Defying Hitler: A Memoir

Sebastian Haffner

translated from the German by Oliver Pretzel
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
In 1938 Sebastian Haffner (Raimund Pretzel) fled from Germany to England with his Jewish wife. In 1939 he began work on an account of his "duel" with the German state, a personal story which was at the same time a study of German psychology and Hitler's rise to power. Only partly completed, this was not published until after his death in 1999, as Geschichte eines Deutschen ("the story of a German"), translated into English now as Defying Hitler. It is in many ways remarkably prescient, most notably about the Final Solution and the overall course of the war, and there have been challenges to its authenticity — addressed in a brief afterword by Haffner's son and translator Oliver Pretzel.

The "prologue", about a third of the work as it stands, runs from 1914 (when the author was seven) down to 1933. It covers the First World War, the 1918 Revolution, the 1923 hyperinflation, the sports craze of 1924-1926, and leaders such as Rathenau, Streseman and BrĂ¼ning, all from the perspective of an ordinary citizen.

"Every day I went to a police station a few blocks from our house. There the army bulletin was posted several hours before it appeared in the newspapers: a narrow sheet of white paper on a noticeboard, sometimes long, sometimes short, covered with dancing capital letters, obviously produced by a very worn duplicating machine. I had to stand on tiptoe and strain my neck to decipher it. I did that every day, patiently and reverently."
Haffner occasionally descends to uninteresting generalisations about "national character", but mostly he is more concrete, offering some fascinating insights into the events that moulded his generation.

The remainder of Defying Hitler covers the Nazi Revolution of 1933. Haffner describes, from the perspective of an ordinary person, the response to the Reichstag fire, the inaction of opposing leaders, the meek surrender of Communist and centrist popular militia, the Jewish boycott, and the steady erosion of freedom amid surface normality.

"[I]t was just this automatic continuation of ordinary life that hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror. I have described how the treachery and cowardice of the leaders of the opposition prevented their organisations being used against the Nazis or offering any resistance. That still leaves the question why no individuals ever spontaneously opposed some particular injustice or iniquity they experienced, even if they did not act against the whole. [...] It was hindered by the mechanical continuation of normal daily life."

The more personal episodes are among the most powerful parts of Defying Hitler. A law clerk, Haffner had a firsthand view of the inglorious capitulation of the Prussian legal system.

"That was the Kammergericht in Berlin in April 1933. It was the same Kammergericht whose judges had stood up to Frederick the Great 150 years earlier and, faced with a cabinet decree, had preferred jail to changing a judgement they considered correct in the King's favour. [...] In 1933 the Kammergericht toed the line. [...]
Even those who had hitherto not been Nazis felt their chance. 'Yes, there's a sharp wind blowing, colleague,' they would say and with quiet satisfaction they would report that someone who had only just passed the Assessor examination was already employed at the ministry of justice or, on the other hand, of feared, 'sharp' presidents of court senates who had simply been dismissed or sent to some obscure Amtsgericht in the provinces."
Haffner took in trust possessions for Jewish friends leaving the country and worried about his Jewish girlfriend. 1933 also saw the breakup of his social circle of fellow law clerks: one was Jewish and two had become Nazis.

Haffner planned to continue his story down to 1939, but was distracted by other projects. What he did write, however, is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand how Hitler came to power.

March 2003

External links:
- buy from, or
Related reviews:
- Ruth Andreas-Friedrich - Berlin Diaries: Berlin Underground, 1938-1945; Battleground Berlin
- more German literature
- books about Germany + German history
- more diaries + autobiography
%T Defying Hitler
%S A Memoir
%A Haffner, Sebastian
%R Pretzel, Raimund
%M German
%F Pretzel, Oliver
%I Weidenfeld and Nicolson
%D 2002
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0297607626
%P 210pp