How the Nazis took Germany

By Brian Fawcett | February 21, 2010

Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler: a Memoir (translated by Oliver Pretzel, New York, 2003, pb $20).

Most people who grew up in the decades right after the Second World War have a vivid understanding of who the Nazis were, and many carry around in their heads a rough chronology of the Nazi milestones before the Second World War began, and what atrocities the Third Reich perpetrated before Berlin fell in May, 1945. But understanding why a political movement grounded in racial lunacy could have taken over an entire country, and how it succeeded, is much more perplexing. The shift from the extreme liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic to the totalitarian barbarism of Nazi Germany has remained morally inexplicable, and it remains a source of national uneasiness for Germans today and an intellectual undertow for anyone else who doesn’t pass off fascism as a temporary social psychosis that vanished from the world with the defeat of the Nazis and the death of Adolf Hitler.

With the translation and publication of Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler, we have eye-witness testimony to the why and how from inside Germany, one that isn’t cluttered by hindsight or filtered through the distortions of war-guilt. Sebastian Haffner is the pseudonym of Raimund Pretzel, a socially-liberal German intellectual who left Nazi Germany as a young man in 1938 for England, partly out of disgust with the Nazis, and partly to protect his Jewish fiance. Haffner came of age between the wars, took his  education within the German legal system, and was a law clerk/judge-in-training when Hitler took over the German government in 1933. He was thus an unique eyewitness to the Nazi subjugation not simply of Germany and its population, but of a crucial apparatus of the German state.

He began to write this book soon after he arrived in England, but abandoned it as the Second World War began. He returned to West Germany in the late 1950s and became a major political and cultural commentator there. It was only after his death in 1999 that his son Oliver discovered the manuscript, which he translated and published with the careful admission that his father “might not have been pleased to see this book published”. Haffner regarded the manuscript, apparently, as hot-headed and too personal. I can’t say I have much respect for suppressing a book that offers so profound a testimonial to the ongoing mystery of how a civilized country was transformed into a racist abattoir in little more than a half a decade, then went on to perpetrate our species’ most shameful racial massacre before it was defeated in battle and dismantled.

In Haffner’s terms, the key questions to be answered—in 1939—were these ones:

…[What were] the psychological developments, reactions, and changes that took place simultaneously in the mass of the German population, which made Hitler’s Third Reich possible?…A majority [of Germans] voted against Hitler. What happened to that majority? Did they die? Did they disappear from the face of the earth? Did they become Nazis at this late stage? How was it possible that there was not the slightest visible reaction from them?”

These are pretty much the questions that historians of Nazi Germany have, like the Germans themselves, equivocated on for 65 years. In some respects, the best answer is the Federal Republic of Germany itself, which is arguably the most self-conscious and competently careful democratic state in the world today. During the Cold War, there probably were no answers that weren’t indelibly stained with ideology and Real Politik. Nazi-Fascism was the product of both capitalist and Bolshevik ruthlessness, even if its psychotic operators and its ideologues emerged, fully formed, from the cauldron of World War I trench combat.

Haffner’s eye-witness portrait of Weimar Germany and the effects of the collapse of the German papiermark in 1923 is telling. “There was,” he writes, “an air of light-headed youthfulness, licentiousness, and carnival. Now, for once, the young had money and the old did not. Moreover, its nature had changed. Its value lasted only a few hours. It was spent as never before or since, and not on the things old people spend their money on.

“Bars and nightclubs opened in large numbers. Young couples whirled about the streets of the amusement quarters. It was like a Hollywood movie. Everyone was hectically, feverishly searching for love and seizing it without a second thought. Indeed, even love had assumed an inflationary character.”

What Haffner is clear about is that Weimar was always the third choice for most Germans, even those who enjoyed its liberties; and that it was an equal affront to the ethnic and tribal solidarities of the far right, and to the class solidarities of the left, particularly the Bolshevist-leaning Communists with their focus on class and its internationalist apparatuses.

In his view, the catastrophe of monetary collapse undermined most of the other securities upon which German civil order had been based. Along with the subsequent defenestration of 700,000 civil servants in 1924, it effectively wiped out the German middle and lower middle classes both fiscally and culturally. These classes remained impoverished and aggrieved throughout Weimar, and were thus a perfect breeding ground for political extremisms, particularly if the extremists promised fiscal restoration, a renewal of national and personal dignity, and a long list of highly visible villains to blame: foreign governments, the banks, and Germany’s relatively prosperous Jewish minority. He saw Weimar temporarily submerging the ultra-nationalist radicals beneath the public’s fear of chaos, without resolving any of their basic elements or projective causalities.

Haffner’s characterization of Weimar may simply be a projection of his own cynical conservatism. But it is a very convincing one, and his description of the entrepreneurial and opportunist élan it created has eerie similarities—both cultural and economic—to the revolution that swept across Europe and North American during the 1990s, and to the élan of the corporate pirates that became visible at the turn of the 21st century as their excesses simultaneously crossed the boundaries of both decency and legality.

The Nazis’ trick of blaming political enemies for the acts of violence carried out by the Free Corps, and then carrying out reprisals against the victims were pioneered by the Free Corps against the Spartacists in 1919. The techniques became so ubiquitous that they were incorporated into the political fabric of late Weimar—not rare, and mostly not punished. Along with an entire—and for people today barely imaginable—packet of provocative abrogations of the rule of law, they featured street beatings and political assassinations such as that of Walter Rathenau, and were soon ramped up into a tier of “normalized” intimidations, including the soon to be infamous “shot while trying to escape” that became code for executions of illegally-imprisoned enemies.

While the young and liberated members of the upper middle classes—of which Haffner was an enthusiastic scion—danced and partied, attended university or painted and wrote, the dark currents on which the Nazis rode gained strength and boldness until the effects of the Depression offered them new political credibility. But how they were able to seize the state so easily remains unclear.

The short answer, elucidated with brilliant clarity again and again in Haffner’s pages, is that the amoral audacity of Nazi brutality brought them to power. It was a force against which liberals and moderate leftists, with their elevated respect for individual rights and the rule of law, had no defense. Within hours of Hitler’s ascendance to the chancellorship, his SA hoodlums began dismantling the physical apparatuses of the state and replacing its personnel with their own operatives. Those who protested or attempted to defend themselves were simply beaten to death, and more often than not, so was anyone they knew.  The only way to defend against the Nazis, at street level, was to adopt their tactics and most of their values—impossible for most people, for the simple reason that thought slows response time.

What Haffner gives us most clearly that no writer before him has is a refusal to settle for sociological explanations or ideological rationalizations. Instead, he recreates the heat and the suffocating psychological attack of Nazi fascism, replicating, in as close as we can get to real time, the flood of rationalizations that must have gone through the minds of most liberal Germans in the 1930s: that Hitler will become the captive of the right wing bourgeois parties; that he will surely stumble and be impaled on his own lunatic ideas; that a clear majority oppose him; that the rule of law, tattered as it was, must prevail.

Non-compliant newspapers were taken over or simply destroyed, regional parliaments were dissolved. “There were,” he writes, “fast and furious changes of personnel in the higher civil service, and the election campaign was accompanied by ferocious acts of terror. The Nazis no longer felt any restraint; with their gangs, they regularly broke up the election meetings of other parties. They shot one or two political opponents every day. In a Berlin suburb they even burned down the house of a Social Democrat family. The new Prussian regional interior minister (a Nazi: a certain Captain Goring) promulgated an incredible decree. It ordered the police to intervene in any brawl on the side of the Nazis, without investigating the rights and wrongs of the matter, and furthermore, to shoot at the other side without prior warning. A little later an “auxiliary police force” was formed from the ranks of the SA.”

What Haffner is much less clear about is the Nazi hatred of Jews, on whom they eventually blamed all of Germany’s post-Great War woes.  He isn’t clear about it because he wasn’t himself anti-Semitic, and thus believed that the Nazi focus on the Jews was cynical scapegoating that would fade with consolidated power or as real priorities had to be faced.  This phenomena is also often explained away by conventional historians simply as scapegoating, at least until the extermination of the Jews became, after 1942, the primary focus of the Nazi Reich. The problem with that is that it doesn’t explain its virulence and irrationality, or its depth of penetration within German society.

At the root of the Nazi hatred of Jews was a fear of the then-globalizing cultural and economic machinery of mass society, of which the Jews, with their traditional exclusion from land ownership and other elements of societal wealth and prestige, were (not surprisingly) on the cutting edge: the international banking system, and the rapidly-growing film industry in Europe and Hollywood, along with their enthusiastic participation in cosmopolitan intellectual life, to which they gravitated because of their own cultural focus on education and because of cosmopolitanism’s indifference to tribal priorities. This also, by happenstance, demonstrates what the nature of the threat must have seemed to the twisted imagination of Nazis: adulteration of tribal innocence and solidarity, illusory as these were then and, revived by multiculturalism, remain, but in the 1920s and 1930s, already sullied by the humiliation of Germany’s defeat in World War I.

That Haffner’s focus was elsewhere in 1939 even though the fiancé over whom he left the country was Jewish, is hardly a fault that discounts what he does offer readers.  No one, even in 1939, understood how far the Nazis would go. It was unimaginable, just as the viciousness and cruelty of it remain, to this day, incomprehensible.

A passage from near the end of a book provides a vivid sense of what it was like to be German after the Nazis gained power, and allows an insight into why so few Germans vocally protested the Nazi abuses. In the fall of 1933, he was summonsed, along with about a hundred other young Referendars (magistrates-in-training) about to take their Assessor exams, to a barracks near Brandenburg for “ideological training.”  Some were already decked out in SA finery, and quickly began to impose the menial regimentations of the camp, all of it overladen with Nazi propaganda and the psychological bullying that was part and parcel of its genius.

“We began to make hesitant acquaintances. Hesitant, because none of us knew whether any of the others was a Nazi or not, and so caution was necessary. Some people openly tried to strike up with the SA men, but they maintained a proud reserve toward their civilian colleagues. …I started looking for faces that did not have a Nazi air. But could you rely on mere physiognomy? I felt uncomfortable and indecisive.

“Then someone spoke to me. I glanced at him quickly. He had a normal, open blond face—but sometimes one saw such faces beneath SA caps.”

Haffner and the speaker begin a halting conversation—halting in part, because the camp’s Nazi nomenclature required a mandatory shift of pronouns from the formal sie to the informal du, and in part because neither are willing to be candid about anything so long as they’re unsure if the other is a Nazi. The two men begin a game of chess, but the discomfort remains intense until the other man accidentally reveals that he is not a Nazi.

That same evening, they were subjected, in the camp canteen, to one of Hitler’s speeches. “The worst,” Haffner writes, “came when he had finished. A fanfare signaled the national anthem, and we all raised our arms. A few hesitated like me, it was so dreadfully shaming. But did we want to sit our examinations, or not? For the first time, I had the feeling, so strong it left a taste in my mouth, ‘This doesn’t count. This isn’t me. It doesn’t count,’ and with this feeling I, too, raised my arm and held it stretched out ahead of me, for about three minutes. That was the combined length of ‘Deutschland uber alles’ and the ‘Horst Wessel Song’. Most of us sang along, droning jerkily. I moved my lips a little and mimed singing, as one does with hymns in church.

“But we all had our arms stretched out, and in this pose we stood facing the radio set, which had pulled these arms out like a puppeteer manipulates the arms of his marionettes, and we all sang or pretended to do so, each of us the Gestapo of the others.”

Two days later, Haffner and his colleagues were cheerfully learning how to fire a rifle, and being lectured on how the Battle of the Marne in 1914 should have been fought.

“And,” Haffner concludes, “we thought that we had not been undergoing ideological training—that we had not become Nazis.”

February 21, 2010  2421 words.


  • Brian Fawcett

    Brian Fawcett (1944-2022) is a founding co-editor of He's the author of many books, including "Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow" (1986), "Gender Wars" (1994), "Virtual Clearcut, or The Way Things Are in My Hometown" (2003), "Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney's Cafe and other Non-Globalized People, Places, and Ideas" (2003) and "Human Happiness" (2011).

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