'Defying Hitler' by Sebastian Haffner: Book Review

Raimund Pretzel was an Aryan German, born in Berlin in 1907. He became a renowned German history and author, specifically focusing on Germany's role in the First World War, the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler. Pretzel lived in Nazi Germany and witnessed the change in the country first-hand before moving to London in 1938, as he (rightly) suspected that the country was heading towards war. Once established again as a journalist and writer, he penned his works under the pseudonym 'Sebastian Haffner', for the protection of his family that were still living in Germany.

By all accounts, 'Defying Hitler' was never really meant to be published. It was not in the style of Haffner's other works with their formality and direct, factual accounts of periods of German history. Nevertheless, Haffner's son found the manuscript for the book whilst sorting through his father's belongings after his death in 1999. The book was then published in the U.K. in 2000.

Generally, you will not find this book on an academic reading list, but I feel it is just as vital to read as other testimonies and accounts of life in Nazi Germany. It is an unusual testimony in the sense that it is written by an Aryan; the kind of person Hitler would have upheld as a model German, who should work hard and produce strong children for the Fatherland. Haffner's account shows that not every German was drawn in by Hitler and the Nazis, despite the large crowds shown in the streets performing the Nazi salute and the swastika flags hanging from the capital's buildings.
It is also interesting to read the testimony from someone not in Hitler's persecuted groups as it gives us a different take on Nazi Germany, rather than the inevitable aftermath of the Holocaust and its destruction on so many families. The reader has the chance to gain an insight into how an ordinary German citizen perceived Hitler and his ideas without direct consequences for his opposing stance.
Haffner does, however, speak of a passive resistance; of attempting to get on with life despite the situation around him. He speaks candidly about his concern for a female Jewish friend with the introduction of restrictions against the Jews and the dramatic change in the system at the institution where he originally studies to take up law, but seems desperate to continue as normal a life as possible. In some ways, it is also a pleasant change to read a book written during the Nazi regime that sometimes looks at it as little more than the framework of an ordinary life. Haffner was not swept up by the Nazis and their radical policies; he acknowledged that boycotts of Jewish shops took place, for example, but chose not to pay close attention to them. He describes the pleasantries of an evening out at the cabaret or a dinner, but also how these could turn sour with the unexpected arrival of SS soldiers or police officers. The strong feeling of Haffner's bid to live ordinarily throughout the book illustrates Haffner's determination not to succumb to Hitler's quest for a revolution within Germany to create a 'pure' Fatherland - in his own individual, quiet way, he makes defying Hitler a point of principle.

This is a fantastic testimony which gives a true glimpse into life in Nazi Berlin in the 1930s, without embellishment or fantasy. You will also be surprised just how quickly you will read the book, too, as I found it incredibly difficult to put down.

Recommended for...
Anyone interested in the history of Nazi Germany, particularly with a focus on personal testimony.