New morals, new principles, compromised beyond repair

Condensed from Milton Mayer’s They thought they were free; the Germans, 1933-45 (U. of Chicago Press, 1955). The following comments are attributed to a German philologist (pp. 166-172).

It took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath.

The whole process was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your `little men’; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about, but kept us so busy with continuous changes and `crises’ and so fascinated by the machinations of the `national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.

To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it, unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, `regretted,’ that unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these `little measures’ that no `patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing.

How is this to be avoided? Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims `Resist the beginnings’ and `Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist the beginnings, and how is this to be done?

Your `little men’ were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders.

One doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. 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.’ And it is not just fear 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 `everyone’ is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. 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. On the one hand, your enemies intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. You are left with your close friends, people who have always thought as you have.

In small gatherings of your oldest friends, you feel that you are talking to yourselves, that you are isolated from the reality of things. This weakens your confidence still further and serves as a further deterrent to – to what? It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait.

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 … 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 all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy saying `Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you were born 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.

Life has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father could not have imagined.

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 do nothing). You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

Crucible

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