How Hitler Was Possible in the Germany of Goethe


Sebastian Haffner (pen name for Raimund Pretzel) is a household name in Germany where he is known as a journalist and historian. He is little known in the US other than to those who are still trying to figure out how Hitler and Nazism came to be in the land of Bismarck, Frederick the Great, Goethe, Shiller, Martin Luther, and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Haffner was part of a generation of Germans as a child in WW I, growing up in embittered postwar Germany, a teenager during the Weimar Republic, and maturing into an apprentice lawyer by 1933 when the full flower of Hitler’s power convinced Haffner to emigrate. His dream was to go to Paris, but that was not to be.

He still believed that the non-Nazi party of educated, cultured elite would prevail. By 1938 on the cusp of WW II he realized his hopes were shattered dreams and left for the UK where he wrote his seminal work and lived until 1999 when he died at 93. He was a writer for The Observer as well as a professor of history and a frequent guest and pundit on post WW II German TV and radio which spread his fame.

Two books stand out in Haffner’s work. Defying Hitler: A Memoir, and The Meaning of Hitler. The latter spent 42 weeks on the best seller list in Germany. Both are available in English in translation, and both are relatively slim volumes. One enthusiastic reader said he stayed up all night and read them both at one go. The two books are considered by reviewers and readers as among the most important works on Germany during the period as well as the rise of Hitler and Nazism.

Defying Hitler was compiled by Haffner’s son Oliver who adopted his father’s chosen name Pretzel.  The book spans the father’s life from the age of 7 as WW I is about to begin and follows his experience in fluid memoir style through to 1933. The translation is excellent.

The rare quality of the book is that is not about Germany as an historian or journalist might look in from the outside, as are most books on the period. Instead, the reader gets to know Haffner as an ordinary German leading an ordinary life. Haffner becomes the German everyman, not Schindler or Liebknecht. Haffner was born to a middle class family in what was a middle class country before WW I.

The arc of the memoir includes the post war Weimar Republic and the hyperinflation when a loaf of bread rose to 1 billion marks, and money not spent in the morning was worthless by the afternoon. Next comes Berlin of the ’20s into the ’30s brought vividly to life. The city that changed Christopher Isherwood’s and classmate W. H. Auden’s lives was a cauldron of creativity, an emerging LGBT society, Socialism and Communism via the Russian Revolution, Marx, Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht, and Bertolt Brecht — to say nothing of Albert Einstein.

Yet this same period was when Hitler laid his political foundations. Hitler was almost ignored by a public that marginalized his fledgling party that had not yet risen to levels of madness. Reading these sections of Haffner’s growth into adulthood, knowing now what was happening under the surface, offers insight into the question of “how could this have happened?”

If there is a hint of “could it happen here?” as some have pondered with the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism, the memoir makes clear that parallels between Germany of the 1920s and 1930s and the US of the early 21st century diverge more than they coincide. That said, it becomes clear how an otherwise benign population in the thriving economy of Germany in the 1930s can become unthinking sheep led by a populist with charismatic appeal.

One reader had an epiphany reading the memoir: “I never thought I could relate to a young German man in the 1930s, but since the January 6 insurrection attempt at the Capitol building in Washington DC, my point of view has widened. I never stopped to think about all that the regular working German families went through, or how the German people could be so brainwashed. I now know that it was no accident, but carefully planned and hidden, just as the Jan 6 insurrection attempt was no accident.”

The Meaning of Hitler is Haffner’s magnus opus where he tackles many of the questions raised in his memoir. Haffner points out that his generation and his parent’s generation were not naive or unknowing; they recognized Hitler when he first came to power (virulent antisemitism and concentration camps). Hitler “promised everything to everybody, which naturally brought him a vast, loose army of followers and voters from among the ignorant, the disappointed, and the dispossessed.

“We knew the morons were in the overwhelming majority. But…we felt more or less sure that they would be held in check. We moved among them with the same unconcern with which visitors to a modern cageless zoo walk past the beasts of prey, confident that its ditches and hedges have been carefully calculated.”

The author makes a strong case that law can become an even more potent weapon than a protector of civil society. Haffner observes that the first country to be occupied by the Nazis was not Austria or Czechoslovakia; it was Germany. When the Nazi Party was in the majority it had the right to appoint the judges who would interpret the laws. (Haffner’s son Oliver was an apprentice judge in the early Nazi regime.) There was no need to change the laws, since they could be adjusted by judges to meet changes in society.

Meanwhile, the US Constitution and the role of the US Supreme Court are seen as prime examples of a “wise” constitutional system. We take pride in having an “independent judiciary,” theoretically divorced from politics at the highest judicial levels. But does Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court, which stood in the way of many of his New Deal reforms, bespeak an independent judiciary?

The Chinese Communist Party vets and appoints all the members of its courts at all levels. Until the 2010s the death penalty was a broad sword in China, liberally applied including at show trials. Today the death penalty is rarely applied. The law hasn’t changed, the judges interpret the ultimate sanction differently thanks to changes in Chinese Communist Party policy.

The independence of the US Supreme Court is supposedly assured by lifetime appointments as a separate branch of government. Nazi Germany theoretically had an independent judiciary under their constitution. But their constitution was ignored. An independent judiciary becomes a question mark when a government borders on a tyranny as the German court system did under the Nazis’ single party control. It all happened while stout German citizens remained oblivious to what was going on.

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
The Seattle-based author has many years of experience in national broadcast news, including years teaching journalism in mainland China.


  1. Why do you assume that authoritarian government could emerge in the USA only because of the right? Of Trumpism?

    I think the intellectual underpinnings supporting authoritarianism are visible in left-wing wokism, quite visible in Seattle. Yes it’s more likely to emerge from the Right but Left is also in love with claiming the moral high ground & likes to prove it.

    • I agree, the Left, lately, has been demonstrating a far greater fondness for authoritarian/totalitarian tendencies. Moreover, imposing one-party rule is one of their main political objectives.

    • Reichstagsbrand : February 1933 :: The Capitol Insurrection : January 6, 2021

      “Mit der “Reichstagsbrandverordnung” hat sie Grundrechte außer Kraft gesetzt und den Weg in die Diktatur geebnet.” (Source: Die Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung)

      So, I, more or less, lost the thread when I got to the part about “morons” — but I think that you are arguing for the need for more power for the state, more (or was less) adherence to the Constitution, and judges who are faithful to the rule of law (but only when the laws are situation-dependent and malleable).

      Lastly, would you say that Donald Trump is a modern-day Emmanuel Goldstein for many people in our contemporary society?

    • The left is more of a “big tent” kind of party, whereas the right seems to be angling toward a monolithic culture of exclusion and nostalgia. This should tell us all we need to know, re: similarities to 1930s Germany. Yes, there are plenty of missteps on the left. But the arguments above strike me as being made in bad faith and “what-about-ism.” Particularly with presidential popular vote numbers dating back to 1988.

      Get back to us when Democrats pull a January 6. Thanks.

  2. As laid out here, our safety lies not in any structural integrity of our system, but in our continued prosperity and in the ineptitude of the opposition.

  3. I agree with the author.

    My family was able to flee France to the US in 1942 because we were French nationals. I wonder if that would have been possible if I had not been born in Strasbourg, a former part of Germany that was reappropriated by the French in 1918, but born on the other side of the Rhein.

  4. Thank you Peter for discussing Haffner’s powerful and cautionary work. Hitler’s rapid rise to power was stunning. A few years ago, I interviewed historian Benjamin Carter Hett about his groundbreaking book “The Death of Democracy” on the demise of the Weimar Republic and the almost instant Nazi death-grip on power. Chilling reading as we face an immediate threat to democracy in America today from an extreme right wing with racist and anti-government domestic terrorists. Here’s a link to my interview with Professor Hett for a bit more historical perspective:
    Thanks for reading.

  5. I just read “Defying Hitler” and want to thank you for the recommendation. It’s the story of the life of an admittedly ordinary man in Berlin from 1914 when he was 8, to 1933. This is not Big History, but just his own history of that singular time. Shirer tried something similar in “Berlin Diary” – he was just 2 years older than Haffner – but he wasn’t German, and as an American correspondent, had a very different point of view and experience. Haffner’s description of and thoughts about the German people shows that they were quite different from Americans, so I don’t think a parallel can be drawn.


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