer, raised a Reform Jew, was born in Chicago, the son of Morris Samuel Mayer and Louise (Gerson). He graduated from Englewood High School, where he received a classical education with an emphasis on Latin and langu...more
More about Milton Sanford Mayer...
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