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How would you respond to the rise of Nazism? Sebastian Haffner’s powerful 1939 memoir Defying Hitler can help us make sense of current uncertain times

Defying Hitler shows how easy the slide into totalitarianism can be. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Defying Hitler shows how easy the slide into totalitarianism can be. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

January 3, 2020   5 mins

My book of this decade might seem a strange choice. It was written in 1939. The events it describes began unfolding more than a century ago. It is a biography, something the author completed almost as a challenge to himself. He never wanted the work to be released; he hid the unfinished manuscript, which wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1999 as his son went through his papers. It was finally published the following year and it offers deep insight into the collapse of democracy and a subsequent descent into the darkest of horrors that has chilling resonance today.

Defying Hitler: A Memoir tells the tale of one man’s struggle against the surging tide of savage nationalism in 1930s Germany. “This is the story of a duel,” the book starts. “It is a duel between two very unequal adversaries: an exceedingly powerful, formidable and ruthless state and an insignificant, unknown individual.” The author’s real name was Raimund Pretzel, but he adopted the pseudonym Sebastian Haffner when he left Germany for Britain, in 1938, where he went on to become a respected journalist. This work charts what he describes as his efforts to preserve “his integrity, his private life and his personal honour”.

Such is the potency of the book, that when I mentioned it to the musician Brian Eno recently, he told me he was buying copies for all his friends. “This book has had a bigger impact on me than almost anything else I have ever read because it showed how easy the slide into totalitarianism can be,” he later texted me. The Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman remembered earlier this year how a Tory MP had praised the book to him when they met. “It struck me as significant that we had both been reading about the 1930s to try and make sense of 2019,” wrote Rachman.

The reason is simple. Defying Hitler details with impressive honesty how a civilised nation ended up backing the most barbaric modern regime in Europe. We all know, of course, the outcome of those disturbing events in Germany. And yes, it would be foolish to argue that today’s surge of populism in Western democracies bears direct comparison with the rise of Nazi fascism that led to industrialised death camps. Yet ours is again a time of turmoil and bewildering uncertainty, as despairing citizens turn against democracy, politics shifts to extremes, demagogues patrol the political stages, nationalism rises once more and fake news corrodes free societies. It leaves many people fearful for the future, many public figures unsure how to react.

As Haffner writes, the first country occupied by the Nazis “was not Austria or Czechoslovakia” but Germany — and his book helps explain how his nation hurtled into the abyss. It begins with a seven-year-old boy in 1914, unhappy at seeing his summer holiday curtailed by outbreak of war; but who then follows the campaign like a sport, with its statistics on ships sunk, prisoners seized and miles advanced.

Four years later, like Corporal Adolf Hitler, he was left distraught by defeat, feeling an unsettling sense of loss. Then come the Weimar Republic years of economic chaos, hyper-inflation and political violence as the Nazi shadow grows. Moderates were left politically homeless in a fight for supremacy between far-Left and far-Right.

It is revealing to see how rapidly the Nazis went from being figures of fun to running the country. After the election of September 1930, “a ridiculous splinter party became the second largest faction” in parliament. But Hitler was still seen as a joke, a repulsive character delighting in incendiary threats — although Haffner notes “the strange befuddlement and numbness of his opponents”. In January 1933, when Hitler became chancellor, “the general opinion was that it was not the Nazis who had won but the bourgeois parties of the Right who had ‘captured’ the Nazis and held all the key positions”. People believed the system would constrain their excesses.

The power of this work, however, comes not from telling a familiar historical story, but from the author’s personal vignettes as “a typical example of the German educated bourgeois” living “against an arrestingly dramatic backdrop”. His father, a dignified civil servant, suffers with economic struggles. Haffner attends a louche ball which is broken up by snarling police. He hides in doorways to avoid having to salute Nazi parades. In one scene, he is kissing and caressing a Jewish girlfriend in the Grunewald woods, when a group of teenagers passes by and “cheerfully” tells them to perish. A friend’s partner, a Left-wing doctor, disappears. People accept their telephones should be tapped and letters read amid scaremongering about enemies of the state. Judges become “people’s judges” with powers to ignore law, but are subject to instant dismissal.

Some join the Nazis through fear, others jump on the bandwagon or are “intoxicated” by the idea of unity. Haffner works as a legal clerk. Half his small group of friends studying for final exams become Nazis, with one threatening to shop him to the Gestapo after a row; the others go into exile. A Jewish judge presides over his court, but colleagues start to treat him “with a certain tasteful delicacy, like one does suffering from a serious disease”.

As he works in the library, brownshirts burst in, beat up a Jewish barrister and order out “non-Ayrans”. One thug comes up to Haffner and asks if he is Ayran. He replies yes instantly, blushing as he realises he has capitulated to their bigotry. “A moment too late I felt the shame, the defeat,” he writes poingnantly. “I had failed my very first test. I could have slapped myself.”

Later, in 1933, he must attend a Nazi indoctrination camp to continue his fledgling legal career, where they march, sing songs and wear Swastika armbands. As he plays chess under a giant portrait of Hitler, the radio announces the Reichstag has been dissolved and only one party will contest an election. “This still astonished me, in spite of all I had experienced. I was happy that now the Nazis had obviously gone too far.” Instead the evening ends with a massed chorus of the national anthem, right arms outstretched for three minutes. “We all sang or pretended to do so, each one of us the Gestapo of the others.”

Such candour gives this book its immense punch. The author, like so many other Germans, lacked the courage of resistance when confronted by swaggering hate. He assumed the norms of civilisation would expose the absurdities of the Nazis, then constrain the excesses of extremists who openly targeted their fellow citizens. Instead, space for dissent was throttled as democracy evolved into dictatorship. Decent people clung on to their careers and their families, retreating in the face of horror or oblivious to the suffering of others. As you turn the pages, they beg a difficult question: how would you respond in such a situation?

On one level, this fine book is a fierce warning about the dangers of nationalism — what Haffner called the “deadliest enemy” to his country,  and something which is seeping back across our continent. He calls this poisonous creed “a dangerous mental illness wherever it appears, capable of distorting the character of a nation and making it ugly, just as vanity and egoism distort the character of a person”. He concludes that any German placing value in humanity and openness had no option but to leave the country they loved. “One came to feel that any foreign country would seem more like home than Adolf Hitler’s ‘Reich’.”

Haffner’s book takes us into the heart of emerging horror and exposes why so many decent people averted their gaze from evil, leading to the destruction of German democracy followed by genocide and war. It offers the reader a real-time sense of witnessing the rise of the Nazis. He wonders at each step into darkness about the reality of the dangers, the best response to their threat and the strength of his state. His story seems so remote, so unreal, so removed from our own lives. Yet echoes from this era can be heard in these uncertain times.

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.


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Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
3 years ago

“And yes, it would be foolish to argue that today’s surge of populism in Western democracies bears direct comparison with the rise of Nazi fascism that led to industrialised death camps.”

After I read this sentence, I couldn’t be bothered to read anymore … apparently populism which normally is taken to mean Brexit and Trump may not bear “direct comparison”, but presumably it’s close. Where does the author of this article live and who does he drink with down the pub?