Defying Hitler: A Memoir
Raimund Pretzel?s personal record of pre-war Germany provides a window into a life the typical North American reader could not imagine living. Pretzel, who wrote under the pseudonym of Sebastian Haffner, departs in this book from his usual reserved, cool style and provides a deeply personal account of his thoughts and feelings living under the growing power of the Nazi regime. He meant this account to be a warning to the world of the dangers that lay ahead if Hitler remained unchecked, but the outbreak of war in 1939 made the book?s purpose irrelevant, and he laid it aside in favour of other works. After Haffner?s death in 1999, his son had the manuscript published first in Germany and later provided a translation for the English-speaking world. Despite the long delay in publication, Haffner?s thoughts and observations are as applicable today as when he first intended them to be read.
The memoir begins with his earliest memory--the outbreak of World War I. It is enlightening to read of German attitudes to battles and events that we remember as Canada?s great victories or losses. Even more interesting is the author?s description of the attitude of an entire generation of young Germans caught up in the excitement of the conflict. Visits to the local office to read the latest casualty reports became part of Haffner?s daily routine, and he devoured the numbers as eagerly and emotionally as a soccer fan would read the stats of his favourite team. Indeed, he says that cessation of hostilities left a void in the emotions of the nation?s youth that the excitement of the Nazi movement would later fill.
Statements such as these are repeated throughout the book, as the author analyzes the different qualities in the nation?s character and the various events that made the rise of the Nazis possible. For example, he explains that the period of incredible inflation of the 1920's created an environment in which fortunes were literally lost and made overnight. Money became practically worthless and stocks became the commodity of choice, and the young who were most adaptable became the financially powerful. This sense of disorder made the masses restless and unable to deal with the quiet life which came after the currency was stabilized, creating even more of an opportunity for the Nazi party.
Haffner?s observations are insightful and acute, but his actions often seem less than heroic. This book might have been more aptly titled Surviving Hitler, as the young man does little in the way of actual defiance. The most chilling portion of the book is the last few chapters, in which Haffner is required to attend an indoctrination camp as the next step in his legal training. When the possibility of rebellion is considered, he analyzes the cost and denounces it as a futile gesture, deciding instead to endure as best as he can. His defiance is internal, in his refusal to let the Nazis shape him in their image, and in his leaving his country after he feels that he has lost it.
Haffner?s argument for his book is that history is not to be understood in the large sphere of what king deposes whom or what field of battle is lost or won, but in how these grand events of history affect the mass of the population. He offers his own rather typical existence as an example of how Germany was transformed during the period between the wars. It is an ant?s eye-view rather than a bird?s eye-view, and if it does lack the broad historical vision provided by hindsight, it offers instead a realistic immediacy which makes the reader feel the events as they happened.