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They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  1,910 ratings  ·  281 reviews
“When this book was first published it received some attention from the critics but none at all from the public. Nazism was finished in the bunker in Berlin and its death warrant signed on the bench at Nuremberg.”
That’s Milton Mayer, writing in a foreword to the 1966 edition of They Thought They Were Free. He’s right about the critics: the book was a finalist for the Na
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 diffi…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)

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Jul 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: german-language
They Wanted It; They Got It; And They Liked It

Milton Mayer was that rarest of writers: a journalist who knew his job was to create interesting facts; and a philosopher who knew that facts are meaningless without a theory, a coherent narrative, that connects them. His phenomenological analysis of ten Everyman Nazis was remarkable but largely unremarked when it was first published in 1954 during the Red Scare of McCarthyism. The book may be even more relevant today in understanding the Red Scare o
Sep 06, 2022 rated it really liked it
Men who did not know that they were slaves do not know that they have been freed.

By know I mean knowledge, binding knowledge. Men who are going to protest or take even stronger forms of action, in a dictatorship more so than in a democracy, want to be sure. When they are sure, they still may not take any form of action (in my ten friends’ cases, they would not have, I think); but that is another point.

The author of this book is an American journalist who spends a year or so in post-Nazi Germ
Maru Kun
I've seen the rise of Nazism described as a "warning from history" on many occasions.

Well this book is that warning, written in clear and concrete terms soon after the events occurred by people who experienced them directly, most of them Nazi sympathizers.
"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 o
Feb 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I came across this book by accident. It was on GR Friend's to-read list and the title and theme somehow got me interested. No regrets here! The book, published ten years after WW2, is truly surprising for a reader in the 21st century. I've read several books with witnesses' accounts but this one is exceptional. Through lives of ten 'little men' we learn how ordinary people, living in a small town, are drawn into the totalitarian system and how they reflect upon nazism some years after the war. T ...more
Erik Graff
Aug 09, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Daniel Villines
Jan 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
In contemporary times, this book has surfaced more than once in conversations. It's been touted as a means to obtain insight into the segment of society that is apparently blind to the chronic contempt for the legal, ethical, and moral principles that is being perpetrated by our current president here in the United States.

While reading They Thought They Were Free I indeed found threads of commonality between the Germans of Nazism and the Americans of Trumpism. There existed then, as exists now,
Robert Palmer
Aug 16, 2013 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
Jan Rice
Blast from the Past
The problem with old books is that, unless they were written by geniuses, and sometimes even if they were, old books are a mixture of genuine insights and misconceptions geared to their times. This book is no exception. It's a favorite book of a friend who was urging that it be read by our small Jewish book-study group. What persuaded me to concur was that we'd just read Extracted: Unmasking Rampant Antisemitism in America's Higher Education, by a local dentist (retired) writi
Kimba Tichenor
Seven years after the collapse of Hitler's regime, Milton Sanford Mayer, an American Jewish journalist of German heritage, traveled to Germany in an effort to understand how and why Nazism had developed in Germany. He spends a year in a small Hessian town (whose identity he disguises by calling it Kronenberg). Here he works to develop contacts with "kleine Leute", i.e. ordinary Germans who enthusiastically or reluctantly embraced the Nazi cause. He wanted to understand why they had done so. And ...more
Don Nelson
Jan 03, 2012 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
Excellent, sad, and troubling. The author, a Jewish American, lived in Germany after World War II, in the 1950s, as a professor at a small provincial college. This book is an account of his many conversations with ten different German men about their experiences and memories of the pre-war, war, and immediate post-war periods, and their attitudes about the Nazis and their actions. They knew he was American, but not that he was Jewish.
Unsurprisingly, they almost uniformly minimized the scale and
Mar 14, 2017 rated it liked it
I found it a little difficult to rate this book. The first part, relating personal interviews with former Nazi party members was fascinating (and a little troubling when looking at some of the events in terms of modern developments.) The second half of the book, though, read like an attempt at psychoanalysis of an entire country's population that just didn't work for me (although he did admit there might be "a few exceptions" to some of the generalizations.) The final section made a lot of predi ...more
Susanna Sturgis
Jan 12, 2016 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
Sep 11, 2008 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.
Jun 08, 2012 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.
Sep 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I first became aware this book existed in 2003 or 2004 when I saw this quote on a blog:

"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 understand it, it could not be released because of national security. An
Sep 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: europe, germany
There is no way for me to write an honest review of this book without addressing the elephant in the room: that room being the Oval Office.

I purchased this book at a library book sale in October 2011. I don't recall what drew me to it then, but I know what led me to pick it out from among my stacks in 2016 and tell myself I would read it very soon. Michiko Kakutani, until recently the chief book critic for The New York Times, published a review of Volker Ullrich's "Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939" nea
Jack Waters
Nov 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020
Mayer's book was perhaps the first (or at least the most respected) postwar inquiry into how ordinary Germans swiftly allowed (and indeed became) Nazis. It focused on ten associates of Mayer in one city (Marburg, though he calls it Kronenberg), which wasn't entirely representative of Germany as a whole as it was probably tinged with more citizenry Nazism to more of an extent of other cities (an example: the city destroyed, then burned, a synagogue before the SS arrived to order its conflagration ...more
May 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45 by Milton Sanford Mayer was first published in 1956 when the author lived in Germany as a research professor at the University of Frankfurt. It is based on conversations and interviews the author conducted with ten Germans about their lives from 1933 to 1945 and their reasons for joining the Nazi party. As a friend he was emboldened to push the discussions into rather sensitive areas such as the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, the general Germ ...more
Charlene Mathe
Mar 18, 2012 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
Feb 23, 2010 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.

Mar 15, 2009 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.
Rosie Gearhart
Mar 17, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Chilling. Fascinating. Insightful. Convicting. Eye-opening. How would you have responded had you been an ordinary German citizen in the 1930s and 1940s? Would you have stood up against what was happening? Would you have even been aware? Would you have made excuses?

The author, a Jewish American journalist, went to Germany after WWII to interview ten normal German men, to hear their stories, their perspectives, their thoughts on the war, the Jews, the Nazi government, etc. It was so interesting he
Oct 23, 2014 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
Jan 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a reissue of a classic 1955 study of the experiences of ten typical Germans under the Nazi regime. The author was a journalist and education writer who was on the faculty the University of Chicago. Milton Mayer is not well remembered but was the person who introduced the phrase “speaking truth to power” into journalism terminology, where it has remained ever since. He originally tried to get an interview with Hitler after he came to power in 1933 but was unsuccessful. This interest morph ...more
Julian Mayers
Jan 02, 2021 rated it really liked it
One of the bleakest things I've ever read ...more
Aug 04, 2013 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
Jim Williams
Jan 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Given the current state of American politics, this book, now 61 years old, is eerily relevant. The author lives for a time in postwar Germany, hiding from his "10 Nazi friends" that he is Jewish, to examine how average citizens could become supporters of a brutal dictator. The books strength is in the profiles and interviews with these 10 men (no women were profiled), who each have supported the Nazi movement to varying degrees, from local strongmen to go-along-get-along types. That so many Germ ...more
Андрей Раяновский
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
May 15, 2010 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
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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

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“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.”
“Hitlerism was a mass flight to dogma, to the barbaric dogma that had not been expelled with the Romans, the dogma of the tribe, the dogma that gave every man importance only in so far as the tribe was important and he was a member of the tribe.” 26 likes
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