excerpts from the book
They Thought They Were Free
The Germans 1933-45
by Milton Mayer, 1955
But Then It Was Too Late
"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, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even
to vote. All this has little, really nothing, to do with knowing
one is governing.
"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 not understand
it, it could not be released because of national security. And
their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him,
made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would
otherwise have worried about it.
"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
"You will understand me when I say
that my Middle High German was my life. It was all I cared about.
I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into
all the new activity, as the university was drawn into the new
situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and,
above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists,
questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community,
the things in which one had to, was 'expected to' participate
that had not been there or had not been important before. It was
all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one's energies,
coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see
how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things.
One had no time."
"Those," I said, "are the
words of my friend the baker. 'One had no time to think. There
was so much going on.'"
"Your friend the baker was right,"
said my colleague. "The dictatorship, and the whole process
of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided
an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway.
I do not speak of your 'little men,' your baker and so on; I speak
of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us
did not want to think about fundamental things and never had.
There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental
things to think about-we were decent people-and kept us so busy
with continuous changes and 'crises' and so fascinated, yes, fascinated,
by the machinations of the 'national enemies,' without and within,
that we had no time to think about these dreadful
things that were growing, little by little,
all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who
wants to think?
"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.
"How is this to be avoided, among
ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do
not know. I do not see, even now. 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? Things might have. And everyone counts
on that might.
"Your 'little men,' your Nazi friends,
were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me,
who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew
better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed
better. Pastor Niemöller 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 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 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 would 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
"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. You are left with your close
friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as
"But your friends are fewer now.
Some have drifted off somewhere or submerged themselves in their
work. You no longer see as many as you did at meetings or gatherings.
Informal groups become smaller; attendance drops off in little
organizations, and the organizations themselves wither. Now, in
small gatherings of your oldest friends, you feel that you are
talking to yourselves, that you are isolated from the reality
of things. This weakens your confidence still further and serves
as a further deterrent to-to what? It is clearer all the time
that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an
occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker.
So you wait, and you wait.
"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.
"You have gone almost all the way
yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession
of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying
you with it, without any effort on your part. 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.
"Suddenly it all comes down, all
at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately,
what you haven't done (for that was all that was required of
most of us: that we do nothing). You remember
those early meetings of your department in the university when,
if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one
stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and
you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now,
and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.
"What then? You must then shoot yourself.
A few did. Or 'adjust' your principles. Many tried, and some,
I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest
of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is,
under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became
this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows
or cares to know."
I said nothing. I thought of nothing to
"I can tell you," my colleague
went on, "of a man in Leipzig, a judge. He was not a Nazi,
except nominally, but he certainly wasn't an anti-Nazi. He was
just-a judge. In '42 or '43, early '43, I think it was, a Jew
was tried before him in a case involving, but only incidentally,
relations with an 'Aryan' woman. This was 'race injury,' something
the Party was especially anxious to punish. In the case at bar,
however, the judge had the power to convict the man of a 'nonracial'
offense and send him to an ordinary prison for a very long term,
thus saving him from Party 'processing' which would have meant
concentration camp or, more probably, deportation and death. But
the man was innocent of the 'nonracial' charge, in the judge's
opinion, and so, as an honorable judge, he acquitted him. Of course,
the Party seized the Jew as soon as he left the courtroom."
"And the judge?"
"Yes, the judge. He could not get
the case off his conscience-a case, mind you, in which he had
innocent man. He thought that he should
have convicted him and saved him from the Party, but how could
he have convicted an innocent man? The thing preyed on him more
and more, and he had to talk about it, first to his family, then
to his friends, and then to acquaintances. (That's how I heard
about it.) After the '44 Putsch they arrested him. After
that, I don't know."
I said nothing.
"Once the war began," my colleague
continued, "resistance, protest, criticism, complaint, all
carried with them a multiplied likelihood of the greatest punishment.
Mere lack of enthusiasm, or failure to show it in public, was
'defeatism.' You assumed that there were lists of those who would
be 'dealt with' later, after the victory. Goebbels was very clever
here, too. He continually promised a 'victory orgy' to 'take care
of' those who thought that their 'treasonable attitude' had escaped
notice. And he meant it; that was not just propaganda.
And that was enough to put an end to all uncertainty.
"Once the war began, the government
could do anything 'necessary' to win it; so it was with the 'final
solution of the Jewish problem,' which the Nazis always talked
about but never dared undertake, not even the Nazis, until war
and its 'necessities' gave them the knowledge that they could
get away with it. The people abroad who thought that war against
Hitler would help the Jews were wrong. And the people in Germany
who, once the war had begun, still thought of complaining, protesting,
resisting, were betting on Germany's losing the war. It was a
long bet. Not many made it."
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