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Defying Hitler: A Memoir Hardcover – August 14, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

What was it about Germany that made the rise of Adolf Hitler and his murderous regime possible? That troubling question has occupied many fine minds over the last six decades, few more lucid and thoughtful than the late historian and journalist Sebastian Haffner. In this book, drawn from a manuscript he did not live to complete, Haffner examines the social and cultural conditions that made Germany ill-equipped for democracy and ripe for totalitarianism. Among these, Haffner writes, were a generational war between an apathetic adult population and a youth "familiar with nothing but political clamor, sensation, anarchy, and the dangerous lure of irresponsible numbers games"; a fatal fondness for the winner-and-loser dichotomy of sports and a rage for spectacle and entertainment; a resignation through which ordinary people came to "adapt to living with clenched teeth, in a manner of speaking," rather than stand up in protest. In that climate, Haffner--who left Germany just before World War II broke out--suggests, Nazism was almost an inevitability, against which he, too, tried to withdraw into "a small, secure, private domain," like so many others of his time and place. An important eyewitness account, Haffner's book deepens our understanding of how small missteps can lead to tragic ends, and how nations can be led into chaos. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

A sample historical headline: "1890: Wilhelm II dismisses Bismarck." No one's life was disrupted, writes Haffner. "No family was torn apart, no friendship broken up, no one fled their country." Compare that with "1933: Hindenburg sends for Hitler." In this case, "[a]n earthquake shatters 66 million lives." Thus begins a vivid examination of just how Hitler's ascension affected an ordinary German, a young lawyer with no strong political views, whose career and life were disrupted by the Nazis. Written in 1939, this memoir was not published until 2000, when Pretzel, Haffner's son, brought it out in Germany, where it was a bestseller. Haffner alternates political analysis with accounts of how the rise of the Nazis in the 1920s and early '30s affected his attempts to build a career, keep friendships alive and kindle romantic liaisons. His analysis of the failure of post-WWI German society to create stability is familiar, but Haffner writes with a close familiarity that makes the old new again. And his description of the way the Nazis invaded people's daily lives shines. It becomes clear how many "good Germans" struggled against impossible odds to keep their personal lives politics-free. Unfortunately, Haffner's manuscript ends with 1933 (Pretzel covers the rest of Haffner's life, beginning with immigration to England, in a brief afterword). This intimate self-portrait stands with Victor Klemperer's two-part memoir, I Will Bear Witness, as evidence that the personal can offer insight into the political tragedy of Nazism.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (August 14, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374161577
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374161576
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #682,922 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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106 of 108 people found the following review helpful By Christopher W. Coffman on August 25, 2002
Format: Hardcover
The title of my review is a paraphrase of Haffner's description of Hitler's sinister accomplishment. He certainly doesn't pull any punches, and is unsparing on the moral failings of his fellow Germans in the early 1930s. This book was written in 1939, shortly after the author's escape to England. Although Haffner became a distinguished journalist and historian, he never published this book during his lifetime; it was discovered by his son and published after the author's death at the age of 91. Perhaps, like many war veterans, the experiences tangled up with the manuscript were so painful and so personal that the author couldn't bear to revisit them (a chapter was published on the 50th anniversary of an event that it describes).
What Haffner--and his son, who is the assured and elegant translator--have given us is one of the most compelling and insightful descriptions of the period that has been written. It can only be compared to the diary of Otto Klemperer as a revelatory description of how a nation of people, not so different from other nations at the time or indeed of any nation today, could descend into barbarism and criminality on the vast scale of the Third Reich.
From the opening sentence the 1920s and 30s in Germany is evoked: "This is the story of a duel." Specialists will be aware of the importance of actual duelling in middle and upper class German society as late at WWI, and its endurance as a symbol thereafter, and with this characterisation of his personal struggle against the Nazi State, Haffner seductively invites his reader into the authentic atmosphere of the period.
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73 of 75 people found the following review helpful By David J. Loftus on August 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Sebastian Haffner was the pen name of a German-born journalist named Raimund Pretzel who fled Germany for England in 1938 and became known as a "British" journalist and historian during and after the war. This manuscript, which describes the Germany of his youth and the rise of Hitler, was written shortly after his escape, but filed away when the war broke out. His son discovered it only after Haffner's death in 1999 and it was a smash bestseller in Germany the following year.
The author describes what it was like for thoughtful, liberal Germans to see their country taken over by monsters, and explains how so many "ordinary" Germans could have failed to resist, and even participated. (I'd be curious to know whether the title is his; Haffner is very hard on his fellow Germans and himself, and it would not have surprised me, now that I've read the book, if he would have settled for something closer to "Succumbing to Hitler" or "Marching In Step." There's precious little defying of Hitler in this account, as Haffner would be the first to admit.)
It starts slow by analyzing German politics and society after the First World War -- few readers aside from German history nuts will recognize names like Rathenau, Stresemann, and Bruening -- and I expected to have to give it three stars, despite the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the writing.
But try not to let that discourage you. When Haffner gets to the personal narrative about his Jewish friends and girlfriend, the changes in his Berlin society and neighborhood, and the grotesque "training camp" which he and other aspiring lawyers were forced to attend before being allowed to take their qualifying exam, the book becomes gripping. (And he takes a few pages to apologize and justify this very aspect!
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37 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Holger Sonntag on September 12, 2005
Format: Paperback
Haffner purposely does not give the "big picture" of the 19 years between 1914 and 1933. The general outline of German / European history during and after WW I should be known to the reader from elsewhere to get more out of reading "Defying Hitler". But what Haffner does provide is an excellent account of those years from the perspective of the educated middle class during the last years of the German Empire and the years of the Weimar Republic. He speaks of the daily struggles, the daily compromises, the tragic inabilities.

Key to understanding Nazism (and, as Haffner points out repeatedly, Communism) is, in my opinion, Haffner's account of the future judges' and attorneys' mandatory stay at a paramilitary training camp. He and other attendees critical of the Third Reich expected brain-washing lectures and seminars to get them and the Nazis on the same page. They are surprised to find that none of this happens. Their daily mind-numbing and de-individualizing camp routines (marching, singing nationalistic marching songs, cleaning the camp, shooting, cracking dehumanizing jokes with their "comrades") do the brain-washing in a much more subtle and effective way than lectures. The latter could have been countered by these future jurists with intellectual arguments, the former could not. As has been noted by other reviewers, the Nazis militarized the German people as a whole and exposed it thus to the entoxicating fumes of comradery that dissolved thinking individuals in a brainless mass.

Haffner's perspective often led me to ask myself: What would I have done? It was the little daily compromises he writes about that made me think this. E.g.
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