Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

Defying Hitler

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

Defying Hitler: A Memoir (translated from German by Oliver Pretzel) is the previously unpublished autobiography written in 1939 by 32-year-old Raimund Pretzel, known by his pseudonym of Sebastian Haffner. Haffner, a German who later became a well-known journalist and author of books such as The Meaning of Hitler, was not a political opponent, resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor, or anything so dramatic. He was an ordinary middle-class young German whose defiance consisted of disagreeing with Hitler and eventually, in 1938, fleeing Germany with his Jewish fiancée. Simply disagreeing with the Nazis was not a simple matter in the 1930s, as his memoir relates.

Haffner, who lived with his parents in Berlin, was the son of a high civil servant. He begins his story in 1914 at the age of seven, when the onset of World War I cut short his family's summer vacation. He continues through 1933, the year of the Nazi takeover. Haffner describes how an upper middle class family dealt with hyperinflation and the other strange events of the 1920s and 1930s that formed the generation that would become Nazis. He writes of his generation, "Most of us emerged as nihilistic cynics."

Haffner's personal experiences--how he felt during historic events, how people spoke to each other, how he figured out what was going on--are extremely interesting.  The sense he had of losing everything by the time of the Nazi takeover in 1933. His discussions with his cautious, traditional father, who refused to take Hitler seriously and who discouraged his son from emigrating. The bloodless theoretical discussions of his law study group (a diverse group: a militarist, a Communist, a centrist, a Nazi, a Jew, and himself) that eventually degenerated into threats to report Haffner to the Gestapo. The confused, wrenching emigration of his Jewish best friend.

Integral to Haffner's memoir is his incisive analysis of the German people and how their reactions to events led to the Nazi regime. A point Haffner makes is that history is the outcome of millions of individual decisions. The decisions that brought the Nazis to power, he indicates, appear to have been fueled by caution, fear, lack of principles, boredom, desire for excitement, and so on.

An afterword written by Haffner's son, Oliver Pretzel, discussing the book's bestseller status in Germany in the year 2000, says, "My father's vivid account makes the rise of the Nazis psychologically comprehensible, and it shows how difficult resistance was. But it also demonstrates that it was plain from the outset what they stood for."

Those looking for explanations without excuses, as well as for an account of what it felt like to grow up in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, will find much of unique interest in this astute, brilliant memoir.

Copyright © 2005 by Heidi Boudro