Why Ordinary People Enable Totalitarians, Part 1 

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Cicero said history “casts light on reality and is a guide to life.” The wisdom gained by understanding the past helps prevent the same errors from being repeated. 

Sebastian Haffner pursued answers to the questions of how the Nazis rose to power in Germany and why the German people did not stop them. In 1939, he wrote but never finished his partially autobiographical book Defying Hitler: A Memoir.  Haffner’s probing analysis led him to conclude that the choices and mindset of ordinary Germans were responsible for Hitler’s coming to power. Germans were enablers and victims of Hitler.

Haffner was the pseudonym of Raimund Pretzel. Haffner received training as a lawyer, but circumstances compelled him to pursue a career as a historian and journalist. He fled Nazi Germany for England in 1938.

Why should we care about Haffner’s explanation of historical events in terms of the mindsets of ordinary people? After all, as Haffner observed, the great man theory of history is widely held:

If you read ordinary history books — which, it is often overlooked, contain only the scheme of events, not the events themselves — you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be “at the helm of the ship of state” and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history. 

If you are looking for the great men, Haffner wrote, you will believe the history of the 1930s “is a kind of chess game among Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody’s lips.” 

When we accept the great man theory, ordinary people have little responsibility. They are seen in Haffner’s words as “anonymous others [who] seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game, who may be pushed forward or left standing, sacrificed or captured.” 

Haffner rejected the great man principle and articulated “the simple truth” that “decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses.” He explained,

The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large. It is characteristic of these decisions that they do not manifest themselves as mass movements or demonstrations. Mass assemblies are quite incapable of independent action. 

Haffner was born in 1907. He described his experience as a schoolboy during the First World War had shaped his mindset: “From 1914 to 1918 a generation of German schoolboys daily experienced war as a great, thrilling, enthralling game between nations, which provided far more excitement and emotional satisfaction than anything peace could offer.” 

For schoolboys, real life seemed too ordinary: “One went to school, learned reading, writing, and arithmetic, and later Latin and history; one played with friends, one went out with one’s parents — but was that a life? Life gained its thrill, the day its color, from the current military events.” 

Haffner described himself as “a war fan just as one is a soccer fan.” Haffner didn’t get involved in hate campaigns, but he had a “fascination of the game of war, in which, according to certain mysterious rules, the numbers of prisoners taken, miles advanced, fortifications seized, and ships sunk played almost the same role as goals in soccer and points in boxing.”

War attitudes inculcated in the minds of those schoolboys were precursors to the Nazis “zest for action” and “its intolerance and its cruelty toward internal opponents.” 

Potential “Hitlers” have always lived among us, but England and France didn’t turn to one. What was different in Germany?

After the First World War in Germany, peace came with hyperinflation, which obliterated all wealth. Haffner described what Austrian economists would call a high time preference among German youth: “Amid all the misery, despair, and poverty, there was an air of light-headed youthfulness, licentiousness, and carnival.” Money, he reported, “was spent as never before or since; and not on the things old people spend their money on.” 

The bonds of civilization fray during hyperinflation. As Ludwig von Mises explained in On Money and Inflation: “The truth is that the government—that is the recourse to violence—cannot produce anything. Everything that is produced is produced by the activities of individuals and is used on the market in order to receive something in exchange for it.” 

Without a stable store of value, voluntary exchange becomes difficult. As von Mises writes, “Social cooperation among men—and this means the market—is what brings about civilization.” When money becomes worthless, “all that civilization has created” is at risk.  

By the summer of 1924, monetary stability had returned, and Haffner saw that despite peace and monetary stability, the mindset of many Germans set the stage for a perilous future: 

A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions, for love and hate, joy and sorrow, but also all their sensations and thrills — accompanied though they might be by poverty, hunger, death, chaos, and peril.

Germany had become a nation of passive consumers of external events, a population unable to find an internal purpose or make meaning of their lives. Haffner explained: 

Now that these deliveries suddenly ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful, and worthwhile, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of the political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. 

Germans were eager for external action to fill an inner void. Germans in the 1920s, Haffner related, “were bored… they waited eagerly for the first disturbance, the first setback or incident, so that they could put this period of peace behind them and set out on some new collective adventure.”

Haffner’s insight was that those who resisted Nazism could make meaning by creating a rich life not dependent on external excitement, while those who had no such strength of spirit became Nazis.

Until Hitler came to power, Haffner had been confident that the constraints of German civilization would hold:

We felt more or less sure that [Nazis] would be held in check. We moved among them with the same unconcern with which visitors to a modern cageless zoo walk past the beasts of prey, confident that its ditches and hedges have been carefully calculated. The beasts for their part probably reciprocated this sentiment. With deep hatred they coined the word “system” for the impalpable force that held them within bounds while it left them their freedom. For the moment, at least, they were held within bounds.

In today’s America, we hear the same railings against the “system,” and the US Constitution is attacked as one of the “barriers to progress.”

In today’s America, Gallup has found that 85 percent of workers are not engaged at work. Thus, many people take no meaning from an activity that consumes half of their waking day. This ennui is soothed as individuals habitually check their phones an average of 144 times throughout the day. People are eager to fill an inner void.  

Haffner warned, “Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals.” If Haffner, a keen student of history, were alive today, he would wave a yellow flag. Purposelessness and cowardness can lead us to accept the ruinous totalitarian siren call.