December 14, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

In Part 1 of this essay, we explored Sebastian Haffner’s insight that Germans who had lost touch with the innate human impulse to create and live a meaningful life were more likely to become Nazis. Many Nazis, Haffner argued, didn’t understand the consequences of their moral failure. “Most of them,” he wrote, “would have been deeply shocked if one had suggested that what they really stood for were torture chambers and officially decreed pogroms.”   

Hitler came to power in 1933 in part by promising, in Haffner’s words, “everything to everybody, which naturally brought him a vast, loose army of followers and voters from among the ignorant, the disappointed, and the dispossessed.” A readiness to forfeit self-reliance and the rule of law in favor of advantages for the few was fertile ground for what followed. 

Hitler quickly issued totalitarian directives and Haffner was stunned: “’What became of the Germans?’… A majority of them voted against Hitler… How was it possible that there was not the slightest visible reaction from [the majority].”

An obvious explanation was fear, yet Haffner’s insights went deeper. He recognized a common mindset among Germans not “to do anything that could ‘derail’ his life — something audacious or out of the ordinary.”

We see the same self-protecting behavior in today’s America. Every day, new examples arise, but today I read of Dr. Mike Joyner, who is being “disciplined” by the Mayo Clinic for his willingness to write about the advantage testosterone gives born-male athletes. Doubtless, many of Dr. Joyner’s colleagues understand or respect his position, but they stay silent out of fear for their careers. 

It is unclear from Haffner’s manuscript if he was aware of Jung’s and Freud’s ideas on projection. Those who live life without meaning inevitably project onto others the shame and guilt for their own poor choices. To reinforce their personal identity, they are mindlessly driven to attack others. Attack does not necessarily, or even typically, mean a physical attack. To mindlessly project onto others everything one hates about oneself is a form of attack. Seeing others as objects of disgust is a form of attack. State-sanctioned hate is a mechanism authoritarians use to prey upon minds conditioned to attack.  

Haffner recounted the rise of state-sanctioned hate. In 1933, he was a Referendar (a lawyer in training) for the Kammergericht (the supreme court of Berlin.) Shortly after the Nazi government organized boycotts of Jewish stores, Jewish attorneys became a target. One day, Haffner heard a “clatter of footsteps outside in the corridor, the sound of rough boots on the stairs, then a distant indistinct din, shouts, doors banging.” Like a scene from many movies, the SA (the Sturmabteilung), which was the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party, had arrived.

Haffner was in the law library and heard one of his colleagues say, “They’re throwing out the Jews.” Others began to laugh. Haffner, who was not a Jew, wrote, “At that moment this laughter alarmed me more than what was actually happening. With a start I realized that there were Nazis working in this room.” It disoriented Haffner to realize among his colleagues were antisemites who now felt free to share their hate.

Later, an SA man approaches Haffner’s desk and asked, “Are you Aryan?” Haffner disclosed, “Before I had a chance to think, I said, ‘Yes.’… A moment too late I felt the shame, the defeat…. What a humiliation, to have answered the unjustified question as to whether I was ‘Aryan’ so easily… I had failed my very first test. I could have slapped myself.”

As I read Haffner’s testimony, I realized that were I in his shoes, I would have behaved in the same way. I understood at a deeper level, that the best safeguard of liberty is societal support for a system that prevents abuses of power before individual acts of heroism are necessary. When maintaining liberty requires resisting the threat of violence, it is probably too late. 

Out in the park with his girlfriend, Haffner discerned that the mind virus of antisemitism had infected the country. It was a day for school outings and as each group of “fresh-faced adolescents accompanied and supervised by their teachers… passed, [they] shouted ‘Juda verrecke!’ (perish Jewry) to us in their bright young voices, as though it was a sort of hiker’s greeting.”

In a significant contribution to our understanding of state-sanctioned hatred, Haffner explored the mind trick that the Nazis used not only against the Jews but against other nations and groups. The Nazis turned their hate around by provoking conversations, not about their hate, but about the “Jewish question.” Haffner wrote, “By publicly threatening a person, an ethnic group, a nation, or a region with death and destruction, they provoke a general discussion not about their own existence, but about the right of their victims to exist.” Haffner reported, 

Suddenly everyone felt justified, and indeed required, to have an opinion about the Jews, and to state it publicly. Distinctions were made between “decent” Jews and the others. If some pointed to the achievements of Jewish scientists, artists, and doctors to justify the Jews (justify? what for? against what?), others would counter that they were a detrimental “foreign influence” in these spheres. 

Presaging today’s identity politics, which demands equality of outcomes, Haffner wrote,  

Indeed, it soon became customary to count it against the Jews if they had a respectable or intellectually valuable profession. This was treated as a crime or, at the very least, a lack of tact. The defenders of the Jews were frowningly told that it was reprehensible of the Jews to have such-and-such a percentage of doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc. Indeed, percentage calculations were a popular ingredient of the ‘Jewish question.’

Then Haffner clearly explained why Nazism and, indeed, all tribalism is an existential threat to humanity. He reasoned, “Nazi anti-Semitism had nothing to do with the virtues or vices of the Jews.” To Haffner the justifications the Nazis gave for their programs against Jews were “utter nonsense” and thus not the real horror. What Haffner recognized was that the Nazis were the first in history “to deny humans the solidarity of every species that enables it to survive; to turn human predatory instincts, that are normally directed against other animals, against members of their own species, and to make a whole nation into a pack of hunting hounds.” 

Chillingly, Haffner foresaw that once this appeal to the worst in human nature is “awakened… and even made into a duty, it is a simple matter to change the target. That can be clearly seen today; instead of “Jews,” one can just as easily say “Czechs” or “Poles” or anyone else.” Haffner explained why civilization was on the line:

We have here the systematic infection of a whole nation, Germany, with a germ that causes its people to treat their victims like wolves; or, to put it differently, the freeing and revitalization of precisely those sadistic instincts whose chaining and restraint has been the work of a thousand years of civilization. 

Thus, Haffner warned, “Should the central core of the Nazis’ program become a reality, it would amount to a major crisis for humanity, and would place the survival of the species Homo sapiens at risk.” 

The Nazi program became a reality, but humanity survived. With the social justice religion of group identities ascending, is humanity again at risk? 

In an 1829 journal entry,  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Imagine hope to be removed from the human breast and see how Society will sink, how the strong bands of order and improvement will be relaxed and what a deathlike stillness would take the place of the restless energies that now move the world.” Haffner had hoped his country would awaken, but history instructs how the actions of human beings can create unimaginable human suffering. To prevent the worst, we must learn history’s lessons.

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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