Obituary: Sebastian Haffner

David Childs
Monday 11 January 1999 00:02

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.

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