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Book Review: Defying Hitler: A Memoir (Sebastian Haffner)

“Defying Hitler” is one of those relatively few books (available widely in English at least) that are contemporaneous memoirs of events relating to the Third Reich. Any book, memoir or not, written after the war necessarily suffers from hindsight perception, so contemporaneous material is particularly interesting. (The classic modern example is Victor Klemperer’s diaries, which cover the war and pre-war period.) “Defying Hitler” was written in 1939, covering events in 1933, and was only published after the author’s death in 1999. The title of the book is a misnomer, because Haffner didn’t defy Hitler at all (which is his point).

Of course, applying the lessons of the Hitlerian past to today requires a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, Nazi comparisons to any modern day event are common, cheap and usually ignorant. Godwin’s Law (“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one”) looms large. On the other hand, it can’t be true that we can learn nothing applicable today. A certain humility is therefore necessary in drawing out lessons from Haffner’s book—without losing sight of the possibility that there may be, in fact, parallels between Haffner’s situation and ours. But those parallels, even if they are there, do not imply that we are on the path to Nazism—they instead imply that bad people are everywhere and in every time, and while their actions may not be of the same degree as the Nazis, they must be recognized as of the same kind, and must be resisted.

(As an aside, and to the same point, it is amusing to read the many choleric reviewers of this book who try to analogize 9/11 to the Reichstag fire. Leaving aside that it’s been nearly 15 years and the horrors are not upon us, though certainly the federal government is over-powerful and in need of a beat down, it reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s joke, that “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”)

An interesting and valuable historical characteristic of the book is that it is written from the perspective of a man characterized as “Aryan” by the Nazis, and therefore in no danger except if he actually engaged in anti-regime activities (the Nazis did not go in for terror simply for terror’s sake against random citizens, unlike Communists). The main thread of the book is therefore focused on “what should I do, not being in danger myself?,” rather than the much more common and better-known dilemma of “how should I survive”?

But the particular value of “Defying Hitler” is that it does not talk at all about, and is not at all informed by, the gigantic horrors of later years. You have to read it reminding yourself that the author’s perception of life in Germany is that of 1939. Rather than death camps, incendiary bombs and people being hanged from lampposts, Haffner (a lawyer) focuses on twin lesser, precursor evils, two sides of the same coin: the aggressive erosion of the rule of law and the persecutions of private behavior made possible as a result. We see those as precursors to later horrors, as they are, but focusing on the precursors rather than the final horrors makes Haffner’s history more relevant to us. In the America of 2015, where the rule of law is also rapidly eroding under the assault of Obama and his sycophantic cohorts across the ruling class, aided by a Supreme Court whose liberal members will stop at nothing to obtain the political result they wish, Haffner’s memoir has important lessons in the need to push back before it’s too late.

Haffner divides his memoir into two parts. The first draws the author’s life to 1933, mostly setting the stage, in large part by discussing institutions and characteristics of the German people that Haffner sees as prefiguring happenings in the 1930s. This period covers the post-World War I violence; hyperinflation and economic collapse; and economic recovery. In other words, it covers a period of huge instability and great change, both for society and individuals. Haffner perceives that large numbers of young people found this instability thrilling, and that this laid the groundwork for Nazi propaganda to later create a “vast, overpowering, cheap mass intoxication,” attractive mainly to the generation that was youthful during World War I.

The second, and longer, part of the book covers the events of 1933, with the central theme, perhaps, being how what was perceived as impossible by all right-thinking people in Germany became possible overnight, and because it was perceived as impossible, nobody pushed back. It is not a traditional history: the main focus is on Haffner’s social life and his professional life, and how he and his circle reacted to the Nazi ascension to power, and there is little focus on politics through the lens of the politicians or great men.

In 1993, Haffner (a pseudonym—his real name was Pretzel) was a lawyer in the Prussian civil service, a junior judge in the Kammergericht, the high court in Berlin. The Kammergericht had a long and glorious history of upholding the rule of law, no matter what, most notably defying Frederick the Great in the late 18th Century. But when Hitler came to power in 1933, the rule of law went out the window immediately. The Kammergericht folded instantly, with two effects—one on the profession, and one on the rule of law.

As to the profession and the individuals in it, new judges with no learning but plenty of the correct political views were put in place to “guide” the existing career civil servants, who would lose their jobs and be isolated if they did not toe the political line. To Haffner, this is his own personal original sin and the sin of his profession, which he strives hard to understand and explain (but not excuse). And, of course, this same process occurred throughout the entire Germany economy—the private was no longer allowed to be private, and individuals were persecuted for their politically incorrect views.

This is familiar to us today, in kind if not yet in degree. We see this same type of job loss and isolation today in 2015 America, Hydra-headed and gathering steam (but not yet incapable of having its heads cut and cauterized). Any person who does not toe the modern socially liberal extremist line and has a job for a large corporation, academia, or any non-technical white collar job, or who has his own business—that is, most anyone in the middle or upper classes—is at substantial risk of vicious attacks and loss of livelihood if he dares publicly combat whatever today’s orthodoxy and Two Minute Hate is determined to be by his betters. Pity the Apple or Amazon employee who does not celebrate gay marriage, suggests that he might be an orthodox Christian, or states the obvious truth that Bruce Jenner is still a man, and always will be a man, whatever he says or wishes. Weep for the pro-life employee who dares to mention her position in the office. Witness Brendan Eich, Mozilla founder, drummed from his technical job for daring to earlier privately contribute money to a traditional marriage campaign. And so on.

Haffner saw clearly the stakes of maintaining a private space for all citizens. “[H]aving cleared the sphere of politics of all opposition, the conquering, ravenous state has moved into formerly private spaces in order to clear these, too, of any resistance or recalcitrance and to subjugate the individual. There, in private, the fight is taking place in Germany. . . . . It is here [in 1939] that the battles of the next world war are being decided in advance.”

Anyway, back to Haffner and the Kammergericht. The second effect, more pernicious but harder to convey by anecdote, was the erosion of the rule of law. These new and unlettered judges, “gave eloquent speeches, in a somewhat overloud voice, stating that the paragraphs of the law must yield precedence; he would then instruct his co-judges that the meaning was more important than the letter of the law.” In light of the Supreme Court’s recent Obergefell and King decisions, where the Supreme Court said exactly the same thing to anti-democratically impose gay marriage and Obamacare on the entire nation, Haffner’s words and experience resonate. Once the rule of law is eroded, pure power is all that matters—and in Haffner’s time, the Nazis had all the power, because there was nobody to gainsay them.

Haffner spends a lot of time discussing how his friends, and his wider circle, reacted to the Nazis taking power. The major characteristic of those who didn’t like Hitler was to characterize them as clowns and believe it would pass (though some passed into open opposition, and many joined up with the Nazis). Speaking of the arguments those opposed to Hitler used to “reassure” themselves, and to conclude “No, all things considered, this government was not a cause for alarm,” Haffner concludes “It is curious how plausible an argument it is, even today, when we know what came next. How could things turn out so completely different? Perhaps it was just because we were all so certain that they could not do so—and relied on that with far too much confidence. So we neglected to consider that it might, if worse came to worst, be necessary to *prevent* the disaster from happening.” .(And note again that “completely different” here means “as of 1939”—so nothing compared to what came later.)

This does not mean that American gas chambers are around the corner. The dictatorship is not upon us, and nobody is going to the modern Dachau. And as I say, historical comparisons should be gently handled, especially Hitlerian ones. (Not to mention that, fortunately, in today’s America, those being viciously attacked and demonized by the ruling class have most of the guns. If we’re lucky, we won’t have to use them. But Germans didn’t have that option—see Halbrook’s “Gun Control In The Third Reich.”) On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that Very Bad Things aren’t around the corner, or that we should not recognize the parallels.

Haffner has a variety of other interesting observations that perhaps have parallels today. First, of Hitler, he says: “Basically, 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.” This is, of course, the mode of demagogues throughout history, from the Gracchi to Mugabe to Hugo Chavez. It’s also the mode of Obama and the modern Democratic Party, pandering to low information voters. Typically, it does not end well—though we are more likely to end up as Venezuela or Zimbabwe than Nazi Germany.

Second, Haffner observes that: “Our thinking is usually constrained by a certain civilization in our outlook, in which the basics are unquestioned—and so implicit that they are almost forgotten. When we argued about certain opposites—freedom and slavery, for example, or nationalism and humanism, or individualism and socialism—the discussion always respected certain Christian, humanistic, civilized principles as axiomatic.” His point is that when confronted with people who did not recognize these axioms, others, like Haffner himself, “may have smelled a warning whiff of what was about to confront me, but I did not have an intellectual system that would help me deal with it.” In today’s society, where these principles are officially rejected, where orthodox Christianity is bigotry and Planned Parenthood is celebrated by the ruling classes even when it dismembers human babies to make huge profits from selling the parts “to buy a Lamborghini,” we can be pretty sure that these principles are no longer axiomatic. The result is atomization and necessarily increased conflict—when there is no possible common ground, nothing is possible but zero-sum games.

Third, Haffner notes what others (like Patrick Leigh Fermor, when he walked through Germany at this time) noted—that for millions in Germany, when the Nazis rose, they switched immediately from being Communist to being Nazi (for, after all, both are fundamentally leftist religion-replacement ideologies). “Saint Marx, in whom one had always believed, had not helped. Saint Hitler was obviously more powerful. So let’s destroy the images of Saint Marx on the altars and replace them with images of Saint Hitler. Let us learn to pray: ‘It is the Jews’ fault’ rather than “It is the capitalists’ fault.’ Perhaps that will redeem us.” We can learn from this that seemingly massive political shifts are possible overnight, particularly between related extreme ideologies, and hence any political situation is likely more fluid than it appears.

So perhaps Haffner’s book is more valuable than reading many Big Thick Histories about Nazi Germany, or about the Holocaust—for it gives a perspective of an average person in a time of troubles, and shows, after all, that he did not defy Hitler. He moved to England. Perhaps that’s all that can ever be expected, but at least we should see clearly and make our own choices, fully informed. Haffner’s book helps with that, and it’s interesting in its own right.

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Published in Biography & Autobiography Book Reviews Charles European History Law Social Behavior Social Justice Warriors Totalitarian Socialism

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