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 purchasedThere 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" nearly a year ago, in the heat of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. By then each major party's candidate had long since been nominated, and we in the States had endured over a year of constant media (and social media) coverage of the unprecedented circus whose ringleader was later elected in a shocking upset. While I have not read Ullrich's book, I found Kakutani's review a rather enlightening - and terrifying - summary of its key points of interest. Mayer's "They Thought They Were Free", having been published only ten years after World War II, is far closer to its subject matter in both time and human space, as Mayer personally lived among and interviewed those who experienced its relevant zeitgeist. It tells a story from the other side, from the average person's point of view - the average Nazi's, that is.
Germany differs from the United States of the present moment in that Hitler and his Nazi Party eventually enjoyed the support, or at least tacit acquiescence, of a large majority of its population. The current U.S. president - while he was elected not by a majority of the populace but by a quirk of its electoral system, like the Nazis - has yet to achieve such, although I fear that this is not impossible. Mayer, in his voyage into the mind of the Nazi, presents a surprisingly sympathetic picture, considering he himself was an ethnic Jew (a fact he wisely concealed from his German neighbors during his stay). The average Nazi, far from the bloodthirsty 'Fanatiker' we might imagine from our public school education, was merely going along to get along. Complicit? Absolutely, but in a less vociferous way than we might have thought. Nazis - the vast majority of those who comprised the party after it had come to power - were not clamoring for a Holocaust. They were merely willing to overlook virulent anti-Semitism if it meant rejecting Communism at the voting booth and hopefully securing a brighter economic outlook.
This is not to say that they were not anti-Semitic; indeed, several chapters into the book the subject is finally broached, and the townsfolk's catalog of bizarre rumors and legends pertaining to Jews are laid bare. Anti-Semitism had been a fact of life in Germany for centuries, just as, for example, anti-black sentiments have been an undercurrent in American life since our nation's inception and even before. Such feelings and ideas need not take the form of open displays or violent action to be deadly; the casual indifference to Jewish suffering they enabled more than sufficed. And this is a key point Mayer raises: the Holocaust did not require a country's worth of 'Fanatiker' to be accomplished. With only perhaps one percent of the population under such a spell, "all that was required for the triumph of evil was that good men did nothing". Most Nazis were not especially political. Their concerns pertained mainly to their daily lives and, by extension, the economy. While I have heard claims that Weimar Germany's economic woes were largely self-inflicted by an obstructionist parliament, my knowledge of that period is sparse enough that I will not present this as a definitive claim. Regardless of the cause, the "little men" (for that is what Mayer tells us they called themselves) of Germany were suffering from a severe bout of "economic anxiety", and Hitler appeared to be just the cure.
Perhaps it can be attributed by some degree to confirmation bias, but so many times while reading this book, I was struck by how familiar quotes and sentiments expressed by the Germans appeared - from both the Nazis of the book's focus, as well as the anti-Nazis sprinkled among them. History does not repeat itself entirely, for various details will always be unique to their times and places, but human nature thus far has remained so unchanged that similar scenarios will emerge and reemerge such that some among us cannot help but be struck by how foolish we are to repeat old mistakes. For seven decades, every generation has cried wolf that the latest opposition candidate is the return of Hitler. Let it be that 2016 is merely another instance in this trend - and not the ultimate fruition of this claim....more