They Thought They Were Free…

I make mistakes. Have made them. Some were long ago. I’m not sure I’ve made one today but it will happen. I do try and own my failings, not merely as fortuitous cash chips against later circumstances—imagining I’ll be wiser by and by—but because I really want to grow.

Growth is a matter of the soul or conscience and if you can parse the differences between them I salute you. I’m sufficiently Episcopalian to believe in the soul and I imagine it’s loaded with all the colors of Joseph’s coat not just the stains of our squeezed moral senses. I’m talking  love. I mean forgiveness and what John Coltrane called a love supreme.

You see I’m worried. In times of political extremism it’s customary for citizens who remain comfortable to imagine they’re free and that they still live among upright decent people.

In “They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-1945” Milton Mayer and Richard J. Evans described the coruscating bourgeois rhetoric of ordinary Germans under Hitler.  What’s fascinating is the degree to which the ten representative once-upon-a-time regular Joe Fascists interviewed portrayed themselves as loving humans.

In his forward Mayer wrote: “In 1935 I spent a month in Berlin trying to obtain a series of meetings with Adolf Hitler. My friend and teacher, William E. Dodd, then American Ambassador to Germany, did what he could to help me, but without success. Then I traveled in Nazi Germany for an American magazine. I saw the German people, people I had known when I visited Germany as a boy, and for the first time realized that Nazism was a mass movement and not the tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions. Then I wondered if Adolf Hitler was, after all, the Nazi I wanted to see. By the time the war was over I had identified my man: the average German.

I wanted to go to Germany again and get to know this literate, bourgeois, “Western” man like myself to whom something had happened that had not (or at least not yet) happened to me and my fellow-countrymen. It was seven years after the war before I went. Enough time had passed so that an American non-Nazi might talk with a German Nazi, and not so much time that the events of 1933–45, and especially the inner feeling that attended those events, would have been forgotten by the man I sought.

I never found the average German, because there is no average German. But I found ten Germans sufficiently different from one another in background, character, intellect, and temperament to represent, among them, some millions or tens of millions of Germans and sufficiently like unto one another to have been Nazis. It wasn’t easy to find them, still less to know them. I brought with me one asset: I really wanted to know them. And another, acquired in my long association with the American Friends Service Committee: I really believed that there was “that of God” in every one of them.

My faith found that of God in my ten Nazi friends. My newspaper training found that of something else in them, too. They were each of them a most marvelous mixture of good and bad impulses, their lives a marvelous mixture of good and bad acts. I liked them. I couldn’t help it. Again and again, as I sat or walked with one or another of my ten friends, I was overcome by the same sensation that had got in the way of my newspaper reporting in Chicago years before. I liked Al Capone. I liked the way he treated his mother. He treated her better than I treated mine.”

Yes, they were upright and decent. They were also comfortable until they weren’t. When the bombs fell on Berlin it was too late to say “what specifically about this Nazi movement goes against the golden rule?”

This is the question average Americans must ask at precisely this moment. How does deflecting and disrupting the truth about fiscal injustice promote equality and lovingkindness?

I’m no preacher but I know what the stakes are. Here’s Mayer again:

“What no one seemed to notice,” said a colleague of mine, a philologist, “was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider. You know, it doesn’t make people close to their government to be told that this is a people’s government, a true democracy, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote. All this has little, really nothing, to do with knowing one is governing.

What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.”

So back to my opening: I make mistakes. But my love-sight is clear.