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They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 2nd Revised ed. Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 85 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0226511924
ISBN-10: 0226511928
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Among the many books written on Germany after the collapse of Hitler's Thousand Year Reich, this book by Milton Mayer is one of the most readable and most enlightening."
(Hans Kohn New York Times Book Review)

"It is a fascinating story and a deeply moving one. And it is a story that should make people pause and think—think not only about the Germans, but also about themselves."
(Ernest S. Pisko Christian Science Monitor)

"Writing as a liberal American journalist of German descent and Jewish religious persuasion Mr. Mayer aims—and in the opinion of this reviewer largely succeeds—at scrupulous fairness and unsparing honesty. It is this that gives his book its muscular punch."
(Walter L. Dorn Saturday Review)

"Once again the German problem is at the center of our politics. No better, or more humane, or more literate discussion of its underlying nature could be had than in this book."
(August Heckscher New York Herald Tribune)

About the Author

Milton Sanford Mayer (1908-1986) was a journalist and educator. He was the author of about a dozen books.

He studied at the University of Chicago from 1925 to 1928 but he did not earn a degree; in 1942 he told the Saturday Evening Post that he was "placed on permanent probation for throwing beer bottles out a dormitory window." He was a reporter for the Associated Press, the Chicago Evening Post, and the Chicago Evening American. He wrote a monthly column in the Progressive for over forty years. He won the George Polk Memorial Award and the Benjamin Franklin Citation for Journalism.

He worked for the University of Chicago in its public relations office and lectured in its Great Books Program. He also taught at the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College, and the University of Louisville. He was an adviser to Robert M. Hutchins when Hutchins founded the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Mayer was a conscientious objector during World War II but after the war traveled to Germany and lived with German families. Those experiences informed his most influential book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 346 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; 2nd Revised ed. edition (May 19, 1966)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226511928
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226511924
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (85 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #264,532 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
It is wonderful to see so many thoughtful and incisive reviews of my father's book. A few details that might interest you: 1) None of the "unimportant Nazis" he interviewed knew he was a Jew, which he was. 2) The book wasn't published in German for years after its original publication (we spent 1951 in the small town which Milton Mayer calls "Kronenberg," where he wrote the book, which was published shortly afterwards). 3) His German was awful! And, he said, this was a great aid in the interviews he conducted: having to repeat, in simpler words, or more slowly, what they had to say, made the Germans he was interviewing feel relaxed, equal to, superior to the interviewer, and this made them speak more freely. "Sehen Sie, Herr Professor Mayer, SO war die Sache," very patiently. ("You see, THIS is how it was...").

He made one small, but dreadful mistake: There is a very common name in German, to which Milton Mayer added a suffix--because, with the suffix, it was the name of a great family friend (in fact, my boyfriend four years later) and used it fictitiously for one of the interviewees.. However: with the suffix, it's a very RARE German name, and, having given the general location and size of the town together with the rare German name, he really identified the interviewee as-our family friend-- who was quite upset. (He never told my father this, though.)

My father was always a superlative interviewer; he said as little as possible, aside from encouraging the interviewee to go on talking. If someone seemed to be avoiding a subject he was really interested in, he would repeat the name of the subject the interviewee had abandoned, and look terribly keen and respectful.
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Format: Paperback
Among the impossibly vast literature about how the Nazis took and held power, this book is one of a kind. It is an honest look into the minds of "typical" Germans, not as we see them, but as they saw themselves. The author admits his biases and overcomes them to let his subjects speak for themselves. We hear them, in their own words, make their excuses and justifications and evasions, but the same question will not stop coming up in our minds: "What would I have done?" This book is a journey of questions without final answers, and it deserves to be ranked as one of the essential books of our time. The fact that it is so little known, and particularly that it is not required reading in college courses, is a disgrace.
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Mayer, a Jew on Sabbatical in post-WW-II Kronenberg, sets his goal as that of better understanding the life-story of the ordinary German under National Socialism.

As he tells the story, Nazism was not just a political system or just an ideology it was a worldview peculiarly suited for and congruent with the German Post WW-I temperament and mentality. In the aftermath of the much-hated Versailles Treaty, Nazism arrived on the scene just in time to not just conquer the minds of both little and big Germans but to overwhelm them. Mayer's phrase has described it nicely: German enthusiasm for Nazism was clearly a case of "little men-gone wild."

The true value of this book and hence Mayer's most valuable contribution has been to draw a graphic conceptual picture of how the system of Nazism worked as seen at ground level by ten ordinary Germans and from the interior of German society: To a man, they all agreed that it brought them untold economic success, bound them patriotically and politically into a coherent cultural unit, restored the nation's pride and gave all Germans renewed reasons for hope in the future.

Given this rosy and very much interior and insulated backdrop, it is no wonder there was no basis for ordinary Germans to see (or even to be able to perceive) Nazi excesses, or to see Nazism itself, as an inherently evil system until it was too late.

This was true in part because all Germans already had community permission to hate Jews. The excesses, reserved mostly for Jews, thus seemed normal and in any case were always introduced in carefully orchestrated, slowly escalating, but easily digestible bites. This was done specifically to stay below the radar of the everyday German conscience -- so as to never assault German sensibilities too abruptly.
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Format: Paperback
In 1935, a Jewish reporter from Chicago went to Germany in the hopes of interviewing Adolph Hitler. That didn't happen, so he traveled around the country. What he saw surprised him: Nazism wasn't "the tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions" --- it was a mass movement.

In 1951, the Jewish reporter from Chicago returned to Germany. This time Milton Mayer had a different goal: to interview ten Nazis so thoroughly he felt he really knew them. Only then, he believed, might he understand how it came to be that the Germans exterminated millions of their fellow citizens.

He found ten Germans. And interviewed them at such length they became his friends. Reading his daughter's memories of her father, I can understand how that happened, "His German was awful!" wrote Julie Mayer Vogner. "And, he said, this was a great aid in the interviews he conducted: having to repeat, in simpler words, or more slowly, what they had to say made the Germans he was interviewing feel relaxed, equal to, superior to the interviewer, and this made them speak more freely."

In 1955, Mayer published this book. It was disturbing then. It still is. For one thing, Mayer had only the warmest feelings for the men he interviewed:

I liked them. I couldn't help it. Again and again, as I sat or walked with one or another of my ten [Nazi] friends, I was overcome by the same sensation that had got in the way of my newspaper reporting in Chicago years before [in the 1930s]. I liked Al Capone. I liked the way he treated his mother. He treated her better than I treated mine.
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