How Democracy Dies

Even the usually restrained Barack Obama warns Americans we're slipping dangerously close to authoritarianism.

"You have to tend to this garden of democracy, otherwise things can fall apart fairly quickly. And we've seen societies where that happens."

Yes, he invoked Nazi Germany, adding, "Now, presumably, there was a ballroom in Vienna in the late 1920s or '30s that looked and seemed as if it - filled with the music and art and literature and the science that was emerging - would continue into perpetuity. And then 60 million people died. And the entire world was plunged into chaos."

It was a shocking reminder of Milton Mayer and his seminal work, They Thought They Were Free, first published back in 1955 by the University of Chicago Press.

Shortly after World War II, Mayer, an American journalist and college instructor, went to Germany and befriended a small group of 10 "ordinary Germans" who had lived and worked through the war, and interviewed them in depth.

Mayer's burning question was, "How does something like Nazi Germany happen?"

What he learned was every bit as shocking as President Obama drawing the same parallels. He wrote, presciently, "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."

Mayer tells the story largely through the words of the Germans he got to know during his year in Germany after the war.

Read more here.

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