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    This is the story of a duel.

    It is a duel between two very unequal adversaries: an exceedingly powerful, formidable, and ruthless state and an insignificant, unknown private
        -Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler

It is, I think, fair to say that few questions bewilder us more than how the Germans, a civilized and modern people, could have murdered seven million in the Holocaust and how the victims can have let it happen to them.  For a long time our need to rebuild and maintain West Germany as a bulwark against communism led us to engage in the fundamental untruth that the crimes must have been committed by a relatively tiny band of genuinely mad men.  But Jonah Goldhagen shattered that myth with his book Hitler's Willing Executioners.  Of course it must have taken an enormous number of participants for the machinery of death to function and nearly everyone in German society must have been touched in some way, touched and for the most part they chose to do nothing to stop it.  Yet even as this forced us to be more honest, in some senses it only deepened the mystery: what was it that had happened to an entire society to make it so sick?  What can have gone on in the mind of what presumably must have been many decent people to make them become such monsters or to accept the monstrousness that was going on around them?

In recent years there has, entirely appropriately, been an avalanche of memoirs by Holocaust survivors.  Their side of the horror has been well told.  But there are, at least to my knowledge, fairly few good memoirs by run-of-the-mill Germans.  And any written after the war must be somewhat suspect, because by then it was clear how much there was to explain away or even to hide.  All of which only serves to make this book, which would be remarkable regardless, an invaluable addition to our understanding of the era.

Sebastian Haffner is the pen name of Raimund Pretzel, a journalist and historian who fled to London in 1938, not because he was Jewish or faced persecution for any other reason, but because he was disgusted by what was happening in a Germany fallen under the spell of Hitler and Nazism, a spell whose tug he too had felt, but resisted.  He began this account of his experiences right away, before war had even broken out, but then set it aside to work on a less personal look at Nazism.  It was only after his death that his son, Oliver Pretzel, who also serves here as his translator, found the manuscript, in such disarray that this version includes chapters that did not appear in the original German bestseller just two years ago.  The story covers the period from when his earliest memories begin, appropriately enough and germane to the story, at the beginning of the Great War, until 1933, when his Jewish friends are already having trouble leaving the country.  When it leaves off he has begun his writing career, but as per his father's wishes he is also training in the legal profession.  He came from conservative, middle class, Aryan stock, and, had the times been different, it seems likely he would have been content to follow in his civil servant father's footsteps.  But times were very different.

Mr. Haffner traces Germany's long descent into Nazism from the Great War itself, when boys like he learned to revel in the excitement, even the bloodlust, of war.  The war was then followed by revolution, ruthlessly suppressed, and the Weimar years when the best leaders, like Rathenau, were murdered, and those who remained failed to secure the struggling democracy.  This tumult too conditioned people to expect excitement and even mayhem out of political life.  Already during this period Mr. Haffner identifies the precursors of the Nazis, in the Free Corps, which put down the German Revolution and disposed of all the revolutionary organizations.  But the Free Corps did not seek power for itself and Mr. Haffner suggests that they did not for uniquely German reasons:

    As Bismarck once remarked in a famous speech, moral courage is, in any case, a rare virtue in Germany, but it deserts a German completely
    the moment he puts on a uniform.  as soldier and officer, he is indisputably and outstandingly courageous on the field of battle.  He is even
    prepared to open fire on his own compatriots if ordered to do so.  Yet he is as timid as a lamb at the thought of opposing authority.
    The suggestion of such a confrontation always conjures up the nightmare of a firing squad and he is immediately paralyzed.  It is not death
    he fears, but this particular death, which scares him out of his wits.  That makes any idea of insubordination or a coup d'etat altogether
    impossible for the German military--whoever happens to be in power.

Recall that he was writing before WWII, but in the coming years he must not have been at all surprised at the way the vaunted German military allowed itself to be disgraced and degraded with nary a peep.

Mr. Haffner traces the roots of Nazism to the year 1923 which began with the confrontation over the Ruhr with the French and then continued with the bouts of hyperinflation.  He says that this served to make Germans cynical and nihilistic as they lost all their savings and the very concept of money basically lost any meaning.  The world around them became absurd and they in turn became absurdists.  As a result, when normalcy was finally restored it tended to seem boring to people.

One of the most attractive and yet frightening characters in the book is Mr. Haffner's father, who seemingly combined all that is best and worst about the German:

    He was by conviction a liberal and by stance and disposition a Prussian puritan.

    There is a specifically Prussian variant of puritanism that was one of the most important spiritual forces in German life before 1933 and still
    plays a certain role beneath the surface.  It is related to classical English puritanism but has some characteristic differences.  Its prophet is Kant
    rather than Calvin; its greatest standard-bearer, Frederick the Great rather than Cromwell.  Like English puritanism it demands severity, dignity,
    abstinence from the pleasures of life, attention to one's duty, loyalty, honesty, indeed self-denial, and a somber scorn for the world. [...]
    Prussian puritanism is, however, secular.  It serves and owes allegiance to, not Jehovah, but the roi de Prusse.  Its distinctions and earthly
    rewards are not private wealth, but promotion in the civil service.  Perhaps the most important difference is that Prussian puritanism has
    a back door into unsupervised freedom.  It is marked "private." [...]

    As a nation, Germany leads a double life because almost every German leads a double life.

These are fateful differences.  The secularity and the devotion to the state rather than to God leave Germans susceptible to ethical relativism and the morality of brute force.  The notion of a duality to life--of a public self and a private self--allows them to disassociate themselves from the action of the state, indeed from the actions they undertake themselves in the name of the state.  Together, as we can clearly see in retrospect, these differences lay the groundwork for a civil service that will obey any orders.

And so the elements are in place for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in 1933: a people addicted to excitement and adjusted to violence; a people marked by moral cowardice with a military that won't rescue them; a civil service that will follow any authority and civil servants capable of distancing themselves from their official duties.  From there on the nightmare unfolds as Hitler plays on these weaknesses like a virtuoso.

Mr. Haffner explains most of this in the form of asides; the bulk of the book is devoted to his own personal experiences.  In the final portion of the book he shares his disgust as the legal profession, like all aspects of life, is taken over and corrupted by the Party.  In one horrifying scene from his social life, a friend--I think you'd have to call him a friend--with whom he and four other young men had long shared discussions announces cold-bloodedly that he's considered turning Haffner in to the authorities as a subversive.  It's clear that the threat he'll do so remains.  Yet this done in a leisure setting among comrades, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to betray people to the Nazis.  If Mr. Haffner had not made up his mind yet about the future of Nazi Germany and about his own bleak prospects in such a place it seems certain that moment crystallized things for him.

It's impossible to overstate how good this book is, particularly when you consider that it was a mere draft for a larger work and is a translation.  Somehow it remains immensely readable.  Mr. Haffner's prescient insight into the German character and his first hand observations about the details of life as Germany Nazified are fascinating and quite disturbing.  One doubts we can ever truly "know" how these events can have happened, particularly the Holocaust, but Mr. Haffner gets us as close as we've ever been to understanding.  It is an essential book.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Sebastian Haffner Links:
    -BOOK SITE: Defying Hitler: A Memoir (Written Voices)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of Defying Hitler
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (GABRIEL SCHOENFELD, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Max Hastings, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Antony Beevor, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Daniel Johnson, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Theo Richmond, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Charles Taylor, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Allen Weakland, ALA Book List)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Lincoln Wright, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Roger K. Miller, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Clay Risen, Flak Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Shane Cory, Washington Dispatch)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Gerhard Altmann, English Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (MARY-LIZ SHAW, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (W.J. Rayment, Conservative Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Defying Hitler (Peter G. Pollak, Empire Page)

Book-related and General Links:

    -REVIEW: of HITLER AND THE POWER OF AESTHETICS By Frederic Spotts (Rupert Christiansen, The Spectator)