- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (May 1, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1842126601
- ISBN-13: 978-1842126608
- Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 0.8 x 5.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 281 g
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #34.433 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Defying Hitler: A Memoir Paperback – 1 May 2003
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This account ...provides an astonishingly effective and well-written explanation of how the Nazis managed so easily to exploit Germany's psychological weaknesses -- Antony Beevor * DAILY TELEGRAPH * As a memoir of life in Germany during the Nazi rise to power, it is unsurpassable * LITERARY REVIEW * If you have never read a book about Nazi Germany before, or if you have already read a thousand, I would urge you to read DEFYING HITLER. It sings with wisdom and understanding * MAIL ON SUNDAY *
About the Author
Sebastian Haffner (orig. Raimund Pretzel) was born in 1907 in Berlin. He emigrated to England in 1938, and changed his name to protect his relatives in Germany from persecution. He wrote for the OBSERVER for many years, and became a British citizen in 1948. He returned to Germany in 1954, where he was a prominent journalist and historian, writing for DIE WELT and STERN. He died in 1999.
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He finds that the Nazi phenomenon was made possible by patterns in German history, particularly of the militaristic sort. He describes the excitement of the outbreak of war in 1914 among children like him, and reminds the reader that these children would be adults in their prime as the Nazis grew in significance and promised to rekindle that excitement.
Other topics include Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Rathenau, Bruening, how foreign leaders' appeasement of Hitler repeated German politicians' attempts to tame him the same way, and how some in Germany thought the Hitler chancellorship wouldn't last because he always seemed to be his own worst enemy.
But there are lots of books on all these subjects. What makes this one unique is who wrote it - a fairly ordinary German at the time. He has first-hand encounters with brownshirts, his friends are affected by the new laws and indeed some are endangered by the new regime. But another of his friends morphs into a committed Nazi. (Indeed this aspect of the memoir made me think of the Eugene Ionesco play, Rhinoceros.)
He defends the value of his memoir by once or twice reminding the reader that it is precisely because his experiences were common that it is important that someone write them down. Later in the book he writes:
"If you read ordinary history books...you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved...According to this view, the history of the present decade is a kind of chess game among Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-Shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody's lips...It may seem a paradox, but it is nonetheless the 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."
The book does cut off rather suddenly. He never finished it.
Incidentally, this modest little book indicates that the reality of Hitler's murderous intentions toward the Jews was obvious to even an ordinary person.
The book is exceptionally well written, with an informal, personal style that sometimes addresses the reader directly. Frank and insightful. Highly recommended.
The book’s afterward is a little fuzzy about the timeline, but it’s clear that the author had abandoned his manuscript by early October 1939 in order to work on another project. This is significant because it suggests that most, or maybe all, of the book was written before Hitler invaded Poland. In other words, the memoir was not written with 20:20 hindsight. Everything Haffner writes about the Nazis and German society is pre-Holocaust. It’s remarkable how prescient he was.
One of the most interesting things the author discusses is the Nazis’ process of dissolving and reconstituting Germany's judicial system. To a great extent, this was accomplished by removing qualified, experienced jurists, and replacing them with less experienced, more compliant party hacks. This was mostly bloodless. Yes, Hitler arrested enemies and some were murdered in concentration camps for political opponents, but he achieved a lot without large-scale violence. Haffner writes, “The first country to be occupied by the Nazis was not Austria or Czechoslovakia. It was Germany. They occupied and trampled on the nation in the name of “Germany” itself – that was part of the mechanism of destruction.”
Complacency had no small part in the Nazis’ success. Haffner admits, “We knew the morons were in the overwhelming majority. But…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.”
Other observations seem to be torn from today’s news. Speaking of Hitler, Haffner says, “Besides, he promised everything to everybody, which naturally brought him a vast, loose army of followers and voters from among the ignorant, the disappointed, and the dispossessed.”
Even though I’ve probably read around a dozen histories of Nazi Germany, including Robert Evans’ 3-volume Third Reich series, Victor Kemperer’s diaries, and more recently Karl Ove Knaussgard’s 400-page essay on Hitler as an adolescent and young man, I still found Haffner’s recollections fresh, insightful and powerful. The only disappointing part of the book is the cover, which seems like it was designed to make the book sales-proof.