Commentary Magazine

Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner

Defying Hitler: A Memoir
by Sebastian Haffner Translated by Oliver Pretzel
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 309 pp. $24.00

From the English title of this book one might expect it to be another rehearsal of the doomed German resistance to the Third Reich. But that is not its subject. Nor is it a memoir of any of the various plots against Hitler’s life (though it does help explain why such amateurish attempts came so late, and failed so miserably). The original German-language title, History of a German, fits it much better.

An unfinished manuscript, written “for the drawer” in the last months before the outbreak of World War II, and published posthumously in Germany only two years ago—minus six chapters that were discovered in March of this year and that have now been incorporated into the English-language edition—this book is at once a history of its own time and a work of prophecy and prophylaxis. Interpreting events in Germany through the prism of bitter personal experience, Sebastian Haffner intended his analysis of the Nazi “revolution” as a lament for his defeated countrymen, and a warning to those among them who were thinking of fighting it. In a little over 300 pages, he offers a solution to one of the great mysteries of the 20th century: why one of the most civilized nations in the world capitulated without a struggle, prostrating itself before the most fiendish gang ever to seize control of a modern state.

Who was Sebastian Haffner? It was partly in order to answer this question for himself that he began writing his memoirs in exile in 1939, at the age of thirty-two. By this time, he had witnessed the last years of the German Empire and lived through World War I, the Weimar Republic, and the early days of the Third Reich. Having earned his credentials as a lawyer, Haffner, whose real name was Raimund Pretzel, had discovered his true vocation as a journalist. He emigrated to England in 1938, taking the pen-name Sebastian Haffner (adapted from Mozart’s symphony) in order to protect his relatives in Germany.

Haffner was an unconventional conservative. His family was not Jewish—his father had been a senior Prussian civil servant—and he was not forced into opposition or exile. His loathing of the Nazis was, however, visceral, growing more intense as he witnessed at first hand the progressive humiliation of his Jewish acquaintances, friends, and lovers. He eventually married a Jewish woman, after they had both emigrated.

Unlike many German émigrés, Haffner was a success in England, where he was taken up by David Astor, scion of the great newspaper dynasty and editor of the Observer, the leading liberal weekly. Haffner turned himself into the paper’s chief specialist in foreign affairs, contributing influential columns and editorials both during the war and afterward. Too ardently anti-Soviet for Astor’s taste, Haffner eventually returned to Germany as the Observer‘s correspondent, there to begin a new career as a commentator on radio and television. In the postwar decades, and until his death in 1999, he was one of the most celebrated journalists in Germany; his books on history and politics enjoyed an international reputation.



One of these later books, a short work titled The Meaning of Hitler (1979), remains among the best in a very crowded field. Sketching his portrait in a few bold strokes, Haffner made it a point to acknowledge the dictator’s achievements and successes without in any way glorifying him a la David Irving; only thus, he believed, was it possible to understand the acquiescence of so many in his crimes. Haffner also challenged the conventional identification of Hitler exclusively with the German Right and, again unconventionally, attached supreme significance to his racial ideology. With the declaration of war against the United States at the end of 1941, he argued, Hitler effectively abandoned his goal of world domination and subordinated everything to the extermination of the Jews.

In the end, Haffner contended in The Meaning of Hitler, the nation that was harmed the most by Hitler was Germany itself. Though he may not have succeeded in annihilating his own people, he did succeed in destroying the German Reich and, with it, any possibility of a legitimate German patriotism. In saying this, Haffner was questioning the entire postwar German settlement, based as it was (and is) on the creation of a new European federation in which German nationalism of any kind would be anathema. Today, more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, we are only beginning to appreciate some of the more disturbing consequences of this act of national self-negation.

If The Meaning of Hitler is Haffner’s swan song, it is also, in a sense, the sequel to Defying Hitler, the early masterpiece that he had put aside. The continuity consists not merely in Haffner’s preoccupation with Hitler and the Nazis—phenomena that he actually found it distasteful to write about—but in the wounded pride of a conservative patriot protesting against an arch-traitor. For, long before they laid waste to Europe, the Nazis had destroyed Germany’s spirit—and the Germans had hardly lifted a finger to prevent them.

The Meaning of Hitler had glossed over this last point to concentrate on Hitler’s betrayal of Germany, rather than the Germans’ betrayal of themselves. At the time, this gave the impression to some readers that Haffner was making excuses for the Germans. I well remember how bitterly his own daughter, the painter Sarah Haffner, denounced what she took to be her father’s apologia for the German nation when I met her in Berlin in 1979. But the posthumous publication of Defying Hitler, edited (and now translated into English) by her brother Oliver Pretzel, proves that Haffner was doing nothing of the kind: this book is not an apologia for the Germans, but an indictment.



“This is the story of a duel.” The opening line, instantly dramatizing Haffner’s own struggle as a microcosm of the thousands of individuals crushed by the Nazi juggernaut, introduces an underlying theme of the book: the dialectic between private and public events. Following a prologue, Haffner takes us from 1914, when he was seven, to the accession of the Nazis to power in 1933.

His child’s-eye view of World War I tells us much about the genesis of Nazism. Boys like the young Raimund Pretzel experienced the war as a great game, a game in which death and malnutrition were disregarded and defeat was inconceivable. When it nevertheless came, Haffner, again speaking for his generation, took it hard. He contrasts Hitler’s reaction at age twenty-nine to his own at age eleven—in “the one fury, defiance, and the resolve to become a politician, [in] the other doubt as to the validity of the rules of the game, and a horrified foreboding of the unpredictability of life.”

Haffner’s account of his young manhood in the Weimar Republic is quite brilliant, capturing the tragicomic, bittersweet unreality of those years: the Nazi revolution and the Kapp putsch (a radical right-wing attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic in March 1920), the 1922 assassination of the foreign minister Walter Rathenau and the runaway inflation. Many pillars of society, including Haffner’s father, suffered, but many others prospered in the economic chaos, directing their resentment rather at the period of relative normality under Gustav Stresemann.

Hitler, Haffner writes of these Weimar years, “appealed to the two great experiences that had marked the younger generation”: the “great war game” of 1914-18 and the “triumphal anarchic looting” of the 1923 inflation. In this twin appeal lay, in essence, the Nazis’ foreign and domestic policies.

The climax of the book is the advent of the Third Reich, depicted in a series of vignettes. Haffner was by this time a law clerk at the Prussian Supreme Court, which, proud of its independent tradition, initially remained a haven of sanity. But the full horror of what was happening to Germany was brought home to him as early as March 1933 when the courthouse was invaded by the Nazi SA, who proceeded to throw out the Jewish lawyers and judges—to the laughter of others. One Jewish attorney, a one-eyed war veteran, refused to leave and was beaten up: “it had probably been his misfortune that he still remembered the tone to use with mutineers.” When a brownshirt approached Haffner at his desk and demanded to know whether he was Aryan, he replied, flustered, “Yes,” instantly regretting his own moral cowardice. “I had failed my very first test.”

At the time, Haffner was having an affair with a Jewish girl named Charlie, through whom he saw into the heart of the terrible agony of her people. In one particularly surreal scene in the Grunewald woods, a succession of high-school students passed them, shouting the Nazi slogan, “Juda verrecke!” (“Judah perish!”). “We kissed and caressed each other, and every so often a group of boys went past and cheerfully told us to perish.”

Here as elsewhere Haffner gives ample proof of his own awareness, very early on, that Hitler was in deadly earnest about his plans for the Jews—and of the significance of those plans for the future of civilization itself:

It is something new in the history of the world: an attempt to deny humans the solidarity of every species that enables it to survive. . . . The Nazis’ anti-Semitism is a fundamental danger and raises the spectre of the downfall of humanity.

It is of interest to note that when Defying Hitler was published in Germany in 2000, clairvoyant passages like this one gave rise to the suspicion that either Haffner or his heirs had at some point rewritten the manuscript with the benefit of hindsight. The family was even obliged to have the prewar origin of the text authenticated scientifically. Yet one has only to read Haffner’s wartime book, Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, published in 1940 and arguing for the breakup of Germany into smaller units lest the country sink forever under the Nazi threat, to realize the absurdity of such accusations.

The text of Defying Hitler, now augmented by the six previously unpublished chapters, ends with Haffner’s experience of a Nazi indoctrination camp which, together with his cohort of young attorneys, he was compelled to attend in the summer of 1933 if he wished to take his examinations and continue a career in law. Haffner felt deeply ashamed to be wearing a swastika armband and marching to the orders of SA thugs, but he submitted like the rest. On the evening of the day Hitler announced Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations and the abolition of all parties other than the National Socialists, they all sat together listening to the Fuehrer, “the invisible man in the radio” who was manipulating them like puppets, and Haffner realized that, in the sinister camaraderie of the camp where no one knew who secretly believed what, each had become the Gestapo of the others.

Fragmentary, colloquial, sometimes juvenile, Defying Hitler has more to say about the enduring enigma of Hitler’s Reich than almost anything else in the voluminous modern literature on the subject. “What became of the Germans?” Haffner asks. It is the right question. I cannot think of another book that shows us, so concisely and so eloquently, what became of them, and how and why they became Nazis.


About the Author

Daniel Johnson is a columnist for The New York Sun and was formerly a columnist and senior editor for the London Times and Daily Telegraph.

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