Book Review: Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner–Part II

Defying Hitler: A Memoir

This is a two-post book review; the first part is here and ended with Haffner’s initial reaction to the naming of Hitler as Chancellor:

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.

But that evening, after discussing the situation with his father, he felt better about the future. Hitler, after all, had not been elected dictator: he was merely head of a coalition government and indeed had sworn an oath to the Weimar constitution.

We agreed that (the new government) had a good chance of doing a lot of damage, but not of surviving for very long: a deeply reactionary government, with Hitler as its mouthpiece…Even with the Nazis it would not have a majority in the Reichstag…Foreign policy would probably be a matter of banging the table. There might be an attempt to rearm. That would automatically add the outside world to the 60 percent of the home population who were against the Government…No, all things considered, this government was not a cause for alarm.

But throughout February 1933, things happened very quickly. The Reichstag was dissolved and new elections were called: I believe this was still consistent with the existing constitution–the powerful Prussian regional parliament was also dissolved, which was definitely not. And:

The Nazis no longer felt any restraint; with their gangs, they regularly broke up the election meetings of other parties. ..A little later an ‘auxiliary police force’ was formed from the ranks of the SA

But for most people, these events were merely something they read about in the newspapers, not something that really impacted their daily lives. Haffner, now working as a junior lawyer in the highest court in Prussia (the Kammergericht), was comforted by the continuity of the legal process:

The newspapers might report that the constitution was in ruins. Here every paragraph of the Civil Code was still valid and was mulled over and analyzed as carefully as ever…The Chancellor could daily utter the vilest abuse against the Jews; there was nonetheless still a Jewish Kammergerichtsrat (high court judge) and member of our senate who continued to give his astute and careful judgments, and these judgments had the full weight of the law and could set the entire apparatus of the state in motion for their enforcement–even if the highest office-holder of that state daily called their author a ‘parasite’, a ‘subhuman’ or a ‘plague’.

In spring of that year, Haffner attended Berlin’s Carnival–an event at which one would find a girlfriend or boyfriend for the night and exchange phone numbers in the morning…”By then you usually know whether it is the start of something that you would like to take further, or whether you have just earned yourself a hangover.” He had a hard time getting in the Carnival mood, however:

All at once I had a strange, dizzy feeling. I felt as though I was inescapably imprisoned with all these young people in a giant ship that was rolling and pitching. We were dancing on its lowest, narrowest deck, while on the bridge it was being decided to flood that deck and drown every last one of us.

Nevertheless, he paired off with a small black-haired girl who he nicknamed “Charlie” (what was it about those nicknames?) The party was broken up by the police. Haffner approached a policeman to ask if they really had to leave:

What kind of face was that? Not the usual, familiar, friendly, honest face of an ordinary policeman. This face seemed to consist entirely of teeth…Very Nordic, one had to admit, but then again not really human, more like the face of a crocodile. I shuddered. I had seen the face of the SS.

Daily life continued–Haffner continued to work at the Kammergericht, and Charlie (who was Jewish) became his girlfriend. But “it was no longer possible to deny that daily life itself had become hollow and mechanical.” Haffner considered leaving Germany, or demonstratively converting to Judaism.

Though it was not really relevant to current events, my father’s immense experience of the period from 1870 to 1933 was deployed to calm me down and sober me up. He treated my heated emotions with gentle irony…It took me quite a while to realize that my youthful excitability was right and my father’s wealth of experience was wrong; that there are things that cannot be dealt with by calm skepticism.

Haffner had not initially taken his relationship with Charlie very seriously, but “now that the hand of doom was reaching for her, I felt I loved her a little more fiercely and passionately.” On a beautiful day in the last week of March, Sebastian and Charlie went for a walk in the woods west of Berlin. They sat on the grass among the fir trees, at first simply enjoying the day. But every 10 minutes or so, a group of young people went by–apparently school outings, since they were all accompanied by teachers.

Every one of these classes, as they passed, shouted ‘Juda verrecke!’ to us in their bright young voices, as thought it was a sort of hiker’s greeting. It may not have been aimed at us in particular. I do not look at all Jewish, and Charlie (who was Jewish) did not look very Jewish either. Perhaps it was just a friendly greeting…So there I sat ‘on the springtime hill’ with a small, graceful, vivacious girl in my arms. We kissed and caressed each other, and every so often a group of boys went past and cheerfully told us to perish.

On March 31st, the Nazis came to the Kammergericht. Haffner was in the library, reading some document on which he had to give an opinion. There was a clatter of footsteps in the corridor, shouts, and doors banging. Brown uniforms surged in, and the leader announced that all “non-Aryans” must leave immediately. One brown shirt approached Haffner and asked “Are you Aryan?”

Before I had a chance to think, I had said, ‘Yes.’ He took a close look at my nose–and retired. The blood shot to my face. A moment too late I felt the shame, the defeat….I had failed my very first test.

As I left the Kammergericht it stood there, grey, cool and calm as ever, set back from the street in its distinguished setting. There was nothing to show that, as an institution, it had just collapsed.

Haffner tells us that even during Germany’s previous eras of autocracy, there had been at least some tradition of judicial independence, represented by the Kammergericht. He relates the story of Frederick the Great and the miller of Potsdam: The king wanted a windmill removed because it interfered with the view from his palace, and offered to buy it. The miller refused, and the king threatened to dispossess him. Challenging this royal version of eminent domain, the miller said, “Just so, your majesty, but there’s still the Kammergericht in Berlin.” (When Haffner wrote, the mill was still there) All that was over, now.

It was strange to sit in the Kammergericht again, the same courtroom, the same seats, acting as if nothing had happened. The same ushers stood at the doors and ensured, as ever, that the dignity of the court was not disturbed. Even the judges were for the most part the same people. Of course, the Jewish judge was no longer there. He had not even been dismissed. He was an old gentleman and had served under the Kaiser, so he had been moved to an administrative position at some Amtsgericht (lower court). His position on the senate was taken by an open-faced, blond young Amtsgerichtsrat, with glowing cheeks, who did not seem to belong among the grave Kammergerichtsrats…It was whispered that in private the newcomer was something high up in the SS.

The new judge didn’t seem to know much about law, but asserted his points in a “fresh, confident voice.”

We Refendars, who had just passed our exams, exchanged looks while he expounded. At last the president of the senate remarked with perfect politeness, ‘Colleague, could it be that you have overlooked paragraph 816 of the Civil Code?’ At which the new high court judge looked embarrassed…leafed through his copy of the code and then admitted lightly, ‘Oh, yes. Well, then it’s just the other way around.’ Those were the triumphs of the older law.

There were, however, other cases–cases in which the newcomer did not back down…stating that here the paragraph of the law must yield precedence; he would instruct his co-judges that the meaning was more important than the letter of the law…Then, with the gesture of a romantic stage hero, he would insist on some untenable decision. It was piteous to observe the faces of the older Kammergerichtsrats as this went on. They looked at their notes with an expression of indescribable dejection, while their fingers nervously twisted a paper-clip or a piece of blotting paper. They were used to failing candidates for the Assessor examination for spouting the kind of nonsense that was now being presented as the pinnacle of wisdom; but now this nonsense was backed by the full power of the state, by the threat of dismissal for lack of national reliability, loss of livelihood, the concentration camp…They begged for a little understanding for the Civil Code and tried to save what they could.

For young lawyers who were willing to swim with the current, it was an excellent time:

We Refendars rose daily in importance. The Association of National Socialist Lawyers wrote us all (me included) the most flattering letters: we were the generation who would build the new German justice..One could sense that the Refendars felt their increasing importance. They, not the Kammersgerichtrats, were the ones who now knowledgeably discussed court gossip in the breaks…The atmosphere reminded one of the glorious year 1923, when it had been suddenly been young people who set the tone, and one could become the director of a bank and possessor of a motor car from one day to the next…Yet it was not quite like 1923. The price of admission was somewhat higher. You had to choose your words with care and conceal your thoughts to avoid going to the concentration camp instead of the ministry of justice…The opinions that were expressed sounded a bit like exam responses learned by rote. Quite often the speaker broke off suddenly, and looked around to see if someone had perhaps misinterpreted his words.

The Party did everything it could to encourage this ascendancy of the younger lawyers: there were even ‘training camps for young lawyers’, with mandatory attendance for Refendars who were about to take their Assessor examinations. These camps featured military and sporting exercises, along with intensive ideological indoctrination sessions. (Because of a bureaucratic screw-up, Haffner was able to avoid attendance.)

A few people dared to speak up against the regime, but not many…and they were not always the people that one would have predicted. On the evening of the day when Jews were evicted from the Kammergericht, Haffner went with Charlie to a nightclub called the Katacombe. The master of ceremonies was a comic actor and satirical cabaret performer named Werner Fink:

His act remained full of harmless amiability in a country where these qualities were on the liquidation list. This harmless amiability hid a kernel of real, indomitable courage. He dared to speak openly about the reality of the Nazis, and that in the middle of Germany. His patter contained references to concentration camps, the raids on people’s homes, the general fear and general lies. He spoke of these things with infinitely quiet mockery, melancholy, and sadness. Listening to him was extraordinarily comforting.

In the morning, the Prussian Kammergericht, with its tradition of hundreds of years, had ignobly capitulated before the Nazis. In the same evening, a small troop of artistes, with no tradition to back them up, demonstrated the courage to speak forbidden thoughts. “The Kammergericht had fallen but the Katakombe stood upright.”

Everyone knew about the concentration camps, but not many people wanted to talk about them. One day, Haffner’s father was visited by a former colleague–he had been a Social Democrat while Haffner’s father was far more to the Right; still, the two men liked and respected each other. This former associate had just been released from a concentration camp. Although he was in his late 40s, he looked as old as Haffner’s father did at 70. His hair had gone completely white.

My father told me afterwords that he had often lost the thread of the conversation, not answered and looked absent-mindedly down at the floor. Then he had burst out, ‘It’s dreadful, my friend. Just dreadful.’

Haffner’s father was long since retired, but it was agonizing to him to see his life’s work in the law so contemptuously destroyed by the new regime.

There had been great pieces of legislation in his administrative area, on which he had worked closely. They wre important, daring, thoughtful, intellectual achievements, the fruits of decades of experience and years of intense, meticulous analysis and dedicated refinement. With a stroke of the pen they had been declared null and void…Not only that, but the foundations on which such things could be built or replaced had been washed away. The whole tradition of a state based on the rule of law, to which generations of men like my father had devoted their lives and energies, which had seemed so firm and permanent, had disappeared overnight. It was not just failure that my father had experienced at the end of a life that had been severe, disciplined, industrious and all-in-all very successful. It was catastrophe. He was witnessing the triumph, not of his opponents–that he would have borne with wise acceptance–but of barbarians, beneath consideration as opponents. In those days I sometimes saw my father sitting at his desk for long periods, just staring into space, without a glance at the papers before him.

Worse was to come. One day the elder Haffner received an official letter. It required him to list all of the political parties, organizations, and associations to which he had ever belonged in his life and to sign a declaration that he ‘stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations.’ Failure to sign would mean the loss of his pension, which he had earned through 45 years of devoted service.

After agonizing about it for several days, he finally filled out the form, signed the declaration, and took it to the mailbox before he could change his mind.

He had hardly sat down at his desk again when he jumped up and began to vomit convulsively. For two or three days he was unable to eat or keep down any food. It was the beginning of a hunger strike by his body, which killed him cruelly and painfully two years later.

I have reviewed this book at ridiculous length, but there is much more in it than those portions I’ve excerpted, and I strongly urge you to read the whole thing. I agree with what Haffner says when he argues for the importance of social history, as opposed to purely political and military history:

If you read ordinary history books…you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people have are involved…According to this view, the history of the present decade is a kind of chess game between Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-Shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody’s lips. We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game…It may seem a paradox, but it is none the less a simple truth, to say that on the contrary, the decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large…Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals.

This is not an airy abstract construction, but indisputably real and tangible. For instance, what was it that caused Germany to lose the Great War of 1918 and the Allies to win it? An advance in the leadership of Foch and Haig, or a decline in Ludendorff’s? Not at all. It was the fact that the ‘German soldier’, that is the majority of an anonymous mass of ten million individuals, was no longer willing, as he had been until then, to risk his life in any attack, or hold his position to the last man.

Turning to his own subject–the question of why the Germans allowed Naziism to happen–Haffner continues:

Indeed, behind these questions are some very peculiar, very revealing, mental processes and experiences, whose historical significance cannot yet be fully gauged These are what I want to write about. You cannot get to grips with them if you do not track them down to the place where they happen: the private lives, emotions, and thoughts of individual Germans…There, in private, the fight is taking place in Germany. You will search for it in vain in the political landscape, even with the most powerful telescope. Today the political struggle is expressed by the choice of what a person eats and drinks, whom he loves, what he does in his spare time, whose company he seeks, whether he smiles or frowns, what pictures he hangs on his walls. It is here that the battles of the next world war are being decided in advance. That may sound grotesque, but it is the truth.

That is why I think that by telling my seemingly private, insignificant story I am writing real history, perhaps even the history of the future. It actually makes me happy that in my own person I do not have a particularly important, outstanding subject to describe. That is also why I hope my intimate chronicle will find favour in the eyes of the serious reader, who has no time to waste, and reads a book for the information it contains and its usefulness.

Read the whole thing.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: <em>Defying Hitler</em>, by Sebastian Haffner–Part II”

  1. I very much enjoyed the review and look forward to reading Mr. Haffner’s book. In this day and age of casual disregard for the rule of law by the Federal government, and by the judiciary itself, it would seem to be both an appropriate and sober read.

  2. To better understand Hitler’s election as Chancellor, remember that during the 1920s and early 30s the Communist party was working to overthrow the German government through acts of terrorism. Hitler started his party in reaction to the Communists. His party became famous for fighting communist terrorism. Of course, the Communists became loved and famous for fighting NAZI terrorism at the same time.

    Hitler won the election and stamped out the communists and their Liberal allies in Germany. Then he rebuilt the German army, stopped the hyper-inflation, stopped paying reparations, rebuilt German industry, ended unemployment, reunited Germany and went off the deep end.

    Suppose that by 2011 that the United States Party of God (USHEZB’ALLAH) were to use terrorism in the US in order to install Sharia Law as the supreme Law of the Land. suppose the Feds and most police under Obama seemed helpless to stop them. It is certain that a decorated war veteran will rise up, form a national militia to fight the Party of God and that present and former soldiers will join his party to fight USHEZB’ALLAH. Most Liberals will oppose him.

    He might even run for President and get elected.

    (As everybody knows, Hitler was a war vet who was awarded the Iron Cross for heroism. He was a corporal.)

    (For those who have watched Triumph de Willens by Leni Riefenstahl 1hr 44 min
    on Youtube – in that part of his speech where Hitler introduces ordinary Germans from the 4 corners of Germany – remember that the crowd knows it was Hitler who had just reunited those 4 “corners” with Germany.)

    I do not admire Hitler. I just want to remind everyone that when Liberalism is unchained it produces horrors like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pot Pol, Mugabe, Idi Amin, Khomeini, Sadam Hussein… There are some diseases which are not fatal in themselves, but the anti-bodies they produce are always fatal.

  3. Sol Vason,

    I think you “frame” WWII very well. Germans were also aware of what the Communists did in the East. The State of Bavaria was temperately taken over by Communists.

    Of course one wonders if such a party could rise in modern America? I don’t think so?

  4. Went “off the deep end?” It’s pretty clear that he *started* off the edge, as far as his political philosophy went, even in many people failed to grasp it or didn’t want to grasp it.

    My understanding is that the hyperinflation was pretty much suppressed circa 1924, with the introduction of the Rentenmark.

    …there were plenty of economic problems in the late 20s and early 30s, but the main problem seems to have been unemployment rather than inflation.

    Haffner argues eloquently that the hyperinflation helped pave the way for the Nazis, but the lasting effect he is talking about is a psychological one.

  5. Also, it’s important to note the considerable psychological resemblance that often existed between Communists and Nazis (and, of course, many Communists actually *became* enthusiastic Nazis.) Haffner describes two acquaintances, Hessel (a communist sympathizer) and Holz (a Nazi sympathizer)..

    “They both came from the ‘youth movement’ and both thought in terms of leagues. They were both anti-bourgeois and anti-individualistic. Both had an ideal of ‘community’ and ‘community spirit’. For both, jazz music, fashion magazines…in other words the world of glamour and ‘easy come, easy go’, were a red rag. Both had a secret liking for terror, in a more humanistic garb for the one, more nationalistic for the other. As similar views make for similar faces, they both had a certain stiff, thin-lipped, humourless expression and, incidentally, the greatest respect for each other.”

  6. You might also be interested in a so-so book, Killing Hitler by Roger Moorehouse. It recounts several assassination attempts, including a near-miss in 1939 by Georg Elser ( He was apparently a quiet, ordinary guy who took upon himself to kill Hitler and nearly succeeded.

  7. As to whether something like this could happen here, the youth movement of the 60s and the sort of echo that elected Obama worries me a bit as these people did not seem to be very impressed with objective matters but were acting in the throes of an emotional reaction to the sober society that had indulged them and which still paid the bills and got the trains to run on time. I think we are a lot safer because we have not lost a war although the 60s showed a bit of what could happen of we did.

    I am convinced that Americans are different because they are selected for independence by the very fact that ancestors chose migration. Maybe the Doric invaders were more like we are. I think we have more innate resistance to authoritarian rule. I think we are seeing that now. I will read the book.

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