All of us have that list or pile of books that we should read for any number of good causes, but somehow they remain at the bottom of the pile as we engage more easily in the books we want to read. In this case, my purpose was to learn more about the history of Germany between the two World Wars to flesh out my understanding of characters I’m creating for Mismatch, a novel set in 1945 and dealing with US involvement with providing aid to the Nazis during World War II. When I discovered Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner, a memoir of a young German who was a youth playing with toy soldiers during World War I and who came of age during the years that Hitler and the Nazis came to power, I felt I’d found what I needed to learn more of the social impact of this change of order in Germany. Still, it took a while to commit to reading it. When I did, I found this and much, much more.
For those of us studying this period in hindsight, it is very easy to get bogged down in questions about how the German people could have bought into Hitler’s agenda or not known what was going on regarding the extermination of the Jews. After reading this account of the subtle and insidious ways that Hitler used to permeate the German people with his credo of hate towards the Jews and his propaganda that built on what they wanted to hear, for the first time I could understand how a rational people could ultimately be lead to irrational actions. It also enlightened me to how many people in Germany at that time did not buy into Hitler’s agenda and were acutely aware of how their way of life was being changed forever, and how painful it was when some (like the author and his family) came to that terrible realization that they could no longer live in their native country. Knowing how everything ended for the German people, it was hard not to shout out a warning to the author not to delay, not to keep hoping that it would never get worse than this. Perhaps what this book drove home best was the humanity and vulnerability of the people involved and how many more basic human life decisions were made compared to the calculated political decisions being made at higher levels.
The book stops abruptly before World War II begins, and the manuscript wasn’t discovered until decades later. So much has been written and interpreted about the war during the time the manuscript was not available that it is most refreshing to find a journalistic account of that time period untouched by those interpretations. Ultimately it is an intensely human story, made even moreso as it captures on such a personal level one of the most inhuman time periods in history. I highly recommend it.