Quotable Quotes: They Thought They Were Free

Below is a list, a rather long list, of all the excerpts I thought worthwhile making note of in this book: They Thought They Were Free, the Germans 1933-45 by Milton Mayer.  The book itself is home to a lot of revelations to the nature of people and I do recommend reading it.  In addition to all these quotes, please see a short review of the book itself and numerous commentary based on the below quotes.

Pg 62 – Commentary: Important Take-Aways from ‘They Thought They Were Free’ Pt1
Men who did not know that they were slaves do not know that they have been freed.

Pg 71 – Commentary: Important Take-Aways from ‘They Thought They Were Free’ Pt1
Sixty days before the end of the war, Teacher Hildebrandt, as a first lieutenant in command of a disintegrating Army subpost, was informed by the post doctor that an SS man attached to the post was going crazy because of his memories of shooting down Jews “in the east”; this was the closet any of my friends came to knowing of the systematic butchery of National Socialism.

Pg 81 – Commentary: Important Take-Aways from ‘They Thought They Were Free’ Pt1
The “democratic,” that is, argumentative, bill-collector, Herr Simon, was greatly interested in the mass deportation of Americans of Japanese ancestry from our West Coast in 1942. He had not heard of it before, and , when I told him of the West Cost Army Commander’s statement that “a Jap is a Jap,” he hit the table with his fist and said, “Right you are. A Jap is a Jap, a Jew is a Jew.” “A German a German,” I said. “Of course,” said the German, proudly. “It’s a matter of blood.”
He asked me whether I had known anybody connected with the West Coast deportation. When I said “No,” he asked me what I had done about it. When I said “Nothing,” he said, triumphantly, “There. You learned about all these things openly, through your government and your press. We did not learn through ours. As is your case, nothing was required of us – in our case, not even knowledge. You knew about things you thought were wrong – you did think it was wrong, didn’t you, Herr Professor?” “Yes.” “So. You did nothing. We heard, or guessed, and we did nothing. So it is everywhere.” When I protested that the Japanese-descended Americans had not been treated like the Jews, he said, “And if they had been0what then? Do you not see that the idea of doing something or doing nothing is in either case the same?”

Pg 157 – Commentary: Important Take-Aways from ‘They Thought They Were Free’ Pt2
In our first conversations, when I found that my friends preferred talking about Versailles or the Polish Corridor to talking about themselves, I thought that they were running away from their guilt. I was wrong. They did not regard what they themselves did as important, and they were interested in important things like Versailles and the Polish Corridor.

Pg 159 – Commentary: Submission to Authority
A member of the pre-Hitler Prussian cabinet, asked what caused Nazism, said: “What caused Nazism was the clubman in Berlin who, when he was asked about the Nazi menace in 1930, looked up from his after-lunch game of Skat and replied, ‘Dafur ist die Regierung da. That’s what the government’s there for.'”

Pg 161 – Commentary: Important Take-Aways from ‘They Thought They Were Free’ Pt2
I think it is unfair to say that my friends are irresponsible, at least without adding that irresponsibility, which is a moral failure, may be at least in part a consequence of nonresponsibility, which is historical fact.

Pg 162 – Commentary: Submission to Authority
This immense hierarchism, based upon blind servility in which the man on the third rung would never dare to imagine that the man on the second would order him to do something wrong, since, after all, the man on the second had to answer to the man on the first, nourished the buck-passing instinct to fantastic proportions.

Pg 162 – Commentary: Submission to Authority;  Under Pressure
Men who learn to live this way get used to it and even like it.  It is workable, too; good discipline produces, at least in limited areas, the same performance as good self-discipline.  The only objection to the scheme is that men who always do as they’re told do not know what to do when they’re not.  Without the thoughtful habit of decision, they decide (when they must decide for themselves) thoughtlessly.  If they are forbidden to beat Jews, they learn how not to want to, something a free man who wants to beat Jews never learns; then, when they are allowed to, the release of their repressed wish to beat Jews makes maniacs of them.

Pg 167 – Commentary: Ideas and Fundamentals;  Under Pressure
“And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was ‘expected to’ participate that had not been there or had not been important before.  It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one’s energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do.  You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time” – A Philologist colleague of Books author

Pg 167 – Commentary: Ideas and Fundamentals
“Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about – we were decent people – and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, 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.  Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful.  Who wants to think?” – A Philologist colleague of Books author

Pg 168 – Commentary: With Everything Changing How Can We Know the Consequences?
“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men?  Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now.  Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice – ‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’  But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings.  One must foresee the end clearly nd certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men?  Things might have changed here before they went as far as they did; they didn’t, but they might have.  And everyone counts on that might.” – A Philologist colleague of Books author

Pg 169 – Commentary: Thinking and Sharing
“And you are an alarmist.  You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it.  These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end?  On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you.  On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic.  You are left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as you have.” – A Philologist colleague of Books author

Pg 170 – Commentary: Thinking and Sharing
“Now, in small gatherings of your oldest friends, you feel that you are talking to yourselves, that you are isolated from the reality of things.” – A Philologist colleague of Books author

Pg 171 – Commentary: With Everything Changing How Can We Know the Consequences?
“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you.  The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.  The world you life in – your nation, your people – is not the world you were born in at all.  The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays.  But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed.  Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed.  Now y7ou live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.  The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.” – A Philologist colleague of Books author

Pg 171 – Commentary: On Principles and Compromise
“Suddenly it all comes down, all at once.  You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing).  You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have  stood, perhaps, but no one stood.  A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that.  You remember everything now, and your heart breaks.  Too late.  You are compromised beyond repair.” – A Philologist colleague of Books author

Pg 175 – Commentary: On Principles and Compromise
“Yes,” said my colleague, shaking his head, “the ‘excesses’ and the ‘radicals.’  We all opposed them, very quietly.  So your two ‘little men’ thought they must join, as good men, good Germans, even as god Christians, and when enough of them did they would be able to change the Party.  They would ‘bore from within.’  ‘Big men’ told themselves that, too, in the usual sincerity that required them only to abandon one little principle after another, to throw away, little by little, all that was good.  I was one of those men.”  – A Philologist colleague of Books author

Pg 176
“I hope … that the Anglo-Saxons” – she obviously meant the Anglos and not the Saxons – “have characteristics that will make them less susceptible to the things we Germans could not resist.”
“What would such characteristics be?” I said.
“Oh, farsightedness, I think, above all.  Maybe a shorter history makes it easier for people to look ahead instead of always behind.  And you are under less pressure, somehow, than we are.  You are freer – I don’t mean legally, of course – to take the long view.” It was the first time, in my conversations in Germany, that the focus had been placed on the word Druck, “pressure.”

Pg 176-181

Pg 180 – Commentary: Important Take-Aways from ‘They Thought They Were Free’ Pt2Under Pressure; The Discomfort of Freedom; Final Quotes and Thoughts
“The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared, and each one of these hundreds of thousands was, like me, a man of great influence of of great potential influence.  Thus the world was lost. – A German Chemical Engineer

Pg 181 – Commentary: Under Pressure
“My faith.  I did not believe that I could ‘remove mountains.’ The day I said ‘No,’ I had faith.  In the process of ‘thinking it over,’ in the next twenty-four hours, my faith failed me.  So, in the next ten years, I was able to remove only anthills, not mountains.” – A German Chemical Engineer in reference to how if his faith had been stronger he could have resisted the simple, but forceful compulsions put on him, and others would have followed

Pg 181 – Commentary: Shame and Guilt
Shame is a state of being, guilt a juridical fact.  A passer-by cannot be guilt of failure to try to prevent a lynching.  He can only be ashamed of not having done so.

Pg 185 – Commentary: Amazing Realizations
I want to be God, not alone in power but in righteousness and in mercy; and Nazism crushed is my chance.
But I am not God. I myself am a national, myself guilty of many national hypocrisies whose only justification is that the Germans’ were so much worse.

Pg 185 – Commentary: Amazing Realizations
The trouble is that these national hypocrisies, which I myself am not called upon to practice in person, with my own hands, are all acts of the State or its culture.  I feel bad about then, to be sure; very bad.  But I do not in the least feel like a bad man, and I do not want to be punished for them.  And, if I beat my breast, like my Nazi friend, young Rupprecht, and say, “It is I, I, I, who did it,” I am afraid that I shall sound just as pretentious as he sounded to me.  The confession that I want to hear or that I ought to make does not ring real.

Pg 223 – Commentary: On Empathy, Dragons and Nazis
“You say, ‘Totalitarianism.’ Yes, totalitarianism; but perhaps you have never been alone, unemployed, sick, or penniless, or, if you have, perhaps never for long, for so long that you have given up hope; and so (you’ll pardon me, Herr Professor) it is easy for you to say, ‘Totalitarianism – no.’ But the other side, the side I speak of, was the side that the people outside Germany never say, or perhaps never cared to see. And today nobody in Germany will say it. But, believe me, nobody in Germany has forgotten it, either.

Pg 225 – Commentary: “Why does a man want his children to be better than himself?”
“All the time, I knew all the time that I was damned, damned worse every day.  But I wanted my children to be Christians.”
“Why, Herr Kessler?”
“Why does a man want his children to be better than himself?”

Pg 231 – Commentary: We Ought to Obey God Rather Then Men
I had several talks with a country pastor, an anti-Nazi, who, without challenging the one Scripture that “we ought to obey God rather then men,” shook his head doggedly and reverted, again and again, to the other Scripture that “the powers that be are ordained of God.”

Pg 246 – Commentary: Final Quotes and Thoughts
I have a friend, in America, with whom I once discussed the question of the indeterminate prison sentence for felonies.  Himself an opponent of prison sentences of all kinds, he was by way of being a firsthand authority in the field of penology; in his time he had left a half-dozen jails and penitentiaries without, as he put it, permission.  When I met him, he was on his way to the Institution for the Criminally Insane at Menard, Illinois.  Nobody could break out of Menard.  My friend did, a few months later, and when I last heard of him he was at Alcatraz.

Pg 255 – Commentary: What do Nations Drink but Blood?
For the duration of the emergency the city does not exist for the citizen but the citizen for the city.

Pg 267 – Commentary: On Nazi and Jewish Methods of Change
After 1918 the immobile German, incapable of adjusting to the new conditions inflicted upon him, turning romantically7 and meaninglessly towards the hope of restoring the old, found himself bewildered and increasingly helpless, while the Jew was in the element in which, through no fault (or virtue) of his own, he thrives best: changing conditions, requiring rapid and radical adjustment.  Instead of stating that the Jews were the “decomposing element” in Imperial Rome – a favorite citation of the Nazis – Mommsen should have said that the Jew was able, because he had to be, to adjust himself to a decomposing, as to any other kind, of Rome.

Pg 267 – Commentary: On Nazi and Jewish Methods of Change
Between 1918 and 1933 this marginal man, the Jew, this Luftmensch, this man in the air, in a situation which put a premium on speed and a penalty on weight, rose to such power in a decomposing Germany that his achievement looked dangerously like that of a superman.  But wasn’t the German to be the superman? – Very well, then.  The order in which the Jew was usurping this role would have to be reversed, the standards of supermanliness redefined to fit the German.  Superman, the German, would not adjust to this world; he would adjust it.  So-oder so.

Pg 268 – Commentary: What do Nations Drink but Blood?
The German nation had to drink to lighten itself, and what do nations drink but blood?

Pg 270 – Commentary: On Nazi and Jewish Methods of Change
And how this German Jew loved his Germany, for which he was willing to give up his Judaism!  How German he seemed to be abroad, so much so that everywhere in the Allied countries in the first World War that the Jew was suspected of being pro-German!  What happened to him from 1933 on he could not believe; he stay7ed on, until 1936, until 1938, until 1942, until -,. “It won’t last,” he told himself.  What made him thing it wouldn’t?  Why, this was Germany, his Germany.  And now, in England and America, in France and Brazil and Mexico, there is a new kind of Jew, the Jew who has learned, when he speaks of those who a few years ago where his countrymen in his beloved country, to say “the Germans,” to distinguish them, just as Hitler did, from the Jews.

Pg 274 – Commentary: What do Nations Drink but Blood?
“Didn’t I say … that whatever God sends us is good?  We must wait until morning, and then we will understand the meaning of the night.” – From the Talmud

Pg 275 – Commentary: Under Pressure
Substances move, under pressure, to extreme positions and, when they shift positions, shift from one extreme to the other.  Men under pressure are drained of their shadings of spirit, of their sympathy (which they can no more give than get), of their serenity, their sweetness, their simplicity, and their subtlety.

Pg 276 – Commentary: On Empathy, Dragons and Nazis
Nowhere have I seen so many old men and women staggering through train sheds with heavy suitcases and never an offer of assistance from the empty-handed, nowhere such a uniform disinclination to assist on the scene of an accident or to intervene between children fighting on the street.  But the service in German hotels, restaurants, and stores is superb.

Pg 276 – Commentary: Final Quotes and Thoughts
Grimly preoccupied with themselves; deadly serious and deadly dull (only the Germans could have been unbored by Hitler); tense, hurried, unrelaxed; purpose-bedeviled, always driven somewhere to do something; taking the siesta like Communion, with determined, urgent intent; sneering, and not always genteelly, at the Frenchmen sitting “doing nothing” at his cafe (wie Gott in Frankreich, “like God in France,” is the German expression for “carefree”)

Pg 277 – Commentary: All About Freedom
National Socialism did not make men unfree; unfreedom make men National Socialists

Pg 277 – Commentary: All About Freedom
Freedom is nothing but the habit of choice.

Pg 277 – Commentary: Under PressureAll About Freedom
Freedom is nothing but the habit of choice.  Now choice is remarkably wide in this life.  Each day begins with the choice of tying one’s left or right shoelace first, and ends with the choice of observing or ignoring the providence of God. Pressure narrows choice forcibly.  Under light pressure men sacrifice small choices lightly.  But it is only under the greatest pressure that they sacrifice the greatest choices, because choice, and choice alone, informs them that they are men and not machines.  – human action & economics

Pg 277 – Commentary: All About Freedom
The ultimate factor in choosing is common sense, and it is common sense that men under pressure lose fastest, cut off as they are (in besieged “Peoria”) from the common condition.  The harder they are pressed, the harder they reason; the harder they must reason.  But they tend to become unreasonable men; for reasonableness is reason in the world, and “Peoria” is out of this world.

Pg 278 – Commentary: All About Freedom,
In such exquisitely fabricated towers a man may live (or even a whole society), but he must not look over the edge or he will see that there is no foundation.

Pg 278 – Commentary: Under Pressure
Who is this Einstein, who was “only a scientist” when he conceived the atomic bomb and now, in his old age, sees what he has done and weeps?  He is the German specialist, who had always “minded is” – high – “business” and was no more proof against romanticism than his tailor, who had always minded his low business.  He is the finished product of pressure, the uneducated expert, like the postal clerk in Kronenberg whose method of moistening stamps on the back of his hand is infallible.  The German mind, encircled and, under pressure of encirclement, stratified, devours itself in the production of lifeless theories of man and society, deathless methods of licking postage stamps, and murderous machinery.  For the rest – which is living – the German has to depend upon his ideals.

Pg 282 – Commentary: A Role of Knowledge
Hitlerism was a mass flight to dogma, to the barbaric dogma that had not been expelled with the Romans, the dogma of the tribe, the dogma that gave every man importance only in so far as the tribe was important and he was a member of the tribe.

Pg 290 – November 9th, 1948 at The Trial – Commentary: What do Nations Drink but Blood?
“Every defendant in this case, as in all preceding cases, has argued that he was acting under superior orders.  The doctrine was asserted by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg that superior orders do not constitute a defense of a crime against humanity.  This doctrine is not clear to this court.  Citizens must obey the law and the officers of the law, or anarchy will rule.  And yet, no man should commit an offense against humanity.  Here we have an apparent contradiction.

Pg 296 – Commentary: On Empathy, Dragons and Nazis
Those stones were the houses – not the munitions plants or the switchyards, but the houses.  In the city of Worms, the railroad roundhouse stood miraculously untouched; and a half-mile away stood a whole row of walls that were once apartment houses; and so it was in Frankfurt, where the I.G. Hochhaus, the headquarters of the world dye trust, was undamaged; and in Berlin, where the Patent Office was intact.  And so it was everywhere in Germany, for the war was a war against houses. One raid knocked one-third of Freiburg over; Dresden was destroyed in twenty-four hours. And Hamburg! And Munich! And Rotterdam! Warsaw! Coventry! Stalingrad! How could Americans understand? They couldn’t.

Pg 296 – Commentary: On Empathy, Dragons and Nazis
Right up until the total collapse of steel fabrication at the end of 1944, the Germans had four rails in the yards for every rail in use; within two to six hours after a yard was hit, it was moving again.  But sleepless workers weren’t moving so fast, and terrified workers were moving still slower, and workers whose homes were gone (and maybe a wife or child) weren’t moving fast at all.

Pg 303 – Commentary: On Empathy, Dragons and Nazis
The failure of the Occupation could not, perhaps, have been averted in the very nature of the case.  But it might have been mitigated. Its mitigation would have required the conquerors to do something they had never had to do in their history.  They would have had to stop doing what they were doing and ask themselves some questions, hard questions, like, What is the German character?  How did it get that way?  What is wrong with its being that way? What way would be better, and what, if anything, could anybody do about it?

Pg 305 – Freedom in our Hearts
Freedom is risky business; when I let my little boy cross the street alone for the first timeI am letting him risk his life, but unless I do he will grow up unable to cross the street alone.

Pg 305 – Freedom in our Hearts
When the Americans decided that they could not “afford” freedom for the Germans, they were deciding that Hitler was right

Pg 305 – Freedom in our Hearts
Free inquiry on a free platform is the only practice that distinguishes a free from a slave society; and , if the post-Nazi Germans needed force, they needed it fro the one purpose it had never been used for in Germany, namely, to keep the platform free.  What they needed was the town meeting, the cracker barrel 0 to see, to hear, and at last to join the war on the totalitarianism in their own hearts.

Pg 306 – Commentary: A Role of Knowledge
My friend Willy Hofmeister, the old policeman, was amazed, and kept adverting to his amazement, that Mein Kampf had not been banned in America during the war.

Pg 311 – Commentary: Flippity Flops and Liberty
“The Germans are great fighters,” said Senator Thomas of Oklahoma in late 1949.  “If the United States gets into a war, we shall need fighters.”  “It should be enough,” said General Collins of the United States Joint Chief of Staff in 1950, “if we send arms.  Our sons must not shed their blood in Europe.” – This is for fighting Russia, amazing change of direction in 5-6 years

Pg 325 – Commentary: A Role of Knowledge
The Germans want, not at all oddly, to live.  They would like to live well, but in any case they would like to life, well or badly.  Their attitude may be unherioc; they ought, perhaps, to prefer dying on their feet to living on their knees. But they don’t; and, unlike us, who have had neither experience, they have had both.  What we, who have never been slaves, call slavery, they, who have always been what we call slaves, find less abhorrent than death.  They hate Communism – under that name – but they do not love what we call liberty enough to die for it.  If they did, they would have died for it against Hitler.

Pg 325 – Commentary: A Role of Knowledge; Flippity Flops and Liberty
Americans who saw the love of liberty in the East-West refugee traffic and the East German riots needed to remind themselves that these same East Germans lived under totalitarian slavery for twelve years, 1933-45, and loved it.

Pg 331 – Commentary: Ravages of War
Eight years and more after the war his family still gladly accepted gifts of used clothing, the crumbs of charity…Eggs were sold by the unit; who had money to invest in a dozen at a time, or a place to keep them fresh?
In our older boy’s class, the sixth grade, in a school in our bourgeois, nonindustrial, county-seat town in a fertile valley, 10 per cent of the children were, eight years after the war, going to school without breakfast; the next 10 per cent had unspread bread; the next 10 per cent, bread with a nonfat spread; and only the top 30 per cent had any kind of milk or milk-substitute drink under their belts.  Our younger boy, in the first grade, brought his new friend Bienet home with him and gave him a banana.  Bienet ate the banana – and the skin.

Pg 355 – Commentary: Ravages of War
Marx doesn’t care if, in this outbreak or that, or in this or that locality, he calls himself a Nazi, a Fascist, a Communist, a Nationalist, or an Odd Fellow. Marx is talking to the naked condition of his existence, not to the insignia in his lapel. “One hundred and fifty per cent of prewar” is mumbo jumbo of dead financiers. Nothing costs money like war, whoever wins or loses.  Nothing mass-produced proletarians like war, whoever wins or loses. Whoever wins or loses, Marx is talking to the man whose house and savings are gone, who has nothing to sell but his labor.  Let the dead financiers talk of “150 per cent of prewar”; Marx knows that England and France, whose productive capacity, far from being destroyed, was scarcely touched, never recovered from the first World War.  In the midst of the broken stones, the twisted steel, the burned-out shop, and the flooded mine stands the new proletarian: the German.

Pg 336 – Commentary: Under Pressure
Michel hates Communism – under that name.  But Hitler communized him, under National Socialism, and he never knew it.

Pg 338 – Commentary: Pressure and Consequences
Take the pressure off them, and they might become insufferable.  But they became insufferable with the pressure on them.  Take the pressure off them, and they might claim that they won the last war.  But that would be better than their claiming that they will win the next war. Take the pressure off them, and they might rearm. But they always have anyways. Take the pressure off them, and they might go Communist. But they did go Nazi.


4 thoughts on “Quotable Quotes: They Thought They Were Free

  1. And Americans (at least those who vote Republican) will gladly go down the same path of self-destruction and say, “it’s not our fault!”

    • I certainly think that is likely Dr R. Hopefully we can study history and morality to avoid such a catastrophe. I don’t however think it will just come from the Republican side, but both Democrat and Republican. They are far more similar in their ideologies then they would care to admit. I like the phrase “The two parties are the right and left wings of the same bird of prey”.
      Happy Holidays!

      • So, it is a little more than 4 years on and the events that drrichard and John anticipated have come to pass. The Republicans on the path to not only self-destruction, but destruction of the country, lead by the most fake snake oil selling pretend “populist” and the Democrats greasing the rails to enable his slide into office.

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