The Weimar Republic has always been a special interest of mine. The journalist and historian Sebastian Haffner was an ideal eyewitness to this turbulent period since he came of age just as he Great War was ending and lived in Weimar's epicenter - Berlin - with his family and as an apprentice lawyer. His memoir of the period, Geschichte eines Deutschen, was written in exile in 1938, but was not discovered until after his death in 1999 by his son. It was published in 2001.
Haffner was well-suited to write about the rise and collapse of the Republic. He was a talented writer, well-versed in European history and literature. He was Liberal - in the classical sense, a conservative democrat who was highly critical of the political parties - both left and right - in Germany. The young Haffner became enamored of the charismatic German foreign minister Walther Rathenau, who, to Haffner, represented the best of Germany and the greatest hope for German democracy.
"Rathenau und Hitler sind die beiden Erscheinungen, die die Phantasie der deutschen Masse aufs äußerste gereizt haben: der eine durch seine unfaßliche Kultur, der andere durch seine unfaßliche Gemeinheit".
Rathenau's assassination by right-wing extremists was a severe blow to Haffner and his hopes for the Republic. From that point on Haffner saw very little in terms of political response that would stand in the way of the Nazis.
I found Haffner's discussion of the brief period of stability - from 1926 to the death of Gustav Stresemann in 1929 - particularly insightful. For a brief period the German people were not buffeted by war, revolution, ruinous inflation. Foreign investment was flowing into the country, Germany was at peace with other European nations thanks to the diplomacy of Stresemann. Berlin was the global center of cultural innovation. And yet for many Germans - especially the younger generation - stability was anathema:
"So empfanden sie das Aufhören der öffentlichen Spannung und die Wiederkehr der privaten Freiheit nicht als Geschenk, sondern als Beraubung. Sie begannen sich zu langweilen, sie kamen auf dumme Gedanken, sie wurden mürrisch - und sie warteten schliesslich geradezu gierig auf die erste Störung, den ersten Rückschlag oder Zwischenfall, um die ganze Friedenszeit zu liquideren und neue kollektive Abenteuer zu starten."
Much of Haffner's memoir - especially the riveting sections after 1933 - deal with the question of German acquiescence to the Nazis.
"Noch am 5. März 1933 hat die Mehrheit von ihnen gegen Hitler gewählt. Was ist aus dieser Mehrheit geworden? Ist sie gestorben, vom Erdboden verschwunden? Oder, so spät noch, Nazi geworden?"
And Haffner doesn't exclude his own personal behavior from this discussion. Could he have done more to push back against the Nazis- even among his own circle of young jurists? Geschichte eines Deutschen was translated into English by Haffner's son Oliver Pretzel and published with the title Defying Hitler. But Haffner would be the first to reject the notion that he "defied" Hitler. In one gripping passage he describes how a group of SA thugs intrude on the courthouse where Haffner was clerking as an apprentice lawyer. His Jewish colleagues were all violently pushed out into the street and one of the thugs confronted Haffner with the question: "Sind Sie arisch?" - he meekly answered "Ja!".
Another interesting observation of Haffner's is the impossibility of "innere Emgration" - retreat into the private sphere - in a totalitarian system:
Wohin immer man sich zurückzog - überall fand man gerade das wieder vor, wovor man hatte fliehen wollen. Ich lernte, dass die Nazi-Revolution die alte Trennung zwischen Politik und Privatleben aufgehoben hatte, und dass es unmöglich war, sie enfach als "politisches Ereignis" zu behandeln.[...]sie wirkte wie ein GIftgas, das durch all Wände dringt."
So the only option for Haffner was self-imposed exile to Great Britain.
Geschichte eines Deutschen was written in 1938, but Haffner could see clearly that Germany was on a path to war. Also, he was very clear that anti-Semitism was a driving force of the Nazis and Jews were facing mass detention in concentration camps - although he could not have imagined something as monstrous as the Holocaust. Finally - and here Haffner was especially prescient - he knew that Germany could only be liberated from Nazism by outside force.
With the rise of the AfD in Germany, and authoritarian movements in the USA and throughout Europe, Haffner's book as relevant today as it was when it was written.