Book Review: Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner

Defying Hitler: A Memoir

How does an advanced and civilized nation turn into a pack of hunting hounds directed against humans? Sebastian Haffner addresses the question in this memoir, which describes his own experiences and observations from early childhood until his departure from Germany in 1939. It is an important document–not only for the light it sheds on this particular and dreadful era in history, but also for its more general analysis of the factors leading to totalitarianism and of life under a totalitarian state. It is also a very personal and human book, with vivid portraits of Haffner’s parents, his friends, and the women he loved. Because of its importance and the fact that it is relatively little-read in the United States (Amazon ranking 108654–I picked up my copy at the Gatwick airport), I’m reviewing it here at considerable length.

The title (probably not chosen by the author himself) is perhaps unfortunate. Haffner was not a member of an organization dedicated to overthrowing the Nazi state, along the lines of a Hans Oster or a Sophie Scholl. His defiance, rather, was on a personal level–keeping his mind free of Nazi ideology, avoiding participation in Nazi crimes, and helping victims of the regime where possible. Even this level of defiance required considerable courage–more than most people are capable of. As Haffner summarizes life under a totalitarian regime:

With fearful menace the state demands that the individual give up his friends, abandon his lovers, renounce his beliefs and assume new, prescribed ones. He must use a new form of greeting, eat and drink in ways he does not fancy, employ his leisure in occupations he abhors, make himself available for activities he despises, and deny his past and his individuality. For all this, he must constantly express extreme enthusiasm and gratitude.

Haffner was born in 1907, and many of his earliest and most vivid memories center around the First World War. To this seven-year-old boy, the war was something very exciting–a reaction that surely was shared by many boys of his age in all of the belligerent countries. As Haffner remembers it, he was not at all motivated by hate for the enemy–although there was plenty of propaganda intended to inculcate such hate–but rather by a kind of sporting instinct:

In those childhood days, I was a war fan just as one is a football fan…I hated the French, the English, and the Russians as little as the Portsmouth supporters detest the Wolverhampton fans. Of course, I prayed for their defeat and humiliation, but only because these were the necesary counterparts of my side’s victory and triumph.

The German defeat came as a severe shock to young Sebastian, who had in no way expected it: The same was true of the severe social disruption which pervaded Germany during this period:

Some days there was no electricity, on other no trams, but it was never clear whether it was because of the Spartacists or the Government that we had to use oil lamps or go on foot.

In 1919, Haffner joined a sports club called the Old Prussia Athletics Club. This was a right-wing sports club–so far had the politicization of daily life already progressed. Although the club was anti-Socialist, it was not anti-Semitic–indeed, several of the members (including the club’s best runner) were Jewish, and probably participated as enthusiastically as other members in street fights with the Socialist youth.

After a time, the political situation calmed down–temporarily, as we now know. The Old Prussia Athletic Club was dissolved:

Many of us sought new interests: stamp-collecting, for example, piano-playing, or the theatre. Only a few remained true to politics, and it struck me for the first time that, strangely enough, those were the more stupid, coarse and unpleasant among my schoolfellows.

Haffner assigns much of the credit for the political and economic stabilization to the statesman Walter Rathenau–“an aristocratic revolutionary, an idealistic economic planner, a Jew who was a German patriot, a German patriot who was a liberal citizen of the world..cultured enough to be above culture, rich enough to be above riches, man of the world enough to be above the world.” But while Rathenau was admired and even loved by many, he was hated by many others. He was murdered in 1922. This killing was followed shortly by the great inflation which began in 1923. In Haffner’s view, the impact of this episode is almost impossible to overstate: he calls it “the unending bloody Saturnalia, in which not only money but all standards lost their value.”

That year newspaper readers could again play a variation of the exciting numbers game they had enjoyed during the war…this time the figures did not refer to military events..but to an otherwise quite uninteresting, everyday item in the financial pages: the exchange rate of the dollar. The fluctuation of the dollar was the barometer by which, with a mixture of anxiety and excitement, we measured the fall of the mark.

By the end of 1922, prices had already risen to somewhere between 10 and 100X the pre-war peacetime level, and a dollar could purchase 500 marks. It was inconvenient to work with the large numbers, but life went on much as before.

But the mark now went on the rampage…the dollar shot to 20,000 marks, rested there for a short time, jumped to 40,000, paused again, and then, with small periodic fluctuations, coursed through the ten thousands and then the hundred thousands…Then suddenly, looking around we discovered that this phenomenon had devastated the fabric of our daily lives.

Anyone who had savings in a bank, bonds, or gilts, saw their value disappear overnight. Soon it did not matter whether it ws a penny put away for a rainy day or a vast fortune. everything was obliterated…the cost of living had begun to spiral out of control. ..A pound of potatoes which yesterday had cost fifty thousand marks now cost a hundred thousand. The salary of sixty-five thousand marks brought home the previous Friday was no longer sufficient to buy a packet of cigarettes on Tuesday.

The only people who were able to survive financially were those that bought stocks. (And, of course, were shrewd or lucky enough to buy the right stocks and to sell them at the right times.)

Every minor official, every employee, every shift-worker became a shareholder. Day-to-day purchases were paid for by selling shares. On wage days there was a general stampede to the banks, and share prices shot up like rockets…Sometimes some shares collapsed and thousands of people hurtled towards the abyss. In every shop, every factory, every school, share tips were whispered in one’s ear.

The old and unworldy had the worst of it. Many were driven to begging, many to suicide. The young and quick-witted did well. Overnight they became free, rich, and independent. It was a situation in which mental inertia and reliance on past experience was punished by starvation and death, but rapid appraisal of new situations and speed of reaction was rewarded with sudden, vast riches. The twenty-one-year-old bank director appeared on the scene, and also the sixth-former who earned his living from the stock-market tips of his slighty older friends. He wore Oscar Wilde ties, organized champagne parties, and supported his embarrassed father.

Haffner believes that the great inflation–particularly by the way it destroyed the balance between generations and empowered the inexperienced young–helped pave the way for Naziism.

In August 1923 the dollar-to-mark ratio reached a million, and soon thereafter the number was much higher. Trade was shutting down, and complete social chaos threatened. Various self-appointed saviors appeared: Hausser, in Berlin…Hitler, in Munich, who at the time was just one among many rabble-rousers…Lamberty, in Thuringia, who emphasized folk-dancing, singing, and frolicking.

Then a miracle happened. “Small, ugly grey-green notes” appeared, with “One Rentenmark” written on them. The small numbers on these notes belied their value. You could use them to buy goods which had previously cost a billion marks. And, most amazingly, they held their value. Goods which had cost 5 Rentenmarks last week would also generally cost 5 Rentenmarks next week.

Haffner does not venture an answer to the then-hot question of “who discovered the Rentenmark,” but he credits Gustav Stresemann–who had just become Chancellor–with the general stabilization of German politics and the economy. Most people breathed a vast sigh of relief, but some were less happy:

Twenty-one year-old bank directors began to look around for clerking jobs again, and sixth-formers had to adjust to having twenty marks’ pocket money.

But overall, the picture was bright:

The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.

But…and I think this is a particuarly important point…a return to private life was not to everyone’s taste:

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…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.


To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.

Haffner pursued his own private life, and sometime around 1929, he fell in love. The girl’s nickname was “Teddy,” the use of boys’ names as nicknames evidently being common among German girls of this era.

…at a certain stage of life, about the age of twenty, a love affair and the choice of partner affect one’s destiny and character more than at others. For the woman one loves stands for more than just herself; a whole view of the world, a notion of life, and ideal, if you will, but one come alive, made flesh and blood…We all loved her, the bearer of this name, an Austrian girl, slight, honey-blonde, freckled, lithe as a flame…Our circle had a goddess in its midst. The woman who was once Teddy may now be older and more earthbound, and none of us may still live life at the same emotional pitch as then, but that there was once a Teddy and that we established those raptures cannot be taken from us.

Teddy–“more far-seeing and sensitive than us”–left Germany for Paris in 1930.

Reflecting on this era in German history and culture, Haffner does see some very positive things:

Despite everything, one could find a fresh atmosphere in Germany at this time…The barriers between the classes had become thin and permeable…There were many students who were labourers, and many young labourers who were students Class prejudice and the starched-collar mentality were simply out of fashion. The relations between the sexes were freer and franker than ever–perhaps a fortunate by-product of the lack of discipline of the past years…we felt a bewildered sympathy for previous generations who had, in their youth, had the choice between unapproachable virgins for adoration and harlots for relaxation. Finally, a new hope even began to dawn in international relations; there was less prejudice and more understanding of the other side, and an unmistakable pleasure in the vivid variety that the world derives from its many peoples.

But the Nazi movement was gathering adherents. Haffner and his friends despised these people. They were worried, but not too worried:

As long as Stresemann was there, we felt more or less sure that they would be held in check. We moved among them with the same unconcern with which visitors to a modern cageless zoo walk past the beasts of prey, confident that its ditches and hedges have been carefully calculated.

In 1929, a newspaper headline announced that Stresemann had died.

As we read it, we were seized with icy terror. Who was there now to tame the beasts?

Haffner makes it clear that the beasts gained power from the reluctance of the authorities to deal with them severely. For example, Hitler openly threatened and insulted the judge of the highest German court, before which he had been summoned as a witness. There was no charge of contempt. Nothing happened.

It was strange to observe how the behavior of each side reinforced that of the other: the savage impudence which gradually made it possible for the unpleasant, little apostle of hate to assume the proportions of a demon; the bafflement of his tamers, who always realized just too late exactly what he was up to…then also the hypnotic trance into which his public fell, succumbing with less and less resistance to the glamour of depravity and the ecstasy of evil.

(It is interesting to note that the Nazis used the term “the system” in reference to the government and the culture that they despised)

In college, Haffner studied law. He was really more interested in literature, but his father–a Prussian civil servant who had strong literary interests of his own–thought writing was unlikely to be viable as a career, and wanted to see Sebastian follow in his footsteps in the civil service: for one thing, he believed it was important to have broadminded and philosophical people, not mere apparatchiks, in the government service. Haffner observes that:

My spiritual preparation for what was ahead was almost equally inadequate. Is it not said that in peacetime the chiefs of staff always prepare their armies as well as possible–for the previous war? I cannot judge the truth of that, but it is certainly true that conscientious parents always educate their sons for the era that is just over. I had all the intellectual endowments to play a decent part in the bourgeois world of the period before 1914. I had an uneasy feeling, based on what I had experienced, that it would not be of much help to me.

The world for which Haffner had been educated was about to be destroyed. In 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.

I do not know what the general reaction was. For about a minute, mine was completely correct: icy horror…for a moment I physically sensed the man’s odour of blood and filth, the nauseating approach of a man-eating animal–its foul, sharp claws in my face.

(Part II of the review is here)

5 thoughts on “Book Review: <em>Defying Hitler</em>, by Sebastian Haffner”

  1. There is a wonderful memoir and oral history that I bought years ago, “In Hitler’s Germany” by Bernt Englemann. He was a boy of about 12 when the Nazis came to power – but his parents, and many of his families’ friends (but not all of them) were almost instinctively anti-Nazi. He was involved in the tiny anti-Nazi resistance, and if I remember correctly – one of the reasons that he gave for never even being tempted into Nazi sympathies, was that among the books that they were intent upon burning were stories that he loved, like Emil & The Detectives.
    Google reveals only a handful of entries, like this
    He was a reporter for many years – the forward to the edition that I have is by Studs Terkel.

  2. Haffner believes that the great inflation–particularly by the way it destroyed the balance between generations and empowered the inexperienced young–helped pave the way for Naziism.

    This line and a couple of phrases further along are worrisome. The 1960s, when I was plodding through medical school and internship and residency, were a period when a whole generation seemed to have developed a taste for power at a very young age and they seem never to have lost that taste, once found. Since most of them were incapable, or uninterested, in earning a living the usual way, most of them have spent the last 30 years educating our children to be like them.

  3. “Haffner believes that the great inflation–particularly by the way it destroyed the balance between generations and empowered the inexperienced young–helped pave the way for Naziism.”

    Michael, I didn’t follow why you described the line as worrisome. There are ambitious people in every generation. The author contends that economic instability placed them in a position of ascendency by wiping out savings and rewarding aggressive risk taking, both of which favored ambitious young germans, who came to dominate and change the culture.

  4. I was particularly struck by this point:

    “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…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed.”

    ..and this related observation:

    (during a temporary reduction in the political temperature) “Only a few remained true to politics, and it struck me for the first time that, strangely enough, those were the more stupid, coarse and unpleasant among my schoolfellows.”

    This is sort of the converse of “the personal is political”, “the political is personal.”

  5. Michael, I didn’t follow why you described the line as worrisome.

    My concern is that it resembled the events of the 60s in which adults (the administration of Columbia U, for example) abandoned their role of adults and allowed college age youth to overturn societal norms and assume power. That was an intoxicating situation for most of those kids and they had never earned the rights they were granted by people who should have known better. Some of those kids became investment bankers but a lot of them became teachers and college professors and have never learned that Marxism doesn’t work.

    The Nazis, as I interpreted the passage, were aided by the fact that inexperienced youth were empowered far beyond their capabilities. Now, if you read The Millionaire Next Door, you know that elite higher education is not necessary for success in life but there is an area in our society where accomplishment in practical terms is not admired or represented. That is in education. I saw a comment the other day written by a mechanical engineer who had decided to teach high school math and science as a sort of second career. He said that the education courses he was obliged to take for certification were at the primary education level. The fellow students in these courses were the dimmest people he had ever encountered.

    My experience with my daughter’s college curriculum has not been reassuring. I think the long term consequences of the 60s are still with us and have given us (to grossly oversimplify) Obama.

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