Sebastian Haffner defied Hitler. As a gifted "Aryan", Haffner, whose real name was Raimund Pretzel, could have done well under the Nazis, and with skill and luck could have prospered in the postwar Federal Republic, like many of his contemporaries. But he knew better. He left Germany for Britain in 1938, committed a felony under Nazi law by marrying a Jew, changed his name to Haffner so as not to appear German and learnt English, which he did flawlessly. His articles in The Observer were impressive, and so were his books. Readers of his articles, like myself, did not in the least suspect his German origins. In the 1950s, he went back to Germany where he became a successful journalist and writer.
This memoir is an account of Haffner's life in Germany until the autumn of 1933. During the 1914-18 war, he was a schoolboy. Highly patriotic, he was fascinated by the army's successes and devastated by its defeat, which General Ludendorff attributed to the stab in the back by the parliamentarians - a widely believed lie that made the Treaty of Versailles appear particularly heinous to many Germans. Haffner vividly describes the impact of the great inflation of 1923, when young bright speculators suddenly rose to the top and old experienced men were left helpless, hard up, if not destitute. With the stabilisation of the currency, the mirage vanished, but meanwhile many young people had enjoyed an unheard-of freedom, while a large, impoverished section of the middle class was left deeply resentful.
With Hitler in power, the Nazis began to transform the law and even to change the constitution. The courts gradually became seats of injustice. A young Nazi judge, hardly conversant with the law code, was able to force his colleagues to deliver sentences in line with party doctrine. Haffner, then a legal apprentice, was appalled; so was his father, a retired judge, who felt that his life's work had been in vain.
Haffner despised anti-Semitism. His closest friend, who was Jewish, left the country. When a Jewish girlfriend did not turn up to meet him, he feared the worst, though fortunately he was wrong. Some Germans became Nazis with a bad conscience, others with enthusiasm. In the corridors of the law courts in Berlin, a colleague warned Haffner to be careful when speaking. His group of friends broke up because two of them, one a nationalist, the other a left-winger, declared for Hitler, while Haffner strongly dissented. One of them even threatened to denounce him to the Nazi authorities, which frightened Haffner; fortunately the threat was not carried out.
Fear prevailed. Jewish shops were boycotted, many Jews and others who had fallen foul of the Nazis were arrested and concentration camps were established. But then, for a while, life became almost normal again. However, change was taking place; the bureaucracy was adapting itself smoothly to the new Nazi legislation. And because the forecasts about the Nazis' inability to achieve and stay in power had been proved wrong, many began to feel that Hitler was right.
Haffner makes us feel how and why the Germans took to National Socialism. That makes Defying Hitler worth reading.
Hans Reiss is emeritus professor of German, University of Bristol.
Defying Hitler: A Memoir
Author - Sebastian Haffner
ISBN - 0 297 60762 6
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £14.99
Pages - 210
Translator - Oliver Pretzel