Book Review: Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner (rerun)

Defying Hitler: A Memoir

(I originally posted this review in early 2010. I’m sure we have quite a few new readers since then, and believe this is an important book worthy of a broader audience…hence the rerun)

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.

The review continues here

12 thoughts on “Book Review: <em>Defying Hitler</em>, by Sebastian Haffner (rerun)”

  1. We may have the opportunity to see up close and personal how a state becomes totalitarian. Hitler was elected as were most dictators in this century. Socialism is a common denominator. Other common denominators are hyper-inflation and too many lawyers.

  2. One of the many painful passages in the book is about Haffner’s father, after his retirement. The elder Haffner had earned his pension through many years of dedicated work as a distinguished civil servant. He received a letter from the government (after the Nazi takeover) informing him that he had to sign a statement of full support for all Nazi policies—or lose his pension. The alternatives were: sign or starve.

    Can anyone doubt that there are many influential people on the Left side of the aisle today who would eagerly do the same to Americans?…who would make pensions for Federal employees–and maybe even social security payments for ordinary Americans—contingent on a certificate of compliance with the approved opinions of the moment?

    It should be clear to anyone paying attention that there are a lot of Leftists (liberals, “progressives,” whatever they call themselves) who would do this if they could. Presently, I don’t think the Kammergericht, sorry I mean the Supreme Court, would allow this, but that could change given a few appointments of the sort likely by Obama or Hillary Clinton.

  3. I can understand why lots of people decided to gamble on Obama the first time. Why anyone sane would vote for Hellary is beyond me.

  4. David – yes, I can imagine such a thing happening to retirees. Maybe not now, but in a couple of years or so, given a couple of elections and a certain number of apparatchiks installed in certain high offices. Yes, I can easily imagine them doing so. Especially after the antics of the IRS with regard to Tea Party reform groups, or the EPA with regard to property rights.

    Sign or starve.

    What is being destroyed is trust. Trust in the Fed-Gov to be fair, across the board. Maybe incompetent and clumsy – but fair.

    It will take years, decades even – if ever – to regain some kind of trust in the alphabet agencies. When the local Tea Party that I was a part of first began to get serious about political matters, one of the members warned us about oppo research. (He was a corporate lawyer and shareholder in a local business.) He said that any of us who had skeletons in our personal closets could expect to have them revealed, in the nastiest and most public ways; we should think carefully about all that, if we wanted to go ahead with Tea Party activities. It took some of us for a bit of a loop, I think. As it turned out, some of the organizing committee did have very embarrassing stuff in the closet. I did, too, but since I had written about it all, and had the resulting on Amazon for a small price, I didn’t care. Pre-publish and be damned.

    Dearie, the usual low-information-voters will vote for Hellary because the establishment organs will carry her water, acclaim her as the Most Perfect Candidate EVAH! – AND THE FIRST FEMALE PRESIDENT! Myself, I don’t think they will be able to carry her over the finish line as they did with THE FIRST AA PRESY-DENT EVAH! The Hellary bint has more baggage than a passenger 747 – but I won’t underestimate the determination of the establishment Dem-Party public affairs office.

  5. Mom: The biggest issue is that there are no really great, publicly appreciated Republicans out there. Romney had his flaws, but, despite Obama’s obvious incompetence, could not shoulder the metric crapton load thrown at him by the media with the LIVs. There appear to be a couple obvious candidates who could do a good job, but against all that the MSM can thrown at them, that’s a tough uphill battle on a very slippery slope.

    I think the 2014 elections are going to show it. If it’s not a major rebuke of the Dems, this nation is in deep doo-doo.

  6. A couple of observations:

    The German population was easily disarmed and Hitler did it.

    There was a long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, but notably in Germany. Further, Germans believed that they were treated badly by many foreign countries. We made a bad peace after WWI.

    The Nazi state had great influence over the Church in Germany and worked hard to use it to legitimize its actions or at least dull any descent based on religious principle. With the exception of some small groups like the Confessing Movement and a few martyrs such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Church was complicit.

    Because the mainline protestant and Catholic denominations in Germany had become less a moral and spiritual than a cultural presence, the German people, especially the elites, were highly secular, post modern and pragmatic. If it didn’t directly effect them, then it was not their calling to get much involved. Their two highest values seen to be personal peace and affluence. Not much difference than much of our elites today.

    These factors in my opinion were significant causes in giving Hitler the long leash he enjoyed to consolidate virtually dictatorial power in a relatively short time and the latitude to deal ruthlessly with the potential opposition. When Hitler was done he had cowed the professional military, so there was little potential opposition left.

    It was generally known that “undesirables” and “Auslander” were being striped of all their rights and possessions and carted off to forced labor camps, but there was no outcry. Can’t happen here? Internment camps. When I visited the Bergen-Belsen camp, there were several old farming communities within two miles, The fields went right up to the camp boundaries. Dachau is an old community spitting distance from Munich. Of course they knew, witnessed many being arrested and enough witnessed the suffering and death in the camps that it was no big secret. Over 70,000 died in the Bergen-Belsen camp alone from 1941 to 1945. In 1945 tens of thousands were dropped into open mass graves. The stench must have travelled miles.

    You don’t need a majority of true believers, you just need some access to the power levers, a good cover story, and a plan you can execute to consolidate control and marginalize/demonize the opposition. Because we are, for now, individually armed, we have that slight advantage. Because many of us are sacrificially motivated for the principle of liberty, there will be more than just street fights.

    But remember, the technological advantage the government has to potentially employ is orders of magnitude greater than any despotic tyrant has ever had access to. In intelligence, counter intelligence, disinformation, resource and service control and in targeting. I wonder how long lived any uprising against a similar despotic threat in our time would be. How long would it last when the most effective potential leaders and their families are probably already on watch lists and could be surgically targeted? When communication, coordination and transportation are so easily monitored or disrupted?

    We have people in high places who are sympathetic to centralized control, hostile to opposition and have no moral compass or respect for the Rule of Law. They have a compliant mass media with potential for propagating a covering narrative. They are still unsure where the military will side, especially the national guard in conservative states. They are working on that lever. If they can purge the military of those serving based on the primary allegiance to defense of the government rather than to defending liberty and the Constitution, then the risk of power consolidation and an opposition purge is much, much greater.

    In addition to breaking the power of the feds over education, we need to break/limit it over the military, especially the national guard and state and local law enforcement.


  7. Death 6…”There was a long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, but notably in Germany”

    I’m not sure anti-Semitism in Germany, prior to the end of WWI, was worse than elsewhere in Europe. The Dreyfus case, after all, happened in France. And as late as the early 1930s, there were considerable numbers of East European Jews moving TO Germany, under the belief that it was a refuge from the kind of rampant anti-Semitism that existed in their home countries.

    I have also read that early in WWI, many American Jews supported Germany & Austria, believing that the defeat of Russia would be a major blow against anti-Semitism.

  8. “I wonder how long lived any uprising against a similar despotic threat in our time would be.”

    It would be wiped out quickly.

    Churchill attempted to use the Special Operations Executive to raise civilian resistance to the Nazi occupation in Europe. It was a total failure. Armed civilians had no chance against an organized military even then.

    Now, as you point out, the capabilities of the government are massively greater than the Nazis had.

    We have to secure our freedom, and push back the power of the state POLITICALLY.

    There is no other way.

  9. A lot of studies have been done lately on dynamics of European anti-semitism.

    This one suggests the varieties that arose after 1920 in Germany had roots in the Black Death over a half millennium earlier:

    Support for Nazis and their violent policies varied from village to village. They found that the towns which suffered large numbers of deaths from the plague and had anti-semitic pograms were likely to be involved in Nazi anti-semitism.

    They don’t go into much explanation of why, but suggest separate, persistent cultural values arose along Germany’s underlying disjointed and varied origins.

  10. We have one advantage over the Europeans. The older generation of Americans are genetically selected for dissent and a willingness to move and flee oppression. It may be our only hope. In South Dakota, pheasants being hunted run. The flyers were shot 50 years ago and the runners survived to breed. Much the same MAY work in this society.

    I agree that politics and not resistance is the key now. The Tea Party is the nucleus of political resistance and the Democrats and ruling class Republicans know it. Hence the effort to prevent organization and education at the local level by the IRS and other agencies like the EPA and FBI. I am not that optimistic about the young who seem obsessed with silly issues like gay marriage. I see it in my own kids although two are libertarian/conservative and one is wavering. The other two are leftists although my older son claims, or used to, to be a libertarian.

    The churches are largely leftists, especially the Catholic Church. The clergy are leftists, if not the congregation. There is a fight going on in Episcopalian churches in Orange County over who owns the physical facilities. The bishops who supported Obama are feigning outrage over contraception and abortion but I don’t believe them.

    Those of us who are still determined on resistance are older and fewer than the vast indifferent sheeple. I’m old enough that I will probably not see the collapse. I support the Tea Party and have attended rallies but I have lost my confidence in politics. I spent a few years in local politics and watched the failure of would-be reformers to keep the faith once they are in office. There will never be enough Tom Coburns.

    Our last real chance will be if Obamacare awakens the voters to the peril they are in. The senior brass in the military are hopeless careerists. The mid-level officers and NCOs are the nucleus of resistance if it comes to that. Our military has been very top-heavy since World War II. The Pentagon plans to RIF a lot of mid-level officers in the next two years. I wonder why.

  11. Anti-Semitism is active in the US government and the MSM. Notice that many of the companies they hate (Lehman, Goldman, Sachs, Koch) have jewish names. Notice how they attack and undermine Israel. Hitler lives.

  12. 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.

    Now what does that remind me of?

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