Like A Cloud Over A Lake

Posted on March 15, 2018 by Cape Rebel

From Defying Hitler
by Sebastian Haffner
Written in 1933 in exile in England

This is the story of a duel.

It is a duel between two very unequal adversaries: an exceedingly powerful, formidable and ruthless state, and an insignificant, unknown private individual. The duel does not take place in what is commonly known as the sphere of politics. The individual is by no means a politician, still less a conspirator, or an enemy of the state. Throughout, he finds himself very much on the defensive. He only wishes to preserve what he considers to be his integrity, his private life and his personal honour. These are under constant attack by the Government of the country he lives in, and by the most brutal, but often also clumsy, means.

With fearful menace, the state demands that the individual give up his friends, abandon his lovers, renounce his beliefs and assume new, prescribed ones. He must use a new form of greeting, eat and drink in ways he does not fancy, employ his leisure in occupations he abhors, make himself available for activities he despises, and deny his past and his individuality. For all this, he must constantly express enthusiasm and gratitude.

The individual is opposed to all of that, but he is ill-prepared for the onslaught. He was not born a hero, still less a martyr. He is just an ordinary man with many weaknesses, having grown up in vulnerable times. He is nevertheless stubbornly antagonistic. So he enters into the duel – without enthusiasm, shrugging his shoulders, but with a quiet determination not to yield. He is, of course, much weaker than his opponent, but rather more agile. You will see him duck and weave, dodge his foe and dart back, evading crushing blows by a whisker. You will have to admit that, for someone who is neither a hero nor a martyr, he manages to put up a good fight. Finally, however, you will see him compelled to abandon the struggle or, if you will, transfer it to another plane.

The state is the German Reich, and I am the individual. Our fight may be interesting to watch, like any fight (indeed I hope it will be), but I am not recounting it just for entertainment. There is another purpose, closer to my heart.

My private duel with the Third Reich is not an isolated encounter. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of such duels, in which an individual tries to defend his integrity and his personal honour against a formidably hostile state, have been fought in Germany during the last six years. Each is waged in total isolation, and out of public view. Many of the duellists, greater heroes or martyrs by nature, have taken the fight further than I – as far as the concentration camps, or the gallows – and may perhaps be honoured by a future monument. Others were defeated much earlier, and are now silent grumblers in the ranks of SA reservists [Sturm-Abteilung, Nazi storm troopers] or NSV Blockwarts (block wardens) [National-Sozialistische Folkfursorge, National Socialist Society for the Welfare of the People].

One might well consider my case as typical. From it, you can easily judge the chances for mankind in Germany today.

You will see that they are pretty slim. They need not have been quite so hopeless if the outside world had intervened. It is still in the world’s interest, I believe, for these chances to be improved. It is too late to avoid a war, but it might shorten the war by a year or two. Those Germans of goodwill who are fighting to defend their private peace and their private liberty, are fighting, without knowing it, for the peace and liberty of the whole world.

Thus it still seems worthwhile, to me, to draw the attention of the world to the unknown events inside Germany.

The book will tell a story, not preach a sermon; but it has a moral which, like that ‘other and greater theme’ in Elgar’s Enigma Variations, silently ‘runs through and over the whole’. I will not mind if, after reading the book, you forget all the adventures and incidents that I recount; but I would be pleased if you did not forget the underlying moral.


Even before the totalitarian state advanced on me with threats and challenges, and taught me what it meant to experience history in person, I had already lived through a fair number of ‘historical events’. All Europeans of the present generation can make that claim, and none more so than the Germans.

Those events have naturally left their mark on me, as on all my compatriots. If one fails to appreciate this, one will not be able to understand what happened later. There is, however, an important difference between what happened before 1933, and what came afterwards. We watched the earlier events unfold. They occupied and excited us, sometimes they even killed one or other of us or ruined him; but they did not confront us with ultimate decisions of conscience. Our innermost being remained untouched. We gained experience, acquired convictions, but remained basically the same people. However, no one who has, willingly or reluctantly, been caught up in the machine of the Third Reich can honestly say that of himself.

Clearly historical events have varying degrees of intensity. Some may almost fail to impinge on true reality, that is, on the central, most personal part of a person’s life. Others can wreak such havoc that nothing is left standing. The usual way in which history is written fails to reveal this. ‘1890: Wilhelm II dismisses Bismarck’. Certainly a key event in German history, but scarcely an event at all in the biography of any German outside its small circle of protagonists. Life went on as before. No family was torn apart, no friendship broke up, no one fled the country. Not even a rendevous was missed or an opera performance cancelled. Those in love, whether happily or not, remained so; the poor remained poor, and the rich rich. Now compare that with: ‘1933: Hindenburg sends for Hitler’. An earthquake shatters sixty-six million lives.

Official, academic history has, as I said, nothing to tell us about the differences in intensity of historical occurrences. To learn about that, you must read biographies, not those of statesmen, but the all too rare ones of unknown individuals. There you will see that one historical event passes over the private, real lives of people like a cloud over a lake. Nothing stirs, there is only a fleeting shadow. Another event whips up the lake as if in a thunderstorm. For a while it is scarcely recognisable. A third may, perhaps, drain the lake completely.

I believe that history is misunderstood if this aspect is forgotten (and it usually is forgotten). So before I reach my proper theme, let me tell you my version of twenty years of German history – the history of Germany as a part of my private story. It will not take long, and it will make what follows easier to understand. Besides, it may help us get to know each other a little better.