Page 9, 14th June 2002

14th June 2002
Page 9
Page 9, 14th June 2002 — When good men do nothing

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When good men do nothing

The Nazis were able to take over Germany because middle-class people were content to sit back and let it happen, says Quentin de la Bedoyere Defying Hitler: A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner, Weidenfeld & Nicolson £14.99 Could it have happened here? Any account of the rise of Nazism raises the question — especially when it is written by someone who lived, as a middle-class private person, through the crucial period when Hitler's power became established. Sebastian Haffner, later to be a writer and journalist, described the process in this uncompleted memoir, published after his death by his son. He claims, as Tolstoy did, that the deeper currents of history are to be found in the myriad of decisions, or lack of decisions, taken by individuals rather than in the famous or infamous leaders that the spirit of the times threw up.

Haffner was a bitter man. No doubt this was justified by his circumstances, but bitterness is not a sound background for objective analysis. Only a German could so characterise his own nation without being accused of racial prejudice. It was Bismarck, the father of modem Germany, who said that moral courage was rare in his people and deserted them entirely when they put on uniform; they were ruthless in war and naturally subservient to authority. For Haffner, it is this moral bankruptcy and absence of backbone, together with a lack of personal resources, which allowed the events from the end of the Great War to the Nazi hegemony of the 1930s to unfold fundamentally unopposed.

This book is deeply interesting, as such a personal witness of a historical phenomenon by a good writer is bound to be. I finished it with a sense of having undergone an intensive course in human nature. I saw that it could undoubtedly have happened here, and if we disregard the implicit lessons is highly likely one day to do so. But it will take its own character and arrive at its own demonic destination in line with our culture — whatever that is in the process of becoming in our polyracial society. For Haffner is ultimately talking about human nature rather than German nature.

I am writing this review in a Croatian hotel mainly inhabited by English and German guests; their appearance and behaviours are indistinguishable, only the accident of language separating them. Since Haffner's time we have established that a deep instinct of obedience to authority is a near-universal characteristic, and that the donning of a uniform can relieve anyone of personal responsibility. We know, too, how the pressures of the groups to which we naturally belong can influence our values and our rationalisations. Our autonomy is a fragile thing and can be only too easily extinguished and be replaced by a shameful and dehumanised behaviour. Even in our lifetimes we have seen how the victims of atrocity themselves can slip seamlessly, when circumstances change, into the role of oppressors.

The most worrying aspect of Haffner's account is that the generally decent bourgeoisie were able to continue their comfortable routine lives while they read about, but preferred to ignore, the growth of tyrannies imposed on others until — too late — they were swallowed by them. We often wonder how the ordinary German could ignore the Holocaust and the death camps. But by then it was far too late to do anything but to seek refuge in denial. If we are to lay blame, it is not the Germans of the 1940s but the Germans of the early 1930s who should bear it.

But history has no more than academic value if we fail to apply the lessons to our own circumstances. What are the potential threats which we may discuss but ultimately prefer to ignore because they do not affect our everyday lives? Take your pick. In the last decade of the 20th century our society in England and Wales presided over a holocaust of 1.7 million lives. It didn't affect us directly because these were all unborn — and we are safely born. The familiarity of the pattern is significant: first, dehumanise your victims and, second, think up some beneficent-sounding rationalisations for disposing of them. The job is done. The next stage is to farm similar victims for medically useful resources. What might follow, little step by little step, and how much do we care? But if that does not touch us personally we might consider that by the year 2030 the number of retired people will be a high proportion of the population requiring support and resources from a working population which has forgotten how to breed. But is a scenario in which the economically inactive are encouraged to realise that they have outstayed their welcome more or less fantastic than the Final Solution would have looked in 1933?

At a less dramatic, but no less insidious, level comes th e increasing potential of state control through interrelated data bases and universal communications, video surveillance and identity cards. An incident like September 11 becomes a generally welcomed excuse for another incremental step — and we are very put out when Amnesty International criticises us for abuse of human rights. Don't the fools realise that we are in an emergency situation?

And all around there is a growing gap between truth and half-truth. If we make the mistake of sitting comfortably, with mild interest, disdain and inaction, allowing the green shoots of disaster to fructify, then on some timetable and in some way we cannot precisely predict, their shade, as it did for Haffner, may blot out the sun.

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