Friday, May 18, 2018

The Incremental Steps Toward a Fascist State

by Nomad

First published in 1955, the book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45,  dealt with a difficult subject in the aftermath of a national catastrophe. It is an examination of the lives of ordinary Germans who lived under the Third Reich.

Journalist Milton Mayer's goal wasn't to shame or berate or even to hold anybody accountable. Without moral judgment, without recriminations, he simply searched for answers: How could this have happened? Or more precisely, how could people let this happen?

The book is a collection of interviews. They have obviously been edited to focus the reader on what Mayer himself saw, but the portraits he paints of the ten Nazi men that he befriended and interviewed do not bear the marks of caricature. Though he had every reason to be repulsed by these people who had supported the regime whose crimes are now the most readily useful hyperbole, Mayer presents his subjects sympathetically and, we may presume, fairly. If what he depicts is really true, then we have good cause for concern.
In the excerpt below, one man Mayer interviewed tries to explain how a responsibly-intelligent population could have been seduced by the brutality of fascism and all of its concomitant horrors. 

"...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 a shock 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 are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty. Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows.

Outside, in the streets, in the general community, 'everyone' is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there would be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, 'It's not so bad' or '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, 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....

But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That's the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole 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 '43 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 did 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 some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying 'Jewish swine,' collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.

The world you live 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 you 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."

If it is true that dictatorships do not materialize overnight, the incremental steps- which sometimes take place long before the leader steps on the national stage- can generally only be seen in retrospect.

At the time these changes occur, it feels like racing blindly into a fog, undecided what is really happening, unsure where things are headed and uncertain what may happen on the way there.
As a reviewer of the book notes:
We are not to the stage of Germany in the 1920’s, but it is as if we are being groomed for that condition. Our call should be to resist. Not merely to resist the politics of the “other side,” whichever side that might be, but to resist the moral formation that will enable us to countenance the grave, overt, and unforgivable injustices that the Nazis were able to perpetuate. This may require us to put down our phones, read fewer blogs, and contemplate more fundamental things, like hope, love, truth, and faith.