The Enlightenment myth is dying a painfully slow death, painful because it is taking so long for people to figure out that it is a sham. The idea that humans are progressing up a ladder of freedom continues to hold sway in the 21st century, much like it did at the beginning of the 20th.
Two world wars and the slaughter of millions of innocent civilians have still not eradicated the Enlightenment myth. We continue to believe that now, at the dawn of the 21st century, civilized people are incapable of the atrocities committed during World War II.
But we are wrong. We deceive ourselves.
Ordinary Germans Thought They Were Free
A book that exposes the vacuity of the “upward climb” perspective regarding human society is They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer. Published more than forty years ago, Mayer’s book offers a unique window into the hearts and minds of everyday Germans during the rise of Hitler and fascism.
Mayer interviews a number of “ordinary Germans,” recounting their conversations and then adding his own thoughts and conclusions. The result is a chilling picture of ordinary people willingly being carried along by empty rhetoric as a way of ensuring the satisfaction of personal needs.
Instead of writing a typical review of this book, I would like to offer some of the more striking statements and excerpts, in order to (hopefully) lead you to consider buying this book for yourself.
The Slow Turn Against Stigmatized People
They Thought They Were Free documents the slow progression of anti-Semitism and its role in blinding the populace from the atrocities of the government:
“Ordinary people – and ordinary Germans – cannot be expected to tolerate activities which outrage the ordinary sense of ordinary decency unless the victims are, in advance, successfully stigmatized as enemies of the people, of the nation, the race, the religion.” (55)
The Germans Thought Their Nationalistic Spirit Was Good, Not Evil
The massive self-deception of the German people should give us pause, especially when we consider how often we may indeed be blind to our own evil:
“The juridical effort at Nuremberg to punish the evildoers without injuring the losers – when punishment and injury came to the same thing and the losers were identical with the evildoers – was unlikely enough to succeed. The effort to convince my ten friends that they were evildoers was even unlikelier.
“In retrospect, there was one extremely remote possibility of its having been done more successfully in Germany than it had ever been done anywhere else: It might have been possible to exploit the Germans’ attachment to ‘the German spirit’ and to have convinced them that this spirit, instead of being good, is evil. How to have gone about doing this I do not know.” (151)
Too Distracted To Care about “Fundamental Things”
Mayer shows how distractions dulled the senses of German citizens, keeping them from truly considering the evil around them:
“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.” (167)
The Hundreds of Little Steps Toward Auschwitz
And so, Mayer documents a frightening, steady progression toward evils perpetrated on a massive scale:
“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens of 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.” (170)
Frightened By the Evil Within
Mayer is not a dispassionate observer. As he writes, he confesses that he has a thirst for justice. He also expresses his uneasy conclusion that all humans are complicit in evil at some level. His thirst for justice points back to his own heart, which frightens him as well:
“What we don’t like, what I don’t like, is the hypocrisy of these people. I want to hear them confess. That they, or some of their countrymen and their country’s government, violated the precepts of Christian, civilized, lawful life was bad enough; that they won’t see it, or say it, is what really rowels. I want them to plead no extenuation. I want them to say, ‘I knew and I know that it was all un-Christian, uncivilized, unlawful, and in my love of evil I pretended it wasn’t. I plead every German guilty of a life of hypocrisy, above all, myself. I am rotten…’
“I want my friends not just to feel bad and confess it, but to have been bad and to be bad now and confess it. I want them to constitute themselves an inferior race, self-abased, so that I, in the magnanimity becoming to the superior, having sat in calumnious judgment on them, may choose to let them live on in public shame and in private torment. I want to be God, not alone in power but in righteousness and in mercy; and Nazism crushed is my chance.
“But I am not God. I myself am a national, myself guilty of many national hypocrisies whose only justification is that the Germans’ were so much worse. My being less bestial, in my laws and practices, than they were does not make me more Godly than they, for difference in degree is not difference in kind. My own country’s racist legislation and practices, against both foreigners and citizens, is a whole web of hypocrisies. And, if I plead that racism has been wonderfully reduced in America in the past century, that the forces of good have been growing ever more powerful, how shall I answer my friends Hildebrandt and Kessler, who believed, or affected to believe, that the infiltration of National Socialism by decent men like themselves would, in time, reduce and even eliminate the evils?” (184-5)
Glimmers of Hope from the Confessing Church
There are glimmers of hope in this book. Mayer does not ignore the Confessing Church and the brave resistance of certain Christians to the evil regime that had risen in their land:
“Being a German may make whining easier, but not inevitable. In October, 1945, the Confessional church of Germany, the ‘church within the Church’ which had defied Hitler’s ‘German Christians,’ issued the ‘Stuttgart Confession’: ‘We know ourselves to be with our people in a great company of suffering, but also in a great solidarity of guilt. With great pain do we say that through us has endless suffering been brought to many peoples and countries. That to which we have often borne witness before our congregations, we declare in the name of the whole church. True, we have struggled for many years in the name of Jesus Christ against a spirit which has found its terrible expression in the National Socialist regime of violence, but we accuse ourselves for not witnessing more courageously…’ Those, too, were German words.” (150-1)