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05/11/2003 Archived Entry: "Defying Hitler"

Two cartoons to start the blog rolling: Liberation by Clay Bennett; and, Homeland Security by Chappatte.

I am intrigued by several reviews I've read of "Defying Hitler" by Sebastian Haffner.

Haffner is well known for his post-WWII analyses of Hitler -- e.g. "From Bismarck to Hitler" and "The Meaning of Hitler" -- but "Defying Hitler" is a memoir written shortly after he emigrated to England with his Jewish wife in 1938, the incomplete manuscript of which was discovered posthumously in 1999 by Haffner's son. The book interests me because it deals directly with the question of what a good person does when he sees a nation, renowned for its civilization and culture, plunge into totalitarianism. Why did 66 million citizens of one of the world's most advanced societies submit to Hitler's rule? So many Germans said of Naziism, "it couldn't happen here, not here in Germany," just as I hear many Americans saying, "totalitarianism couldn't happen in America with its traditions of individual freedom." Haffner was/is a unique commentator on the slipping of Germany into the worst of Naziism. He was an historian with a fine eye, an Aryan who was imminently threatened by Hitler's policies, an anti-Nazi with disdain for those who didn't support Hitler yet did nothing to oppose his rise, not yet a celebrity and so representative of the mass of Germans in the '30s. Haffner speaks as an eloquent witness to the erosion of individual rights, the increasing polarization of society into persecuted groups, and the other repressive tactics used by ruthless power-hungry politicians, including those in the United States.

To quote from the Salon review, "The question that always springs from accounts of Hitler's Germany is 'Why didn't the Germans resist?" Some of the reasons have long been obvious. There is a natural human instinct for survival, however odious the forms it takes or the lengths it may go to. And there is also the understandable refusal to believe that the worst will come to pass. Again and again in Defying Hitler Haffner's acquaintances talk of the Nazis as clowns who, because they cannot help revealing their true natures, are destined to fall out of power. Haffner's endorsement of the idea that even dictators are powerless without the consent (or at least the passivity) of the masses means that Defying Hitler has no time for quibbling about how much the Germans knew and when; he was there shortly before World War II broke out, after all. Haffner takes it for granted that Germans knew about the brutality of Nazi rule -- brutality that, logically, would only increase as the state consolidated its power -- and that they lacked the will to resist it."

Haffner speaks of the "automatic continuation of ordinary life that hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror" of Hitler. I think this is true of many Americans who see the erosion of freedom on a daily basis. But -- because they wake in their own homes, eat the same cereal for breakfast, work the same job, drive down accustomed streets -- they have a sense that everything is as it has always been. The fact that the legal structure under which they function is dramatically different, the political protections that ensured their freedom are going, going, gone is no where near as real to them as their daily routines are. Another review observes, "The process [of statism] was so slow that one could almost understand how one day Germans walked the street as members of a shaky democracy and the next were prisoners and yet supporters of a violent dictatorship. Between those two days, the Germany he grew up in both figuratively and literally disappeared. People and institutions were either taken over by the Nazis, such as Haffner's beloved Kammergericht - the municipal court he was clerking at - or destroyed outright."

On the Personal Front:

Storms, storms, glorious storms with wall-rattling thunder and lightning striking less than 1/2 mile away. Storms that bring strange sights: rain-soaked cats, a couple of wild turkeys flushed out and running for shelter, our dog Sam being inconsolable, every computer in the house turned off -- now *that* is strange. I am having to work around the crashes of lightning, which would be fine with me, if deadlines were not looming. But they are. Last week, I finished the article for Freedom Daily that compares regime change in Vietman (circa 60s) to regime change in Iraq but I am still far behind and in danger of alienating an editor if I don't meet a Monday deadline. Oh, well...another all-nighter, weather permitting.

Despite the serious tone of the blog today, I wish everyone a wonderful Mother's Day with family and loved ones.

Best to all,

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