Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Defying Hitler - Sebastian Haffner

There's a reason why the UK History channel is approximately 24 hours a day of wall-to-wall Nazi documentaries - Hitler sells. The rise of the Nazis exerts a horrible fascination; it's hard to fathom how a decent and progressive nation could suddenly become complicit in horrific acts of genocide. Sebastian Haffner's personal account, written shortly before the outbreak of WW2, takes a long hard look at the German psyche in the years between the wars, and exactly what it was that caused the country to buckle before the extremists.

Haffner's perspective on the subject is a very interesting one - a young Prussian lawyer who grew up during WW1, he was exactly the type of young patriot that swelled the ranks of the Nazi party in its early days; in fact, he'd even been in the forerunner to the Hitler Youth. In the circumstances, you might expect him to be bending over backwards to deny his involvement with all things evil, and demonstrate his own high moral standing, but in fact he is very honest about his own cowardice in his lack of opposition to the new regime. Though the book's title is Defying Hitler, there's very little defiance going on, as Haffner describes the national reaction to the dictatorship as everyone simply putting their fingers in their ears and going "la la la", almost literally, and hoping that it would all get better soon.

The timeframe in which the book was written also gives us a different viewpoint - the impending war was seen as inevitable, but of course the outcome was not, and the daily realities of life under the Nazis were something that Haffner could too easily envisage continuing unchecked forever. One of the most striking and disturbing features of this narrative is the breakdown of law and the undercurrent of terror that it produces - when the thugs are in charge and you have no legal recourse, then resistance becomes much harder than you'd imagine.

Haffner gives us an intimate portrait of the German national mentality in the twenties and thirties, and describes how the road to WW2 was just the natural continuation of one laid down in WW1, or the Great War as he still calls it. While the style is somewhat dated (long, wordy sentences being standard in that era) the book is very easy to read and sheds a fascinating light on a terrible period in history. Highly recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.



Blogger José António Barreiros said...

I am reading you in Portugal and tonight I will try to find the book. Why? Due to the way you review it! Congratulations!

10:38 pm  
Blogger Rogue Blades Entertainment said...

Fascinating, thanks for the review! WWII is a past-time of mine and I'll look for this also. When you say "the style is somewhat dated (long, wordy sentences being standard in that era)," in what era was the book written - right after the war?

6:05 pm  
Blogger Alice said...

The book was written in about 1934, but not published until after the author's death in 1998. According to the editor's note at the end, some newspapers accused Haffner of having edited it later to make himself look better, but it was proved that the manuscript was unchanged since its original composition. Given that most books on the Nazis were written after WW2, it makes this one's perspective really unique and interesting.

5:42 pm  
Blogger Rogue Blades Entertainment said...

That is some very cool information, thanks Alice. To have 60+ years between and nary a word changed . . . I'm looking forward to reading that. What with my TBR pile, oh, maybe in 2010!

9:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for an enlightening review.

I'm reading "Defying Hitler" as part of a Humanities course in Critical Thinking at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada (degree program for working adults). We've previously looked at Sartre's "Nausea" and Woolf"s "A Room of One's Own". Next up is Primo Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz".

I appreciated your observation that there didn't seem to be much in the way of "defiance" in the narrative - quite the opposite actually. However, I think that the defiance may have been demonstrated by emigration (as much as that was possible). In Aikido, which I practice, this might be akin to "getting off the mat" - a perfectly acceptable strategy in an appropriate situation.

In "The Braindead Megaphone" George Saunders writes: "The shortfall between the imagined and the real, mulitiplied by the violence of one's intent, equals the evil one will do" (10) I think that may summarize Haffner rather nicely.

8:30 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Estimado Senhor Barreiros, I am a Portuguese-American woman who has read the book and is now going to fly to Portugal and leave America. Why? Due to Haffner's account of Germany as it changed, a change beginning to sound far too eerily familiar in 2007 America to be any longer comfortable to anyone born in America who has a "nose" as skilled as Haffner's was. One of the most terrifying books I've read since Orwell's 1984. The second worst thing about it is it's true.

The most awful thing about it is it is happening again. And not in Germany this time.

10:05 pm  
Blogger bkgoat said...

yeah yea ye thats what im talkin bout baby that what it say

12:48 am  

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