Kinder Sculpture

 

Jun 2001 Journal

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Insightful and unsparing analysis

GESCHICHTE EINES DEUTSCHEN, Sebastian Haffner, Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 2000.

He “emerged out of fathomless depths far below those plumbed by the cheapest penny dreadfuls – from a nether sphere where demons rise out of a rancid miasma concocted in petit bourgeois backrooms, doss-houses, barracks latrines and execution yards.” This is how Sebastian Haffner described Hitler in Geschichte eines Deutschen, the autobiographical account he wrote on reaching Britain as a political émigré in l939. It is a work written with impassioned revulsion under the immediate impact of events. The German style, to which I try to do justice in my translated opening paragraph, shows how right the author was as a young man to contemplate switching from legal studies  - his father’s chosen profession for him – to writing. More importantly, though, the completed manuscript evinces profound political insight – a gift which subsequently earned Haffner the unique distinction of being, consecutively, a prominent journalist both in Britain (The Observer) and Germany (Die Welt and Der Stern).

A prime example of his perceptiveness is the depiction of the national mood during Germany’s Stresemann years, the period of stability between the run-away inflation and the Slump. I subscribe to the theory that the near-astronomical increase of Nazi votes in the l930 election was not primarily caused by economic collapse (as is generally assumed) since the impact of the Wall Street Crash had not yet had time to bite. My supposition – namely that Hitler’s electoral breakthrough owed much to first-time voters who chafed at having come into the world too late to share in the Fronterlebnis of the Great War – is borne out by Haffner. He advances the thesis that Stresemann’s creation of stability and uneventful routine was perceived by the majority of the population not as enrichment but as a form of deprivation. Haffner writes that in the wake of the Great War, the postwar upheavals, the Ruhr occupation, and the inflation in which millions could be lost (but also won), generations of younger Germans had become habituated to receiving all the impulses for deeper emotion - for love and hate, joy and sorrow - so to speak ‘free of charge’ from the public sphere. “They had never learnt to give meaning and beauty to their little private lives.” The young, in particular, considered private life boring, bourgeois and belonging “to the day before yesterday.”

He contrasts this with the French tradition of deriving enjoyment from indulgence in food, drinking, rhetoric and l’amour, and the English enjoyment of hobbies, gardening and the keeping of pets. Haffner also had the diagnostic skill to perceive as early as the l930s that the majority of the fellow-countrymen he had left behind on emigrating were in a state bordering on mental illness. The correctness of his diagnosis was borne out by the fact that though the war was obviously lost by l943, millions of Wehrmacht soldiers and munition workers continued giving their all for Führer and Fatherland for another two years. Such perverted devotion to a manifestly lost cause could not be secured by Gestapo terror, but only by the gradual atrophy of the nation’s brain cells!

This is, all in all, a most valuable book. We, who have every reason to be anti-German, but would be blind not to acknowledge the post-war emergence of a different Germany, will also draw inspiration from the Goethe quotation “Deutschland ist nichts, aber jeder einzelne Deutsche ist sehr viel.” (Germany is nothing, but every single German counts for a great deal) which Haffner has chosen as the epigraph for his book. The news that an English translation is currently being prepared is to be warmly welcomed.
Richard Grunberger

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