From Eliza Mondegreen’s article about Milton Mayer’s “They Thought They Were Free”:
And he explores the pressures of “mitschwimmen,” or swimming along. Nazism appealed to the ambitious and also offered a refuge to the politically suspect. One of the men, a teacher, anti-Nazi by disposition, joined the party to deflect scrutiny of his socialist past, which constantly threatened to be revealed. This teacher talked about how a chill settled over educators at the gymnasium level, while their colleagues at primary schools succumbed rapidly to the new ideology: ‘Speed is an instant so short that a grade-school teacher hasn’t time to change his politics.’ He speculated that primary-school teachers, who must know a little bit of everything but don’t have the opportunity to develop deep expertise in any one subject had little ground to challenge Nazi ideology. Who were they to say what was right or wrong or plausible or implausible? So real expertise in some subject area can be protective — it can give you ground to stand on.
As for what was taught in the classroom, he observed that “everything was not regulated specifically, ever.” But without a clear list of prohibitions to give an idea of where the land mines were buried, teachers became ever more cautious about what terrain they strayed into:
“Everything was not regulated specifically, ever. It was not like that at all. Choices were left to the teacher’s discretion, within the ‘German spirit.’ That was all that was necessary, the teacher had only to be discreet. If he himself wondered at all whether anyone would object to a given book, he would be wise not to use it. This was a much more powerful form of intimidation, you see, than any fixed list of acceptable or unacceptable writings. The way it was done was, from the point of view of the regime, remarkably clever and effective. The teacher had to make the choices and risk the consequences; this made him all the more cautious.”
Looking back, the teacher described the terrible turmoil he experienced before he joined the Nazi party:
“I fooled myself. I had to. Everybody has to. If the good had been twice as good and the bad only half as bad, I still ought to have seen it, all through as I did in the beginning… But I didn’t want to see it, because I would then have had to think about the consequences of seeing it, what followed from seeing it, what I must do to be decent… after the decision [to join the Nazi party] it was better, always better. I enjoyed doing those little things at school, ‘defying’ the Party, not because what I did was right (that, too, of course) but because I showed I was clever and, above all, because I ‘belonged.’ I belonged to the new ‘nobility,’ and the nobility can get away with certain things just because they are the nobility; merely getting away with them proves that they are nobility, even to themselves. So I slept.”
Mayer writes that “responsible men never shirk responsibility, and so, when they must reject it, they deny it. They draw the curtain. They detach themselves altogether from the consideration of the evil they ought to, but cannot, contend with.”