It’s fun – a macabre sort of fun – this parlor game of “Who Goes Nazi?” And it simplifies things–asking the question in regard to specific personalities. Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. They may be the gentle philosopher whose name is in the Blue Book, or Bill from City College to whom democracy gave a chance to design airplanes – you’ll never make Nazis out of them. But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success – they would all go Nazi in a crisis. Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi. Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them. Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’ t -- whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi. It’s an amusing game. Try it at the next big party you go to.
Ah I have just discovered that Dorothy Thompson was 'The first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany (in 1934), and was the inspiration for Katharine Hepburn's character Tess Harding in the film Woman of the Year (1942)'. Makes sense.
Anyway, this is surely the ultimate test of personality. I think where we have changed since the intellectual climate of the mid-20th Century is that we don't think any longer that there is a single threshold of decency, which we can pass or fail, but an ongoing continuous accommodation between ethics and realism, which we partly fail every day. Or that's how it seems to me anyway.
ETA to add, from a metafilter discussion of this essay, this link to another essay on the genre of 'alternative histories in which the Nazi's won' such as Man in the High Castle. I think these stories are a working out of the same nagging question as Thompson's article - would I have been that person?