This Is How It Happens

A study of men in Hitler’s Germany shows how people allow tyranny to spread

Colin Horgan
Published in
7 min readAug 27, 2020


German soldiers entering Saaz, 1938. Image: Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archive

Shortly after the Second World War ended, American journalist Milton Mayer set out to investigate how Germany had become a totalitarian state. Mayer wanted to know why, as Adolf Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist Party slowly amassed power and drove the country to war, Germans didn’t stand up for their rights. He’d long earlier realized that the answer to this question would be better found by speaking frankly to Germans, rather than examining or interviewing former Nazi officials. So Mayer decided to focus on Germany’s “little men.”

These “little men,” Mayer wrote, weren’t only “the men for whom the mass media and the campaign speeches are everywhere designed but, specifically in sharply stratified societies like Germany, the men who think of themselves in that way.” Mayer found 10 of them in the town of Marburg (which Mayer called “Kronenberg”), near Frankfurt. He became friendly with them. He interviewed them many times over several months. He didn’t tell them he was Jewish.

His study of these men, They Thought They Were Free, was released in 1955. As historian Richard J. Evans wrote in 2017, it “still stands as a timely reminder of how otherwise unremarkable and in many ways reasonable people can be seduced by demagogues and populists, and how they can go along with a regime that commits more and more criminal acts until it plunges itself into war and genocide.”

How did it happen?

Of the 10 men Mayer met and interviewed, only one was a soldier—26-year-old “Gustav Schwenke” (Mayer changed the men’s names for publication — Gustav was actually Georg Steih). Only one other worked directly for the Nazi party: “Heinrich Damm” (Heinrich Doerr) was the local party headquarters office manager. The rest, including a 14-year-old boy, filled relatively ordinary roles in town, and their direct involvement with the Nazis varied. Nine of these men, Mayer wrote, “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. And they do not know it now.” Only one, the high school teacher — “Heinrich Hildebrandt” (Heinrich Haye) — Mayer wrote, “saw Nazism as we… saw it in any respect.” Only the teacher saw it as “naked, total tyranny.” And even then, Mayer reported, Haye believed “in part of…