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An Ordinary Man in an Extraordinary Situation: ‘Defying Hitler’ by Sebastian Haffner

Reading this 1939 book, in India, today...

Thursday 23 March 2023, by siawi3


An Ordinary Man in an Extraordinary Situation: Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner

Kamayani Keki

March 5, 2023

Book Review

Defying Hitler

Sebastian Haffner
(Written in 1939, first published in 2001)

Some things we never forget. And some things we must never forget. The Holocaust and the years leading up to it is one such thing. We must watch films and read books and then watch more films and read more books on it. It helps us understand and remember that the Holocaust just didn’t happen one fine morning as Germans woke up to Hitler, but it happened over the years, even decades, before the first concentration camp came up. The years in which the Jewish caricature was created and mocked, in which the ‘us’ and ‘them’ was established. I attempt to review Sebastian Haffner’s “Defying Hitler”, a memoir of a non Jew German in the Third Reich. In doing so, please bear with me as I make a case for reading and learning from this book in relation to the present Indian context.

“The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government continued its systematic discrimination and stigmatization of religious and other minorities, particularly Muslims.” (World Report, 2023 – Human Rights Watch).[1]

The recently released World Report, 2023, by the Humar Rights Watch, reminded me of conversations from 2002, when The Concerned Citizens Tribunal, probed into the communal frenzy that claimed the lives of over one thousand innocent citizens, in a three-day communal carnage. I remember sitting with one of the jury members of the Tribunal, after my visit to Gujarat for relief work. The jury member was aghast at what they had heard: the collusion of the state, and the barbarity with which the killings, rapes and maiming were done. But there was something more sinister and dangerous that was bothering the jury member, something I can only understand now in retrospect: if Gujarat was a laboratory, the experiment would be tried nationwide.

The conversations at that time often led to a discussion on the rise of the third Reich, the Holocaust, the partition of 1947, the riots since independence. In the discussions, we often emphasized, the need to acknowledge our communal traumas, so we would not forget the pain and the hurt. We often felt that, given our strong oral tradition we had stories from our grandparents and we had films and literature with Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Rahi Masoom Raza and Bhisma Sahani at the helm and masterpieces like Garam Hawa and Mammo, there was no museum, no physical installation, to remind us day to day for generations to come of the horrors of that we had faced. Almost 14 years after these initial conversations, our first “Partition Museum”[2] came up in Amritsar in 2016 and maybe we will have many more. But, what part of Meerut (which happens to be the city from where my ancestors hail) reminds us of the riots there? Or where is our memory of the partition? Yes there were stories that had come down from the grandparents, but for my generation, enjoying youth in post liberalization 90s there was no need to look at the past, the material rewards of liberalization, promised true freedom! So soon 1992 was forgotten and in time we knew 2002 would also be forgotten.

However, today as the material rewards diminish, the chasm between India and Bharat grows beyond bounds, and attacks on minorities are an almost everyday occurrence in the name of love-jihad or conversions or any other trumped up charge, frontal attacks are assaulted on our syncretic culture every day. It is in these times I, like many, repeatedly think that as members of the privileged majority community, how will we answer to our future generations? How will we explain our silence in these times? How will I explain why we were not on the streets, fighting like we would be fighting our last battle, while mocking of our fellow Indian citizens is being normalized? How will we explain that in these last five years, we saw more Indians renounce their Indian citizenship, than ever before?[3]

And that brings me back to “Defying Hitler” by Sebastian Haffner. Sebastian Haffner was a non-Jew German, a liberal humanist. This book has answers to what the non-Jew German was doing in the lead up to the holocaust. The book starts with Haffner’s reminiscence of World War I (WW I) in 1913 when he was only seven years old, and goes on till 1938 when he felt compelled to escape to Britain to keep his dignity and sanity.

The book gives a first-hand account of Germany where marches, and heil hitler were the order of the day and mass demonstrations, fear and propaganda of the state machinery over powered everything else. Where might was right and open attacks on opposition leaders, assassinations and disappearances were a common affair.

This book speaks to the ordinary Indian, the one who chooses not to take the fight to the streets, but challenges their close relatives, acquaintances and colleagues in the safety of closed rooms, till they realise that some are beyond reason, drunk on hate. The Indian, who, when at risk, asserts their status as a member of the majority community. There is an anecdote that Haffener recounts “… a brown-shirt approached me and took up position in front of my worktable “Are you an Aryan?” Before I had a chance to think, I said “Yes.”… (he) retired. The blood shot to my face. A moment too late I felt the shame, the defeat.”(Page 151). And it reminds me of the day in 2019, when the Babri verdict was to be out, our son Aman was to travel by bus with some colleagues from Araria to Bhagalpur, as we had already left before him. Afraid that violence may break out, I called my colleagues frantically emphasizing that if the bus was stopped they must remember that Aman’s full name was Akshat Aman. And I have known since what feeling fear means, not just for your own physical safety but for those we love, and the shame that comes with it. In this book, there are many such small recollections, where Haffner, like many, is unable to put up frontal resistance to the Nazis, afraid for his physical safety, of times when he is not ready to heil the Nazi flag and so disappears into doorways of unknown houses.

Haffner in the very beginning of the book makes it clear that he was no hero, as he says “was not born a hero, still less a martyr”. Probably knowing that he would not be the one to heroically build a resistance and fight off the Nazis, he felt he needed to leave to see the Nazi’s defeated. When finally deciding to leave the country there is an interesting conversation between Haffner and his father:

“…My main fear was that the war would break out …while I was still here. It would be inevitable preventive war of the Western powers against Hitler and I would be forced to fight on the wrong side “The wrong side?” said my father. “Do you think the French side would be the right side for you?” “Yes” I said firmly, “in this case I do. As things are now Germany can only be liberated from abroad.”(Page 233)

And maybe Haffner was not ready to go to the gallows, in his duel with Hitler, he felt he would leave Germany to build pressure on the Nazis and defeat them. Another reason for his leaving also seems to be that Haffner was in love with a Jewish woman, with whom he cohabited but “… cohabitation with a Jew was an offence…” and marriage was made illegal by the Race Laws. In the afterword, Haffner’s son Oliver Pretzel, who also translated this work after his father’s death, says “Early in 1938 my mother became pregnant with (what would become me) and this made my parent’s situation truly dangerous…”(Page 299). A little later he gives us another insight into why Haffner seemed to have initially abandoned the writing of ‘Defying Hitler’ as his father felt “With the outbreak of the war, understanding why the Germans had become Nazis became a somewhat academic question. More urgent was the problem of how to deal with them. My father abandoned this project (Defying Hitler) and started a new book…Its subject was how the war might be won.” (Page 302). In fact it is said that Churchill ordered every member of his war Cabinet to read this book, which was published under the title “Germany: Jekyll and Hyde”.[4]

Among the many themes that come up in Haffner’s book, one is how his was a typical case of a German, fighting a much larger state, and how though fighting on his own, was like thousands of others, who never voted for the Nazis.[5] In the 26th chapter, Haffner makes out the case for reading his memoir most eloquently. He helps us take a look at history and seeing that ordinary people matter: “The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large…” (Page 183). The irony is that though Haffner makes this case in the book, he did not want this book to be published in his lifetime and it was only accidentally that his son Oliver Pretzel, found the manuscript of this book buried in his father’s papers and published it in 2001, two years after the death of Sebastian Haffner in 1999. A hint as to why Haffner may not have wanted to publish is discussed earlier in this review. Even though the question of how to defeat the Nazis was always the focus of Haffner’s writings, his tone changed over the years. While the memoir is an angry man’s attempt to defeat the state, in the later years Haffner seems to have become more and more reluctant to personal reminiscences, and his tone became more academic and somber than that which he uses while in the thick of things.

The book made a special mark on me as a reader, because it gives a clue as to how taking away the joy of the ordinary day to day civil life was critical in making the third Reich possible:

“A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions, for love and hate, joy and sorrow, but also their sensations and thrills – accompanied though they might be by poverty, hunger, death, chaos and peril, now that these deliveries suddenly ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed and disappointed. They had never learnt to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great and beautiful and worthwhile, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. SO they regarded the end of political tensions and the return to private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk. In the end they waited eagerly for the first disturbance, the first setback or incident, so that they could put this period of peace behind them and set out on some new collective adventure”. (Page 68)

Have we as Indians also lost the ability to make our day-to-day personal lives interesting and enjoyable? Have we made the political domain voyeuristically give us the much needed thrills we need to enjoy life collectively?

I have no desire to say that we should read this book because one day we will end up here. I think that will not be the case because I am on optimist. But also because, we are one hundred years after the third Reich and we are a large and heterogeneous people. However, there is no denying that what we are going through as a nation is very similar to the build up to the holocaust. At least as the ordinary Indian of the majority community, we must read this book to understand what we are up against, how we may free ourselves, and how we may understand and perhaps support those who stand against this day to day denigration of the minorities but do not always see a clear way forward.




3. Except for 2020, the pandemic year.

4. There are two sources available online to show that the book “Germany: Jekyll and Hyde” was valued by Churchill: one is the Wikipedia article on the author and the other is a review of “Germany: Jekyll and Hyde” by Rafael Behr (2005) in The Observer.

5. Nazis only had 42% of the total German votes.

(Kamayani lives in Araria, Bihar and is associated with the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements.)