Sebastian Haffner
Defying Hitler

The German madhouse

What happens when you see your country disappear before your eyes? When your enemy is the state that wants you to betray your friends, abandon your girlfriend because she is Jewish, destroy the books you love and wants you to greet other human beings as the state dictates?

What do you do if you don’t want any of that? Do you disobey? Do you become a hero or martyr? Or do you just shrug and wait and see? Disobeying or resisting will mean arrest, torture or execution. Going along will mean you have to betray yourself and your values.

This is Sebastian Haffner. This young man has an opponent – in this case the (new) German state. Of course, he is much weaker than his opponent. In fact, his situation is hopeless. But he is determined not to give in.

Sebastian Haffner

Haffner (1907-1999, real name Raimund Pretzel) was a German journalist, writer and historian. He also wrote an early memoir but never published it. But over a year after Haffner’s death, his two children have published his memoirs that were discovered after this death in 1999. It is this memoir that resulted in Defying Hitler.

I knew Haffner from his excellent The Meaning of Hitler which I read back in November 2022 and which gave an exceptional analysis of Hitler’s character, ideology and his rise to power in Nazi Germany. This book does the same thing, but focusses on Haffner’s own experiences growing up in Germany. Together they give important insights into the period of Nazi Germany and both serve as a general warning on how to recognize the danger of authoritarianism and the importance of defending democratic values and institutions.

A memoir

This is a personal memoir depicting Haffner’s struggle against the German Nazi government and his fight against it. It is this (internal) fight that Sebastian Haffner so vividly describes: a young man who is just an ordinary person from a good bourgeois background, just as thousands of others in Germany. According to Haffner, history is so much more than the stories and actions of a selected few, but rather the personal experiences of thousands and thousands of people, each with their own opinions and viewpoints, that truly make history. Haffner believes that if one wants to understand history, one must read biographies, not of statesmen but of ordinary people.

This is what Haffner has done. Haffner tells the tumultuous history of Germany through his own life story between the ages of seven and twenty-six, from the outbreak of World War I to the seizure of power by Adolf Hitler, a fatal period for Germany. Using his daily life as a guide, Haffner describes how Germans slowly turned into National Socialists in the 1920’s and 1930’s and how they ingloriously surrendered to the new rulers.

Haffner’s generation

For seven-year-old Raimund Pretzel, as he was actually called, the First World War began like a thunderclap, right in the middle of the summer holidays. Haffner became familiar with terms such as ‘ultimatum’, ‘mobilization’, and `alliance’. He knew no better than that the war was due to France’s vengefulness, British commercial jealousy, and Russia’s cruelty. Haffner and his friends analysed the military news fanatically every day and counted the prisoners. The idea that war could be something terrible or dangerous did not occur to him.


Haffner vividly describes the traumatic start of the young Weimar Republic, which was burdened with far too heavy a mortgage through the reparations. The disillusionment, the pitifully failed revolution of 1918, the disruption of public life in Berlin due to wild shooting between left-wing and right-wing gangs, and the rampant inflation of 1923 deeply impressed the 16-year-old Haffner. Hungry and underfed, Haffner relates how his father, a Prussian state official, was paid his salary which was immediately needed to be redeemed into food and rent before it became worthless.

Haffner compellingly describes the apocalyptic mood in Germany after the war. The First World War shaped an entire German generation, who as a child or adolescent experienced the war at the home front and readied them for World War II. A generation to young to serve in the trenches, but who romanticized war in itself and saw it as a grand game. This was the generation which has produced the most ardent nazi’s who have experienced war detached from its gruesome reality and saw it as just a grand game.

The Weimar years

Then came Stresemann and the Weimar republic. Stresemann brought peace and quiet, it meant an end to inflation and ensured business as usual. However it als meant emptiness and boredom and everything was laid ready for great disaster.

The main difference between the 1914-1919 disaster and what followed in the 30’s is – according to Haffner – that in 1919 nobody came into conflict with his conscience. How different it would be with the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The rise of Nazidom

Haffner was an einzelgänger, as a student, as a stagehand at the Berlin courthouse, and later as a student. He remained suspicious of the majority and stepped back as soon as the masses were swept away. He masterfully describes the schizophrenia of the 1930s, in which the apparent normalcy of life continues while terror against Jews and progressives escalates. Hitler’s “revolution” did not begin on January 30, 1933, when he became Chancellor of the Reich and swore an oath to the constitution. After that things escalated quickly. The fire in the Reichstag on February 27th was the starting shot for an unrelenting terror. Left-wing politicians, left-wing writers, unpopular doctors, civil servants, and lawyers – everyone was arrested.

Haffner’s first moment of realization came when he witnessed one of his colleague lawyers being arrested by brown clad SA thugs and he had to state his allegiance by declaring he was arian, therefore escaping arrest. The same night, he attended a social dancing party which was raided by the police and all jewish participants were obliged to leave the party – according to Haffner as long as there was still dancing, reality could be denied but not anymore. This now ended.

With horror, the 26-year-old student witnesses how in March 1933 all opposing forces capitulate without resistance to the new rulers. Hundreds of thousands of people joined the Nazi party who had previously wanted nothing to do with it. The reason? Fear, joining in to avoid being hit, the attraction of the masses, and also disgust and vindictiveness towards those who had abandoned them.

Haffner gives a great overview on how Germans reacted on the developments. There was the feeling of superiority: especially in the early years, people could see upon the Nazi’s as a bunch of dilettantes and amateurs, who only deserved scorn. There were those who became embittered and didn’t care anymore what happened with the Jews or the more and more authoritarian measures. There were opportunists, the so-called <i>Märzgefallenen 1933</i>, who only became Nazi party member to take advantage of the new jobs and opportunities. And there were those who simply tried to ignore and withdraw in order to shield themselves in their private life and their circles of like-minded friends.


It is becoming more and more clear to Haffner that he is helpless in his duel against these Nazi’s. His attempt to shield himself in his private life is doomed to failure. The world that Haffner knew melts away before his eyes. His Jewish friends have fled, the books he loves have to be hidden and even some of his friends have succumbed to the brown uniform. Harrowing are his description on how his circle of close friends, with whom he has experienced joys and sorrows, breaks up in two opposing camps. With horror the recounts how a few friends, who first ridiculed the Nazi’s, now in first instance reluctantly but later with full conviction cheer on the anti-Jewish measures and later even become full-fledged Nazi supporters, joining the SS. Haffner wants to leave.

By the summer of 1933 Haffner’s decision is firm. Those who refused to become Nazis were left with a bleak existence of daily humiliations. The Germany that he loved was no longer the familiar world it once was. It perished before his eyes, it undermined itself and wasted away. All that remained for Haffner was to leave knowing that there was no future for him in Germany. Haffner fled to England where he wanted to help win the war against Hitler as a writing troublemaker.

I see parallels in today’s world with the rise of right wing extremism, the slogans are different but if we don’t are careful we might repeat. Already I see rifts appearing in my group of friends, where some have fallen under the spell of right wing populists. Perhaps we are living the 1920’s all over again – this book serves as an impressive warning for perhaps what is to come.

  • Sebastian Haffner

    Defying Hitler

    ISBN: 9780312421137 | Pages: 320 pages | Publication date: August 1, 2003

    Buy on Amazon


Sebastian Haffner's memoir, Defying Hitler, offers a powerful account of his resistance against the Nazi German government. The book offers important insights into the period of Nazi Germany and serves as a general warning on how to recognize the danger of authoritarianism and the importance of defending democratic values and institutions. Haffner's personal experiences growing up in Germany provide an account of the tumultuous history of Germany through his life story from the outbreak of World War I to the seizure of power by Adolf Hitler. He describes how Germans slowly turned into National Socialists in the 1920s and 1930s, and how they ingloriously surrendered to the new rulers. Haffner's memoir offers a compelling account of the apocalyptic mood in Germany after World War I, which shaped an entire German generation. Defying Hitler serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of individual resistance in the face of oppressive regimes.

— Bill
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