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They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45

4.08  ·  Rating Details ·  332 Ratings  ·  43 Reviews
"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, o ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published May 19th 1966 by Phoenix Books/University of Chicago Press (first published 1955)
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Rich Persoff Dr. Meyer's book shows how everyday people who feel themselves threatened learn to conform to a gradually more encroaching authoritarianism, how…moreDr. Meyer's book shows how everyday people who feel themselves threatened learn to conform to a gradually more encroaching authoritarianism, how difficult it is to recognize where one's accustomed life is being redirected, and how extremely difficult it is for anyone to effectively resist.
With great concern I see many in the United States embracing this path without objection, even with delight, especially name-callers in conservative comment channels who have lost all sense of respect, or even decent tolerance, for any person with views other than their own.
This 60 year old book illuminates what is happening in our country today, without blaming or finger-pointing! Strongly recommended!!(less)

Community Reviews

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Erik Graff
Apr 28, 2013 Erik Graff rated it it was amazing
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
Don Nelson
Jan 03, 2012 Don Nelson rated it it was amazing
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
Patrick
Sep 11, 2008 Patrick rated it really liked it
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.
Henry
Aug 09, 2013 Henry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dave
Feb 23, 2010 Dave rated it it was amazing
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.

Robert Palmer
Aug 16, 2013 Robert Palmer rated it it was amazing
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
Daddio
May 25, 2011 Daddio rated it really liked it
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
Briansmom
May 15, 2010 Briansmom rated it really liked it
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
Josh
Jun 08, 2012 Josh rated it liked it
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.
Devan
Dec 12, 2011 Devan rated it really liked it
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.
Bryant
Mar 19, 2009 Bryant rated it it was amazing
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.
Steven
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?
Susanna Sturgis
Feb 03, 2016 Susanna Sturgis rated it it was amazing
They Thought They Were Free was first published in 1955. In 1966 it was reprinted with a new foreword by the author. I read it for the first time as a college undergrad and activist in the early 1970s. It exerted a lasting influence on my emerging view of the world. Perhaps its most important lesson was this: People who are content with, or at least resigned to, the status quo have no need of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, or the right to not incriminate oneself. M ...more
Charlene Mathe
Mar 18, 2012 Charlene Mathe rated it it was amazing
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
Mason Owens
Mar 08, 2016 Mason Owens rated it it was amazing
Working through this book was a very intense exercise.

It requires you enter it with an objective perspective that then must be balanced by an empathy of the characteristics of the timeline.

I believe any reader would at several points in this book be challenged to look into themselves and question many of their misconceptions.

The exercise is made all the more riveting while trying to relate to his 1955 Orthodox Quaker Pacifism cultural perspective/solutions with the 50 years in cultural developm
...more
Marie
Oct 16, 2012 Marie rated it really liked it
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
Brian
Sep 16, 2009 Brian rated it really liked it
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.
John
Aug 28, 2013 John rated it it was amazing
"Men who did not know that they were slaves do not know that they have been freed."
Craig Bolton
"They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (Phoenix Books) by Milton Mayer (1966)"
Melissa
Jan 01, 2017 Melissa rated it it was amazing
Milton Mayer ably explains the mundane day-to-day nature and mindset of how a German citizen accepted fascism in Nazi Germany and how prejudice and bigotry were stoked to permit the treatment of European Jews. Through recounting interviews with 10 middle class German men living in Kronenberg, Germany a few years after World War II ended, Mayer depicts how narrow-minded bigotry and, in some cases, cowardice allowed injustice and government oppression to flourish. Many middle- and lower-class Germ ...more
Katie Anne
Dec 16, 2016 Katie Anne rated it it was amazing
This book is a must read for any American who really wants to know more about Germany and how/why people joined the Nazi party. Focused on ten average men in a small town in Germany, Mayer is both honest about his perspective/issues as well as letting these men share their honest thoughts and feelings in the 1950s. That's not an easy task.

It starts with Kristellnacht but Mayer does a fantastic job giving overall context of Germany, their views on Jews, and how the social conditions were laid. M
...more
Mike Galperin
Dec 13, 2016 Mike Galperin rated it really liked it
terrifying
Stephen
Apr 08, 2015 Stephen rated it it was amazing
How could ordinary, decent people abide the Nazis for the span of twelve years -- to allow a baby born at the NSDAP's seizure of power to practically come of age under their banner? Shortly after World War II, Milton Meyer traveled to Germany and attempted to answer that question for himself. Omitting his Jewish heritage, he cultivated friendships with ten German citizens and approached them with questions about their life during the war. His mission was to understand their experience.Though pri ...more
K B
Oct 12, 2016 K B rated it really liked it
Shelves: vt-group
interesting review of interviews with 10 Nazis post-war time and how they became members, were involved in war-time activities and what they apprised their actions to be in hindsight.
Paul
Sep 17, 2013 Paul rated it it was amazing
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
Mary Catelli
Feb 20, 2014 Mary Catelli rated it really liked it
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
Daniel
Sep 02, 2016 Daniel rated it it was amazing
Shelves: my-classics
A must read. Though a lost American virtue, Public Virtue, placing the need of others above your own is necessary in all societies. The Germans of this time went along with society... because of this, the horrible happened. It is a great study in what to be aware of in our surrounding society. Learning the meaning of the 4 Lost American Ideals would be a great study in learning to be self-educated. Something our society desperately needs. The abilities to be the shapers of our own destiny not th ...more
Hau Le
Apr 20, 2015 Hau Le rated it it was amazing
Một cuốn sách hay kinh khủng và đọc đến đâu thì rợn người đến đó. Câu chuyện về một dân tộc văn minh, có học thức trở nên u mê và lạc lối trước chủ nghĩa Quốc Xã khiến mình nấc lên nhiều lần khi đọc. Kết lại cuốn sách có hai điều đọng lại: Hình ảnh đầu tiên là khi một thầy giáo luôn dằn vặt mình vì đã gia nhập Đảng Quốc Xã và sử dụng vị trí của ông để cứu nhiều người Do Thái. Ông đã nghĩ mình có thể cứu được xã hội nhiều hơn nếu ông từ chối gia nhập Đảng Quốc Xã. Chính vì những người nghĩ như ôn ...more
John
Feb 20, 2015 John rated it really liked it
Freedom is nothing but the habit of choice. Pressure narrows choice forcibly. Under light pressure men sacrifice small choices lightly. But it is only under the greatest pressure that they sacrifice the greatest choices. & choice alone, informs them that they are men & not machines.
The proposition that anybody can do anything about anybody else is absolutely indemonstrable.
And all this was in "recovery" Germany, West Germany. Our younger boy, in the 1st grade, brought his friend Bienet
...more
Cindy
Sep 10, 2014 Cindy rated it really liked it
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
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Goodreads Librari...: Please merge They Thought They Were Free 3 17 Jan 27, 2014 07:07PM  
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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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“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.” 1 likes
“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.”
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