In 1955, he published a seminal work titled They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 in which he analyzes how Hitler came to power and got away so long with his maniacal agenda in a modern, civilized, cultured twentieth-century Germany.
He wanted to know what ordinary men, "not men of distinction," felt, thought, and experienced, as their country slipping into darkness, how incrementally their nation devolved into fascism.
What he found was they just wanted to live their lives, and they did the best they could, realizing too late freedoms they once enjoyed eroded right under them. But because it happened gradually, few noticed, or, if they noticed, few said anything lest they seem paranoid. Slight disturbances did not appear to many to be that dire.
In chapter 13, Mayer quotes one of 10 men he befriended:
"Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others will join you. You don't want to act, or even talk, alone. You speak privately to your colleagues"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 can't prove it. Your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic."
"This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, 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 (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.
"To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it-please try to believe me -unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, 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 were detached from the whole process from the beginning, 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. One day it is over his head."
"Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany-not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted-or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.
"I came home a little bit afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under combined pressure of reality and illusion. I felt- and feel- that it was not German Man that I met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.
"If I- and my countrymen- ever succumbed to that concatenation of conditions, no Constitution, no laws, no police, and certainly no army would be able to protect us from harm."
Friends, countrymen-this is the road down which we are currently headed.
Consider three things for which Adolf Hitler is known: