Obituary: Sebastian Haffner

SEBASTIAN HAFFNER was well known in German journalistic circles for over 60 years. He became known to British readers through his first book, Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, published by Secker and Warburg in 1940, the overt purpose of which was to explain Germany to the British.

Born Raimund Pretzel in Berlin in 1907, he studied law while working for the German press in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Because of his democratic beliefs and Jewish girlfriend (and later wife), he had his share of difficulties with the Nazis. He left Germany for Britain, where he persevered in gaining the necessary language skills to continue his career.

Fear of Nazi retribution against his relatives in Germany caused him to change his name to Sebastian Haffner. And it was under this name that he became familiar to British newspaper readers. During the war, he worked for the Foreign Office on anti-Nazi propaganda. For many years he was associated with The Observer and he returned to Berlin in 1954 as that paper's correspondent. He later wrote for a variety of German publications like Stern, Die Welt and Suddeutsche Zeitung.

Many members of the literary and journalistic emigration chose not to go back to West Germany. Some, like Bertolt Brecht, Ludwig Renn, Anna Seghers and the still active Stefan Heym, opted for the "anti-Fascist" German Democratic Republic. Others, like Stefan Lorant, founder of Picture Post, and most of the Hollywood emigres, decided to stay in the United States or Britain. Returning was a brave step for Haffner to take.

There was the massive psychological problem of going back to a country in ruins both physically and spiritually. There was still much hostility to returning emigres. In private one could hear the view that, although Hitler had gone too far, the Jews had brought it on themselves by being too "pushy". Returning emigres were feared as rivals for jobs. Some regarded them simply as agents for the occupying powers who were inflicting, once again, unfair burdens on the Germans to prevent them succeeding too well economically. Literary emigres were regarded as part of a process of thought control to make the Germans feel guilty and therefore amenable to the measures imposed upon them by the victors.

Haffner did not fit into any stereotype. He was difficult to pigeonhole. He was a genuine seeker after truth. Obviously he did worry about where divided Germany was going. Despite the economic "miracle" of the 1950s there was much to worry about.

The so-called Spiegel affair of 1962 shocked opinion in Germany and abroad. Rudolf Augstein, the owner-editor of the prestigious and popular weekly Der Spiegel, was arrested, as was the magazine's defence correspondent Conrad Ahlers. Using the public interest argument Spiegel had published classified Nato material claiming West Germany was not properly equipped to defend itself and revealing the massive casualties Germany (and Britain) would suffer in case of a conflict. Controversy surrounded the question of who had ordered the arrests, as the relevant Minister of Justice, Wolfgang Stammberger, had not. Stammberger subsequently resigned in protest.

Although he denied it, Franz Josef Strauss, the Defence Minister, had personally ordered the arrest of Ahlers, who was taken while on holiday in Spain. There were widespread protests in Germany and abroad. This was the time of the Cuban missile crisis, when fear of nuclear war was very real. Haffner wrote, "The question is whether the Federal Republic of Germany is still a free and constitutional democracy or whether it has become possible to transform it overnight by some sort of coup d'etat based on fear and arbitrary power." He feared the federal system of West Germany was being undermined. Happily he was wrong. His views were echoed in other papers and Strauss was forced out of office. Augstein and Ahlers continued their successful careers.

Another scandal broke in 1968. This involved a number of suicides by individuals in the military or civil service. On 8 October 1968 Maj-Gen Horst Wendland, deputy head of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), shot himself. On the same day Admiral Hermann Ludke, deputy head of logistics at Nato, killed himself. Four other similar deaths occurred in the same month. At the same time a group of seven scientists and engineers disappeared, only to re-emerge in Communist East Germany. The authorities passed off the incidents as unrelated.

Most people were clear that the West Germans had a massive security problem. Writing in the New Statesman Haffner agreed that they had. He was quick to point out, however, that others had too. "But what about Blake and Philby? What about Wennerstroem and Penkowski [Swedish and Soviet defectors respectively]? It is safe to assume nowadays that there are undetected highly placed spies in every defence organisation in the world." Haffner appeared to think it was a good thing that "everybody knows about everybody else". This would make war less likely.

Haffner was also respected as a writer on historical themes. He presented Winston Churchill to the Germans in 1967. His 1969 book on the German revolution, Die verratene Revolution ("The Betrayed Revolution") was an attack on the Social Democratic leaders of 1919. Annerkungen zu Hitler ("Comments on Hitler") was a German best-seller in 1978. Preussen ohne Legende ("Prussia without Myths") was widely read and discussed in Germany and Austria. Weidenfeld & Nicolson published it in English in 1980 under the slightly more academic title of The Rise and Fall of Prussia.

Haffner knew his market; he knew what would sell. His Prussian study appeared when there was renewed interest in Prussia in both parts of Germany. Indeed, the fight was on for the soul of the vanished and formally abolished Prussian state. Haffner was of course deeply interested in his subjects. Like so many Germans and German Jews of his generation, he battled to understand what had gone wrong, between 1933 and 1945, in the country he loved. In his case it was his life's mission.

Haffner long regarded himself as a "Prussian with a British passport". He identified with Prussia and its achievements: general compulsory schooling (1717), the abolition of torture (1740), the establishement of religious toleration (1740), Bis-marck's welfare state (1883), the medical giants Virchow, Koch, von Behring, the intellectual giants Kant, von Humboldt and von Schlegel, and much more. At the end of his book he recounted the (often-ignored) expulsion of millions of Prussians from their homeland in 1945. "It was an atrocity, the final atrocity of a war which had more than its share in atrocities, admittedly begun by Germany under Hitler." His message is very relevant today, when he praises those expelled for rejecting revenge and having the courage to say, "This is enough."

Haffner's last book, From Bismarck to Hitler, appeared in 1987.

Raimund Pretzel (Sebastian Haffner), writer and journalist: born Berlin 27 December 1907; married (one son, one daughter); died Berlin 2 January 1998.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before