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In Defiance of Nazism: Sebastian Haffner

While a look a Nazi propaganda movies might lead you to believe that all German people supported the Third Reich, this is not true. Many average Germans opposed the Nazi government and some resisted it at the risk of their own lives. One of those who resisted was Sebastian Haffner. Although he ultimately fled England to escape Nazi persecution, he remained an outspoken critic of the Nazi government and became one of the most widely read German writers about recent German history.
Sebastian Haffner was born in 1907 in Berlin, Germany. His name was actually Raimund Pretzel and he only adopted the pseudonym Sebastian Haffner only after fleeing England in order to protect his family who was still in Germany. He was a boy during the hardships of World War I, a teenager during the continued hardships of the Great Depression, and a young man during the early days of the Third Reich.

Haffner was preparing to be a lawyer when the Nazis came to power in 1933. While he was ideologically opposed to everything that the Nazis stood for, he found he was powerless to stand up to the crushing power of the Nazi state. He quickly found himself capitulating in ways he never thought he would. By the time he fled Germany in 1938, he had even been forced to attend a Nazi indoctrination camp for young lawyers in which he had been made to wear a uniform and a swastika.

Thankfully, that was the last time that Haffner allowed himself to be intimidated by the Nazis. Realizing that things were only going to get worse, he emigrated to England along with his Jewish fiance. There, he worked as an journalist for The Observer for several years until he moved back to Germany after the war to be a correspondent covering divided Berlin. After the East German government built the Berlin Wall in 1961, Haffner went to work as a columnist for the Die Welt newspaper and later as a columnist for the German Stern magazine.

While working as a journalist and after retirement in 1975, he also worked as an author of histories of recent German history. Even before the fall of the Third Reich, he was writing books about it. He continued this pattern after the war during a time when many Germans were, for obvious reasons, extremely reluctant to discuss the Nazi past. As someone who had remained a critic of the Nazi government, however, Haffner had the moral authority to discuss it that many Germans lacked. Though he was critical of the Third Reich, Haffner's books were surprisingly devoid of emotion and unnecessary value judgements. He simply related the facts of history as he saw them.

Much of what is known about Haffner's early life comes from a autobiographical memoir, not published in his lifetime, in which he outlines his resistance to the Nazi government. It contains much more emotion than his other writings, and he never wished it to be published. Realizing its quality, his son, Oliver Pretzel published it under the title "Defying Hitler" just a couple of years after Haffner's death. It has quickly become an excellent source for anyone interested in what ordinary Germans thought about Nazism and what they did about the horrors they saw in their daily lives.