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Defying Hitler by Sabastian Haffner

Tags World HistoryOther Schools of ThoughtPolitical Theory

05/11/2011Wendy McElroy

Defying Hitler is a mesmerizing memoir written by the German journalist Sebastian Haffner (a pseudonym for Raimund Pretzel) shortly after he emigrated from Germany to England with his Jewish wife in 1938. In it, Haffner explores a question similar to one that has haunted me since 9/11. He examines how a highly cultured and civilized nation could slip so quickly into the barbaric totalitarianism of Nazi rule. My version of this question is, how could America, a nation with deep roots in individual freedom, so quickly slide into a police state?

No mystery surrounds the motives of ambitious politicians or their lackeys, such as bureaucrats, but an abrupt pivot of society requires the acceptance or acquiescence of a majority of people who are neither. Key to the explanation for Nazi Germany and current America is the steady and profound reshaping of society's institutions, from the school system to law enforcement, from the courts to the hospitals. The institutions began to express a different vision of society; for example, instead of expressing the rule of law and due-process protections, the courts came to embody the opposite.

In an essay first published in Modern Age (Winter 1980), Murray Rothbard elegantly explained the importance of this slow but profound shift within institutions. Human beings are born neither good nor evil, he argued, but with a capacity for both. Therefore it is essential "for social institutions to encourage the good and discourage the bad." This was a strong theme within Rothbard's advocacy of anarchism.

The state is the only institution which can use the revenue from this organized theft [taxes] to presume to control and regulate people's lives and property. Hence, the institution of the state establishes a socially legitimatized and sanctified channel for bad people to do bad things.

A "free society," by contrast, does not establish a legitimatized "channel for theft and tyranny." Instead, it "discourages the criminal tendencies of human nature and encourages the peaceful and the voluntary." Thus to the extent a society's institutions or social infrastructure personify freedom and not state control, then to that extent "harmony and mutual benefit of voluntary interpersonal exchanges" will be maximized.

Since 9/11, a sea change in the institutions of America has moved us ever farther away from individual freedom and toward state control. Perhaps no institutional change embodies the shift more clearly than the militarization of law enforcement at all levels. The average individual is now treated as a criminal suspect in airports, at the entrance of public buildings, in the ever-increasing requirement for ID, and during the exercise of so-called guaranteed rights such as peaceful assembly and bearing arms; law enforcement now treats the public almost as enemy combatants.

Over time, the behavior encouraged by institutions become character traits not only of individuals but also of the society itself. And, so, a society acquires a closed rather than open air; it becomes desensitized to brutality, afraid of dissent and hostile to "the other." Rewarded by the authorities, people even come to view spying on their neighbors as a civic duty.

The foregoing scratches the surface of "how" a society becomes a total state. It does not explain the "why." Why do cultured Germans or rugged Americans stand by and watch the emergence of totalitarianism?

A common explanation is that they do not notice. Unless they are steeped in history, those accustomed to liberty or civility can be blithely unaware of the importance of mechanisms like due process; it is those who lived without such "legal niceties" who knew full well that the likes of habeas corpus are protections upon which the life or death of innocent people will hinge.

Many of those who do notice refuse to believe their freedom will deteriorate beyond a certain point. In Defying Hitler, Haffner notes how his educated associates constantly ridiculed the Nazis as a passing phase. I hear much the same from associates in the United States who dismiss the rise of totalitarianism with the words "But this is America! It cannot happen here."

Still others who notice are convinced by the fear tactics of authorities that surrendering rights is necessary to ensure their continued comfort and safety. In Germany, the crisis exploited was the devastation caused by the punitive terms of the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles. The rise of socialism and the presence of "the other," especially Jews, were used both to stir anger against a common enemy and to scare people into subservience.

In America, the slow crisis is the war against terror conducted in the wake of 9/11; Islamic extremism and anyone who seeks to cross the border are the threats.

Haffner also speaks of the "automatic continuation of ordinary life that hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror" of Hitler. This may be true of many Americans as well, who see the erosion of freedom on a daily basis. Nevertheless — because they wake up in their own homes, eat the same cereal for breakfast, work at the same boring job to which they drive down familiar streets — they have a sense that everything is as it has always been. The fact that the legal structure, political protections, and other insitutions that guarded their freedoms are going, going, gone is nowhere near as real to them as are their daily routines.

In a 2002 review of Defying Hitler, Steven Martinovich commented, "The process [of statism] was so slow that one could almost understand how one day Germans walked the street as members of a shaky democracy and the next were prisoners. … Between those two days, the Germany [Haffner] grew up in both figuratively and literally disappeared."

America is disappearing day by day. I fervently hope that its disappearance is on the horizon and not already past, because if it is yet to come, those of us who notice may still reclaim a nation that was once as free as Germany was cultured.


Contact Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy is a Canadian individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a cofounder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist magazine in 1982.