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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Sebastian HaffnerPhoenixLondon2003259 ppISBN: 84212 6601PbReview DOI 10.1108/09555340410536271
Of course it reads almost as a thriller, you can’t put it down and it is a close-at-hand description of the rise of Nazism, as all the reviewers have said. It is a book not published by the father who wrote it but by the son who didn’t. The son explains why. He was too close to the painful and terrible experiences which he describes. For us perhaps, the most important sentence in the book is the quotation from Goethe, which introduces it: “Germany is nothing, each individual German is everything”. This is the wisdom of a man who knows the dangers of unifying Germany geographically – for Germans.
There are two other points which struck me as throwing the most fundamental light on what could be the most disastrous events of the twentieth century. The author, a German, not a German Jew, passed his boyhood during the First World War and describes how he followed the battles of that war almost shouting for his side and experiencing it in a way that only a schoolboy could, and then feeling the depths of grief when the Armistice was signed. For weeks he could not bear to look at the news, closing his mind as if it had not happened. That in itself is not surprising but what is significant is that he tells us that Hitler’s response was almost identical.
This, I think, gives us a rare insight into Hitler’s mind and explains why he could not have led Germany in any other way than continuing the First World War. Too often it is asked why Hitler’s initial success could not have been carried ahead as a peaceful reconstruction of Germany. Only by appealing to the understandable bitterness in many, not a majority it seems, did he sustain his own will. Haffner himself, of course, grew out of it as he matured.
The second crucial point, it seemed to me, was to be found in a passage on p. 200. Haffner had a close friendship with a young Jewish girl whose life was blighted by the constant Nazi threats. He writes:
Like many other young Jews she considered what was happening to them almost to the exclusion of all else, and who can blame her? She reacted in all innocence, becoming a Zionist from one day to the next, a Jewish nationalist. It was a common reaction, and one that I could sympathise with but observed with regret. It so closely followed the Nazis’ intentions. It contained so much weak-hearted acceptance of their hostile assumptions. If I had argued with her, I would have robbed her of her only consolation.
He goes on to tell us that she studied and thought constantly about Palestine. Her hope was to go there. We now see the terrible knock-on result of the Nazi persecution afflicting the Middle East. In these two points, there is a lesson for the Germans, the Jews and for the world.
The rest of the book is simply a marvellous and enlightening read. If its author were alive now I feel he might give an answer similar to George Orwell’s when he was asked in an interview about the purpose of 1984. He thought for a moment and said “Don’t let it happen”. Haffner would have to have added “again”.