On reading Andrew Bolt’s piece on why Germany had to lose the First World War I pressed Michael to provide a booknote on a book that he told me about on the canal between Ellesmere and Chirk. The book provides a unique insight into the propaganda campaign of the Nazis that led to the triumph of Nazi barbarism. The point of Andrew’s argument was that the Germans had to be defeated in WWI to teach them that naked aggression was not going to work the way that it did in the Franko-Prussian war when the Prussian alliance thrashed the French and captured Paris.
Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler: A Memoir. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2002.
I’m prepared to bore and annoy my friends a lot by way of badgering them to read books I think important. Defying Hitler is such a book. It goes far towards resolving one of the most troubling mysteries of modern times: how did an advanced, civilised country like Germany allow itself to be seduced so readily by the Nazis into carrying out acts of mass criminality and the devastation of Europe?
Sebastian Haffner died in 1999, a prominent German author and journalist. In the 1930s he was opposed to the Nazis but eventually concluded that he could do nothing to combat the emerging catastrophe. In 1938 he left for Britain with his Jewish girlfriend, who was carrying their child. He wrote the manuscript of Defying Hitler in 1939 but it was his son who eventually published it in its original German in 2000, and then translated it for the English edition.
Its biographical style gives it a special authenticity as it acutely interprets the reactions of his friends, his colleagues and himself to the encroaching Nazification of Germany. A full summary is impossible here but the following points seem especially significant in explaining how it happened.
• German boys attending school during 1914–18 had been taught to treat the Great War, not as a grim necessity to be ended as soon as possible, but as an exciting game. As adults, many of them viewed the build-up to war in the late 1930s with childish enthusiasm.
• The hyperinflation of 1923 was such a shattering and disorienting experience that it impaired the Germans’ grasp of reality and made them susceptible to the thrill of risky adventures.
• Unlike the French and the British, the Germans traditionally did little to cultivate their private, individual lives, but preferred the camaraderie of the collective. This rendered them conformist and docile, and cowardly in the face of injustice.
• The Nazis therefore initially used carefully organised comradeship rather than direct propaganda to prepare the German people for warfare and the victimisation of minorities.
• The Nazis at first used diabolically subtle techniques to isolate the Jews and prepare for their disappearance from Germany. In 1933 they started a ‘debate’ on whether ‘the Jews’ had contributed a ‘fair’ proportion of dead to the German total in the Great War. The rumour quickly followed that that share was suspiciously low. Soon all the talk was of the ‘high’ proportion of Jews in the professions and parts of industry.
• Intimidation was equally subtle at first. People who refused to stand in the street and give the Nazi salute to passing Nazi parades received visits from local Nazi chiefs and advised, with more or less explicit threats, to show more enthusiasm.
• As the intimidation intensified, people became more willing to publicly embrace Nazi ideology in order to hide their fear and humiliation from themselves and others.
At some point most Germans were confronted with a direct moral test, and the great majority failed it. Haffner’s came when he was reading peacefully in a law library. Suddenly Nazi stormtroopers burst in, intent on expelling any Jews. An SA man confronted Haffner and asked him whether he was an ‘Aryan’. Haffner at once replied that he was, and immediately realised he had collaborated with the regime and betrayed his Jewish colleagues. ‘Aryan’ readers of Defying Hitler will ask themselves what they would have done; and the honest ones will admit that, whatever they thought of the Nazis, they would have done the same as Haffner. Perhaps that is all the explanation we need for the Nazi conquest of Germany.