Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book review: they thought they were free

they thought they were free: the germans 1933-45 by milton mayer

(Note to publisher: thanks for choosing a bright red cover with prominent swastika! I'm sure it helped you sell books, but it got me a bunch of nasty looks on the subway... dick.)

Fascinating account of an Unitedstatesian Jewish journalist who lived in Germany, became friends with ten former Nazis, and told their stories: about how they allowed themselves, or actively chose to, become a part of the Nazi machinery. Mayer does an excellent job of allowing readers to put themselves in German shoes, letting them imagine Nazis as an in-group rather than a demonic enemy out-group. And the scary thing is how natural this book makes the transition seem...

Perhaps the truly scary thing is how Unitedstatesians consider themselves to exist on a much higher moral plane - that it is anathema for us to consider how we too could sink to the same moral depths we know so well our enemies inhabit.

"Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, appalled by the absence of public protest in America [at the great fire raid on Tokyo which according to the Air Force produced more civilian causalities 'than any other military action in the history of the world'], thought 'there was something wrong with a country where no one questioned' such acts committed in its name." Indeed there is something wrong with such a country. And it is information, and access to it.

Within Nazi society, there were horrors, "but these were advertised nowhere, reached 'nobody.' Once in a while (and only once in a while) a single crusading or sensation-mongering newspaper in America exposes the inhuman conditions of the local county jail; but none of my friends had ever read such a newspaper when there were such in Germany (far fewer there than here), and now there were none. None of the horrors impinged upon the day-to-day lives of my ten friends or was ever called to their attention. There was 'some sort of trouble' on the streets of Kronenberg as one or another of my friends was passing by on a couple of occasions, bu the police dispersed the crowd and there was nothing in the local paper. You and I leave 'some sort of trouble on the streets' to the police; so did my friends in Kronenberg. ... Man doesn't meet the State very often."


"None of my ten Nazi friends, with the exception of the cryptodemocrat Hildebrandt, knew any mistrust, suspicion, or dread in his own life or among those with whom he lived and worked; none was defamed or destroyed. Their world was the world of National Socialism; inside it, inside the Nazi community, they knew only good-fellowship and the ordinary concerns of ordinary life. ... That Nazism in Germany meant mistrust, suspicion, dread, defamation, and destruction we learned from those who brought us word of it - from its victims and opponents whose world was outside the Nazi community and from journalists and intellectuals, themselves non-Nazi or anti-Nazi, whose sympathies naturally lay with the victims and opponents. These people saw life in Germany in non-Nazi terms. There were two truths, and they were not contradictory: the truth that Nazis were happy and the truth that anti-Nazis were unhappy. And in the America of the 1950's - I do not mean to suggest that the two situations are parallel or even more than very tenuously comparable - those who did not dissent or associate with dissenters saw no mistrust or suspicion beyond the great community's mistrust and suspicion of dissenters, while those who dissented or believed in the right to dissent saw nothing but mistrust and suspicion and felt its devastation. ... just as there is when one man dreads the policeman on the beat and another waves 'Hello' to him, there are two countries in every country."


"The 'democratic,' that is argumentative, bill-collector, Herr Simon, was greatly interested in the mass deportation of Americans of Japanese ancestry from our West Coast in 1942. He had not heard of it before, and when I told him of the West Coast Army Commander's statement that 'a Jap is a Jap,' he hit the table with his fist and said, 'Right you are. A Jap is a Jap, a Jew is a Jew.' ... He asked me whether I had known anybody connected with the West Coast deportation. When I said 'No,' he asked me what I had done about it. When I said 'Nothing,' he said, triumphantly, 'There. You learned about all these things openly, through your government and your press. We did not learn through ours. As in your case, nothing was required of us - in our case not even knowledge. You knew about things you thought were wrong - you did think it was wrong, didn't you, Herr Professor?' 'Yes.' 'So. You did nothing. We heard or guessed, and we did nothing. So it is everywhere.' When I protested that the Japanese-descended Americans had not been treated like the Jews, he said, 'And if they had been - what then? Do you not see that the idea of doing something or doing nothing is in either case the same?'"

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