Defying Hitler A Memoir

Sebastian Haffner; Translated by Oliver Pretzel




Trade Paperback

320 Pages



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Defying Hitler is a memoir about the rise of Nazism in Germany and the lives of ordinary German citizens between the wars. This fresh, sharp, highly informed account offers a unique perspective on this era of twentieth-century history.

When the famous German author Sebastian Haffner died at the age of ninety-one in 1999, a manuscript was discovered among his unpublished papers. The book was begun in 1939, but with the advent of World War II, Haffner had set it aside. His family made the decision to publish it, and the result is Defying Hitler: A Memoir. Spanning the period from 1907 to 1933, it offers a unique perspective on the rise of Hitler and the growing influence of Nazism, and anticipates much of what was to unfold in the ensuing years.

Haffner's personal memories form the basis for questioning, analyzing, and interpreting German history and culture. His astute and compelling eyewitness account provide a broad overview of a country in a constant state of flux. He examines the pervasive influence of groups such as the Free Corps—the right-wing voluntary military force, set up to suppress the revolution of 1918, that would provide training for many of those who were to become Nazi storm troopers—and the Hitler Youth movement which swept the country. His own family's financial struggles illustrate the disaster that overtook many of Germany's citizens during 1923, when devastating inflation crippled the nation's economy. (The later, peaceful, yet dangerously uninspiring Stresemann years contributed further to Hitler's rise to power.) Haffner elucidates how the average educated German grappled with a rapidly changing society, while chronicling day-to-day changes in attitudes, beliefs, politics, and prejudices.

A major best-seller in Germany now available for the first time in English, and including new chapters unearthed by a historian working in the German state archives, Defying Hitler is a highly illuminating portrait of a time, a place, and a people.


Praise for Defying Hitler

"An astonishing memoir . . . The book does two things extraordinarily well. The first, as Haffner's son notes in an afterword, is to provide persuasive answers to questions that continue to pit thinking Germans against their parents and grandparents: 'How were the Nazi's possible?' and 'Why didn't you stop them?' A second accomplishment is to present a series of vignettes that vividly convey the texture of life under an emerging totalitarian regime . . . A minor unfinished masterpiece."—Gabriel Schoenfeld, The New York Times Book Review

"In a little over 300 pages, [Haffner] offers a solution to one of the great mysteries of the 20th century: why one of the most civilized nations in the world capitulated without a struggle, prostrating itself before the most fiendish gang ever to seize control of a modern state . . . I cannot think of another book that shows us, so concisely and so eloquently, what became of the Germans, and how and why they became Nazis."—Daniel Johnson, Commentary

"Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler has joined All Quiet on the Western Front on my list of essential texts for an undergraduate course on the World Wars. Clearly written and gripping, this young German’s memoir of coming of age between the wars allows students to understand the abstractions they read about in conventional history texts: Haffner’s descriptions—sometimes sardonic, sometimes humorous, always honest—of how he and his friends responded to the loss of World War I, rampant inflation, political instability, and the increasingly oppressive presence of the Nazis make fascinating reading. But Defying Hitler is more than a narrative, although students will be caught up in the suspense of the story; Haffner also pauses for original and fascinating reflections on the meaning of his experiences, the appeal of Nazism to his own generation, and the nature of historical writing. This is one of those rare books that teaches as it delights."—Professor Elisabeth Gitter, John Jay College, author of The Imprisoned Guest

"A remarkably insightful and refreshing account, unfettered by the impulse to apologize or penchant to eulogize victims that burden many memoirs written after Nazism's evil reached its peak."—Galina Vromen, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The prophetic insights of a fairly young man . . . [Helps] us understand the plight, as Haffner refers to it, of the non-Nazi German.”—The Denver Post

"Young Americans often have only a vague understanding of what daily life in a totalitarian regime is like. What makes this memoir of growing up in Germany before and during Hitler's seizure of power so remarkable is the fact that its young protagonist was not the member of a persecuted minority but a solid bourgeois headed toward a law career. Yet he chose to stand out, inspired by his liberal beliefs and by the depth and firmness of his hatred of Nazism. Equally remarkable was his ability to analyze the flaws in the German political culture that led to the wide-spread popularity of Hitler. Haffner's comments on the domination of private life by public affairs in and after World War I; on Walter Rathenau, the Jewish foreign minister assassinated in 1922; and on the ways in which non-Nazis made their peace with the regime are but a few examples of his insights . . . Haffner's story ends in 1933. In 1938 he left for England, where he became a prominent journalist and political writer, but he never returned to his memoir, which his son published in Germany in 2000. This [English-language edition] is a marvel of intelligence."—Foreign Affairs

"Haffner's outstanding gifts of observation and imagination enable him to reconstruct, vividly and convincingly, the state of mind of the German people during the tumultuous decades before 1933."—Roger Morgan, The Times Literary Supplement (London)

"Passionate . . . Fresh, immediate, and wonderfully personal, in crystal clear prose . . . Haffner is like the guide of Dante's Inferno, tracing the slow descent into Nazism in intimate detail . . . This is an absorbing book, and a significant addition to the canon of World War II literature."—Mary-Liz Shaw, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"If by now the incidents are familiar—the intimidation, the erosion of press freedom, violence in the streets, people fleeing or attempting to flee—it's their novelty to Haffner that carries the book, the distorting mirror effect of the degradation of the ideas of freedom and individuality that should be the very stuff of everyday life. And at the book's end, Haffner sees how easy it is to get swept up in the spirit that was taking over Germany . . . Defying Hitler communicates one of the most profound and absolute feelings of exile that any writer has gotten between covers."—
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"A short, stabbing, brilliant book . . . It is important, first, as evidence of what one intelligent German knew in the 1930s about the unspeakable nature of Nazism, at a time when the overwhelming majority of his countrymen claim to have known nothing at all. And, second, for its rare capacity to reawaken anger about those who made the Nazis possible."—Max Hastings, The Sunday Telegraph

"Unsurpassable . . . Wonderfully written . . . There is an exceptional literary power in what he writes . . . Haffner's brief autobiography is replete with historical insights, expressed with a lightness of touch and a literary verve."—Richard Overy, Literary Review

"The most important book of the year."—Richard Kämmerlings, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

"Sebastian Haffner was Germany's political conscience, but it is only now that we can read how he experienced the Nazi terror himself—this is a memoir of frightening relevance today."—Heinrich Jaenicke, Stern

"An electrifying discovery."—Volker Ullrich, Die Zeit

"This book is part of a significant body of remembrances from Nazi Germany; its immediacy and passion give it a vitality not found in some of the memoirs composed later, and its author's upper-middle-class German provides a viewpoint infrequently encountered."—Barbara Walden, University of Wisconsin Library, Madison, Library Journal

"This is a gem of a book—with as much intellectual force as The Diary of Anne Frank has emotional force . . . A small masterpiece that should join William Shirer's Berlin Diary as essential reading."—Allen Weakland, Booklist (starred review)

"A remarkable memoir, dug out a drawer, about daily life in Germany during the rise of Nazism . . . Deserves a wide readership elsewhere in the world."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Sebastian Haffner was born in Berlin in 1907, and died in 1999. In 1938, he was forced to flee to Britain, where he worked as a journalist. In 1954, he returned to Germany and became a distinguished historian and commentator.

Oliver Pretzel, Sebastian Haffner’s son, is the translator of this work.
Read the full excerpt


  • Sebastian Haffner; Translated by Oliver Pretzel

  • Sebastian Haffner was born in Berlin in 1907, and died in 1999. In 1938, he was forced to flee to Britain, where he worked as a journalist. In 1954, he returned to Germany and became a distinguished historian and commentator.

    Oliver Pretzel, Sebastian Haffner’s son, is the translator of this work.