Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Story of a Duel

"Why is it not doing away with them?" I cried, outraged. "If you systematically ruin somebody, and take any possibility of earning a living from them, they must surely finally starve. Is that not so? I call it doing away with someone when you deliberately allow them to starve, don't you?"
"Calm down," said Holz, "nobody starves in Germany. If a Jewish shopkeeper is really ruined, he will get social security payments." The terrible thing was that he said that quite seriously, without the slightest sneer. We parted in a hostile mood.
-Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler 

I am doing something a little different with my blog today. Why? Because, I have just finished reading a remarkable book, and half the pleasure in the discovery an articulate, insightful, and (sometimes) painfully honest author is being able to share it with others.

For several years I have been a student of World War Two history, largely because the novel I am writing is a WWII story. During that time I have collected a small library of firsthand accounts, biographies and history books all dealing with 1940s in general and Nazi Germany in particular. I have been trying to understand how an entire nation could have been duped into following one man bent on taking over the world and systematically destroying entire races. Even 70 years later, it is a puzzle we may never be able to solve completely, except by simply citing the depravity of man.

Last summer, my mom visited a used book sale and brought me a small paperback that had caught her eye: Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner. Neither of us had ever heard of the author before or this little book that had been written in 1939 but published posthumously in 2000. Haffner was born in 1907 and came of age in a country that was just beginning to fall under Hitler's spell. He emigrated in 1938 and began working on what would become his first book (though the last to be published). Defying Hitler is part historical account, part memoir, part philosophy, part confession, part tragedy and a rare view of Germany by a German who himself just barely escaped being swept away in an ideological maelstrom.

What I found remarkable about Haffner's account was his attempt to explain something inexplicable. From his perspective, everything about post-WWI Germany conditioned his generation to accept the Nazis. He speaks of growing up in the midst of the Great War, when he and his young friends lived for the daily army bulletins and the back-and-forth, chess-like movements of the troops: 

"For a schoolboy in Berlin, the war was something very unreal; it was like a game. There were no air raids and no bombs. There were the wounded, but you saw them only at a distance, with picturesque bandages... It was a dark, mysterious game and its never-ending, wicked lure eclipsed everything else, making daily life seem trite. It was addictive, like roulette and opium. My friends and I played it all through the war: four long years, unpunished and undisturbed. It is this game, and not the harmless battle games we organized in the streets and playgrounds nearby, that has left its dangerous mark on all of us."

This addiction to sensationalism followed Haffner and his friends into their teen and young adult years, when one of the most "sensational" men in history would be vying for their loyalty. Haffner describes the advent of Hitler with uneasiness, but also points out that the Nazi takeover did not seem like a violent revolution to most people. Daily life went on, basically unchanged. People were born, went to school, fell in love, worked, played, died, etc. And when they finally began to feel the grip of the Nazis tightening around them, the cloud of fear hanging over them, they chalked up the additional restrictions (the atrocities even) as necessary to keeping the peace.

While Haffner claimed he could see the Nazis for who they truly were, he was not looking for a fight, as he explains in his introduction.

"This is the story of a duel. It is a duel between two very unequal adversaries: an exceedingly powerful, formidable, and ruthless state and an insignificant, unknown private individual... The individual is...ill prepared for the onslaught. He was not born a hero, still less a martyr. He is just an ordinary man with many weaknesses, having grown up in vulnerable times. He is nevertheless stubbornly antagonistic. So he enters into the duel--without enthusiasm, shrugging his shoulders, but with a quiet determination not to yield."

But he almost did yield, teetered on the edge of the precipice and stepped back. Haffner was training to be a lawyer. When the time came for him to take their government's equivalent of a bar exam, he and his class gathered at a barracks town. What was meant merely to prepare them for the test was turned into a Nazi conditioning camp by the state. They learned how to march and shoot, to sing Nazi songs, and to enjoy the terrible convenience of being too busy to think about what they were doing. 

Haffner was not looking for a duel. Except for a few angry outbursts at his classmates, he tried mostly to slip under the radar. It worked...until that which he had tried to avoid came so close that he could feel its breath on his face, and he was unprepared for it.

I wanted to share all of this with you, because I thought Defying Hitler was a very interesting book, a good window into one of the most troubling societies of the 20th Century and a telling commentary on the nature of man. There also may be some lessons for us here. 

Now, I am not a political person. I have never been. But even I am tempted to make some comparisons to what this man experienced and what Christians in this country can experience. I'll keep it brief and leave the discussion to those who know what they're talking about. What struck me was something Haffner discovered: Complacency doesn't work. That applies to any society, any moral choice. If we simply try to avoid conflict, then conflict catches us unawares, and we realize that simply for the sake of keeping the peace or saving our skin, we've already taken too many steps in the wrong direction.

Take it from someone who's struggled all her life with avoiding conflict (for the wrong reasons), who is too easily tempted by the path of least resistance: comfort zones can get pretty cramped. But, we have a Father who has given us all the tools to combat evil in this world and whose Word rings like a clarion against the lulling drone of modern liberalism and tolerance for every deviant whim. His is a cause worth fighting for.