Read This Book About Nazis

Sebastian Haffner’s ‘Defying Hitler’

I am going to try to get you to read a book with “Hitler” in the title, so I guess I need to say to anyone who is stupid, or thinks I’m stupid, or both: I do not think that Donald Trump is Hitler, and I do not think that the swarm of factors that deposited Trump in the Oval Office is any less historically specific than the one that empowered Hitler. But I do marvel at the things the past can tell us about the present state, and also the human state, when we listen. Defying Hitler vibrates with the tension that, as history education scholar Sam Wineburg puts it, “underlies every encounter with the past: the tension between the familiar and the strange, between feelings of proximity and feelings of distance in relation to the people we seek to understand.” The book has a dumb title and an ugly cover with a font that, in low lighting, can make it appear to the casual observer that you’re reading a book called Deifying Hitler. Even so, you should read it.

Defying Hitler is a memoir written in 1939 by a non-Jewish German, Sebastian Haffner, after he fled to Britain. It is written with the heat and urgency you might expect of a man who has escaped the Third Reich and now must account to himself and to outsiders what has happened to his country and how. The dizzying interwar years, the incredible rise to power of the Nazis, and the final slide into suffocating totalitarianism are arranged and described precisely, with particular attention to the ways historical events are experienced by ordinary people, and how they imprint on an individual’s, as well as a nation’s, psyche. For all that is distant in it, the book evokes strong feelings of proximity. In his daily life as a young man in Weimar Germany, Haffner’s biggest concerns are so familiar as to seem cliché: undefined romantic relationships, career ambivalence, and tensions with a loving parent who “mistrusted a life that consisted of visiting cafes and scribbling at irregular hours,” and steers his son towards law school.

The book is Haffner’s attempt to tell “the history of Germany as part of my own private story,” but it was never completed. The manuscript was discovered in a desk drawer by his son, Oliver Pretzel, who brought it to posthumous publication in Germany in 2000. There, the book became a bestseller, successful, according to Pretzel, because it provides, “direct answers to two questions that Germans of my generation had been asking their parents since the war: ‘How were the Nazis possible?’ and ‘Why didn’t you stop them?’” The weight Haffner gives to his interior experience is an argument through style, suggesting that central to the Nazi’s moral poison is the dissolution of boundaries: the encroachment of the public sphere into inner lives, the subsuming of private individuals into the Moloch of the totalitarian state. Nazism is an occupying force of the self as much as of a region.

Haffner considers himself a man with “no strong political views.” Of himself and his closest friend he says, “at heart we were both aesthetes. . . my god was the god of Goethe and Mozart.” He maintains, even after it is no longer tenable, a kind of Romantic understanding of an inner, private self to be guarded at all costs from the public sphere. Later, after political writers are being censored and dragged off to concentration camps, he notes with acrid distaste this same tendency in the literary establishment (he is by this point writing book reviews for a Nazi paper): “so many recollections of childhood, family novels, books on the countryside, nature poems, so many delicate and tender little baubles were written in Germany in the years 1934–38. . . in all their quiet tenderness they were screaming at you, between the lines, ‘Don’t you see how timeless and intimate we are?’”

If Haffner’s tendency to detach himself from public life is suspect, the opposite tendency — “to merge with the crowd” — is far uglier. In his estimation, it springs from a kind of ineptitude for self-direction that results from living in a time and place cluttered with disruptive historical events. He writes, “A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions, for love and hate, joy and sorrow, but also all their sensations and thrills — accompanied though they might be by poverty, hunger, death, chaos, and peril.” Those unable to “wean themselves from the cheap sports of war and revolution” are Nazis in the making.

It is uncanny to read Haffner’s descriptions of a racist demagogue’s rise to power. Hitler is vulgar and buffoonish, gaudy and unkempt and frothing, widely regarded as too stupid, too ridiculous, too extreme to be a real threat and so is consistently underestimated, accommodated, or ignored by his opponents. But it is deeply unsettling to consider how non-Nazi Germans failed to stop or mitigate a government that came to power with the support of less than half of the country. Haffner casts blame, first and foremost, on the “treacherous party leadership” of the opposition that fails to mount a fight. But his most cutting insights he saves for the mental attitudes adopted by many in order to cope, but which ultimately hold dissenting Germans in paralyzed submission.

Haffner broadly categorizes the responses of non-Nazi Germans into three types. The first one, the “one often favored by older people, was withdrawal into an illusion: preferably the illusion of superiority,”

Every day they tried to convince themselves and others that this could not continue for long, and maintained an attitude of amused criticism. They spared themselves the perception of the fiendishness of Nazism by concentrating on its childishness, and misrepresented their position of complete, powerless subjugation as that of superior, unconcerned onlookers. They found it both comforting and reassuring to be able to quote a new joke or a new article about the Nazis from the London Times…The worst came for them when the Nazi Party visibly consolidated itself and had its first successes: they had no weapons to cope with these. . .They formed the majority of the late converts to Nazism in the years from 1935 to 1938.”

The second type is embitterment —

masochistically surrendering oneself to hate, suffering, and unrelieved pessimism. . . to give up completely once and for all; to let the world go to the devil with a wan indifference bordering on compliance; to commit sullen, angry suicide.

Finally, there is the type Haffner says he himself had to resist:

You do not want to let yourself be morally corrupted by hate and suffering, you want to remain good-natured, peaceful, amiable, and “nice.” But how to avoid hate and suffering if you are daily bombarded with things that cause them? You must ignore everything, look away, block your ears, seal yourself off. That leads to a hardening through softness and finally also to a form of madness: the loss of a sense of reality.

Bless anyone who can read these descriptions today without recognizing at least some of these tendencies in themselves.

When the Reichstag elections of 1930 make the Nazis the second-largest party in the German parliament, everyone underestimates the damage that they can wreak, because no one can conceive of how far outside the bounds of civilized thought they will travel. Haffner recollects, “At best I smelled a warning whiff of what was about to confront me, but I did not have an intellectual system that would help me deal with it.” In 1932, when Haffner learns Hitler has become Reichschancellor, “For about a minute [my reaction] was completely correct: icy horror. . . Then I shook the sensation off, tried to smile, started to consider, and found many reasons for reassurance.” Haffner and his father “agreed [the Nazi government] had a good chance of doing a lot of damage, but not much chance of surviving very long.”

Haffner documents the accretion of changes and erasures to everyday reality — the signs in store windows, the chant of “Juda verrecke!” (Perish, Jew!) on a Spring day — even as he tries to erect walls around a private domain. He observes, “There was no angle from which I could attack the Nazis. Well then, at least I would not let them interfere with my personal life.” In that spirit of private defiance, he attends the Berlin Carnival in 1932. Outside the party, he hears a scuffle and inside spots a man clad in black whom he mistakes for a costumed reveler with a poor sense of humor. The man tells the group to disband, and Haffner asks if they really must. “‘You have permission to leave’ was the reply, and I flinched, so threateningly had it been said: slowly, icily, and maliciously. . . The man had literally snarled at me, baring both rows of teeth, an unusual grimace for a human being. . . I shuddered. I had seen the face of the SS.”

Even institutions, which at first seem insulated, can persist in “unreality” for only so long. In the Kammergicht, or administrative court, where Haffner apprentices as a law clerk, “There were brown SA uniforms on the streets, demonstrations, shouts of ‘Heil,’ but otherwise it was ‘business as usual’. . . Which was the true reality? The chancellor could daily utter the vilest abuse against the Jews; there was nonetheless still a Jewish Kammergerichtstrat (Kammergericht judge) and member of our senate who continued to give his astute and careful judgements, and those judgements had the full weight of law…even if the highest officeholder of the state daily called their author a ‘parasite,’ a ‘subhuman,’ or a ‘plague.’”

The final chapters before the book cuts out take place in late 1933. Haffner, who concedes to his father not to expatriate until he finishes his law school exams, finds himself “wearing jackboots and a uniform with a swastika armband, and [spending] many hours marching in a column in the vicinity of Jüterbog.” There is little use of the first-person ‘I’ in this section, his individuality is lost to the cheap pleasures of camaraderie, his inner self hollowed out beneath his uniform. The writing becomes depersonalized, even dissociative: “one had a feeling that one participated mechanically, had no real existence or validity. . . I stood to attention and cleaned my rifle. But that did not count; I had not been asked before I did it; it was not me that did it; it was a game and I was acting a part.” We know he makes it out of Germany, but there is little to suggest that he does so with his soul intact.

The moral Haffner threads throughout the story is not the only reason the book is worth reading (The writing is immersive! His insights are fascinating! It’s a pleasurable way to learn some history!). But it does demand consideration. In a climactic moment, Haffner is holed up in the courthouse library, nose in a book, trying to tune out another “vulgar march” when the SA suddenly enter the building to arrest Jewish lawyers and judges. One lingers at Haffner’s table and asks if he is Jewish. Reflexively, Haffner answers no, then burns with silent shame. Whatever private dignity or part of his soul he was trying to preserve by turning away from the public sphere is gone in an instant.

That on the eve of war, Haffner abandoned the project of his memoir in order to turn his attention towards “something less private and more directly political” (a guide for the English about how to win the war) may be overdetermined. But it is hard to avoid reading meaning into it. Haffner uses a deeply personal mode of expression to narrate a private kind of defiance, and he fails. Looking back, it is almost quaint that he believed the greatest thing at stake was the soul.