I read this book on a recommendation from my little bro, who is a very selective reader, in particular of economic, historical and politically timely materials. They Thought They Were Free was written by a Jewish American who moved his family to a small German town shortly after WWII and began integrating himself into the society conducting interviews with what he calls the "average German citizen." His idea was to gain an understanding of just how Hitler was able to lead an entire nation down such a dark path. I found the information compelling and a bit troublesome given some of the attitudes and perspectives of these ten men and reflecting on the state of America at this time. The book made me think.
The best way to give an idea of this book is to share some ideas and quotes from it:
Implementing the Nazi regime wasn't about convincing 40 million Germans, it was about convincing 1 million. The real lives, that real people live in a real community have nothing to do with Hitler (or Roosevelt) or with what they are doing. Man doesn't meet State very often.
All Germany had to do for Nazism to succeed was nothing. It's actual resistance that worries tyrants.
Following Nazism was a revulsion of the people against all the haggling of politics, against Communism and the Weimar Republic. When Hitler came forward, the attitude of the people regarding their politicians was, "throw them all out!" The German people felt like spectators of politicians in races they believed were fixed and they wanted radical change. They wanted to purify Germany and were looking for a leader representative of the common man.
The atrocities of Nazism came step by step, not all at once. When step C came, it wasn't so much worse than step B, so no one made a fuss. But eventually people realized they were accepting things, which wouldn't have been tolerated five years earlier, except then it was too late to fight.
For me the main insights in the book came within the first half, the second part becomes more of a statement on the German National Character and a bit more dry. This book gives an interesting perspective on Germany prior to WWII. So often we hear only the horrible after effects, but fail to consider how it all came about. Several years ago I read The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, which also comes from a similar perspective. It is a great book about five sisters whose paths take them on drastically different life courses. It was the first book I'd ever read that gave a somewhat sympathetic perspective of the German people between Wars. Prior to that I had never considered what was going on in the lives of the average German citizen and how Hitler's initial actions might have been beneficial for them.