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How does an advanced and civilized nation turn into a pack of hunting hounds directed against humans? Sebastian Haffner addresses the question in his memoir, titled Defying Hitler, 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 (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 notes that there was often a psychological resemblance between those who became Nazis and those who became Communists. Describing two acquaintances who made these choices:
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.
(The psychological overlap between Nazis and Communists is reinforced by the observations of British traveler Patrick Fermor, who in 1933 stayed overnight with a friendly German man–who turned out to have Nazi posters all over his walls, and who laughingly remarked that he had previously been a Communist and that the only problem was that so many of his former comrades had also made the switch that there was hardly anyone left to beat up anymore.)
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.
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.
(An earlier version of this post was previously posted at Chicago Boyz, most recently here.)Published in