By Joshua Styles July 28, 2022
Itâ€™s been more than seventy-five years since the Nazis were defeated and Auschwitz was liberated. Seventy-five years is a long timeâ€”so long, in fact, that while many still learn of the horrors of the Holocaust, far fewer understand how the murder of the Jews happened. How were millions of people systematically exterminated in an advanced Western nationâ€”a constitutional republic? How did such respectable and intelligent citizens become complicit in the murder of their countrymen? These are the questions Milton Mayer sought to answer in his book They Thought They Were Free
In 1952, Mayer moved his family to a small German town to live among ten ordinary men, hoping to understand not only how the Nazis came to power but how ordinary Germansâ€”ordinary peopleâ€”became unwitting participants in one of historyâ€™s greatest genocides. The men Mayer lived among came from all walks of life: a tailor, a cabinetmaker, a bill-collector, a salesman, a student, a teacher, a bank clerk, a baker, a soldier, and a police officer.
Significantly, Mayer did not simply conduct formal interviews in order to â€œstudyâ€ these men; rather, Mayer had dinner in these menâ€™s homes, befriended their families, and lived as one of them for nearly a year. His own children went to the same school as their children. And by the end of his time in Germany, Mayer could genuinely call them friends. They Thought They Were Free is Mayerâ€™s account of their stories, and the title of the book is his thesis. Mayer explains:
â€œOnly one of my ten Nazi friends saw Nazism as weâ€”you and Iâ€”saw it in any respect. This was Hildebrandt, the teacher. And even he then believed, and still believes, in part of its program and practice, â€˜the democratic part.â€™ The other nine, decent, hard-working, ordinarily intelligent and honest men, 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. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we knew and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made itâ€
Until reading this book, I thought of what happened in Germany with a bit of arrogance. How could they not know Nazism was evil? And how could they see what was happening and not speak out? Cowards. All of them. But as I read Mayerâ€™s book, I felt a knot in my stomach, a growing fear that what happened in Germany was not a result of some defect in the German people of this era.
The men and women of Germany in the 1930s and 40s were not unlike Americans in the 2010s and 20sâ€”or the people of any nation at any time throughout history. They are human, just as we are human. And as humans, we have a great tendency to harshly judge the evils of other societies but fail to recognize our own moral failuresâ€”failures that have been on full display the past two years during the covid panic.
Mayerâ€™s book is frighteningly prescient; reading his words is like staring into our own souls. The following paragraphs will show just how similar the worldâ€™s response to covid has been to the German response to the â€œthreatâ€ of the Jews. If we can truly understand the parallels between our response to covid and the situation in Hitlerâ€™s Germany, if we can see what lies at the end of â€œtwo weeks to flatten the curve,â€ perhaps we can prevent the greatest atrocities from being fully realized in our own day. But to stop our bent toward tyranny, we must first be willing to grapple with the darkest parts of our nature, including our tendency to dehumanize others and to treat our neighbors as enemies.
â€œOrdinary peopleâ€”and ordinary Germansâ€”cannot be expected to tolerate activities which outrage the ordinary sense of ordinary decency unless the victims are, in advance, successfully stigmatized as enemies of the people, of the nation, the race, the religion. Or, if they are not enemies (that comes later), they must be an element within the community somehow extrinsic to the common bond, a decompositive ferment (be it only by the way they part their hair or tie their necktie) in the uniformity which is everywhere the condition of common quiet. The Germansâ€™ innocuous acceptance and practice of social anti-Semitism before Hitlerism had undermined the resistance of their ordinary decency to the stigmatization and persecution to comeâ€
Others have explained the link between totalitarian impulses and â€œinstitutionalized dehumanizationâ€ and have discussed the â€œotheringâ€ of unvaccinated persons in nations across the world. Mayer shows that such dehumanization does not necessarily begin with prejudice:
â€œNational Socialism was anti-Semitism. Apart from anti-Semitism, its character was that of a thousand tyrannies before it, with modern conveniences. Traditional anti-Semitism . . . played an important role in softening the Germans as a whole to Nazi doctrine, but it was separation, not prejudice as such, that made Nazism possible, the mere separation of Jews and non-Jewsâ€
Even if many Germans did not harbor anti-Semitic prejudices (at least not initially), the forced separation of Jews and non-Jews created a devastating rift in German society, tearing the social fabric and paving the way for tyranny. In our day, the separation of the masked and unmasked, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, has divided populations around the world like nothing weâ€™ve experienced in our lifetimes. And the global scale of this separation has perhaps not happened in recorded history.
How has this separation been made possible? The immense power of propaganda, and particularly propaganda in the digital age. We think we understand how propaganda affects us, but we often donâ€™t realize the truly insidious effects on how we view others until it is too late. Mayerâ€™s friends explained this in great depth. On one occasion, Mayer asked the former bank clerk about one of his Jewish friends. â€œDid your memory of the peddler make you anti-Semitic?â€ â€œNoâ€”not until I heard anti-Semitic propaganda. Jews were supposed to do terrible things that the peddler had never done. . . . The propaganda didnâ€™t make me think of him as I knew him but of him as a Jewâ€ (124; emphasis added).
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Is there anything we can do to mitigate the dehumanizing effects of propaganda? Mayer describes the power of Nazi propaganda as so intense that all of his friends were affected by itâ€”changed by itâ€”including the teacher who was more aware of such tactics. Nearly seven years after the war, his friends still could not be persuaded that they had been deceived:
â€œNobody has proved to my friends that the Nazis were wrong about the Jews. Nobody can. The truth or falsity of what the Nazis said, and of what my extremist friends believed, was immaterial, marvelously so. There simply was no way to reach it, no way, at least, that employed the procedures of logic and evidenceâ€
Mayerâ€™s conclusion is depressing. If we cannot persuade others with logic and evidence, how can we persuade them? How many of us have shared indisputable data that the vaccines carry risks? How many of us have shown videos where public health officials openly admit that the vaccines do not stop transmission and that cloth masks donâ€™t work (and are in fact little more than â€œfacial decorationsâ€)? Yet the evidence does not persuade those who have been captured by propaganda; indeed, it cannot persuade them. This is because the very nature of propaganda does not appeal to logic or reason; it does not appeal to evidence. Propaganda appeals to our emotions, and in a world where many people are led by emotions, propaganda becomes deeply rooted in the hearts of those who consume it.
So what are we to do? Mayer relays a frustrating reality. But understanding how propaganda worked in Nazi Germany and how it works today is essential if we are to have any chance of persuading those who have been shaped by it. Moreover, understanding why many people tend to be led by emotions and to outsource or suspend their critical thinking is perhaps even more essential to forestalling greater tragedies. We cannot expect others to escape the tyranny of propaganda if they do not have time to think or are motivated not to think.
Our Own Lives
Even without the dehumanization of those who were a â€œthreatâ€ to the community, most Germans were too focused on their own lives to consider the plight of their neighbors:
â€œMen think first of the lives they lead and the things they see; and not, among the things they see, of the extraordinary sights, but of the sights which meet them in their daily rounds. The lives of my nine friendsâ€”and even of the tenth, the teacherâ€”were lightened and brightened by National Socialism as they knew it. And they look back at it nowâ€”nine of them, certainlyâ€”as the best time of their lives; for what are menâ€™s lives? There were jobs and job security, summer camps for the children and the Hitler Jugend to keep them off the streets. What does a mother want to know? She wants to know where her children are, and with whom, and what they are doing. In those days she knew or thought she did; what difference does it make? So things went better at home, and when things go better at home, and on the job, what more does a husband and father want to know?â€
CONTINUE READING THE ARTICLE HERE....--With Express Permission to Re-Publish From Jeffery Tucker of The Brownstone Institute
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