March 16, 2016

Notes on fascism


BERNARD WEINER - A good share of what we know about how this happened in Germany usually comes to us many years later from post-facto books, looking backward to the horror. There are very few examples of accounts written from the inside at the very time the events were unfolding. One such book is "Defying Hitler," by the noted German journalist/author Sebastian Haffner. The manuscript was found, stuffed away in a drawer, by Haffner's son in 1999 after his father's death at age 91. Published in 2000, the book became an immediate best-seller in Germany and was published last year in English, translated by the son, Oliver Pretzel...

"Defying Hitler" is a brilliantly written social document, begun (and ended abruptly) in 1939; even though it fills in the reader on German history from the First World War on, its major focus is on the year 1933, when, as Hitler assumed power, Haffner was a 25-year-old law student, in-training to join the German courts as a junior administrator...

Haffner tries to solve the riddle of the easy acceptance of fascism in Hitler's Third Reich. In March of 1933, a majority of German citizens did not vote for Hitler. "What happened to that majority? Did they die? Did they disappear from the face of the earth? Did they become Nazis at this late stage? How was it possible that there was not the slightest visible reaction from them" as Hitler, installed by the authorities as Chancellor, began slowly and then more quickly consolidating power and moving Germany from a democratic state to a totalitarian one?

All along the way, Hitler would propose or actually promulgate regulations that sliced away at German citizens' freedoms -- usually aimed at small, vulnerable sectors of society (labor unionists, communists, Jews, mental defectives, et al.) -- and few said or did anything to indicate serious displeasure. In the early days, on those rare occasions when there was concerted negative reaction, Hitler would back off a bit. And so the Nazis grew bolder and more voracious as they continued slicing away at civil society. Many Germans (including some of Hitler's original corporate backers) were convinced Nazism would collapse as it became more and more extreme; others chose denial. It was easier to look the other way.

Haffner saw what was starting to happen, but retreated into his law studies. Even while the Brownshirts were beating and killing people in the streets, the courts with which he worked remained a solid bulwark in defense of traditional democratic principles. And then one day, the Nazis simply marched into the Berlin court buildings and took over Germany's judicial system. Haffner was shaken to the core, but continued studying for his final exams.

Shortly thereafter, he and his fellow students were dispatched to a kind of boot camp for ideological and military training. Haffner, a Christian anti-Nazi, found himself, to his astonishment and horror, wearing jackboots, a swastika and learning how to kill.

In an inner monologue, Haffner says: "There are some things I must never do: never say anything that I would be ashamed of later. Shooting at targets is all right. But not at people. I must not commit myself, or sell my soul...Oh dear! It dawned on me that I had already relinquished and lost everything. I wore a uniform with a swastika armband. I stood to attention and cleaned my rifle....But that did not count: it was not me that did it; it was a game and I was acting a part.

"Only what if, dear God, there was some court that did not recognize this defense, but simply wrote down everything as it happened; that did not look into my heart, but simply noted the swastika armband? Before that court I was in a wretched position. Dear God, where had I gone wrong? What should I say to the judge who asked, 'You wear a swastika armband and say that you do not want to. Then why do you wear it?'"...

"It is one of the uncanny aspects of events in Germany that the deeds have no doers, the suffering has no martyrs. Everything takes place under a kind of anesthesia. Objectively dreadful deeds produce a thin, puny emotional response. Murders are committed like schoolboy pranks. Humiliation and moral decay are accepted like minor incidents. Even death under torture only produces the response 'Bad luck'."...

He hung on until 1938. Just prior to the Second World War, Haffner left Germany for England to join the war-effort against fascism. He did not return until the mid-'50s.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"There are very few examples of accounts written from the inside at the very time the events were unfolding."

True it is, however, let us not neglect to mention the writings of William L. Shirer, author the classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer, more than a historian after the fact, was a contemporary reporter covering events from Germany as they unfolded from the 1920's on the brink of US entry into WW II.
His works ought be mandatory reading for any student of twentieth century history.