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Jul 2002 Journal

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Memoir of an "out-and-out anti-Nazi"

'Sebastian Haffner's Defying Hitler is a most brilliant and imaginative book - one of the most important books we have ever published', Lord Weidenfeld told a packed audience at the London Jewish Cultural Centre. The meeting was held in association with the AJR's Continental Britons Exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London's Camden Town.

Lord Weidenfeld was introducing a discussion between Oliver Pretzel, the son of Sebastian Haffner and translator from the German of Defying Hitler, and Martin Chalmers, a journalist and translator of The Klemperer Diaries.

Sebastian Haffner (pen-name of Raimund Pretzel), a prominent journalist, political commentator and historian, was a non-Jewish German who emigrated to England in 1938. Defying Hitler is a memoir about the rise of Nazism in Germany and the lives of ordinary German citizens between the wars. It was written in 1939 but the author put it aside while pursuing a career as a journalist and polemicist. When he died aged 91 in 1999, his son, mathematician Oliver Pretzel, discovered the manuscript. He sent it for publication and in the summer of 2000 it became a bestseller in Germany. Pretzel has translated it into English for its British edition.

"People knew, but they looked away"

Haffner's personal history of Hitler's rise to power explores the attributes of German culture which provided fertile ground for the Nazis. According to Oliver Pretzel, his father was 'an out-and-out anti-Nazi from the very start.' Haffner's memoir begins in 1914, when the family summer holiday is cut short by the outbreak of war, and ends with Hitler's assumption of power in 1933. Haffner shows how difficult it was to oppose Hitler, and just how swiftly the Nazis gained power. In Haffner's view, the Germans, unlike other European nations such as Britain and France, lacked an outlet for self-expression, thus leading to a tendency towards mass psychosis. The upheaval of post-World War 1 revolution, factionalism and inflation left them addicted to excitement and action: Hitler provided this, and more.

In 1942, Haffner, aware of the details of the Final Solution, wrote in The Observer that at the end of the war the SS should be rounded up and shot. He later declared he regretted writing these words, though not the sentiment behind them. For his part, Pretzel is convinced that Daniel Goldhagen, the author of the highly controversial Hitler's Willing Executioners, was right: 'people knew, but they looked away.'

*Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £14.99.
Howard Spier

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