JBD

 

Jun 2001 Journal

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Posthumous discovery

My father, Sebastian Haffner, might not have been pleased to see his book Geschichte eines Deutschen published. He died in 1999 at the age of 91, a celebrated German author and historical journalist, with a reputation for books containing highly original, coolly and lucidly argued insights into German twentieth-century history. This book, the first he ever wrote, started in exile in England in 1938 and abandoned a year or so later, may be original and lucid, but it is not cool. It is the passionate outburst of a young man whose career has been cut off and whose life has been turned inside out by his own countrymen, following a leader and an ideology he views only with contempt and disgust. In his cool old age, my father tended to be slightly ashamed of the early works he had published in England. What would he have thought of this one, unfinished, raw, and revealing so much of his inner self?

The book vividly describes my father's life and the political events in Germany from 1914, when he was seven years old, until 1933. Reading it, one has the feeling of a headlong rush into the abyss - and the speed of the writing matches the speed of the events. It was doubtless intended to continue up to his emigration to England in 1938, but the advent of the war caused him to stop work on it and start on another more urgent work that became Germany, Jekyll and Hyde, the start of a major career in English journalism.

In 1954 my father returned to Germany where he embarked on a second even more successful career, which reached its peak with his much-praised Anmerkungen zu Hitler. He continued to write throughout his seventies, but after 1990, his 83rd year, he became progressively weaker and eventually stopped writing altogether.

He was not much given to personal reminiscence, but he did refer to the early manuscripts he kept in a side-cupboard of his desk. He suggested I should go through them after his death, but forbade me to read any during his lifetime. When he died, I started looking through them, mainly searching for an early novel he had praised. There, I stumbled across the manuscript of Geschichte eines Deutschen. It came as a complete surprise. My father had never mentioned it to me. I was immediately fascinated and read it in a single sitting, but was unsure whether my enthusiasm was due to personal involvement. I gave it to read to a journalist friend whose enthusiasm decided me to try to publish it.

I am currently engaged in translating the book into English. No doubt my father would have modified the text had he been alive to see it published. He would certainly have lowered the temperature. He might have added chapters covering events between 1933 and 1938. How I regret that he never got round to writing those! However, I do not think he would have changed his analysis of the events the book describes.
Oliver Pretzel

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