Defying Hitler: A Memoirby Sebastian Haffner
Pub. Date: 08/01/2003
When the famous German author Sebastian Haffner died at the age of ninety-one in 1999, a manuscript was discovered among his unpublished papers. The book was begun in 1939, but with the advent of World War II, Haffner had set it aside. His family made the decision to publish it, and the result is Defying Hitler: A Memoir. Spanning the period from 1907 to/i>
When the famous German author Sebastian Haffner died at the age of ninety-one in 1999, a manuscript was discovered among his unpublished papers. The book was begun in 1939, but with the advent of World War II, Haffner had set it aside. His family made the decision to publish it, and the result is Defying Hitler: A Memoir. Spanning the period from 1907 to 1933, it offers a unique perspective on the rise of Hitler and the growing influence of Nazism, and anticipates much of what was to unfold in the ensuing years.
Haffner's personal memories form the basis for questioning, analyzing, and interpreting German history and culture. His astute and compelling eye-witness accounts provide a broad overview of a country in a constant state of flux. He examines the pervasive influence of groups such as the Free Corps -- the right-wing voluntary military force, set up to suppress the revolution of 1918, that would provide training for many of those who were to become Nazi storm troopers -- and the Hitler Youth movement which swept the nation. His own family's financial struggles illustrate the disaster that befell many of Germany's citizens during the apocalyptic year of 1923, when inflation devastated the country. The later peaceful but dangerously uninspiring Stresemann years contributed still further to Hitler's rise to power. Haffner elucidates how the average educated German grappled with a rapidly changing society, while chronicling day-to-day changes in attitudes, beliefs, politics, and prejudices.
A major best-seller in Germany now available for the first time in English, and including new chapters recently unearthed by a historian working in the German state archives, Defying Hitler is a highly illuminating portrait of a time, a place, and a people.
Sebastian Haffner was born in Berlin in 1907. In 1938 he emigrated to England and a few years later began writing for The Observer. He returned to Germany in 1954 and became the best-selling author of, among other works, The Rise and Fall of Prussia, From Bismarck to Hitler, and The Meaning of Hitler. He died in 1999.
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Haffner's first person account of everyday life in the midst of the most murderous regime in history does not contradict the more academic and inevitably less interesting histories of the Third Reich. 'Defying Hitler' is clearly an accurate, albeit an incomplete, memoir. What is truly original and instructive about Haffner's account is that it treats the subject of Weimar culture with an objectivity that is rare among liberal-minded commentators. Supposedly, the period between the end of World War I and the election of Hitler in 1933 was a celebration of freedom and an apotheosis of humanistic values: viz, the first democratic constitution in German history. The more complex reality, a reality that Haffner describes with such breezy clarity, was that the economic ruination of that period, most notably the out of control inflation and devaluation of the currency, set up a series of social divisions that could only spur resentment, hatred and the political extremism that came soon after. What I found most alarming was that the youth-glorification that made the young and agile culturally and economically supreme during Weimar also rewarded tricksters, con men, and frauds of every stripe. Indeed, the cruelty and joylessness of the period has been captured by many of Weimar's most famous artists. But Haffner's masterful style, his ability to witness and at the same time to participate in the events of his time without self-rigtheousness is the hallmark of a great memoir. I saw a connection between the youthful revelry of the 20's and the Hitler Youth, between the lampooning of morals and traditional values and the road to mass murder. Clearly, Haffner contributed much to our collective understanding and helped to correct the fundamental fallacy of treating any period in history as a constellation of ideas removed from what actually happened.
Haffner's history of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany before World War 2 is very eloquently written and translated, and seems especially pertinent today. This book speaks volumes more than any history textbook's chapter regarding early twentieth century Germany. It is truly fascinating and enlightening seeing history told from a first person perspective.
The book was very insightful, it provides a look into how the Nazi policies affected people's personal lives.
"Official, academic history has nothing to tell us about the differences in intensity of historical occurrences," writes Sebastian Heffner in this fascinating memoir of Germany in the years 1914-1933. "To learn about that, you must read biographies of unknown individuals." For a very personal account of how the rise of Hitler affected one (non-Jewish) German, born in 1907, take his advice and read this book! He offers no apologetics, excuses, or self-pity. His repugnance for the Nazis is matched by his perceptiveness of how even Germans like him were being "made into" Nazis. It is quite compelling. I only wish he could have finished his story, which was interrupted by the outbreak of the war. The afterword by his son, who found the manuscript in a desk drawer after his father's death, "finishes" the story in a skeletal way, but the reader is still left yearning for more of Sebastian's insights.