This came to mind in reading a thoughtful essay by Cass Sunstein in The New York Review of Books, "It Can Happen Here."
Sunstein looks at the rise of authoritarianism in Germany through three books: Milton Mayer's 1955 volume, "They Thought They Were Free," Sebastien Haffner's 1939 memoir, "Defying Hitler," and a new book by Konrad Jarausch, "How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century."
The focus of this book is what life was like for ordinary (i.e. Christian) Germans during the rise of authoritarianism in Germany, the ascendancy of the Nazis and German life to the war's end in 1945.
The essay is not about drawing links between Hitler and Donald Trump or any of today's crop of authoritarians. It's about ordinary Germans, how they went about living their normal lives and how they were seduced by authoritarianism.
Here are some excerpts from Sunstein's review starting with Mayer's They Thought They Were Free.
Dotted with humor and written with an improbably light touch, it provides a jarring contrast with Sebastian Haffner’s devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, Defying Hitler, which gives a moment-by-moment, you-are-there feeling to Hitler’s rise. (The manuscript was discovered by Haffner’s son after the author’s death and published in 2000 in Germany, where it became an immediate sensation.)*
...An American journalist of German descent, he tried to meet with Hitler in 1935. He failed, but he did travel widely in Nazi Germany. Stunned to discover a mass movement rather than a tyranny of a diabolical few, he concluded that his real interest was not in Hitler but in people like himself, to whom “something had happened that had not (or at least not yet) happened to me and my fellow-countrymen.” In 1951, he returned to Germany to find out what had made Nazism possible.
In They Thought They Were Free, Mayer decided to focus on ten people, different in many respects but with one characteristic in common: they had all been members of the Nazi Party. Eventually they agreed to talk, accepting his explanation that he hoped to enable the people of his nation to have a better understanding of Germany. Mayer was truthful about that and about nearly everything else. But he did not tell them that he was a Jew.
In the late 1930s—the period that most interested Mayer—his subjects were working as a janitor, a soldier, a cabinetmaker, an office manager, a baker, a bill collector, an inspector, a high school teacher, and a police officer. One had been a high school student. All were male. None of them occupied positions of leadership or influence. All of them referred to themselves as “wir kleine Leute, we little people.” They lived in Marburg, a university town on the river Lahn, not far from Frankfurt.
Mayer talked with them over the course of a year, under informal conditions—coffee, meals, and long, relaxed evenings. He became friends with each (and throughout he refers to them as such). As he put it, with evident surprise, “I liked them. I couldn’t help it.” They could be ironic, funny, and self-deprecating. Most of them enjoyed a joke that originated in Nazi Germany: “What is an Aryan? An Aryan is a man who is tall like Hitler, blond like Goebbels, and lithe like Göring.” They also could be wise. Speaking of the views of ordinary people under Hitler, one of them asked:
"Opposition? How would anybody know? How would anybody know what somebody else opposes or doesn’t oppose? That a man says he opposes or doesn’t oppose depends upon the circumstances, where, and when, and to whom, and just how he says it. And then you must still guess why he says what he says."
When Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man,” and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”
Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we—you and I—saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “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.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.
... The killing of six million Jews? Fake news. Four of Mayer’s subjects insisted that the only Jews taken to concentration camps were traitors to Germany, and that the rest were permitted to leave with their property or its fair market value. The bill collector agreed that the killing of the Jews “was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did.” He added that “some say it happened and some say it didn’t,” and that you “can show me pictures of skulls…but that doesn’t prove it.” In any case, “Hitler had nothing to do with it.” The tailor spoke similarly: “If it happened, it was wrong. But I don’t believe it happened.”
Haffner, on "Defying Hitler."
Focusing largely on 1933, in Defying Hitler Haffner offers a radically different picture, in which the true nature of Nazism was evident to many Germans from the start. Just twenty-five years old that year and studying law with the goal of becoming a judge or administrator, he describes the mounting effects of Nazism on the lives of his high-spirited friends and fellow students, who were preoccupied with fun, job prospects, and love affairs. Haffner says that as soon as the Nazis took power, he was saved by his capacity to smell the rot:
"As for the Nazis, my nose left me with no doubts. It was just tiresome to talk about which of their alleged goals and intentions were still acceptable or even “historically justified” when all of it stank. How it stank! That the Nazis were enemies, my enemies and the enemies of all I held dear, was crystal clear to me from the outset."
As Haffner describes it, a form of terror began quickly, as members of the SS made their presence felt, intimidating people in public places. At the same time, citizens were distracted by an endless stream of festivities and celebrations. The intimidation, accompanied by the fervent, orchestrated pro-Nazi activity, produced an increase in fear, which led many skeptics to become Nazis. Nonetheless, people flirted, enjoyed romances, “went to the cinema, had a meal in a small wine bar, drank Chianti, and went dancing together.” Sounding here like Mayer’s subjects, Haffner writes that it was the “automatic continuation of ordinary life” that “hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror.”
In Haffner’s telling, the collapse of freedom and the rule of law occurred in increments, some of which seemed to be relatively small and insignificant. In 1933, when Nazi officers stood menacingly outside Jewish shops, Jews were merely “offended. Not worried or anxious. Just offended.” But Haffner insists that Hitler’s brutality and the ongoing politicization of everyday life were clear from the outset. In the early days of the regime, a self-styled republican advised him to avoid skeptical comments, which would be of no use: “I think I know the fascists better than you. We republicans must howl with the wolves.”
Haffner catalogs the howling. Books started to disappear from bookshops and libraries. Journals and newspapers disappeared as well, and those that remained kept to the party line. Even in 1933, Germans who refused to become Nazis found themselves “in a fiendish situation: it was one of complete and unalleviated hopelessness; you were daily subjected to insults and humiliations.” Haffner sought refuge in the private domain, including with a small group of young people studying law, who had formed something like an intimate debating club. They were very good friends. One of the members, named Holz, held nationalistic views. Others disagreed, but it was all civil, the kind of energetic discussion young people often have about politics.
The group fell apart when Holz accused Haffner of “ignoring the monumental developments in the resurgence of the German people” and of being “a latent danger to the state”—and ominously threatened to denounce him to the Gestapo.Trump is Not Hitler, Not Yet Anyway.
[The] authors are keenly aware that their narratives offer important lessons, and these should not be lost on contemporary readers. Turkey, for example, has been sliding toward authoritarianism through tactics not unlike those of the Nazis: jailing political dissidents, attacking freedom of speech, treating critics as enemies of the state, and obliterating checks and balances. Thus far, President Trump has been more bark than bite. But some of the barks have a history that is at once ugly and revealing. The Nazis applied the term Lügenpresse (lying press) to the mainstream press; President Trump refers to the “FAKE NEWS media,” which, he says, “is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” In significant domains (including climate change), his administration denigrates science; he has even failed to fill the position of White House science adviser. The Nazis also dismissed or politicized science (especially Einstein’s “Jewish Science”) in favor of what they claimed to be the spirit of the Volk.
If the president of the United States is constantly lying, complaining that the independent press is responsible for fake news, calling for the withdrawal of licenses from television networks, publicly demanding jail sentences for political opponents, undermining the authority of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, magnifying social divisions, delegitimizing critics as “crooked” or “failing,” and even refusing, in violation of the law, to protect young children against the risks associated with lead paint—well, it’s not fascism, but the United States has not seen anything like it before.I've visited my go-to source for 2nd hand books, AbeBooks and ordered both Mayer's and Haffner's books.