Nazi Germany – a dark and shameful chapter in our not-so-distant past. We have written books about it, made movies and documentaries. Some of them attempt to answer the question we all ask ourselves: How was it allowed to happen? The best answer I’ve come across comes from Milton Mayer, a German – American professor and journalist, who in the early 1950s, when the wounds of war, the shame and regret were still healing, spent six months interviewing and befriending ten Nazis to answer that very question. What Mayer hadn’t told his ten Nazi friends was that he was Jewish. In 1955, his book – They thought they were free – composed of the testimonies and memories of these Nazis, was published. It was, in my opinion, not only the answer to the question that haunts us all, but also a warning that humanity is always one obedient step away from walking into the wired fence of a new regime.
This book should, in my opinion, snap anyone out of their daydream. It should be a wake-up call for those who are still under the illusion that we will soon get our lives back, our freedom back. This illusion, this fantasy that if we just keep our heads down, follow along, listen to the guidance, obey the rules and never ask any questions we will get back to normal. But just a few fragments from Mayer’s book, which I quoted below, show that this delusion is nothing new. You will see that all the justifications for your inaction and non-resistance to the restrictions have been made before. All excuses for the existence and necessity of these restrictions have been made before. All your thoughts have been thought before. All your reasons, yes, ALL of them, to passively follow the tyrant and allow him to take your freedoms away, little by little, have been reasoned before. All your arguments have been argued before. All your nightmares, dreams of heroic uprising and resistance have been dreamt (and crushed) before. And in the near future, in five or ten years, or six months, I will tell you that your shame, regret and embarrassment have been felt before. But then, just as it one day was in Nazi Germany, it will be too late.
I am aware that there are people who get offended when COVID restrictions and Nazi Germany are used in the same sentence. But the very reason that Nazi Germany has burdened, traumatised, terrorized and haunted every generation since and yet people who lived through it, participated in it or turned a blind eye to it said EXACTLY the same things we hear today, is why it needs to be talked about. The same obedience existed in Nazi Germany – a far greater horror than “getting paid to stay at home” – and the same obedience was reasoned and excused just the same as it is today. This is what is frightening – the fact that during much worse and clear enslavement people still did nothing. That is why comparing today’s inaction and submission to the state to that in Hitler’s Germany makes sense – because people still did nothing and people today, too, are doing nothing.
Non-resistance to the milder indulgences paves the way to the non-resistance to the deadlierMilton Mayer (They thought they were free)
Take Germany as a city cut off from the outside world by flood or fire advancing from every direction. The mayor proclaims martial law, suspending council debate. He mobilizes the populace, assigning each section its tasks. Half the citizens are at once engaged directly in the public business. Every private act - a telephone call, the use of an electric light, the service of a physician becomes a public act. Every private right - to take a walk, to attend a meeting, to operate a printing press becomes a public right. Every private institution - the hospital, the church, the club becomes a public institution. Here, although we never think to call it by any name but pressure of necessity, we have the whole formula of totalitarianism.
Please suspend for a minute your assumptions about the world you know today. Resist the urge to say that your government would never do this or that coronavirus is a different or real threat or that the measures are justified. Whether the powers that be indented or not, in the past year, they have followed the formula of totalitarianism almost to the letter. The author continues:
The individual surrenders his individuality without a murmur, without, indeed, a second thought and not just his individual hobbies and tastes, but his individual occupation, his individual family concerns, his individual needs. The primordial community, the tribe, re-emerges, its preservation the first function of all its members. Every normal personality of the day before becomes an "authoritarian personality." A few recalcitrants have to be disciplined (vigorously, under the circumstances) for neglect or betrayal of their duty. A few groups have to be watched or, if necessary, taken in hand - the antisocial elements, the liberty-howlers, the agitators among the poor, and the known criminal gangs. For the rest of the citizens, 95 per cent or so of the population, duty is now the central fact of life. They obey, at first awkwardly but, surprisingly soon, spontaneously.
Notice how this fragment describes the rise of tyranny without mentioning any atrocity, mass murder or prison camps. It just talks about an emergency.
Haven’t we all been asked, coerced and forced to abandon our individuality, our needs and interests for “the greater good”? Haven’t those who questioned it or refused to do so been disciplined, shamed, arrested, fined and censored? People who have preferred liberty over safety have been patronised and punished if they protested, while the majority have obeyed the rules (even admitting they made no sense), awkwardly at first, but then spontaneously, forming an orderly socially distanced queue and even turning on those who refused to get in line.
The community is suddenly an organism, a single body and a single soul, consuming its members for its own purposes. For the duration of the emergency the city does not exist for the citizen but the citizen for the city. The harder the city is pressed, the harder its citizens work for it and the more productive and efficient they become in its interest. Civic pride becomes the highest pride, for the end purpose of all one's enormous efforts is the preservation of the city. Conscientiousness is the highest virtue now, the common good the highest good […]
What if the emergency persists, not for weeks, months, or even years, but for generations and for centuries? Unrelieved sacrifice requires compensation in the only specie available.
The author uses this analogy to show how easily regular people can obediently walk into the trap of a tyrant without even realising it, without even noticing the chains on their ankles. And still, no genocide has been mentioned. Just simple, blind and unsuspecting obedience.
But then it was too late
Men who did not know that they were slaves, do not know that they have been freedMilton Mayer (They thought they were free)
What no one seemed to notice[...] 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.
[...] 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 reassure those who would otherwise have worried about it.
Whether it’s deliberate or not, our government is using the same tactics, the same excuses to impose restrictions on us, create legislations and rules. They can’t trust the public to make their own decisions, can’t trust us with the information or can’t trust we would understand it. We are, after all, just ignorant peasants who need to be guided and ruled over. We are incapable of making our own decisions and choosing what’s best for us based on information available to us. We aren’t allowed to make mistakes or poor judgement – these belong in the free world. Those who adore the prime minister, will follow him even to their doom.
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 crisis 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.
“Temporary emergency measure” – sound familiar? Each rule, each legislation over the last year has been rushed and put in place before it had a chance to be voted on and before people had the chance to familiarise themselves with their rights and how they were being violated. Notice, too, the use of “little by little” and “gradual” – everything about the rise of tyranny was slow and patient.
One had no time to think, there was so much going on [..] the dictatorship and its whole process of its coming into being was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway [...] Most of us did not want to think about the fundamental things and never had, there was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful fundamental things to think about and kept us so busy with continuous changes and crisis and 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? To live in this process it's absolutely not to be able to notice it [...] each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or on occasion regretted that unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these little measures that no patriotic German could resent must someday lead to, one no more saw it developing day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing - one day it is over his head.
Because Nazi Germany is so terrifying to us today, it is even more important to read this man’s words and realise that he (and others in the book) didn’t just live through a questionable crisis or emergency. They were reflecting on what they by then knew had been the biggest crime against humanity. Yet they spoke so casually throughout this book as if all they had done was organising a few illegal gatherings during a pandemic.
Today, people, too, don’t like to think about their fundamental rights and freedoms. They never had to. Compared to safety and obedience, they are trivial and unnecessary to them. They don’t believe they were ever free. Now that they are enslaved they can’t even see the difference.
Notice too, that after the war and the Holocaust, these Germans were able to reflect on what had happened, what they had been blind to or obeyed willingly but had had no idea where all these small steps were taking them. You should, too, reflect on the last year and think on each of these small and inconsequential steps, often introduced as necessary, taken by the government, each small restriction and mandate, each promise and moved goalpost. Ask yourself: What if this is how it happens? What if this is how citizens lose their liberty, privacy and rights?
[...] '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 and certainly and how is this to be done?
Unlike the Germans in 1930’s, we CAN learn from history. We can recognise the beginnings and foresee the end. We would be foolish to think that a modern-day tyranny can’t emerge in our country. Later in the book, the author tells us how those very Germans, living in Nazi regime, were convinced that fascism would never happen in their country. They thought such regime was only possible in Russia or Italy. Isn’t this what we say? That dictatorships are a thing of savage past or savage lands?
Pastor Muller said that 'when the Nazis attacked for the communists, he was a little uneasy, but after all he was not a communist, so he did nothing; and then they attacked the socialists and he was a little uneasier, but still he was not a socialist and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews and so on and he was always uneasier but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the church, and he was a churchman, and he did something but then it was too late.
In other words, you may be comfortable now. You may have convinced yourself by now that what has been taken from you was never of any real value to you anyway. You may think that everyone should be forced to wear a mask, get injected and require proof of it to go into a nightclub. You may believe all that because you have no problem doing any of it. You may not believe in personal choice and freedom in this matter. But there will come a day when they come for you too. On that day, remember pastor Muller and his chilling realisation.
One doesn't see exactly where or how to move; each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse, you wait for the next and the next, you wait for one great shocking occasion thinking that others, when such shocking comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don't want to act or even talk alone, you don't want to go out of your way to make trouble. Why not? Well you're not in a habit of doing it, and it is not just fear, fear of standing alone that restrains you, it is also a genuine uncertainty. Uncertainty is a very important factor and instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside in the street, in the general community everyone is happy; one hears no protests and certainly sees none. In your own community you speak privately to your friends, some of whom certainly feel as you do, but what do they say? They say 'it's not so bad' or that you're seeing things or you're an alarmist. And you are an alarmist. You are saying that THIS must lead to THIS and you can't prove it; these are the beginnings, but how do you know for sure when you don't know the end and how do you know the end? On the one hand, your enemy - the regime, the party - intimidate you, on the other your friends poo poo you as pessimistic or even neurotic.
A few weeks ago, I attended the anti-lockdown protest in London. There were tens of thousands of people marching by my side. Last week, there was a round two and an even greater number of people marched through the streets of London, protesting vaccine passports and further restrictions. The mainstream media failed to report on such large and overwhelming gathering and when they did, they claimed there were just a few hundred protesters. Boris Johnson has not addressed any of it, even though we are his people, and we are clearly uneasy and anxious about something. This lack of response creates an illusion that there is no resistance, that everyone is happy and obedient.
And again, we are reminded of how small and insignificant the steps of the tyrant are. We are reminded that calling for resistance and mass disobedience grants you a label of an alarmist or a conspiracy theorist or a denier.
But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds of thousands will join you never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes millions would have been sufficiently shocked - if let us say, the gassing of the Jews in 1943 had come immediately after the “German firm” stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in 33. But of course this isn't the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than step B, and if you didn't not make a stand at step B, why should you at step C? And so on to step D. 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 a minor incident [...] collapses it all at once and you see that everything, EVERYTHING has changed and changed completely under your nose. [...] 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 you live in a system that 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.
I think the above fragment speaks for itself. I will end on this, however: All ten Nazis interviewed in the book had trouble answering one simple question – what they thought they had done wrong. When trying to explain their actions and what was right and what was wrong, good or evil, they always answered with what had been legal or illegal, popular and unpopular. Think about it for a second – of course they were ashamed of their actions and couldn’t face the responsibility for that shame, so, instead, quoted the rules. Sound familiar? The rules dictated their morality. The law was their moral compass. They thought they were free. Do you think you are free?