Defying Hitler

From: Defying Hitler: a memoir, by Sebastian Haffner, written in 1939, published in 2001:

In a regular sequence, new ’emergency decrees’ appeared every six months, each yet again reducing salaries, pensions, social benefits, and finally even private wages and rates of interest. Each was the logical consequence of the last one, and each time Bruning [German Chancellor 1930-1932], clenching his teeth, imposed the painful logic. Many of Hitler’s most effective instruments of torture were first introduced by Bruning – such as ‘safeguarding foreign reserves’, which made travel abroad impossible, and the ‘Reich flight tax’, which did the same for emigration. Even the beginnings of the restriction of the freedom of the press and the gagging of parliament can be traced to Bruning. Yet, paradoxically, his actions were rooted in the convincion that he was defending the Republic. Understandably, the republicans began to ask themselves whether there was anything left to defend.
To my knowledge, the Bruning regime was the first essay and model of a form of government that has since been copied in many European countries: the semi-dictatorship in the name, and in defence, of democracy against fully-fledged dictatorship… the inevitable forerunner of the very thing it is supposed to prevent: its discouragement of its own supporters; the way it undermines its own position; its acceptance of a loss of freedom; its lack of ideological weapons against enemy propaganda; the way it surrenders the initiative; and its collapse at the final moment when the issue is reduced to a simple question of power.

The next day [after Hitler appointment as Reichschancellor on 30th January 1933] this turned out to be the general opinion of the intelligent press [that Hitler’s government would not last long]. It is curious how plausible an argument it is, even today [in 1939], when we know what came next. How could things turn out so completely differently? Perhaps it was just because we were all so certain that they could not do so – and relied on that with far too much confidence. So we neglected to consider that it might, if the worst came to the worst, be necessary to prevent the disaster from happening.

After all that, I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichstag fire was the work of the Communists. What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character clearly for the first time during the Nazi period, is that this settled the matter. With sheepish submissiveness the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution; as though it followed as a necessary consequence. If the Communists had burned down the Reichstag, it was perfectly in order that the Government took ‘decisive measures’!

Next morning I discussed these matters with a few other Referendars [junior court officials in training to be judges]. All of them were very interested in the question of who had committed the crime, and more than one of them hinted that they had doubts about the official version; but none of them saw anything of out the ordinary in the fact that, from now on, one’s telephone would be tapped, one’s letters open and one’s desk might be broken into. ‘I consider it a personal insult,’ I said, ‘that I should be prevented from reading whichever newspaper I wish, because allegedly a Communist set light to the Reichstag. Don’t you?’

Strangely enough, it was just this automatic continuation of ordinary life that hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror. I have described how the treachery and cowardice of the leaders of the opposition prevented their organisation from being used against the Nazis or offering any resistance. That still leaves the question why no individuals ever spontaneously opposed some particular injustice or iniquity they experienced, even if they did not act against the whole. (I am not blind to the fact that this charge applies to me as much as to anyone else.)

It was hindered by the mechanical continuation of normal daily life. How different history would be if men were still independent, standing on their own two feet, as in ancient Athens. Today they are yoked to the details of their work and daily timetable, dependent on a thousand little details, cogs in a mechanism they do not control, running steadily on rails and helpless if they become derailed. Only the daily routine provides security and continuity. Just beyond lies a dark jungle. Every European of the twentieth century feels this in his bones and fears it. It is the cause of his reluctance to do anything that could ‘detail’ his life – something audacious or out of the ordinary. It is this lack of self-reliance that opens the possibility of immense catastrophes of civilisation like the rule of the Nazis in Germany.

What is history, and where does it take place?

If you read ordinary history books – which, it is often overlooked, contain on ly the scheme of events, not the events themselves – you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be ‘at the helm of the ship of state’ and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history. According to this view, the history of the present decade [the 1930s] is a kind of chess game among Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-Shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody’s lips. We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game, who may be pushed forward or left standing, sacrificed or captured, but whose lives, for what they are worth, take place in a totally different world, unrelated to what is happening on the chessboard, of which they are quite unaware.

It may seem a paradox, but it is nonetheless the simple truth, to say that on the contrary, the decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large. It is characteristic of these decisions that they do not manifest themselves as mass movements or demonstrations. Mass assemblies are quite incapable of independent action. Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals.

These are what I want to write about. You cannot get to grips with them if you do not track them down to the place where they happen: the private lives, emotions and thoughts of individual Germans. They happen there all the more since, having cleared the sphere of politics of all opposition, the conquering, ravenous state has moved into formally private spaces in order to clear these also of any resistance or recalcitrance and to subjugate the individual. There, in private, the right is taking place in Germany. You will search for it in vain in the political landscape, even with the most powerful telescope. Today the political struggle is expressed by the choice of what a person eats and drinks, who he loves, what he does in his spare time, whose company he seeks, whether he smiles or frowns, what he reads, what pictures he hangs on his walls. It is here that the battles of the next world war are being decided in advance. They may sound grotesque, but it is the truth.

This is why I think that by telling my seemingly private insignificant story I am writing real history, perhaps even the history of the future.

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