UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay

Surviving Through An Immoral War

Book Essay on: Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler: A Memoir :
( New York: Picador, 2002), 309pages.
UCSB: DD86.7.H26 A3 2002

by Ursula Aguiar
March 22, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at

About Ursula Aguiar

I am a graduating senior Political Science major and History minor who has always been curious about the development of Nazi power in Germany. I traveled through Europe during high school and when I visited Germany I wanted to understand how the normal German citizens lived through a dictatorship. I chose to write on this topic because I wanted to know how it was possible to resist Hitler and survive the war, and I also wondered if the people who did survive kept their morals through the war.

Abstract (back to top)

Sebastian Haffner’s title of his book Defying Hitler: A Memoir is an accurate description of what his life consisted of during Nazi regime. Haffner had to tread a thin line between keeping his morals and participating in mandatory state sponsored hate teachings enough to convince spies and outsiders to pass as a Nazi supporter. Haffner starts his story with his childhood during World War I and explains the fascination with bulletins to the post war gloom of the 1920s. Then he explains how Nazi propaganda brought nationalism back into Germany, but most people thought the Nazi’s would fade out just like all the other political parties. Then he feels the world falls on him when Hitler becomes chancellor and he realizes it is too late to take him out of power. The book ends with his departure from Germany in 1939 because he feels it is the only way to save his soul. This is a great book to understand how the Nazis gradually took over Germany.

Essay (back to top)

There have been many stories written about Nazi occupied Germany. Most are historical accounts that relay the image of patriotic parades with the men wearing brown uniforms and buildings covered with red Nazi flags. Not many books have been written about the lives of ordinary German citizens maybe because some historians do not believe that there were many “ordinary” German people during this time. It might have been hard to believe that not everyone was under Hitler’s spell and conformed to the new Nazi lifestyle of participating in parades and attending speeches. It is also hard to fathom that there was no resistance to Hitler; that no one recognized his evil and revolted against him. But there were small revolts during the slow and gradual take over of the German government by the Nazis. Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler: A Memoir explains many of present society’s questions about the lack of resistance against Adolf Hitler. It is a personal story that describes the political and social movements of post World War I Germany where Haffner usually did not participate in. He explains that the take over by the Nazis was gradual and tolerated at first because many ordinary Germans believed the Nazi Party was a fad that would lose popularity as fast as it gained it. And once Hitler was appointed Chancellor in January 1930, some German people began to seriously question the Nazis having control over the government. People like Haffner did not agree with Nazi politics, but were afraid to publicly and directly speak out against them because of the fear of arrest or blackmail. Haffner would go along with the salutes and marching only when necessary, but he hated every time he did participate. Haffner and Germans like him had their own silent resistance by not participating in parades and rallies and avoiding SA members, but in the end the only solution for Haffner and other Germans to actually resist the Nazis was to emigrate out of Germany. The title of Haffner’s book is a clear description of what he and many other Germans did. They defied Hitler. There was no direct militant action, but these people did not learn to hate and discriminate against Jewish people. They did not participate in the parades or rallies. They did not burn books, and many people like Haffner still kept in contact with their life-long Jewish friends.

Haffner begins his story by putting his childhood life in perspective. He grew up during World War I and lived through some dramatic German history, but these events never really affected his daily life. As a child he had no real understanding of words like “war” and “ultimatum,” but he knew that they frustrated his father and other adults around him. His life as a seven-year-old boy did not change. Haffner saw the war as a game because there were no bombing near him, and if someone he knew died it did not really affect him (p. 14). It was all about the bulletins posted at the police station that said the number of prisoners captured, land gained or lost, and names of soldiers who died. This is where he was updated about the war, but it was all numbers and words because he really could not fathom thousands killed or miles gained. He learned to hate the French, British, and Russians because they were the ones standing in the way of his victory, and he did consider it his victory because he fully supported his army. The only thing that had an effect on young Haffner’s life was the shortage of food, but he understood that everyone in the country was going through the same thing so he was not resentful about it.

The war first came to Haffner when the revolution was happening in 1918. He first heard shots and it turned out that the revolutionaries won, but again he did not know what that meant. Then all of the sudden there were no more army bulletins and this came as a great shock to Haffner because he looked forward to them every day. This meant the end of the war, and he did not remember how peace felt. It was an even bigger disappointment when Germany signed an armistice because that meant no victory for him or for Germany. And then just as suddenly as the revolution started it was over and it had lost by 1919. The republic survived, but the disillusioned soldiers and citizens felt the government failed them in the war.

Haffner then speaks of 1923 as a very important year because it is the year that changed German way of thinking and acting. They had to deal with great inflation that year and it caused unrest and the beginning of new political parties. Then the peace and prosperity started in 1924. This is when life was almost normal in a sense that the inflation was controlled and there were no foreign wars. Haffner also writes that is the time when Germans began to divide into Nazis and non-Nazis because with peace came unrest. The young people of Germany did not know how to cope with their personal lives (p. 69). They were not used to having a life where there were not parades, rallies, or other public functions. Haffner then realized that he and other young Germans who had no affiliation with a party had no power and had become the minority.

The Reichstag elections of January 30, 1930 put the Nazis as the second most powerful political party almost overnight. They first had 12 seats and it turned into 107 seats (p. 87). This then brought on the question if Hitler would ever come to power. It was like a waiting game and it caused more uneasiness for the minority that Haffner was part of. Haffner explains that many Germans did not really respect Hitler because of his failed putsch, crazy speech antics, and suburban accent, but no opponent really stood up to him and this is what bewildered Haffner and the minority. He explains that his opponents were not scared or indifferent towards Hitler, but rather baffled by his style and did not realize who it was a devil that spoke not a real person. This would have been the time to stop Hitler and take him out of power as easily as he came into it, but politicians just stood back and let a crazy man take over their country. These politicians left the minority with no leader to voice their fears and disgust with Hitler, and left them to only imagine their future with Hitler.

Sebastian Haffner explains how he developed his opinions about Nazis. When he discusses his political views he says he is more to the right when using the “left versus right” method, but like a regular person in their twenties, he often did not have opinions about some issues. The one issue he was positive about was that Nazis were not good people. He said his nose was good at picking people out with good qualities and that it told him right away that the Nazis stunk. And he also explains how the people who identified themselves as Nazis were naïve to think that they were buying into nationalism, socialism, and the revival of pre 1914 years. They would be offended if someone told them they stood for concentration camps and pogroms (p. 103). Haffner’s explanation reflects how even people today follow a political leader without really knowing their intentions, even though the leader might not be as evil as Hitler.

Haffner does not excuse Germans for following Nazis and he realizes that the people who do are either uneducated or are trying to climb the ladder of power. He explains how people could get caught up in the commotion of the parades and speeches because the sense of nationalism that the Nazis were supposed to stand for is something that had been missing from German culture since before World War I. But he does not get swept into the atmosphere because he recognizes the evil that comes from the Nazis. And once it is announced that Hitler is the Reichschancellor Haffner feels an icy horror because he realized there was no higher power that could stop Hitler from implementing any of his laws or eradiating the Jewish people. After the announcement, the air was tenser. More and more people were “heiling” and he would dread when he could not avoid the SA and have to salute back. Haffner would try to live his life like before the Nazis, but they were everywhere and the liberties a young person had at the time like going to the movies, cabarets, literary events, or any liberal organizations were now gone. And he felt like he was suffocating in his own community.

Haffner understood that he had to participate in some Nazi organizations and engage with known Nazis because he had to keep up an image where he supported Hitler. In reality he detested their politics and was revolted by their ethics and morals. But Haffner had to be careful because if he directly insulted the Nazis or made his real feeling known to the wrong person then he could be considered an enemy of the state. When put in a public situation he would try not to speak about politics or anything that would give away his position about the Nazis. Haffner had a cover because he was considered “Aryan,” but he still had to watch out for the people who would denounce him if he spoke against Hitler. He also knew that he had to go along with the Nazis sometimes. For example, when preparing for his Referendars exams he was given a Nazi armband and had to spend time in barracks, sing nationalist songs, march for miles, and build comradeship with his platoon. Haffner was worried that he would be seen as a Nazi in the future because of the mandatory training he had to do, and he even questioned himself, asking why he did not refuse to wear the Nazi armband. Was it really that difficult to refuse it? But Haffner did not know what the consequences were to refuse it, and keeping that in mind is what deferred him from refusing the armband. With all of these developments happening in Germany, Haffner decided that in the best interest of his well being he had to leave Germany until someone took Hitler out of power. And he left for Paris in 1933, only to return in 1934. Then he made his full emigration to England in 1938, where he stayed during the war.

Sebastian Haffner’s story explains the take over of Germany by the Nazis. The situation could be described as the appeasement of Hitler. The people would give him some concession believing that it would not really affect them again and again until it was too late and he took over. Also the political opposition failed to take up against Hitler, thus leaving the minority who detested Hitler with no voice in the government. It is a broad number of circumstances that could have been prevented, but nothing was done. It is clear though that there was a silent resistance and there were German “Aryan” citizens who did not support Hitler and his regime.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)

Book Reviews

  • Clay Risen, Review of Haffner, Defying Hitler, Flask Magazine 2007

    Clay Risen praises the book for the insight of a non-Nazi German citizen. He says that it should be a required read for anyone who is trying to understand the takeover of Germany by Nazis.

  • Gabriel Schoenfield, 'Defying Hitler': Marching, but Out of Step, New York Times August, 2002

    Gabriel Schoenfield thinks the book was extraordinary especially in explaining the daily life of German citizens and it answers hard questions about the culture about that time like “how did they let the Nazi take over.”

Books and Articles

  • Shareen B. Brysac, Resisting Hitler Oxford, Oxford Press, 2002

    This book is a story about an American woman named Mildred Harnack who would smuggle German Jewish people out of Nazi occupied area. They also provided intelligence for the United States and the Soviet Union. They were later captured, tortured, and killed. Her story was covered up until recently when archives were released from the FBI, CIA, and the KGB. This is a more militant group rather than Haffner who dealt with surviving in Germany without being sucked in the Nazi lifestyle and beliefs.

  • , Resistance During the Holocaust

    This is a booklet that was funded by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance. This article is a collection of all the resistances armed and unarmed by prisoners in the concentration camps. This article is a good source for further research.

Relevant Websites

  • , "Spartacus Educational"

    This website gives a list a names who resisted against Hitler. There is a link to each name, which then gives the description of what each person did. For example, Carl Goerdeler was a price commissioner in the government and he resigned after Hitler came into power in 1934. He was later involved in the July Plot with Ludwig Beck to become chancellor after Hitler’s assassination.

  • , "German Resistance"

    This article is particularly detailed for a wikipedia article and has several subsections that cover every sort of resistance from the Catholic Church to Communist Resistance.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Ursula Aguiar on 3/22/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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