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Defying Hitler: A Memoir
By Sebastian Haffner
Farrar Straus & Giroux
HC, 272 pgs. US$24
ISBN: 0-3741-6157-7

The genesis of horror

By Steven Martinovich
web posted August 19, 2002

Defying Hitler: A MemoirGermany was a nation where the state legalized crime, said Adolph Eichmann during his 1961 trial in Israel for crimes against humanity. Although Eichmann was right, that statement fails to explain in any meaningful way how the brutal political cult of Nazism managed to become the state religion of Germany. It's almost impossible to conceive in the cocoons of our western dedication to individualism how the thugs of Adolph Hitler managed to take over a modern nation in only a few short years.

Much ink has been spilled since the end of the Second World War in an effort to explain the short history of Nazi Germany. Although Sebastian Haffner's Defying Hitler: A Memoir is hardly the first personal history covering that period, his is one of the more remarkable. Covering the period of 1914 to 1933, Haffner wrote his in 1939 as an unknown German expatriate living in England. Found only after his death in 1999, Defying Hitler was published by his son in Germany to great acclaim. It has only recently been translated in English and released in North America.

Haffner was best known as a historian and writer who maintained a dispassionate tone. As a young 32-year old, however, Haffner tackled the recent history of Nazi Germany with a fiery passion that demonstrated his hatred of fascism, a political ideology he writes turned a "whole nation into a pack of hunting hounds." Writing only a few years after leaving, Haffner details how Nazism's tendrils slowly penetrated all aspects of German life, both professional and private. Written before the start of the Second World War, Haffner explains to those generations that came after how the Nazis came to be and why no one seemed to have made much of an effort to stop them.

Haffner's story begins in 1914 when as a young boy he avidly followed Germany's fortunes during the First World War. The seeds of Nazism, he wrote, were born in the ashes of that war. Along with Adolph Hitler, many of the institutions and attitudes that we have come to associate with Nazism actually had their origins in the 1920s. Desperate years of hardship seemed to open the hearts of many to men like Hitler, while those who opposed them were brutally crushed, and the moral bankruptcy of political parties meant they were as likely to ally themselves with the far right as they were to oppose it.

The process was so slow that one could almost understand how one day Germans walked the street as members of a shaky democracy and the next were prisoners and yet supporters of a violent dictatorship. Between those two days, Haffner wrote, the Germany he grew up in both figuratively and literally disappeared. People and institutions were either taken over by the Nazis, such as Haffner's beloved Kammergericht - the municipal court he was clerking at - or destroyed outright.

Perhaps the best explanation for why the Nazis came to be is Haffner's account of his time spent in a military camp for law students about to take their final tests. Taught to march, fire a rifle and adopt a military bearing, Haffner learns that once you have submitted to a system that strips a human of their individuality, it is difficult to resist and reassert their uniqueness. Doing so, he learned, breaks the bonds of comradeship that you have tacitly accepted along with everyone else and sets you apart, something many would be loath to do.

Although its tragic story is over 60 years old, it's not difficult to see Defying Hitler as a very modern story. The Afghans too were prisoners of a murderous regime while the rest of the world looked on. Like the Nazis, the Taliban subscribed to a murderous philosophy that was cruelly employed on their fellow citizens. With Nazism becoming both a private and public ideology and essentially turning Germany into one large boot camp, individualism for millions disappeared as they submerged themselves in a murderous unity and uniformity. It's a story that's been told before but rarely with the emotional and intellectual force that Haffner brought to bear.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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