They Thought They Were Free

Book by Milton Mayer

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at on November 7, 2005.

"They Thought They Were Free" is an intensely personal book for me. Although I was born after Hitler was five years dead, the horrible dance between fascism and democracy has fascinated me since childhood. And, through a series of odd coincidences, my adult life has been heavily intertwined with those of both Nazis and the victims of Hitler's Nazis.

Throughout my life, I've had several close friends who lost family members in the Holocaust. I've spent a lot of time in Israel, sobbed at Yad Vashem, and my wife Louise and I played a role in two of our closest friends, Hal and Shelley Cohen, starting Orr Shalom, which is now one of the largest Jewish programs for abused children in Israel. Before I learned English as a baby I was speaking Yiddish, learned from our Holocaust-survivor neighbors in Detroit who cared for me when my parents worked, and so can today recite both Hebrew prayers and speak German with accents and inflections more characteristic of a first than a second language.

On the other side of the coin, this Sunday morning I'm having breakfast with an old and dear friend, Armin Lehmann. At the age of sixteen, Armin was the Hitler Youth courier who handed to Adolf Hitler the papers that caused Hitler to commit suicide two days later. Armin was there when the suicide happened. He was there when Josef and Magda Goebbels poisoned their six children and then committed suicide. He watched it all. If you see the movie "Downfall," you'll see a teenage actor depicting my friend Armin.

Armin and I first met in 1984 when we were paired up by a marketing/training company to lecture in Amsterdam (and, later, many other cities) to teach advertising, marketing, and communications for American Express and KLM. I had no idea he had been Hitler's last courier, or that he would later write a book about it titled In Hitler's Bunker: A Boy Soldier's Eyewitness Account of the Fuhrer's Last Days. We were friends for 15 years before he told me of his experiences. Armin is now a tireless campaigner for world peace.

Armin's revelation to me about his past came when an old friend of mine and I set out to write a book about the religion -- the cult -- of the Nazis. Scott and I traveled all across Europe, interviewing people from Dr. Wilfried Daim, the author of the ground-breaking book Der Mann der Hitler die Ideen gab ("The Man Who Gave Hitler The Idea") about Georg Lanz von Liebenfels, to the hereditary ruler of one of Europe's smaller constitutional monarchies who shared shocking but background-only stories with us. We snuck into and photographed the altar in an old castle where Hitler initiated his inner circle, still kept pristine but largely unknown in Germany, near an SS cemetery where every week fresh-cut flowers appear and the tombstones are regularly polished to a high gloss. We infiltrated a meeting of aging SS members, complete with black candles and wreaths hung from the ceiling, near Wewelsburg, a city in Germany that Hitler intended to turn into his Vatican for his Thousand Years of Peace. On our way into the meeting, we passed a house decorated with ancient runes and human skulls. When discovered, we fled fearing for our lives. (Scott and I ended up not finishing the book after several unsettling and threatening experiences. I decided it would be less dangerous and more productive to investigate and write a book about the Kennedy assassination.)

Years before that (1978), I'd met a former Nazi who so impressed me with his commitment to peace and his deep spirituality (much learned from his Hasidic mentor, a Polish Jew who
survived the Holocaust) that I wrote a book about him titled "The Prophet's Way." (It's also available in German.) In the years I lived in Germany (1986/87), I met and got to know at least two-dozen elderly Germans who hated Hitler, who loved Hitler, and every shade in between.

I preface this review of Milton Mayer's book with all this personal and historical/reference information by way of hopefully establishing enough credibility in your mind to make a simple statement:

It could happen here, too.

This was also Milton Mayer's great fear and great fascination, after he got to know real Nazis. An American Jew of German ancestry, and a brilliant reporter, Mayer went to Germany 7 years after Hitler's fall and befriended 10 Nazis. This book is, in large part, his story of that experience. Intertwined through it -- written in 1955 -- are repeated overt and subtle warnings to future generations of Americans -- us, today.

Mayer opens the book by noting that he was prepared to hate the Nazis he would meet. But, he wrote, he discovered they were just as human as the rest of us:

I liked them. I couldn't help it. Again and again, as I sat or walked with one or another of my ten [Nazi] friends, I was overcome by the same sensation that had got in the way of my newspaper reporting in Chicago years before [in the 1930s]. I liked Al Capone. I liked the way he treated his mother. He treated her better than I treated mine.

He writes about how if he were to die tonight, at least he could look back on some good he had done. But his Nazi friends would never be able to die in peace, knowing the evil they had participated in, if even by acts of omission, could never be wiped clean. And he dreaded that Americans would ever feel the same for the acts we may one day commit as a nation.

Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany - not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted - or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.

I came home a little bit afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under combined pressure of reality and illusion. I felt - and feel - that it was not German Man that I met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.

If I - and my countrymen - ever succumbed to that concatenation of conditions, no Constitution, no laws, no police, and certainly no army would be able to protect us from harm.

One of his closing chapters, "Peoria Uber Alles," is so poignant and prescient that were Mayer still alive today I doubt he could read it out loud without his voice breaking. It's the story of how what happened in Germany could just as easily happen in Peoria, Illinois, particularly if the city were to become isolationistic and suffered some sort of natural or man-made disaster or attack that threw its people into the warm but deadly embrace of authoritarianism.

The [Peorian] individual surrenders his individuality without a murmur, without, indeed, a second thought - and not just his individual hobbies and tastes, but his individual occupation, his individual family concerns, his individual needs. The primordial community, the tribe, re-emerges, it's first function the preservation of all its members. Every normal personality of the day becomes an 'authoritarian personality.' A few recalcitrants have to be disciplined (vigorously, under the circumstances) for neglect or betrayal of their duty. A few groups have to be watched or, if necessary, taken in hand - the antisocial elements, the liberty-howlers, the agitators among the poor, and the criminal gangs. For the rest of the citizens - 95 percent or so of the population - duty is now the central fact of life. They obey, at first awkwardly, but, surprisingly soon, spontaneously.

Among Mayer's stories are some of the most telling aspects of how the Nazis came to take over Germany (and much of Europe). I first quoted them a year ago in a Common Dreams article linked from BuzzFlash titled The Myth of National Victimhood. I noted that Mayer told how one of his friends said:

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....

As a friend of Mayer's noted, and Mayer recorded in his book:

This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. ...

To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it - please try to believe me - unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, "regretted," that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these "little measures" that no "patriotic German" could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

In this conversation, Mayer's friend suggests that he wasn't making an excuse for not resisting the rise of the fascists, but simply pointing out an undisputable reality. This, he suggests, is how fascism will always take over a nation.

"Pastor Niemoller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing: and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something - but then it was too late."

"Yes," I said.

"You see," my colleague went on, "one doesn't see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don't want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don't want to 'go out of your way to make trouble.' Why not? - Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

"Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there will be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, 'It's not so bad' or 'You're seeing things' or 'You're an alarmist.'

"And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don't know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. ...

"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 the 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 'Jew 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 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." ...

Mayer's friend pointed out the terrible challenge faced then by average Germans, and today by peoples across the world, as governments are taken over by authoritarian, corporatist -- fascist -- regimes.

"How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men?" Mayer's friend asked rhetorically. And, without the benefit of a previous and recent and well-remembered fascistic regime to refer to, he had to candidly answer: "Frankly, I do not know."

This was the great problem that Mayer's Nazis and so many in their day faced.

As Mayer's Nazi friend noted, "I do not see, even now [how we could have stopped it]. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice - 'Resist the beginnings' and 'consider the end.' But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men?"

And here we are.

Sinclair Broadcast Group runs right-wing editorials on its stations over public airways with no pretense of balance.

Former MSNBC producer Jeff Cohen tells me that he was ordered to always have at least two conservatives on the Donahue show whenever one liberal appeared, "and three conservatives to Michael Moore."

Hundreds of hours a day of right-wing programming pour out of radio stations nationwide, and conservative extremists are the most common "guests" and "experts" on network news and weekend political TV shows.

The 2004 election may have been stolen with massive nationwide fraud -- the statistics in New Mexico, Ohio, and Florida are truly startling -- and Alliance for Democracy lawyer Cliff Arnebeck has filed a lawsuit (PDF) against Bush, Cheney, Rove, et al, suggesting that Kerry actually won Ohio. The story was only covered in any depth by C-SPAN (Real Media).

The possibility that the election of 2002 was also stolen -- particularly in Georgia, where Max Cleland losing his seat to Saxby Chambliss gave Republicans control of the Senate -- has never been seriously investigated. There is no paper trail from that election, as it was entirely done on paperless voting machines.

And when a consortium of news organizations recounted the Florida 2000 vote and it was found that Al Gore actually won the entire state -- and thus the presidency -- no matter what standard was used to count the ballots, the corporate news organizations of America buried the story (although the New York Times and Washington Post at least did report it).

Our Attorney General calls the Geneva Conventions "quaint"; our Secretary of Defense stands accused of ordering torture; our President and Vice President knowingly lie to us and the world in order to lead an election-year preemptive war; and Congress passes the PATRIOT Act without reading it -- eerily like the German Parliament passed the Enabling Acts after the Reichstag was burned.

So how to counter it?

As Mayer so movingly narrates, the experience of 20th century Europe demonstrates that those abusing power must be confronted with equally vigorous power.

In the 1930s, Germans who believed in republican democracy were overwhelmed before they realized how completely their civil liberties and national institutions had been seized.

We must not allow it to happen in our nation. Read "They Thought They Were Free" and awaken as many as you can.


rickdog 7 years 29 weeks ago

Thom, please update this great piece and promote to the front of your blog.

andy96's picture
andy96 3 years 51 weeks ago

This is from an email I'm sharing. Most Americans can’t see it coming …

I’ve been writing about authoritarianism in America since 2005. I’ve watched it grow within the Republican Party and infect the Democratic party. I’ve come to understand it’s built into our 400 year old economic system. That our authoritarian economic system has stolen our democratic political system. That our authoritarian policing system was created by our authoritarian economic system to punish those who threaten the wealth of the profit looters. That our authoritarian military system, as a mega-extension of our internal policing system, has become another punishing tool of our economic system to obtain and protect foreign economic resources. That we now have an authoritarian Executive Branch of government supported by its authoritarian legislative branch, the US Senate. Both branches are working to convert our federal court system into another authoritarian system to protect and empower the profit looters, CxOs of the world.

I’ve also learned about the history of America as seen from the eyes of the American worker. Workers have been abused by our authoritarian economic and policing systems for over 140 years. This abuse rises and falls depending on worker/citizen interest, resistance, and interest/abilities to participate in the political system.

Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy of WWII, and other countries since, were run by authoritarian political systems that also created their own authoritarian policing systems and that coerced their complimentary authoritarian economic systems into financing their political and policing systems.

In America, our march to an authoritarian state has taken a different path. Unlike Germany and Italy, where the political system used the economic system to enforce its hegemony, America’s movement to the extreme right has been driven by our centuries-old authoritarian economic system, which is described as Inverted Totalitarianism. This economic takeover of our government was first attempted in 1933 by the "Wall Street Putch," with Prescott Bush, when the oligarchs tried to replace our elected President with a military coup of disgruntled WWI veterans led by Marine General Smedley Butler, who actually exposed the plot.

That violent, failed, fascist takeover of America in 1933 has been replaced by a decades-long stealth approach detailed in Democracy In Chains by Nancy MacLean, which under current national leadership has become more blatant Our current, profit looters, American fascist goals are to have a constitutional convention and rewrite the US Constitution to give corporations veto power over new government laws, eliminate majority rule with voter suppression, and neutering the Federal government by eliminating agencies, services, and social programs which were set up to protect and empower citizens. The new constitution will cast in concrete what has mostly been put in place and finish off what remains like privatizing Medicare and Social Security.

In my life time I’ve lived under two opposing forms of government:

Post depression/post WWII and pre 1980s government was closest to of, by, and for the People. It was a government with the moral purpose of equally protecting and empowering ALL the People such that 1) People’s individual freedoms are maximized and 2) Economic, social, racial, and environmental injustices are minimized. In other words, a government with a goal of maximizing equality.

Now our government is closer to one who's focused purpose is protecting and empowering only successful white men (blue eyes, blond) such that their individual freedom and wealth are maximized without concern for any resulting injustices inflected on the majority of citizens. In other words, a government focused on maximizing inequality. Economic inequality is now at levels not seen since the late 20s.

What follows is my description of our current broken and interrelated political, economic, and policing systems as the right-wing authoritarian extremists push us closer to complete Inverted Totalitarianism.

The economic and policing system are authoritarian from birth. Capitalism grew out of the authoritarian feudalism and replaced the lord/surf structure with the employer/employee structure. As we have seen during the pandemic, capitalism is oriented to protect and empower the profit looter at the expense of all others.

Protecting the profit looters required goons to stop unionizing in North America and protecting their slave property in the south They needed a policing system for protecting their property (human or not). This policing system has advanced into a legalized abusing and killing with “qualified immunity."

Empowering the profit looters required an end to government oversight and regulations intended to protect and empower their customers. That was going to take some planning, including some favorable SCOTUS rulings in 1976 and 1978 assisted by the justice who wrote the Lewis Powell Memo plan and a lot of money. They had lots of money but needed more. Then comes Reagan’s Neoliberal, trickle-down, economics that provided tax breaks, lucrative war contracts, and large corporate welfare subsidies. This self-enrichment by the wealthy is called legalized looting Profit looters now occupy the White House, own the US Senate and, together, they are stacking the federal courts with corporate lackeys.

In summary, a 400 year old authoritarian economic system gave birth to our authoritarian policing system to put property rights over human rights, legalized massive looting, stealthily stole ownership of the citizen’s government and is maneuvering to turn it into a fascist like totalitarian state.

Others are more versed in authoritarianism as it relates to Nazi Germany and what can be said about its growth in America. Professor Altemeyer has studied it, helped John Dean write about it, and wrote about it himself. Progressive Thom Hartmann provides a review of They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer and then suggests reading the book:

“We must not allow it to happen in our nation. Read "They Thought They Were Free" and awaken as many as you can."

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