This Is How It Happens
A study of men in Hitler’s Germany shows how people allow tyranny to spread
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 its program and practice, ‘the democratic part.’”
“The lives of my nine friends — and even the tenth, the teacher — were lightened and brightened by National Socialism as they knew it,” Mayer recounted. “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.” Especially, as Mayer noted, for folks like these who’d never otherwise been anywhere outside Germany. “And ‘nobody’ (nobody my friends knew) went cold, nobody went hungry, nobody went ill and uncared for.”
As for the horrors building as the Nazis amassed power? For these men, that was the realm of hearsay. “There was ‘some sort of trouble’ on the streets of Kronenberg… but 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,” Mayer described.
Mayer’s examination of the 10 “little men” hardly excused them, though he withheld much outright judgment. Instead, he let them indict themselves — and by extension, all of us. For, throughout his account of the rise of Nazi Germany through the eyes of 10 relatively ordinary individual citizens (albeit living in a more “Nazified” town than some others), Mayer pondered the universal implications for humanity.
Mayer chronicled how and why these men responded to the fictions Hitler created — how they adopted the party’s anti-communist position, and how they clung to their anti-Semitism, even years after the horrors of the Holocaust had been revealed — but the aim of his study was more profound. These were the specific traits of one regime, but they spoke to deeper, shared human tendencies. Writing on the lingering anti-Semitism his interview subjects shared, for instance, Mayer noted: “We have to justify our having injured those we have injured, or we have to persuade others to our guilty view in order to implicate them in our guilt.”
At one point during his time in Germany, Mayer had a conversation about Nazism with someone other than his 10 interview subjects. A man Mayer referred to simply as a “philologist” spoke about the pace of information dissemination during the Nazi rise to power. He explained how Germans like those Mayer interviewed were kept in a state of constant change — a technique Hannah Arendt later described as the “perpetual-motion mania of totalitarian movements [that] remain in power only so long as they keep moving and set everything around them in motion.”
The impacts of that technique, according to the philologist, were significant.
“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise,” the philologist told Mayer. The Nazi dictatorship was “diverting,” he said, in that it kept people “so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated… by the machinations of the ‘national enemies’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.”
Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, whose books were burned and who fled to London and then South America as the war began, felt similarly. “National Socialism, with its unscrupulous methods of deception, took care not to show how radical its aims were until the world was inured to them,” Zweig wrote in his 1942 reflections, The World of Yesterday, shortly before his suicide. “So it tried at its technique cautiously — one dose at a time, with a short pause after administering it. One pill at a time, then a moment of waiting to see if it had been too strong, if the conscience of the world could swallow that particular pill.”
As Zweig knew already then, the world did swallow that pill for a time. As did many people in Germany — including those who recognized the implications of that gradual progression. Because, as the philologist described to Mayer, that broader pattern of constant societal change that totalitarianism imposed had a profound effect on individual agency. It resulted in a kind of personal inertia, even when one had an inkling of what was being set in motion. Things kept getting worse, but, the philologist explained, one struggled to react properly, or convince others that they should be worried, too. “In your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist,’” he explained. “And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it.”
That’s because — just as Zweig had described it — “each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse,” the philologist explained. “You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow.” But that moment never came. “That’s the difficulty,” the philologist told Mayer. “If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes millions would have been sufficiently shocked… But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you to not be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.”
The constant motion of totalitarianism Arendt would examine years later — the steady movement toward tyranny — is measured as drips, not as a flood.
“When men who understand what is happening — the motion, that is, of history, not the reports of single acts or developments — when such men do not object or protest, men who do not understand cannot be expected to,” the philologist told Mayer.
How many men, he then asked, understood this in America? “And when, as the motion of history accelerates and those who don’t understand are crazed by fear, as our people were, and made into a great ‘patriotic’ mob,” he continued, “will they understand then, when they did not before?”