Professor Cass Sunstein in the NY Review of Books:
by Milton Mayer, with a new afterword by Richard J. EvansUniversity of Chicago Press, 378 pp., $20.00 (paper) by Konrad H. JarauschPrinceton University Press, 446 pp., $35.00
Liberal democracy has enjoyed much better days. Vladimir Putin has entrenched authoritarian rule and is firmly in charge of a resurgent Russia. In global influence, China may have surpassed the United States, and Chinese president Xi Jinping is now empowered to remain in office indefinitely. In light of recent turns toward authoritarianism in Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines, there is widespread talk of a “democratic recession.” In the United States, President Donald Trump may not be sufficiently committed to constitutional principles of democratic government.
In such a time, we might be tempted to try to learn something from earlier turns toward authoritarianism, particularly the triumphant rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. The problem is that Nazism was so horrifying and so barbaric that for many people in nations where authoritarianism is now achieving a foothold, it is hard to see parallels between Hitler’s regime and their own governments. Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imaginable series of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought that it can’t happen again.
But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.
Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free, recently republished with an afterword by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, was one of the first accounts of ordinary life under Nazism. Dotted with humor and written with an improbably light touch, it provides a jarring contrast with Sebastian Haffner’s devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, Defying Hitler, which gives a moment-by-moment, you-are-there feeling to Hitler’s rise. (The manuscript was discovered by Haffner’s son after the author’s death and published in 2000 in Germany, where it became an immediate sensation.)* A much broader perspective comes from Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives, an effort to reconstruct the experience of Germans across the entire twentieth century. What distinguishes the three books is their sense of intimacy. They do not focus on historic figures making transformative decisions. They explore how ordinary people attempted to navigate their lives under terrible conditions.
Haffner’s real name was Raimund Pretzel. (He used a pseudonym so as not to endanger his family while in exile in England.) He was a journalist, not a historian or political theorist, but he interrupts his riveting narrative to tackle a broad question: “What is history, and where does it take place?” He objects that most works of history give “the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be ‘at the helm of the ship of state’ and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history.” In his view, that’s wrong. What matters are “we anonymous others” who are not just “pawns in the chess game,” because the “most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large.” Haffner insists on the importance of investigating “some very peculiar, very revealing, mental processes and experiences,” involving “the private lives, emotions and thoughts of individual Germans.”
Mayer had the same aim. An American journalist of German descent, he tried to meet with Hitler in 1935. He failed, but he did travel widely in Nazi Germany. Stunned to discover a mass movement rather than a tyranny of a diabolical few, he concluded that his real interest was not in Hitler but in people like himself, to whom “something had happened that had not (or at least not yet) happened to me and my fellow-countrymen.” In 1951, he returned to Germany to find out what had made Nazism possible.
In They Thought They Were Free, Mayer decided to focus on ten people, different in many respects but with one characteristic in common: they had all been members of the Nazi Party. Eventually they agreed to talk, accepting his explanation that he hoped to enable the people of his nation to have a better understanding of Germany. Mayer was truthful about that and about nearly everything else. But he did not tell them that he was a Jew.
In the late 1930s—the period that most interested Mayer—his subjects were working as a janitor, a soldier, a cabinetmaker, an office manager, a baker, a bill collector, an inspector, a high school teacher, and a police officer. One had been a high school student. All were male. None of them occupied positions of leadership or influence. All of them referred to themselves as “wir kleine Leute, we little people.” They lived in Marburg, a university town on the river Lahn, not far from Frankfurt.
Mayer talked with them over the course of a year, under informal conditions—coffee, meals, and long, relaxed evenings. He became friends with each (and throughout he refers to them as such). As he put it, with evident surprise, “I liked them. I couldn’t help it.” They could be ironic, funny, and self-deprecating. Most of them enjoyed a joke that originated in Nazi Germany: “What is an Aryan? An Aryan is a man who is tall like Hitler, blond like Goebbels, and lithe like Göring.” They also could be wise. Speaking of the views of ordinary people under Hitler, one of them asked:
Opposition? How would anybody know? How would anybody know what somebody else opposes or doesn’t oppose? That a man says he opposes or doesn’t oppose depends upon the circumstances, where, and when, and to whom, and just how he says it. And then you must still guess why he says what he says.
When Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man,” and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”
Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we—you and I—saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “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.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.
Mayer suggests that even when tyrannical governments do horrific things, outsiders tend to exaggerate their effects on the actual experiences of most citizens, who focus on their own lives and “the sights which meet them in their daily rounds.” Nazism made things better for the people Mayer interviewed, not (as many think) because it restored some lost national pride but because it improved daily life. Germans had jobs and better housing. They were able to vacation in Norway or Spain through the “Strength Through Joy” program. Fewer people were hungry or cold, and the sick were more likely to receive treatment. The blessings of the New Order, as it was called, seemed to be enjoyed by “everybody.”
. . . .
Read the complete article at the link.
As a historical footnote, I crossed paths with Cass Sunstein at the DOJ during the Carter Administration in 1980-81, when he was an attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel and I was the Acting General Counsel/Deputy General Counsel of the “Legacy INS.” About all I remember is that: 1) he was brilliant, 2) he wrote really well; 3) everyone had him pegged as among “the most likely to succeed;” and 4) we both had lots, lots more hair then.
I agree with pretty much everything Sunstein says. Except for one major point. I don’t think “it can happen here.” It is happening here!
Cass says “Thus far, President Trump has been more bark than bite.” Really! With all due respect, that seems like a view directly from the “Ivory Tower.”
Ask U.S. citizens children whose parents have been deported for no rational reason without any consideration of what will happen to those left behind; ask those children intentionally abused and probably damaged for life by the likes of Jeff Sessions; ask communities that have been terrorized by the Homan-led “ICE Gestapo” that strikes terror, performs few if any “real” law enforcement functions these days, while insuring that whole segments of the population are “easy marks” for crime and abuse; ask women and children refugees from Central American who are essentially being railroaded back to the “death camps” from which they fled by the noxious White Nationalist racists Trump, Miller, & Sessions, with the assistance of morally vapid sycophants like Nielsen and Kelly, without even the semblance of due process; ask Dreamers who are slurred by the always disingenuous Sessions while being held as hostages by Trump, and hung out to dry by the GOP Congress; ask the kids and families being held in the “New American Gulag” established by Sessions — combined with his intentional distortion of asylum law, they are basically being held in concentration camps waiting to be shipped off to death camps in the Northern Triangle! And we haven’t even gotten to Sessions’s absolutely outrageous, lawless, unconstitutional, and totally immoral plan to rewrite asylum law so that nobody who needs protection actually gets it! Or how about not taking any Syrian refugees, even though they are dying in refugee camps awaiting resettlement every day. Just because the actual deaths, rapes, torture, US-caused human trafficking, and other unspeakable abuses take place outside our national boundaries doesn’t mean that we aren’t just as responsible for them as the fat & happy Burghers of the Third Reich!
I wrote about Sunstein’s timely, yet totally disturbing, article in my response to a comment from my good friend, colleague, and fellow member of the “Gang of Retired Immigration Judges,” Judge Gus Villageliu in response to one of his “right on” comments today. Here’s what I said:
There is a great article by Professor Cass Sunstein about the parallels between Nazism and Trumpism. The key: Germans who supported Hitler were fat, happy, and satisfied with their lives under Nazism and were willfully indifferent to the torture and suffering of their fellow human beings. They happily accepted the Nazi propaganda that Jews were either traitors or had voluntarily left the country after being fairly compensated for their property. Even after the war, some ordinary Germans looked back on the 1933-39 era of Nazi rule as the best time of their lives.
Another key observation by Sunstein: resistance is never futile and every individual act of resistance, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem at the time, is important. The little acts and persistence add up over time.
In my view, they also establish an important record for historians and future generations. I want my grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren to know where I stood in the era of Trump, Sessions, Miller & the rest of the White Nationalist neo-Nazis and their utterly disgusting perversion of Western Judeo-Christian values!
Due Process, tolerance, courage, standing up for the less fortunate, and recognizing the human rights and dignity of every person are eternal values that are always worth fighting for!
Join the New Due Process Army. Resist the White Nationalist Regime every step of the way. Force “go along to get along” courts (like the Supremes) to face up to the horrible immorality of their appeasement of the cruel, inhuman, and illegal actions of the Trump Administration. Write the historical record that even the Trumpsters and their followers won’t be able to escape so that we might never, ever again have a Neo-Nazi revival like the Trump Administration!