The politics of personal lives

Another excerpt from Sebastian Haffner’s, Defying Hitler, explains why a first-person account of what it was like to be an ordinary person during a moment in history is valuable, and perhaps more valuable than the usual third-person epic historical survey:

What is history, and where does it take place?

If you read ordinary history books — which, it is often overlooked, contain only the scheme of events, not the events themselves — you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be “at the helm of the ship of state” and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history. According to this view, the history of the present decade is a kind of chess game among Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody’s lips. We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game, who may be pushed forward or left standing, sacrificed or captured, but whose lives, for what they are worth, take place in a totally different world, unrelated to what is happening on the chessboard, of which they are quite unaware.

It may seem a paradox, but it is nonetheless the simple truth, to say that on the contrary, the decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large. It is characteristic of these decisions that they do not manifest themselves as mass movements or demonstrations. Mass assemblies are quite incapable of independent action. Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals.

This is not an airy, abstract historical construction, but indisputably real and tangible. For instance, what was it that caused Germany to lose the Great War in 1918 and the Allies to win it? An advance in the leadership skills of Foch and Haig, or a decline in Ludendorff’s? Not at all. It was the fact that the “German soldier,” that is, the majority of an anonymous mass of 10 million individuals, was no longer willing, as he had been until then, to risk his life in any attack, or to hold his position to the last man. Where did this change of attitude take place? Certainly not in large, mutinous assemblies of German soldiers, but unnoticed and unchecked in each individual soldier’s breast. Most of them would probably not have been able to describe this complicated and historically important internal process and would merely have used the single expletive “Shit!” If you had interviewed the more articulate soldiers, you would have found a whole skein of random, private (and probably uninteresting and unimportant) reasons, feelings, and experiences, a combination of letters from home, relations with the sergeant, opinions about the quality of the food, and thoughts on the prospects and meaning of the war and (since every German is something of a philosopher) about the meaning and value of life. It is not my purpose here to analyze the inner process that brought the Great War to an end, but it would be interesting for those who wish to reconstruct this event, or others like it, to do so.

Mine is a different topic, although the mental processes it involves are similar. They may perhaps be of greater consequence, interest, and importance: namely, the psychological developments, reactions, and changes that took place simultaneously in the mass of the German population, which made Hitler’s Third Reich possible and today form its unseen basis.

There is an unsolved riddle in the history of the creation of the Third Reich. I think it is much more interesting than the question of who set fire to the Reichstag. It is the question “What became of the Germans?” Even on March 5, 1933, a majority of them voted against 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?

Most of my readers will have met one or more Germans in the past, and most of them will have looked on their German acquaintances as normal, friendly, civilized people like anyone else — apart from the usual national idiosyncrasies. When they hear the speeches coming from Germany today (and become aware of the foulness of the deeds emanating from there), most of these people will think of their acquaintances and be aghast. They will ask, “What’s wrong with them? Don’t they see what’s happening to them — and what is happening in their name? Do they approve of it? What kind of people are they? What are we to think of them?”

Indeed, behind these questions there are some very peculiar, very revealing mental processes and experiences, whose historical significance cannot yet be fully gauged. These are what I want to write about. You cannot come to grips with them if you do not track them down to the place where they happen: the private lives, emotions, and thoughts of individual Germans. They happen there all the more since, having cleared the sphere of politics of all opposition, the conquering, ravenous state has moved into formerly private spaces in order to clear these, too, of any resistance or recalcitrance and to subjugate the individual. There, in private, the fight is taking place in Germany. You will search for it in vain in the political landscape, even with the most powerful telescope. Today the political struggle is expressed by the choice of what a person eats and drinks, whom he loves, what he does in his spare time, whose company he seeks, whether he smiles or frowns, what he reads, what pictures he hangs on his walls. It is here that the battles of the next world war are being decided in advance. That may sound grotesque, but it is the truth.

That is why I think that by telling my seemingly private, insignificant story I am writing real history, perhaps even the history of the future. It actually makes me happy that in my own person I do not have a particularly important, outstanding subject to describe. If I were more important I would be less typical. That is also why I hope my intimate chronicle will find favor in the eyes of the serious reader, who has no time to waste, and reads a book for the information it contains and its usefulness.

Some descriptions of what drove Haffner to leave Germany:

The world I had lived in dissolved and disappeared. Every day another piece vanished quietly, without ado. Every day one looked around and something else had gone and left no trace. I have never since had such a strange experience. It was as if the ground on which one stood was continually trickling away from under one’s feet, or rather as if the air one breathed was steadily, inexorably being sucked away.

What was happening openly and clearly in public was almost the least of it. Yes, political parties disappeared or were dissolved; first those of the left, then also those of the right; I had not been a member of any of them. The men who had been the focus of attention, whose books one had read, whose speeches we had discussed, disappeared into exile or the concentration camps; occasionally one heard that one or another had “committed suicide while being arrested” or been “shot while attempting to escape.” At some point in the summer the newspapers carried a list of thirty or forty names of famous scientists or writers; they had been proscribed, declared to be traitors to the people and deprived of their citizenship.

More unnerving was the disappearance of a number of quite harmless people, who had in one way or another been part of daily life. The radio announcer whose voice one had heard every day, who had almost become an old acquaintance, had been sent to a concentration camp, and woe betide you if you mentioned his name. The familiar actors and actresses who had been a feature of our lives disappeared from one day to the next. Charming Miss Carola Neher was suddenly a traitor to the people; brilliant young Hans Otto, who had been the rising star of the previous season, lay crumpled in the yard of an SS barracks — yes, Hans Otto, whose name had been on everyone’s lips, who had been talked about at every soiree, had been hailed as the “new Matkowski” that the German stage had so long been waiting for. He had “thrown himself out of a fourth-floor window in a moment when the guards had been distracted,” they said. A famous cartoonist, whose harmless drawings had brought laughter to the whole of Berlin every week, committed suicide, as did the master of ceremonies of a well-known cabaret. Others just vanished. One did not know whether they were dead, incarcerated, or had gone abroad — they were just missing.

The symbolic burning of the books in April had been an affair of the press, but the disappearance of books from the bookshops and libraries was uncanny. Contemporary German literature, whatever its merits, had simply been erased. Books of the last season that one had not bought by April became unobtainable. A few authors, tolerated for some unknown reason, remained like individual ninepins in the wreckage. Otherwise you could get only the classics — and a dreadful, embarrassingly bad literature of blood and soil, which suddenly sprang up. Readers — always a minority in Germany, and as they were daily told, an unimportant one at that — were deprived of their world overnight. Further, since they had quickly learned that those who were robbed might also be punished, they felt intimidated and pushed their copies of Heinrich Mann and Feuchtwanger into the back rows of their bookshelves; and if they dared to talk about the newest Joseph Roth or Jakob Wassermann they put their heads together and whispered like conspirators.

Many journals and newspapers disappeared from the kiosks — but what happened to those that continued in circulation was much more disturbing. You could not quite recognize them anymore. In a way a newspaper is like an old acquaintance: you instinctively know how it will react to certain events, what it will say about them and how it will express its views. If it suddenly says the opposite of what it said yesterday, denies its own past, distorting its features, you cannot avoid feeling that you are in a madhouse. That happened. Old-established democratic broadsheets such as the Berliner Tageblatt or the Vossische Zeitung changed into Nazi organs from one day to the next. In their customary, measured, educated style they said exactly the same things that were spewed out by the Angriff or the Völkischer Beobachter, newspapers that had always supported the Nazis. Later, one became accustomed to this and picked up occasional hints by reading between the lines of the articles on the arts pages. The political pages always kept strictly to the party line.

To some extent, the editorial staff had been replaced; but frequently this straightforward explanation was not accurate. For instance, there was an intellectual journal called Die Tat (Action), whose content lived up to its name. In the final years before 1933 it had been widely read. It was edited by a group of intelligent, radical young people. With a certain elegance they indulged in the long historical view of the changing times. It was, of course, far too distinguished, cultured, and profound to support any particular political party — least of all the Nazis. As late as February its editorials brushed them off as an obviously ephemeral phenomenon. Its editor in chief had gone too far. He lost his job and only just managed to save his neck (today he is allowed to write light novels). The rest of the editorial staff remained in post, but as a matter of course became Nazis without the least detriment to their elegant style and historical perspective — they had always been Nazis, naturally; indeed better, more genuinely and more profoundly so than the Nazis themselves. It was wonderful to behold: the paper had the same typography, the same name — but without batting an eyelid it had become a thoroughgoing, smart Nazi organ. Was it a sudden conversion or just cynicism? Or had Messrs. Fried, Eschmann, Wirsing, etc. always been Nazis at heart? Probably they did not know themselves. Anyway, I soon abandoned the question. I was nauseated and wearied, and contented myself with taking leave of one more newspaper.

All the same, the temptation to seal oneself off was a sufficiently important aspect of the period for me to devote some space to it. It has its part to play in the psychopathological process that has unfolded in the cases of millions of Germans since 1933. After all, to a normal onlooker most Germans today exhibit the symptoms of lunacy or at the very least severe hysteria. If you want to understand how this came about, you have to take the trouble to place yourself in the peculiar position in which non-Nazi Germans — and that was still the majority — found themselves in 1933, and try to understand the bizarre, perverse conflicts they faced.

The plight of non-Nazi Germans in the summer of 1933 was certainly one of the most difficult a person can find himself in: a condition in which one is hopelessly, utterly overwhelmed, accompanied by the shock of having been caught completely off balance. We were in the Nazis’ hands for good or ill. All lines of defense had fallen, any collective resistance had become impossible. Individual resistance was only a form of suicide. We were pursued into the farthest corners of our private lives; in all areas of life there was rout, panic, and flight. No one could tell where it would end. At the same time we were called upon, not to surrender, but to renege. Just a little pact with the devil — and you were no longer one of the captured quarry. Instead you were one of the victorious hunters.

That was the simplest and crudest temptation. Many succumbed to it. Later they often found that the price to be paid was higher than they had thought and that they were no match for the real Nazis. There are many thousands of them today in Germany, Nazis with a bad conscience. People who wear their Nazi badges like Macbeth wore his royal robes, who, in for a penny, in for a pound, now find their consciences shouldering one burden after another, who search in vain for a way out, drink and take sleeping pills, no longer dare to think, and do not know whether they should rather pray for the end of the Nazi era — their own era! — or dread it. When that end comes they will certainly not admit to having been the culprits. In the meantime, however, they are the nightmare of the world. It is impossible to assess what these people might still be capable of in their moral and psychological derangement. Their history has yet to be written.

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