They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933–45


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“A timely reminder of how otherwise unremarkable and in many ways reasonable people can be seduced by demagogues and populists.”

— Richard J. Evans, author of, The Coming of the Third Reich

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“When this book was first published it received some attention from the critics but none at all from the public. Nazism was finished in the bunker in Berlin and its death warrant signed on the bench at Nuremberg.” Milton Mayer


“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. [It is} dotted with humor and written with an improbably light touch.… In 1951, he returned to Germany to find out what had made Nazism possible.… When Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt … 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.’”

— Cass Sunstein, The New York Review of Books, published on 2018-06-28

“A timely reminder of how otherwise unremarkable and in many ways reasonable people can be seduced by demagogues and populists.”

— Richard J. Evans, author of, The Coming of the Third Reich

“Mr. Mayer’s book is the fruit of a year which he passed in a German university town; it is composed of what might be called a series of meditations upon discussions which he held chiefly with ten former Nazis. Why had these men – including among them a baker, a tailor, a teacher and a policeman – become Nazis in the first place? Why had they participated in the crimes of the movement? How do they feel now after the defeat and after the ‘re-education’ of the occupying forces? Mr. Mayer’s answers are sensitively worked out.”

NY Herald Tribune, published on 1955-05-29

“[Mayer] wrote earnestly without an offensive earnest tone. He took stances without posturing. There is art in that.”

The Washington Post, published on 1986-06-15

“Among the many books written on Germany after the collapse of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, this book by Milton Mayer is one of the most readable and most enlightening…never before has the mentality of the average German under the Nazi regime been made as intelligible to the outsider as in Mr. Mayer’s report.” The New York Times, published on 1955-05-08

Milton Sanford Mayer (1908-1986) was a journalist and educator. He was the author of about a dozen books. He studied at the University of Chicago from 1925 to 1928 but he did not earn a degree; in 1942 he told the Saturday Evening Post that he was “placed on permanent probation for throwing beer bottles out a dormitory window.” He was a reporter for the Associated Press, the Chicago Evening Post, and the Chicago Evening American. He wrote a monthly column in the Progressive for over forty years. He won the George Polk Memorial Award and the Benjamin Franklin Citation for Journalism. He worked for the University of Chicago in its public relations office and lectured in its Great Books Program. He also taught at the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College, and the University of Louisville. He was an adviser to Robert M. Hutchins when Hutchins founded the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Mayer was a conscientious objector during World War II but after the war traveled to Germany and lived with German families. Those experiences informed his most influential book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.

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Weight 1.6 lbs


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