By way of introduction, Defying Hitler is an account of survival in Germany between World Wars 1 and 2. It was written by Sebastien Haffner.

Adolf Hitler’s rise and rule in Germany is one of the bloodiest and most depraved stories in history. There is a particular value in Haffner’s account which exists merely by virtue of his identity. He was what the Nazi regime would have classified as Aryan - in essence, he was a first-hand observer who was not under any direct threat from the racial purges, but reviled the Nazi regime nonetheless. Describing himself as “ill-prepared for the onslaught,” “not a hero and still less a martyr” and “an ordinary man with many weaknesses,” he nonetheless engages in the abstract sparring match which his conscience dictates. The analogy of a physical fight is taken further when he contrasts his stature to that of the state - the protagonist is small, but nimble. He darts and weaves, avoiding the brutal but clumsy blows of the state, such as the instance in which he hid in the shadow of an eave in order to avoid being forced to salute the Secret Service. He is the primary character and the narrator simultaneously and each of the poignant events gains a special quality by virtue of the book’s tone, which is first-person and conversational insofar as he constantly draws the reader in with questions and conjecture.

At an incongruous juncture, Haffner rhetorically asks why the reader ought to be interested in his story, especially given that he was little better-informed than his audience; the answer is simple. He seeks not to capture an immaculate history, but an emotional testament to the most stirring moments of his own life. He used to keep tallies of World War I propaganda figures, he endured the starvation of 1923 and he realised the escalating horror of the world he lived in. Now he brings the post-colonial recount to the reader, with the intent to dispel the erroneous notion that history hurtles forth with only the bold and the bloody-minded at the helm, that there are minor deeds performed by anonymous characters which form the unheard narrative. This is best summarised by his attack upon the concept of ‘important’ historical events; although the words “1890: (Kaiser) Wilhelm dismisses Bismarck” have significance to political affairs, they pale in comparison to “1933: Hindenburg sends for Hitler.” The difference between the two is stark as where the former allowed the normal pace of life to continue, the latter saw “an earthquake shatter sixty-six million lives.”

Haffner was a historian; the practice of history in what is commonly toted as its purest form is to tell the truth. Convolution arises when opinion becomes a part of the equation. ‘Truth’ is not a simple concept and is far from simple to understand; when the 19th century Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke insisted that historians ought to “tell it as it is,” he neglected to understand that there are many narratives, each with variations as far as emphasis and choice of words are concerned. With that in mind, this is not so much a history tome as a moral didactic set in an important historical context. Wherever fact is asserted in the narrative, emphasis is placed upon cause, effect and interpretation; the reason the German people embraced Hitler was not material deprivation, but a sense of hollow fanaticism which Hitler was able to feed with his rhetoric - this is historical truth in his opinion. It is important to realise that all the information to which he was privy was subject to reinterpretation by the environment he lived in. The issues important to a seven-year-old child are very different to those of a thirty-something-year-old scholar - the outbreak of World War I did not upset him unduly (indeed, it later quite excited him), but he was crestfallen when the army notified his family that two of their horses now belonged to the cavalry reserve and were to be immediately taken.

It is important to understand that this story, in its current form, was never intended to be published. It was written in 1939 during his exile in England, although the outbreak of the war caused him to abandon it. His son, Oliver, states that his father was ashamed of his earlier work in later years; the unedited, raw and passionate nature of this story certainly stands in stark contrast to Haffner’s more detached critical journalism (with such instances as the comparison of Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau and Adolf Hitler - the former as a being of “sublime spirituality” and the other as a demon from some odorous nether-realm). As the book was written upon the outbreak of the war, it affects a Manichean tone - that is to say, it attempts to espouse particular ideals (namely, disgust and moral outrage at National Socialism) and best achieves its ends by raising its diametric opposite onto a pedestal. The very title gives an explanation of the reason why the book was written.

Finally, and most mischievously in a book concerned with ‘telling the truth,’ Sebastien Haffner is not the author’s real name. Evidently, Raimund Pretzel did not deign to make his true identity completely available. The author died in 1999, aged 91. Defying Hitler was translated by Oliver Pretzel and published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson of London in 2002.


  • Defying Hitler, Sebastien Haffner