Quaker Theology #8 Spring-Summer 2003

Milton Mayer, Quaker Hedgehog-- 2

Germany was the research site for Mayer’s first and most important book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, which came out in 1955 courtesy of the University of Chicago Press; still in print, the book continues to grace the reading lists for college courses in German history. To do the research, he secured a position as research professor at the University of Frankfurt and lived in a nearby small Hessian town he called "Kronenberg." Spending a year interviewing and getting to know ten "average" Germans, all members of the National Socialist German Workers Party, he wanted to discover what had made them Nazis. What gave all Mayer’s writings their appeal was that, as he reported in the book’s Foreword, he found that his German Friends were just like all other people, no better, no worse, the same. Which was to say that they had not resisted the warning of Robert Hutchins’s 1935 commencement address: it was not that they had not heard the address; it was that they acted as other people always act– they had become corrupted by the desire to get along, so they went along.

The most constant theme of Mayer’s essays, one that allowed him to cut through to the very heart of issues, was that human beings had an obligation to resist the beginnings, principiis obsta – he loved to quote this to demonstrate that his high school Latin teacher had taught him something. Let them consider the beginnings of their actions, he pled, peer into the future, and fathom the likeliest outcome, making sure to avoid those that would lead where they did not want to go. That principle led him to oppose World War II, made him refuse to pay the proportion of his federal taxes that went to war-making purposes, pushed him in the 1950s to refuse to sign a loyalty oath in order to get a passport, made him, in short, the kind of Jew – he referred to himself that way when it was rhetorically or politically convenient– who could excoriate his fellow Jews for their penchant for assimilation. His ten German friends had violated that principle.

The problem with his German friends was that they, self-consciously and clearly "little people," did not buck public opinion in their conservative town. The backbone of German society, they had never had any special advantages– only one of them had an advanced formal education; he taught high school literature– they had no desire to read the foreign press or listen to foreign radio broadcasts. For them the years of Nazism, until the war anyway, were the best years of their lives. If unpleasant things happened like, say, a number of Jews were taken into protective custody in Kronenberg, no one of these ten was directly affected, and none could remember the occasion or its announcement in the local press, even when Mayer prodded them with the article.

These ten Germans had not lost their moral sense of rectitude. No, it was only that the first compromises were so small and imperceptible that life went on pretty much as it always had. Only one event nearly crossed the line that might have offended the Kronenberg community’s sense of what was right That was the torching of the town’s synagogue on November 9, 1938. But however sacrilegious and a lawless destruction of private property, it was planned and orchestrated by outsiders, allowing locals to continue to mind their own business, as they had always done and knew to do.

Mayer drove this point home time and time again, in a multitude of illustrations. He quoted a colleague, a philologist of Middle High German, one who admitted he should have done better because he at least sensed what was happening. Not by way of exculpation but merely to explain, he instanced anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous quote about how the Nazis went after one group and then another, and he did not protest until he was targeted, when it was too late.

To which the philologist added his own lament:

"What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believe 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 people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. . . . (Mayer: 1955, 166) To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it–please try to believe me–unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted’ . . . .(168) Believe me this is true. 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 shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow. . . .(169)

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair." (171)

And once the war began, anything became possible because it was "necessary" to win–those who even looked as though they might have questions risked condemnation as defeatists. Only after the beginning of hostilities did the Nazi leadership dare unveil its "final solution" to the Jewish question, for now they knew they could get away with it. All Mayer’s little German friends agreed that they wan-ted to oppose "excesses," the only problem being that when they learned of these excesses it was too late to do anything. And the ques-tion remained whether they could even then recognize an "excess."

Mayer’s friends fed into his analysis. The high school literature teacher taught, among other things, the English author William Shakespeare. When Mayer inquired if he taught Julius Caesar, the reply was "No," so Mayer wondered if it was prohibited. Again came "No," with a wry smile; it was just that the Nazi teacher, who had earlier explained how he had tried to subtly work into his classroom presentation comments that might cause students to question a regime that he wouldn’t, understood that it would have been "indiscreet," a violation of the "German spirit," to study Julius Caesar. When Mayer interviewed the sensitive teacher Heinrich Hildebrandt, after the war, he blushed with embarrassment at the felt necessity of being so compliant with the Nazis, hoisted now– when it was too late and he could do nothing about it– by his realization that he had violated the principiis obsta. (200)

Mayer refused to judge his German friends, because as he made clear– and this was what makes They Thought They Were Free so compelling – he, and Americans, and Russians, and Ugandans, all shared the same human problem: we found it easier to go along than to resist; oh, yes, we’ll resist the excesses– when they finally appear obvious and stark to us– but let us wait until then. In this sense, his book was a tract for the times, the McCarthyite times in the United States, as well as a nuanced analysis of the Germans from 1933 to 1945.

It is again a tract for our times, the Bush-Ashcroft times, when the "war on terror" gives Americans a Patriot Act, passed overwhelmingly in both House of Representatives and Senate, when citizens– not to mention non-citizens– are arrested and locked away without the usual safeguards of the Constitution, a practice almost universally acquiesced in by the courts, when federal officials may inquire into what books we have checked out of libraries or purchased from book stores, when agents of the FBI can infiltrate meetings, churches, synagogues, and mosques–open to the public, after all–to monitor what is going on, what is said, even what is hinted at. We would recognize "excesses," too, wouldn’t we?

Mayer dealt with the excesses of his time. Refused a new passport by the American consul in Berne, Switzerland, in 1963, because he refused to sign an oath required by the Internal Security Act, took the case to court, and won a victory for us all in Mayer vs. Rusk in 1964. Even in the face of annual audits, unusual in the case of ordinary citizens like himself, an auditor told him, he continued to withhold the percentage of federal income taxes that went for war. While teaching at the Comenius Theological Seminary in Prague in 1961-62, he visited Hungary, a violation of State Department regulations, and, as a warning, had his "right" to a passport reviewed. (Biodegradable Man, p. 68-79)

Mayer’s relationship with the American Friends Service Committee also firmed up in this period. He had long been a lecturer for the AFSC, participating in its World Affairs Seminars, and writing laudatory articles about it for various publications. (One of the best of this genre, which the Progressive carried in January 1955, "Into the Harvest," celebrated devout Methodist E. A. "Red" Schaal, who served as a peace secretary in the AFSC. It contained what might be called a sly dig at AFSC by pointing out that when its peace secretaries were asked how many new people they wanted to hire with funds from a large anticipated grant, while his colleagues ventured five or ten, Shaal wanted none: "I can’t find enough committed people to fill the jobs we’ve got now. Why create more jobs?"(Mayer: 1990, 185) But it was his appointment to the AFSC committee that prepared the pamphlet widely heralded Speak Truth to Power in 1954 that marked the acme of his influence with the group.

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