There is something enigmatic about the way the Nazi regime came into being. I am not referring to its profound historical sources, but to the gradual transformation of Germany from what seemed like a normally functioning society into one that endorsed a state of ecstatic devotion to a ruler, a nation, a race, an ideology. The shift of values and habits is intriguing, especially when we compare the early manifestations of Nazism with the end result – WWII and the Holocaust. In retrospect, Germany underwent a comprehensive change. But was it possible to grasp the enormity of the transformation as it was taking place?

Klaus Mann (1906-1949), a German writer and publicist, began writing his well-known novel Mephisto in 1933 and concluded it in 1936. A fierce opponent of National Socialism, the son of Thomas Mann and brother of Erica, he fled Germany in 1933 to reside in Amsterdam and in the United States. His public criticism of the Nazi ideology made Nazi Germany strip him of his German citizenship. Mephiso later adapted as a film, focuses on the psychological mechanism of adjusting to a new spiritual atmosphere, a new regime.

The protagonist, Hendrik Hoefgen, is an ambitious young man. At the beginning of the novel he is a young actor with a revolutionary spirit, supporting Communist groups; at the end he is the head of the German National Theater in the Nazi era. So how does a man who publicly opposed Nazi ideals become part of the Nazi establishment?

Mann’s answer is subtle gradation: a very slow and gradual process of moral decadence, in which every step appears almost plausible. There is no one moment of moral collapse, of adoption of racial or anti-Semitic ideas, only a very slow process of adjusting to a new regime, gradually adhering to its standards.

When Nazi ideas begin to spread, the young Hendrik gets a role in a major theater in Berlin. He openly denounces racism, calling Herman Goering’s girlfriend, herself an actress, ‘a stupid cow’. As the Nazis are gaining power, he is shooting a film in Spain. The director cancels the making of the film. His friends and wife decide to leave Germany – but not him. His burning ambition to become a famous artist, well-known and wealthy, makes him persuade himself that free art will always survive, regardless of political developments.

Strangely, Goering’s girlfriend, oblivious to his past remark, asks him to appear on stage with her in Berlin. Hoefgen hesitates, but the professional temptation overshadows everything. He returns to Nazi Germany to play with her, also becoming acquainted with Herman Goering. The latter grants him the role of Mephisto in Goethe’s Faust. He even attends the opening gala; in the intermission he invites Hoefgen to his stall, shaking his hand as the audience watches. At that very moment Hoefgen becomes a famous actor. “How easily everything went! Hendrik feels he must have been born under a lucky star! … Should I have refused so much splendor? No one else would have done so given the same opportunities; and if someone was to claim otherwise, I should denounce him as a liar and a hypocrite.”

The next step is using Goering’s affection to save an old friend who was engaged in anti-Nazi activity. He takes pride in saving his friend, but not only in that: “I have rescued a man, he thought proudly … But might there not be a day of upheaval and great wrath? In case that happens it would be wise – and indeed necessary – to take insurance. The good deed constituted a particularly valuable insurance policy. Hendrik congratulated himself on that.” He is cold and calculating. Should the Nazi regime collapse, it would be wise to be able to justify his collaboration with it.

When Goering is about to eliminate Hendrik’s black mistress, he manages to have her deported to Paris. He meets her in her dark prison cell, before deportation, warning her: “There is one condition attached to this great favor … you must keep quiet! If you can’t keep quiet then it’s finished for you.” He now explicitly threatens a woman he cherishes dearly.

His appointment as head of the National Theater is a moment of personal triumph; he remarries and lives in extravagant wealth, yet members of the underground threaten him: “we will know who to hang first.” His shaken sense of security leads to his emotional collapse, and, in tears, he cries: “what do they want from me? … All I am is a perfectly ordinary actor.”

This last sentence encapsulates Klaus Mann’s historical observation: many Germans who were not ardent Nazis, yet fully cooperated with the Nazi regime, do not accept the moral responsibility for their deeds. The gradual development of the adherence to Nazism made the avoidance of a full reckoning possible. Hendrik may have even argued that he was a victim; but Nazism couldn’t have thrived without people like him.