“Defying Hitler” by Sebastian Haffner

A newly discovered memoir by a German classified as "Aryan" describes the insidious early spread of Nazism and how hard it was to resist.

Topics: Books,

The vast majority of memoirs that have come out of Hitler’s Germany have been written by Jews or others who were actively persecuted under Nazi rule. The oddity and the value of “Defying Hitler,” a memoir by the late German historian Raimund Pretzel (who wrote under the name Sebastian Haffner), is that Haffner was what the Nazis classified as Aryan. A non-Nazi who despised the regime but was not immediately in danger from it, Haffner was able to write with the clarity that comes from being removed from the threat going on around him.

Haffner began this memoir after he emigrated to England in 1939. It was never finished or even known to exist until, following Haffner’s death in 1999, his son Oliver Pretzel (who prepared the English translation), found it while going through his father’s papers. In his introduction, Pretzel says that his father would not have been pleased by the book’s publication, that the cool, lucid historical journalist his father became was often embarrassed by the rawness of his early work.

I’m not familiar with Haffner’s later work (which includes such books as “From Bismarck to Hitler” and “The Meaning of Hitler”) but “Defying Hitler” is not an embarrassment to anyone who values lucidity and reason. The book is carried forward by waves of contempt and disgust — for the Nazis; for the people who believed them; for those who didn’t, yet failed to do anything to stop them; and for the German character itself — but reason is the source of its passion.

In a digression that comes about two-thirds of the way through “Defying Hitler,” Haffner asks the reader why anyone should be interested in him, what possible significance his individual story could have given the magnitude of the events he’s describing. He imagines a typical reader’s reaction as “We should not be fobbed off with the private experiences of a young man who was not much better informed than we are, even if he was closer to the scene of these events and had no influence on them, who was not even a particularly well-placed witness.”

His answer is that “if you read ordinary history books … you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be ‘at the helm of the ship of state’ and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history … We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history … who may be pushed forward or left standing, sacrificed or captured, but whose lives, for what they are worth, take place in a totally different world, unrelated to what is happening on the chessboard, of which they are quite unaware.”

By not limiting his definition of history to the stories of the powerful (who are often presumed to be the only ones to make it), Haffner is, I think, committing an act of resistance. It isn’t just that Haffner is acknowledging political and historical reality (“The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large”), but that he is insisting on the democratic idea that people are not merely “objects of history.” Writing in the midst of a crushing dictatorship, Haffner is saying that defiance can come even from an individual who simply refuses to accept the “truth” of the political rhetoric that is put before him.

The question that always springs from accounts of Hitler’s Germany is “Why didn’t the Germans resist?” Some of the reasons have long been obvious. There is a natural human instinct for survival, however odious the forms it takes or the lengths it may go to. And there is also the understandable refusal to believe that the worst will come to pass. Again and again in “Defying Hitler” Haffner’s acquaintances talk of the Nazis as clowns who, because they cannot help revealing their true natures, are destined to fall out of power.

Haffner’s endorsement of the idea that even dictators are powerless without the consent (or at least the passivity) of the masses means that “Defying Hitler” has no time for quibbling about how much the Germans knew and when; he was there shortly before World War II broke out, after all. Haffner takes it for granted that Germans knew about the brutality of Nazi rule — brutality that, logically, would only increase as the state consolidated its power — and that they lacked the will to resist it.

A thumbnail sketch of the book’s theory of how Hitler was allowed to flourish goes something like this: Haffner writes of his fellow Germans as a country of people who “had a spiritual organ removed: the organ that gives men steadfastness and balance, but also a certain inertia and stolidity. It may variously appear as conscience, reason, experience, respect for the law, morality, or the fear of God.” In Haffner’s view, the German character that flourished in the ’30s was formed in the years 1914 to 1923, during World War I and during the monetary and political chaos that followed. The uncertainty of the times, the changing governments, the periodic revolutionary outbursts, the escalating value of the mark to the point that the very idea of value was negated — all of these combined to create a freedom from stability that was experienced by the populace, particularly the young, as thrilling.

“A generation of young Germans,” Haffner writes, “had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere.” The stability that followed Gustav Stresemann’s becoming chancellor in 1923 marked “the return of political liberty,” which, Haffner writes, Germans regarded “not as a gift, but as a deprivation.” Haffner goes on: “The great danger of life in Germany has always been emptiness and boredom … The menace of monotony hangs, as it has always hung, over the great plains of northern and eastern Germany, with their colorless towns and their all too industrious, efficient, and conscientious business and organizations. With it comes a horror vacui and the yearning for ‘salvation’: through alcohol, through superstition, or, best of all, through a vast, overpowering, cheap mass intoxication.”

If Haffner’s tone sounds superior, remember that those words were written by a German who had seen no willingness to resist Hitler either inside or outside his country. The only comparison I can come up with for what follows, Haffner’s account of the ’30s, is to Don Siegel’s 1956 version (the first) of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” That film had originally ended with Kevin McCarthy, having escaped the pod people who had taken over his friends and neighbors, running along a highway yelling “They’re here! You’re next!” at the passing cars. The studio considered that too scary a finish so a prologue and epilogue were added. The movie ends with a close-up of McCarthy in the care of doctors, a sort of desperate relief on his face as he realizes these people believe his story and are about to take a stand against the invaders.

Haffner’s story is one of having the institutions of day-to-day life and the people who populate them replaced by obscene parodies of the originals. In the Siegel film, the replacements conduct themselves with a murderous placidity. In Haffner’s book, the people are in the grip of cheap mass intoxication. Some join the Nazi Party merely to survive (these joiners were, Haffner writes, ridiculed by the Nazi faithful); others, like the townspeople in Siegel’s film who succumb to the pods, join because it offers relief, a way to stop struggling against the inevitable, or a means of revealing the true selves they have kept hidden, that they may not have even realized they possessed.

If by now the incidents that follow are familiar — the intimidation, the erosion of press freedom, violence in the streets, people fleeing or attempting to flee — it’s their novelty to Haffner that carries the book, the distorting mirror effect of the degradation of the ideas of freedom and individuality that should be the very stuff of everyday life. And at the book’s end (Haffner never finished writing it), Haffner sees how easy it is to get swept up in the spirit that was taking over Germany.

It’s announced that all law candidates (including Haffner) must, before taking their final exams, attend training camps for ideological indoctrination and to perform military exercises. Haffner goes off with trepidation, determined to keep to himself lest he reveal his true political beliefs.

He describes young men — halfheartedly at first — taking part in the Heil Hitlers and the singalongs. The change that takes place is subtle, nothing as grotesque or clichéd as a sudden conversion to Nazi ideology. Instead, it’s a slow erosion of the “I” (Haffner even drops the word in his narrative) as each personality is subsumed into the whole. “By acceding to the rules of the game that was being played with us, we automatically changed, not quite into Nazis, but certainly into usable Nazi material.”

This, then, is the chapter that none of the film versions of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” have given us: what life feels like to the pods, a fleeting taste of how easy it would be to submit, how pleasant to see the world through the eyes of the young Nazi who addresses them one morning: “What dismal faces you’re all making, in such glorious weather — and with such a satisfying occupation.” What a relief it would be to sleep.

But of course that relief crumbles for Haffner when he is back home. Some of the young men in camp even arrange a reunion to enjoy a night out in the city and realize with some shame and unease that whatever they shared has dissolved. To extend the science-fiction metaphor, “Defying Hitler” sometimes feels like one of those movies about the last man on earth. The fact that Haffner writes from England, with opposition to Hitler finally about to mobilize into war, is of no comfort to him. It’s a pity that Haffner put away the manuscript, never detailing his remaining years in Germany before he left for England. But it’s hard to see how he could have gone any further. “Defying Hitler” communicates one of the most profound and absolute feelings of exile that any writer has gotten between covers.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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