Today is the 100th anniversary of Sebastian Haffner’s – pardon, Raimund Pretzel’s birthday.
The pseudonym was created to protect relatives still living in Nazi-Germany, after the lawyer managed to emigrate to Britain and started to write.
Now, a lot of people will wonder why the former Observer journalist is still relevant and exciting us today; especially since his obituary [link] has already been published.
But since his death in 1999, a bundle of memoirs from the Thirties have been discovered and when posthumously published in 2002 in the English translation as “Defying Hitler”, the nearly forgotten author topped the reading charts once again.
It created a new hype of Haffnermania, with his previous works republished, such as “Germany: Jekyll and Hyde”
and it also inspired a flood of biographies on Haffner.
But why is he still relevant today?
Like, take me as example: after battling for nearly a year with the subject of “The German city in the Middle Ages” in school in the Eighties, I had enough of history lessons. I gave pretty much up on the subject, it seemed just boring and pointless to me. It appeared to be just a list of dates pointing out that “King X went to war against Prince Y because he wanted some more land”. Or some more power. Or because of something religious. Or… aeh, whatever.
What Sebastin Haffner achieved, was to make history comprehensible and exciting again. He explained motives, thoughts, plans and the decision-making of the people, and did not just focus on the kings, queens and other political leaders but also gave examples about the mood amongst ordinary people living and coping in extraordinary times. And this was not his only achievement: he explained history in order to understand how we got to the present situation and what the future is likely to bring.
Generally speaking, his explanations on for example how Bismarck united the counties to form a federal German state pretty much still explains on why there has never been a serious conflict or struggle for independence by one of its parts. He also explained the motives behind late 19th century home affairs policy brilliantly, why Germany did not have (m)any colonies or that the introduction of the social security system was started in order to discourage public support for the socialist party or other revolutionary tendencies.
So after we reached Bismarck, history lessons got all much more exciting again. Only later, when reading Sebastian Haffner’s work “The Ailing Empire” my impression then was, that the school text books seemed to have plagiarised its content, with a nice pick’n choose of historical details and reasoning omitted because of non-approval by the relevant education ministry. Like, the assassination of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg by the early socialist party leaders (SPD) was brushed over very generously, but are nicely and in depth detailed in Haffner’s book about 1918/1919 plus the effects it had on the state of democracy in a young German republic. Oh, and the fact that Hitler was first introduced to the Nazi movement as a police spy. Or read Haffner’s ”The Meaning of Hitler”.
So,in summary and especially in his book “Defying Hitler”, Haffner also achieved to explain to later generations like me, how it was possible that the Nazi Reich and the Holocaust happened, how Hitler could have gained popular support and how a young democracy got transformed into a totalitarian regime.
Given that most of the older generation did not – and if alive, still does not – want to talk about that dark part of history, apart from personal family anecdotes such as “and then Uncle Herbert threw the burning Christmas tree out of the window” or “we were lucky because the bomb flew into the cesspool”, the Haffner’s books, in particular his memoirs, were and are incredibly important to understand history from an egalitarian perspective.
So, and that’s that for another hundred years.
At least for commemorating Haffner – I hope I am allowed back here earlier with another subject.
But, if there is one regret on this special day; then it is that we can not celebrate his temporary presence on this planet by reading his Observer articles on the brandnew Digital Archive for free.