Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner

Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner

Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner

by ken-mckellar , September 16, 2019

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This memoir was reviewed by my friend and permanent contributor: Ken Mckellar. To read more of his posts, you simply look his name up in the blog archives. I thoroughly enjoy reading his reviews. To be honest, as much as I enjoy reading the books he recommends. 

For many years I have been fascinated by Germany in the 1930s; I previously reviewed I am a Camera by Christopher Isherwood for Joanna and she has kindly allowed me again to indulge my fascination, this time with a review of Defying Hitler.

Sebastian Haffner was born in 1907 and his book records what it was like to grow up and live in Germany through World War One, the Weimar Republic and then watch Hitler come to power in 1933. I must admit to a personal interest in his subject matter, as my Swiss Aunt Emmy married a German and followed him to Berlin where she spent the whole of the war, before fleeing the Soviet Army across Europe with her two small children. Emmy told me many stories about her daily life under the Nazis and I was keen to compare her experiences with those of Haffner.

People who know me well also know that I am not prone to exaggeration: my Protestant Northern European background almost assures this! So when I say that Defying Hitler is one of the most important books I have ever read, I really mean it.

Europe is undergoing some of its most challenging times since 1945. Democracy and representative governmental institutions are under sustained threat from a strong wave of populist sentiment fueled by many justified feelings of helplessness and disenfranchisement within society. In several countries across Europe, leaders are capitalizing on this sentiment to secure unbridled power for their own political ends.

Whilst reading Defying Hitler, I was struck by the number of similarities between the world which Haffner describes and present day Europe. Whilst I am certainly not suggesting that we might see another Hitler re-emerging (heaven preserve us), the ease with which national socialism has gained momentum in  several European countries (and indeed in a number outside Europe) is as alarming as the failure of governments of different political complexions to address it.

In his thoughtful, perceptive and well-written book, Haffner answers two key questions: how did Hitler come to power and why could no-one stop him? To attempt to answer these questions in this review would not do his book justice. There are a whole range of factors which come together to enable (and fail to stop) the Nazis. The manipulation of the prevailing mood of the 1920s; inherent predispositions in the German psyche; and the pervasive perversion of governmental institutions with the tacit or explicit acceptance of their officials – all of these and many more are contributory factors. Everyday living continues alongside the expansion of the apparatus of the state into all aspects of life.

Particularly poignant is the way Haffner’s personal relationships and circumstances change. He charts the way in which his own moral values are attacked and subverted by a combination of fear and peer pressure. By his own admission, he was no hero in all of this. He emigrated to England before 1939 from where he assisted the Allies in developing propaganda to help win the war effort. His book reached No 1 in Germany after the war and he died a celebrity in 1999 after writing several other bestsellers around a similar theme.

As a History graduate, I really do believe that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. Europeans and anyone who fears the consequences of current political populist trends would do well to read Haffner’s book. It is more than a cautionary tale; it is laden with the portent of what might happen if good men do nothing.

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