They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45

They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45

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They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer

“When this book was first published it received some attention from the critics but none at all from the public. Nazism was finished in the bunker in Berlin and its death warrant signed on the bench at Nuremberg.”
That’s Milton Mayer, writing in a foreword to the 1966 edition of They Thought They Were Free. He’s right about the critics: the book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1956. General readers may have been slower to take notice, but over time they did—what we’ve seen over decades is that any time people, across the political spectrum, start to feel that freedom is threatened, the book experiences a ripple of word-of-mouth interest. And that interest has never been more prominent or potent than what we’ve seen in the past year.
They Thought They Were Free is an eloquent and provocative examination of the development of fascism in Germany. Mayer’s book is a study of ten Germans and their lives from 1933-45, based on interviews he conducted after the war when he lived in Germany. Mayer had a position as a research professor at the University of Frankfurt and lived in a nearby small Hessian town which he disguised with the name “Kronenberg.” “These ten men were not men of distinction,” Mayer noted, but they had been members of the Nazi Party; Mayer wanted to discover what had made them Nazis. His discussions with them of Nazism, the rise of the Reich, and mass complicity with evil became the backbone of this book, an indictment of the ordinary German that is all the more powerful for its refusal to let the rest of us pretend that our moment, our society, our country are fundamentally immune.
A new foreword to this edition by eminent historian of the Reich Richard J. Evans puts the book in historical and contemporary context. We live in an age of fervid politics and hyperbolic rhetoric. They Thought They Were Free cuts through that, revealing instead the slow, quiet accretions of change, complicity, and abdication of moral authority that quietly mark the rise of evil.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226525839
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/28/2017
Edition description: First Edition,Enlarged
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 74,027
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Milton Mayer (1908-86) was the author of What Can a Man Do? And coauthor of The Revolution in Education. He wrote for the Progressive, Harper’s, and other outlets.

Read an Excerpt


Ten Men

1. Karl-Heinz Schwenke, Sturmführer and janitor (formerly tailor), age 54

It was almost midnight of November 9, 1938, when Standartenführer Kühling of the SA Kronenberg entered the Huntsmen's Rest, at the corner of Frankfurterplatz and the Mauerweg, and said:

"The synagogue will be burned tonight."

As the scene was reconstructed by principals and witnesses fifteen years afterward, there were present in the public room of the inn twenty or twenty-five uniformed members of the SA Reserve Troop, composed of men over fifty, and five or ten members of other SA troops who had dropped in. There were no other customers, and the innkeeper testified in 1948 that he was "in and out" of the public room that evening and did not hear any of the conversation or remember who was present.

After Kühling spoke, Sturmführer Schwenke turned to the men in the public room and said:

"You heard what the Standartenführer said. Those who want to help, come into the private room with me."

The Standartenführer said, "I'll be back," and left the inn.

About half the men present, according to the testimony, followed Schwenke into the private room and closed the door. Schwenke reopened the door from within, said, "No more drinking," and closed it again. Those who were left in the public room sat saying nothing for a few moments and then began talking in low tones. They testified afterward that they could hear the talk, but not the words, from the other room.

Twenty minutes later the Standartenführer re-entered the Huntsmen's Rest. The dozen or so men left in the public room were eating buttered bread and drinking coffee, playing Skat, reading the paper, or just sitting there. They got to their feet and said, "Heil Hit —"

"They still in there?" said the Standartenführer.

"Yes, Herr Standartenführer."

The Standartenführer opened the door to the private room and the talk inside stopped. The dozen or so men within got to their feet and said, "Heil Hit" "Jetzt mal, los! los! Let's get going, let's get going," said the Standartenführer, standing in the doorway. "You, Sturmführer."

"Yes, Herr Standartenführer," said Schwenke. "I thought I would send two men to reconnoiter."

"You be one of them, Sturmführer."

"Yes, Herr Standartenführer. Here, Kramer, come with me. The rest of you, remain where you are until you get orders."

"I'll be back," said the Standartenführer, leaving again.

Schwenke and Kramer walked west on the Mauerweg. Half a block down, in front of the Café Schuchardt, they stopped and stood in the entrance of the darkened café. Kramer looked up and down the street. "No police," he said. "Not a sign," said Schwenke.

They crossed the street to the synagogue, pushed open the iron fence gate, and went around the building, trying the side and back doors. The furnace-room door was unlocked, and they went in. In a few minutes they left again. As they re-entered the private room of the Huntsmen's Rest, the men stood up and said, "Heil —"

"Pechmann," said Schwenke, "I want you and Heinecke and — let me see — Dowe. Upstairs. Quick. You"— to the others —"remain. This is duty. You hear me?"

The five, including Kramer, went upstairs to the SA meeting room. In a few minutes they came down.

"I don't care," Schwenke was saying, "we can use it. We have to have something."

"But it's floor oil," said Pechmann, "and it belongs to the Theater."

"I don't care," said Schwenke, "it's oil. This is duty. You heard the Standartenführer, Pechmann."

"Yes, Herr Sturmführer," said Pechmann.

Pechmann, Heinecke, and Dowe headed for the Theater, a block west of the Huntsmen's Rest, and Schwenke and Kramer returned to the furnace-room of the synagogue. In a few minutes the other three SA men entered the furnace-room, carrying, among them, four three-gallon canisters. There were footsteps above, in the synagogue.

"Can I go now?" said Pechmann to Schwenke, in a whisper. "I'm on duty at six in the morning."

"Go ahead, you s — t," said Schwenke.

"Thank you, Herr Sturmführer," said Pechmann. Heinecke and Dowe left with him, without even asking permission.

"S — — ts," said Schwenke.

Pechmann testified against Schwenke after the war, but he supported Schwenke's claim that there were footsteps heard in the synagogue above when the SA men were in the furnace-room. Schwenke denied having had anything to do with the floor oil taken from the Theater; he had, he said, only reconnoitered. The four canisters were never found.

Schwenke and Kramer returned to the Huntsmen's Rest around 12:50 midnight. The Sturmführer led the way to a table in the corner of the public room. Ten minutes passed. Nobody spoke in the public room; the men in the private room, beyond the door, were still talking in a murmur. The two church bells struck 1 A.M., and the rooster atop the Town Hall crowed. Then it was quiet again. Schwenke said something to Kramer, and Kramer left the inn. None of the men in the private room raised his head. Kramer returned and said something to Schwenke. Then Schwenke left the inn and returned at once.

"SA men!" he called. "The synagogue is on fire! Outside, everybody! Close off the street! It's dangerous!"

A voice said, "Shall we call the Fire Department?"

"I'm in charge!" said Schwenke. "Close off the street! It's dangerous! Schnell, hurry!" And he turned and went, followed by all the SA men in the inn.

The instant the last man was out the door, the innkeeper of the Huntsmen's Rest entered the public room from the swinging door behind the bar. He closed the outer door to the street, locked it, turned out the lights, and went right to bed.

2. Gustav Schwenke, soldier (formerly unemployed tailor's apprentice), age 26

Neuhausen is a little summer resort on the Mariasee, an hour by the Post bus, two hours (and twenty-two cents more expensive) by the Scenic Steamer, from the old mining and textile town of Lich, in southern Austria. The Pension Goldener Engel — the Golden Angel Boarding House — had no guests the night of November 9, 1938, except Private Gustav Schwenke of the German Military Police and his bride of a month. It was their honeymoon.

It was, as a matter of fact, their first time together since the three terrible days they'd had in Kronenberg when they were married a month before. If Gustav had decided, at the last minute, not to take the Scenic Steamer from Lich but to take the Post bus and save on the fare, it had to be admitted that he had hired a very nice room at the Goldener Engel. He got the military rate, of course, with a seasonal discount and (after hard bargaining with the host, while the bride stood by) the special three-day discount (even though the Schwenkes were going to be there only two days, the duration of Gustav's pass from his post at Lich).

Those three terrible days in Kronenberg, after the wedding in October, they had stayed at the groom's home, with the groom's father and mother and younger sister and very young brother. The groom's father, SA Sturmführer Schwenke, had been against the marriage because the bride's father was not even a Party member, and the bride (for all Sturmführer Schwenke knew; she never said anything) might even be a Gegner, an opponent of the regime. Frau Sturmführer Schwenke hated the bride from the first and said that the girl's family had "a history of fits." In those three days in Kronenberg, after the wedding, the bride had cried all the time (and Gustav hated crying), and Frau Sturmführer Schwenke said, "She can't help it, poor girl — it's hereditary."

Sturmführer Schwenke had wanted his oldest son to marry a strong Party woman — any strong Party woman. The boy was not a Party enthusiast, except for anti-Semitism. He was willing to join the Party in '32 — glad to — when his father got him the first job he'd ever had, in the SA police. But that was for the job. A job, any job, was all he cared about. A good boy, but he didn't have his father's spirit.

No wonder. And great wonder that he had any spirit at all.

Gustav Schwenke had wet his bed until he was twenty-two years old.

His mother, whose happiest topic of conversation was sickness (she herself had had plenty of it, but her husband "had never been sick a day in his life," except for his war wounds), told everybody in Kronenberg about her trouble with Gustav, the problem child. Everybody in Kronenberg knew that Gustav Schwenke was a bed-wetter, and Gustav knew that they knew, and he knew how they knew.

Long before he was twelve he hated his mother. One whistle from his father, and he came; a thousand whistles from his mother, and he hid. When he was twelve, his mother was pregnant. She said to him, "What if it's a little brother?" and he said, "If he cries at night, I'll cut his throat." Little Robert, when he came, cried at night, and when he cried Gustav wet his bed. Little Robert wet his, of course. "That's why he cries," his mother told Gustav, "because he's ashamed of wetting his bed." Gustav never cried.

Gustav had to pull his little brother around after school, in the play wagon, and the other kids, besides calling him Bettnässcr, called him Kindermädchen, nurse girl. One day, in order to play, Gustav left the wagon, with little Robert in it, at the top of a long flight of stone steps leading down from the Market Place, and somehow the wagon went down the steps. A man stopped it halfway down, and Robert fell out and cried. Robert wasn't hurt, but Gustav got the worst beating of his life.

When Gustav was fifteen and his father's apprentice, the Schwenke tailorshop failed, and the whole family went on the dole. It was then that Gustav discovered that his father was more interested in politics than in work and would take bread out of his family's mouth in order to make himself a uniform or take a trip to the Nazi Party Day in Munich or Weimar or Nuremberg. His father a spendthrift, and the family hungry. Gustav had always been stingy, a saver of food, scraps of cloth, nails; now he became a real miser, and a miser he remained, with, unfortunately, nothing to save, even in his young manhood, but food, scraps of cloth, nails.

The room at the Goldener Engel on the Mariasee was nice but expensive. Still, a man wasn't married every day. And when Gustav was away from Kronenberg, he didn't feel so bad about spending something. He didn't feel so bad about anything. Away from Kronenberg your bride didn't cry and your mother didn't talk and your father didn't buy himself uniforms and you didn't wet your bed and the wagon didn't go down the steps and you would never go back to Kronenberg and you didn't care what they were doing there or anywhere else tonight. It was after one o'clock in the morning when Private Gustav Schwenke fell asleep by the side of his bride in the Pension Goldener Engel, three hundred miles from the burning synagogue in Kronenberg.

3. Carl Klingelhöfer, cabinetmaker (and adjutant to the Chief of the Kronenberg Volunteer Fire Department), age 36

The telephone rang by the side of the Klingelhòfers' bed in their house on the Altstrasse, in Kronenberg — the telephone by the bed, not the fire alarm on the wall. It was the cabinetmaker's sister calling, Frau Schuchardt, whose husband Fritz had the Café Schuchardt on the Mauerweg. Her voice was a frightened whisper: "Carl, the synagogue is burning. Inside. Schwer, bad." It was 1:25 A.M.

Klingelhòfer got into his clothes, his boots, and his fire coat and onto his bicycle. He could have phoned the night-alarm man or, en route to the Mauerweg, have pulled the alarm in front of the Katherine Church; but he didn't. He had to pedal slowly down the cobbled Altstrasse; but then, on the paved Hermann-Göring-Strasse and the Werneweg to Frankfurterplatz, he went at racing speed, a man who (besides flute-playing and picture-painting) had always done physical work, an old hiking-club man, who at thirty-six had the wind of a boy.

There were no policemen at the scene; the Mauerweg was closed off by SA men. But German firemen at the scene of a fire automatically have the status of uniformed policemen, and Klingelhòfer went through the SA cordon and the gate of the synagogue lawn. Smoke had begun to pour through broken windows, heavy black smoke. "Oil," said the fireman, even before he smelled it. On the side away from the smoke he shone his flashlight into the building. What caught his professional eye was the fact that the fire was burning in several separated spots: arson.

The Sturmführer Schwenke ignored him as he ran across the street to his brother-in-law's café and banged on the door; and when Fritz Schuchardt sleepily (or apparently so) opened the door, Klingelhòfer ran in and phoned the alarm man. "Got it already," said the alarm man. "Your buzzer at home rang at 1:38." Klingelhòfer, hearing the fire bells in the street, broke off.

As the first company pulled up, there was an immense whoosh; the rose windows in the synagogue dome had been broken by the updraft, and the sparks flew up in the sky. The top of the wooden dome was almost as high as the wood-shingled roofs of the timbered old houses on the Adolf-Hitler-Strasse (formerly Hochstrasse), a street built up on the ruins of the old Town Wall in back of the synagogue. If the houses up there caught, the town would go. Adjutant Klingelhòfer advised the Fire Chief to send two of the three Kronenberg companies up to the Hitler-Strasse — in his excitement he called it Hochstrasse — and call the companies from the villages of Kummerfeld and Rickling, eight and eleven miles away, to replace them at the synagogue. The Chief agreed, and Klingelhòfer got a searchlight and broke in the front doors of the burning building. The benches and prayer stands had all been piled on and around the wooden stage at the center of the prayer hall, where, at the base of the updraft, the fire was fiercest. The dome was supported by four wooden pillars, issuing from the corners of the stage. The pediments of the four pillars could not be seen in the flame; up above, they were blackened.

A little groggy, the fireman went around the edge of the floor and into a smaller room, the vestry, perhaps. There was a chest. He broke it open and scooped up its contents, some sort of altar cloths and sets of embroidered hangings. He went out through the prayer hall. In front of the gate to the lawn stood a policeman now — one policeman — and Klingelhòfer turned the stuff over to him. It was three o'clock in the morning.

There was no killing the updraft; the dome itself was glowing now. A section of it fell in with a roar; a column of fire shot up in the air. It would be dangerous to enter the prayer hall now, on account of the pillars. Klingelhòfer went back in carefully. Now that the dome was partly gone, the draft was stronger above, and the lower sections of the two front pillars could be seen. One was burned, about four feet up, to a diameter of two-and-a-half inches or so; the other, though burned at the same height, looked as if it would hold. But the two back pillars could not be seen.

The smoke was being carried off faster now and, with his searchlight, Klingelhòfer saw on the east wall of the prayer hall a set of gold-embroidered hangings like those he had got from the chest. They were charred, and he saw that something was built into the wall behind them. When I asked him, many years later, if he knew what it was, he said "No," and when I told him that it was the Ark of the Covenant, he said, "The Ark of the Covenant. ... Well, well." He himself was a vestryman of the Parish Church.

4. Heinrich Damm, Party headquarters office manager (formerly unemployed salesman), age 28

Heinrich Damm was a country boy, though he'd been in the town ten years now; he was home from the Party anniversary celebration at 9:15, and at 9:30 he was in bed and asleep in his apartment in the attic of the Kreisleitung, Party headquarters for Kronenberg. But he slept light that night; there had been talk around town, and from SA headquarters in the basement of the Kreisleitung had come rumors of out-of-town visitors and unusual activity. He heard a noise downstairs and went down. It was the Kreisleiter, the County Leader.

"What brings you here, boss?" said Damm. (Like all country people, he had a hard time with new titles like Herr Kreisleiter, but nobody cared in Damm's case; he could deal with country people like nobody else in the organization.)

"Some work to finish up," said the Kreisleiter, without looking up.

Damm went back to bed.

It was three o'clock in the morning when a crash somewhere awakened him. There was a glow in the direction of the Hitler-Strasse and sparks shooting up. In ten minutes — and without awakening his hard-sleeping country-girl wife — he reached the synagogue. SA men and firemen were all over the place. One policeman stood in front of the gate to the lawn. A few spectators (remarkably few, for such a big fire) stood outside the SA cordon. Damm muttered, "Blöd-sinn, idiocy," and went back home. He woke up his wife and told her.


Excerpted from "They Thought They Were Free"
by .
Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I. Ten Men
November 9, 1638
November 9, 1938
1. Ten Men
2. The Lives Men Lead
3. Hitler and I
4. "What Would You Have Done?"
5. The Joiners
6. The Way To Stop Communism
7. "We Think with Our Blood"
8. The Anti-Semitic Swindle
9. "Everybody Knew." "Nobody Knew"
10. "We Christians Had the Duty"
11. The Crimes of the Losers
12. "That's the Way We Are"
13. But Then It Was Too Late
14. Collective Shame
15. The Furies: Heinrich Hildebrandt
16. The Furies: Johann Kessler
17. The Furies: Furor Teutonicus
Part II. The Germans
Heat Wave
18. There Is No Such Thing
19. The Pressure Cooker
20. "Peoria Über Alles"
21. New Boy in the Neighborhood
22. Two New Boys in the Neighborhood
23. "Like God in France"
24. But a Man Must Believe in Something
25. Push-Button Panic
Part III. Their Cause and Cure
The Trial
November 9, 1948
26. The Broken Stones
27. The Liberators
28. The Re-educators and Re-educated
29. The Reluctant Phoenix
30. Born Yesterday
31. Tug of Peace
32. "Are We the Same as the Russians?"
33. Marx Talks to Michel
34. The Uncalculated Risk

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They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Taylor Ridley More than 1 year ago
The book was a really neat look into worn torn Gdrmany that few Americans know about. Mayor tells what led the people to choose to elect one of the most horid leaders in history. A very intersting book if you think the few shaky years of fhe Wehimer Republic is interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
History is written by the winners, and often we miss seeing how the "other side" felt about itself... how can we understand them if we don't understand their motivations? It's frightening to see just how easy normal, "moral" people fell under the sway of Nazi rule... How they helped build it... How they believed in it. This is a must-read...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting look at WWII Germany and a mirror and window for the current political and social trends in America-the book also raises the alarm for clear and present danger.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is very disturbing to see many of the ideals held about nationalism in pre-WWII Germany being the same in America today. It also tells of the American Occupation of post-Nazi Germany from a German point of view.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago