The Best Time of their Lives

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Milton Mayer was a German-American, Jewish journalist. A few years after the end of World War II, in the late 1940s, Mayer moved to Germany with his wife and children into the town of Kronenberg. He spent months interviewing 10 average Germans (baker, police man, teacher, etc.) and wrote about the conversations in a book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. He did not tell them that he was Jewish.

The best time of their lives. There were wonderful ten dollar holiday trips for the family in the "Strength through Joy" program, to Norway in the summer and Spain in the winter, for people who had never dreamed of a real holiday trip at home or abroad. And in Kronenberg "nobody" (nobody my friends knew) went cold, nobody went hungry, nobody went ill and uncared for... All the blessings of the New Order, advertised everywhere, reached "everybody."

The other nine, decent, hard-working, ordinarily intelligent and honest men, did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we knew and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it... When I asked Herr Wedekeind, the baker, why he had believed in National Socialism, he said, "Because it promised to solve the unemployment problem. And it did. But I never imagined what it would lead to. Nobody did" (47).

Men think first of the lives they lead and the things they see; and not, among the things they see, of the extraordinary sights, but of the sights which meet them in their daily rounds. The lives of my nine friends-- and even of the tenth, the teacher-- were lightened and brightened by National Socialism as they knew it. And they look back at it now-- nine of them, certainly-- as the best time of their lives; for what are men's lives? There were jobs and job security, summer camps for the children and the Hitler Jugend to keep them off the streets...

There were horrors, too, but these were advertised nowhere, reached "nobody."... None of the horrors impinged upon the day-to-day lives of my ten friends or was ever called to their attention... The real lives that real people live in a real community have nothing to do with Hitler and Roosevelt or with what Hitler and Roosevelt are doing. Man doesn't meet the State very often... The day after the arson of the synagogues... in its issue of November 11, 1938, the Kronenberger Zeitung carried the following report, at the bottom of page 4, under a very small headline reading Schutzhaft, "Protective Custody": "In the interest of their own security, a number of male Jews were taken into custody yesterday. This morning they were sent away from the city." I showed it to each of my ten friends. None of them-- including the teacher-- remembered ever having seen it or anything like it.

1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939-- until September 1, when, as the Head of the Government told them, Poland attacked their country-- the little lives of my friends went on, under National Socialism as they had before, altered only for the better, and always for the better, in bread and butter, in housing, health, and hope, wherever the New Order touched them...

When I asked (of anti-Nazis and of Nazis) how many genuine Fanatiker there were in the Third Reich, how many little men gone wild, the hazard was never over a million. It must be remembered... that the National Socialist movement died young; it never had a chance to rear a whole generation of its own.

And the rest of the seventy million Germans? The rest were not even cogs, in any positive sense at all, in the totalitarian machine. A people like ourselves, who know such systems only by hearsay or by the report of their victims or opponents, tends to exaggerate the actual relationship between man and the State under tyranny. The laws are hateful to those who hate them, but who hates them?

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. They feared the "Bolsheviks" but not one another, and their fear was the accepted fear of the whole otherwise happy Nazi community that was Germany.

That Nazism in Germany meant distrust, 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... 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 (48-53).

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 felt- and feel- that it was not German Man that I had 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. For there is no harm that anyone else can do to a man that he cannot do to himself, no good that he cannot do if he will. And what was said long ago is true: Nations are made not of oak and rock but of men, and, as the men are, so will the nations be (xix).

And Kronenberg, so old and changeless, off the main line and the Autobahn, is conservative even for Hesse. But its very conservatism is a better guarantee of the Party's stability than the radicalism of the cities, where yesterday's howling Communists are today's howling Nazis and nobody knows just how they will howl tomorrow. A quiet town is best (13).

Baker Wedekind was a baker, and he baked. Each month he looked through that month's Master-Baker. Each day he read the headlines of the Daily Kronenberger. He had a copy of Mein Kampf (who hadn't?), but he had never opened it (who had?) (32).

The German community-- the rest of the seventy million Germans, apart from the million or so who operated the whole machinery of Nazism-- had nothing to do except not to interfere. Absolutely nothing was expected of them except to go on as they had, paying their taxes, reading their local paper, and listening to the radio. Everybody contributed money and time to worthy purposes, so you did, too. In America your wife collects or distributes clothing, gives an afternoon a week to the Red Cross or the orphanage or the hospital; in Germany she did the same thing in the Nazi Frauenbund, and for the same reasons. The Frauenbund, like the Red Cross, was patriotic and humanitarian; did your wife ask the Red Cross if "Negro" plasma was segregated from "white?" (57).

My friends do not mean 1939-45 when they speak of "the Nazi time." They mean 1933-39. And the best time of one's life is, in retrospect, all the better when, as in Germany after 1945, one supposed that he would not see its like again.

The best time of their lives.

"Yes," said Herr Klingelhofer, the cabinetmaker, "it was the best time. After the first war... Hitler was talking about [strength]... A man saw a future. The difference between rich and poor grew smaller, one saw it everywhere. A man had a chance. In 1935 I took over my father's shop and got a two-thousand-dollar government loan. Ungeheuer! Unheard of!" (61)

None of my ten friends, even today, ascribes moral evil to Hitler, although most of them think (after the fact) that he made fatal strategical mistakes (64).

None of my ten friends ever encountered anybody connected with the operation of the deportation system or the concentration camps. None of them ever knew, on a personal basis, anybody connected with the Gestapo, the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service), or the Einsatzgruppen (the Occupation Detachments, which followed the German armies eastward to conduct the mass killings of Jews). None of them ever knew anybody who knew anybody connected with these agencies of atrocities... Sixty days before the end of the war, Teacher Hildrebrandt, as a first lieutenant in command of a disintegrating Army subpost, was informed by the post doctor that an SS man attached to the post was going crazy because of his memories of shooting down Jews "in the East"; this was the closest my friends came to knowing of the systematic butchery of National Socialism (71).

We in America have not had the German experience, where even private protest was dangerous, where even secret knowledge might be extorted; but what did we expect the good citizen of Minneapolis or Charlotte to do when, in the midst of the war, he was told, openly and officially, that 112,000 of his fellow-Americans, those of Japanese ancestry on the American West Coast, had been seized without warrant and sent without due process of law to relocation centers? ... The United States Supreme Court, which found that the action was within the Army's power-- and, anyway, the good citizen of Minneapolis or Charlotte had his own troubles.

It was this, I think-- they had their own troubles-- that in the end explained my friends' failure to "do something" or even to know something. A man can carry only so much responsibility. If he tries to carry more, he collapses; so, to save himself from collapse, he rejects the responsibility that exceeds his capacity. There are responsibilities he must carry, in any case, and these, heavy enough under normal conditions, are intensified, even multiplied, in times of great change, be they bad times or good (76).

... may be seen in the observation of U.S. General Nathan DeWitt, the West Coast Area Commander of the United States Army, in 1942: "A Jap is a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not. You can't change him by giving him a piece of paper. The Japanese race is an enemy race." (239).

We learned at Nuremberg that the entire extermination program was directed without written orders, a remarkable fact in itself (78).

In American-occupied Kronenberg, after the war, some of the most enthusiastic organizers of American-supported projects had been among the most enthusiastic organizers of Nazi-supported projects. Some of these people were trying to cover up for past misdeeds or mistakes; but most of them were simply enthusiastic organizers of anybody's-supported project (85).

Not one of my ten friends had changed his attitude toward the Jews since the downfall of National Socialism. The five (or six, if young Rupprecht is included) who were extreme anti-Semites were, I believe, not a bit more or less so now than before. What surprised me, indeed, was that, with the war lost and their lives ruined, they were not more so... They, and, to a degree, even the bank clerk, the cabinetmaker, and the policemen, took the greatest pains to convince me that the Jews were as bad as the Nazis said they were... The one passion they seemed to have left was anti-Semitism (134).

A fifty-year-old non-Nazi acquaintance of mine remembered that, when she was a teenager, not in the feudal east or imperial south of the country but in modern Westphalia, the farmers took off their hats when the Count's carriage went by empty (155).

"My education did not help me," he said, "and I had a broader and better education than most men have had or ever will have. All it did, in the end, was to enable me to rationalize my failure of faith more easily than I might have done if I had been ignorant. And so it was, I think, among educated men generally, in that time in Germany. Their resistance was no greater than other men's." (181)

Men under pressure are first dehumanized and only then demoralized, not the other way around. Organization and specialization, system, subsystem, and supersystem are the consequence, not the cause, of the totalitarian spirit. National Socialism did not make men unfree; unfreedom made men National Socialists (277).

They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45, Milton Mayer, 1955,

For another excerpt from the book, see The Heroism of Shame.