Quick Book Review: Defying Hitler: A Memoir, by Sebastian Haffner

I read this back in the spring, so this review is not going to be particularly comprehensive.  I assigned Defying Hitler to in a modern Western Civ course.  I hadn’t read it before, but it ended up being an engaging story of one man’s experience in Germany from his childhood during World War I through his required militia training.  Haffner (the pseudonym of Raimund Pretzel) eventually left Germany for Great Britain, but returned after the war.  The book was not published until after his death.

Haffner discusses the confusion of German life after World War I and how the Nazis imposed terror on their way to power.  His basic explanation of Nazi success in Germany is that the Germans were essentially cowardly and lacked an internal compass that allowed them to resist.   He writes a lot about the weak national character of the German people in a way historians wouldn’t probably use today.  Haffner looks at things in a mostly humanistic way, but he makes quite a case through both his personal experiences and his observations of others.  One example of this is when SA men come to the law library to kick out non-Aryans:

Meanwhile, a brown shirt approached me and took up position in front of my worktable.  “Are you Aryan?”  Before I had a chance to think, I said, “Yes.”… What a humiliation, to have answered the unjustified question as to whether I was “Aryan” so easily, even if the fact was of no importance to me!  What a disgrace to buy, with a reply, the right to stay with my documents in peace!  I had been caught unawares, even now.  I had failed my very first test. I could have slapped myself. (151)

To wrap up, there was another passage that really struck me.  While Haffner faulted the leaders of opposition groups for their lack of opposition, he also tried to answer why “no individuals ever spontaneously opposed some particular injustice or iniquity they experienced, even if they did not act against the whole.”  It would seem to me that “no individuals” is an exaggeration in a book that the author’s son called “the passionate outburst of a young man” and might have been amended if he had published it during his lifetime.  Nonetheless, the question stands for the majority of Germans, including, as he admits, the author himself:

[Spontaneous opposition to injustice] was hindered by the mechanical continuation of normal daily life.  How different history would be if men were still independent, standing on their own two feet, as in ancient Athens.  Today they are yoked to the details of their work and daily timetable, dependent on a thousand little details, cogs in a mechanism they do not control, running steadily on rails and helpless if they become derailed.  Only the daily routine provides security and continuity.  Just beyond lies a dark jungle.  Every European of the twentieth century feels this in his bones and fears it.  It is the cause of his reluctance to do anything that could “derail” his life–something audacious or out of the ordinary.  It is this lack of self-reliance that opens the possibility of immense catastrophes of civilization such as the rule of the Nazis in Gemany. (138)

When I read this, I thought that it sounded like a good approximation of modern life for us, too.  It makes me think about the known and unknown evils that we ignore.  Are we willing to be brave when the situation requires it?  To often, I think that my answer is “No.”


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