Shortly after WWII, journalist Milton Mayer went to Germany and lived in Kronenberg for a year, in order to understand the lives and mindsets of ordinary Germans under Nazism. He wanted to know how it was that ordinary people could come to participate in such atrocities, so he befriended ten Germans who had the following occupations as Nazis under Hitler: a tailor, an unemployed tailor’s apprentice, a cabinetmaker, an unemployed salesman, a high school student, a baker, a bill-collector, an unemployed bank clerk, a teacher, and a policeman.
The resulting book, They Thought They Were Free: the Germans 1933-45, is a remarkable chronicle of an advanced civilization’s slide into tyranny. The following excerpt, from Chapter 3, is probably the best ~500 words I’ve ever read on this frighteningly relevant topic:
None of these ordinary Germans… thought then or thinks now that the rights of man, in his own case, were violated or even more than mildly inhibited for reasons of what they then accepted (and still accept) as the national emergency proclaimed four weeks after Hitler took office as Chancellor…
None of my friends, even today, ascribes moral evil to Hitler although most of them think (after the fact) that he made fatal strategic mistakes that they themselves might have made at the time. His worst mistake was his selection of advisors—a backhanded tribute to the Leader’s virtues of trustfulness and loyalty, to his very innocence of the knowledge of evil, fully familiar to those who have heard partisans of F.D.R. or Ike explain how things went wrong.
Having fixed our faith in a father figure—or in a father, or in a mother or a wife—we must keep it fixed until inexcusable fault (and what fault of a father, a mother, a wife is inexcusable?) crushes it at once and completely. This figure represents our own best selves; it is what we ourselves want to be and, through identification, are. To abandon it for anything less than crushing evidence of inexcusable fault is self-incrimination, and of one’s best, unrealized self. Thus Hitler was betrayed by his subordinates, and the [ordinary, rank-and-file] Nazis with him. They may hate Bormann and Goebbels—Bormann because he rose to power at the end, and they are ashamed of the end; Goebbels because he was a runt with a “Jewish mind,” that is, a facile and cunning mind unlike theirs. They may hate Himmler, the Bluthund, above all, because he killed in cold blood, and they wouldn’t do that. But they may not hate Hitler or themselves.
“You see,” said Tailor Schwenke, the littlest of my ten little men, “there was always a secret war against Hitler in the regime. They fought him with unfair means. Himmler I detested. Goebbels, too. If Hitler had been told the truth, things would have been different.” For “Hitler” read “I.”
“The killing of the Jews?” said the “democratic” bill-collector, Simon. “Yes, that was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did. If I had been a Jew, I would have myself. Still, it was wrong, but some say it happened and some say it didn’t. You can show me pictures of skulls or shoes, but that doesn’t prove it. But I’ll tell you this—it was Himmler. Hitler had nothing to do with it.”
“Do you think he knew about it?”
“I don’t know. We’ll never know now.”
Hitler died to save my friend’s best self.