Updated September 10, 2022

They Thought They Were Free: Lives of Ordinary Nazis

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They Thought They Were Free: Lives of Ordinary Nazis essay
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They Thought They Were Free is a non-fiction book written by Milton Mayer. The book was published in the city of Chicago by The University Of Chicago Press, Copyright 1955. Paperback edition 1966, 346 pages. Milton Mayer is an American journalist of Jewish and German descent. Mayer moved to Germany for a year in order to achieve his main goal in writing this book. In the book he explores the lives of ten Nazi men with hopes to offer the American people a better understanding of what it was really like for the average German in 1933-1945. Mayer hopes to discover why these men joined a movement that inflicted so many atrocities against humanity and how they reflect on Nazism and its aftermath.

The setting of the book takes place in a small Hessian town that the author disguises with the name “Kronenberg.” The town Kronenberg starts off in the book as a small University town with a population of 6,000 and by 1938 has grown to around 20,000. This is also during the period when Hitler was appointed as the fuhrer of the National Socialist German Workers Party (or Nazi Party), as chancellor of Germany. As Americans, we know this to be during World War II and the Jewish Holocaust.

The ten Nazi men the author interviews are a diverse group. Heinrich Hildebrandt, a high school teacher, made the decision to become a Nazi because it made work easier. Hildebrandt, who had been an active member of the old Democratic Party in 1930, found that joining the Nazi party made him stand out less. Once in the party, he was in less danger than if he had decided not to join. Many Germans struggled financially in the 1920s and 1930s, Johann Kessler, a labor front inspector, was one of these men. Kessler joined the party because he desperately wanted and needed a job. Herr Wedekind, a baker, joined National Socialism because he thought it solved the unemployment problem.

The other men Mayer interviewed included: Karl-Heinz Schwenke, tailor, Gustav Schwenke, unemployed tailor’s apprentice, Carl Klingelhofer, cabinet maker, Heinrich Damm, unemployed salesman, Horstmar Rupprecht, high school student, Hans Simon, bill collector, and Willy Hofmeister, policeman. Men like these joined the Nazi party to improve their economic status. “These ten men were not men of distinction,” Mayer notes. “They were not opinion makers. In a nation of seventy million, they were the sixty-nine million plus. They were the Nazis, the little men…”

Mayer’s Nazi friends hated politicians, the parliamentary system, and the current government. National Socialism was also viewed as a defense against the Communist Party. All ten of Mayer’s Nazis describe Nazism as a way to combat the rise of Communism. One man describes Bolshevism as ‘the death of the soul’ (Mayer, 97). He goes on to explain the feeling that, during this time, Nazism was the only choice other than Communism. The men believed that Nazism was a positive thing for Germany. In such hard times, the Nazi party had cared for the German people and their needs.

All ten of the men discuss how Nazism restored social services and helped the German people. Herr Kessler describes the way the party helped with everything from domestic problems to religious matters to housing problems. Mayer also notes that almost all of the men often refer to themselves as, ‘wir kleine Leute, we little people’ (Mayer, 44). National Socialism was viewed as an organization that broke down class distinctions. Under Nazism, ‘little men’ felt important and not inferior to intellectuals. Mayer shows why the ‘average’ German did not resist Hitler or Nazism. The real community had very little to do with Hitler and the State.

The author believes that real people were concerned with their day to day business and that the State did not come into direct contact with the average person’s life very often. One explanation the author supplies is the idea that Nazism was not an overnight transformation. Rather, a gradual process that occurred little by little. His colleague explains: ‘What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.” (Mayer, 167).

‘Once the war began, the government could do anything ‘necessary’ to win it; so it was with the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem,’ which the Nazis always talked about but never dared undertake, not even the Nazis, until war and its ‘necessities’ gave them the knowledge that they could get away with it. In many of the interviews, the Nazi men convey an ‘it wasn’t me’ attitude. One man explained to Mayer how when the Communists were attacked, he was not a Communist, so he did nothing; and when the Socialist were attacked he again did nothing because he was not a Socialist; and finally when the Jews were attacked he yet again did nothing because he was simply not a Jew (Mayer, 169). From stories like this, Mayer concludes that this attitude greatly contributed to the lack of German resistance to Nazism.

Almost all of his ten Nazi friends still talked about Nazism in a positive light. Herr Kessler admits while he regards National Socialism as a bad thing for him personally because he ‘lost his soul,’ overall it was good for Germany (Mayer, 209). Most of Mayer’s Nazi friends shared a similar sentiment to Kessler’s. None of the men seemed to have any extreme guilt about the Holocaust, and on multiple occasions some of the Nazi men Mayer talks to stated that they are not fully convinced that the Holocaust actually happened. Mayer seems frustrated when he writes: ‘Nobody has proven to my friends that the Nazis were wrong about the Jews. Nobody can’ (Mayer, 142). In the end, Mayer’s friends thought of themselves as ‘little men’ and as a result were not convinced of they held any responsibility or even had any feelings of guilt.

At one point or another, almost all of Mayer’s Nazi friends use the phrase, ‘so war die sache,’ meaning ‘thats the way it was’ (Mayer, 93).The author provides readers with a look into the lives of ten Nazi men and draws some conclusions about the lives of ‘ordinary’ Germans. I believe Mayer achieved his main goal in writing the book: to give Americans insight into the lives of ‘ordinary’ Nazis. Mayer’s book is a valuable source of information. While there are elements of Germany’s political culture and history that are unique to the German people, the author ultimately proves that the Nazi movement, or one similar to it, could happen anywhere and to any people. Mayer’s message is a warning to current and future generations that something like Nazism could happen again. I leave you with this question, If you were in their position what would you do?

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They Thought They Were Free: Lives of Ordinary Nazis. (2021, Aug 30). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/they-thought-they-were-free-lives-of-ordinary-nazis/


What does the German word volksgemeinschaft mean?
Volksgemeinschaft, (German: “ people's community ”) in Nazi Germany, a racially unified and hierarchically organized body in which the interests of individuals would be strictly subordinate to those of the nation, or Volk.
What is Hitler's most famous for?
Adolf Hitler is one of the most well-known—and reviled—figures in history. As the leader of Nazi Germany, he orchestrated both World War II and the Holocaust , events that led to the deaths of at least 40,000,000 people. In the ensuing decades, he was the subject of countless books, documentaries, and TV shows.
What was Hitler's full plan?
The ultimate aim of the Nazi Party was to seize power through Germany's parliamentary system, install Hitler as dictator, and create a community of racially pure Germans loyal to their führer, who would lead them in a campaign of racial cleansing and world conquest.
When everyone is transformed No one is transformed?
Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed . Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.
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