The Nazi Rise to Power Through the Eyes of Sebastian Haffner

Everything went "strictly by the book," using means that were permitted by the constitution

Beginning in 1928, German voters were called to the polls at least every two years as the political system suffered from instability due in part to the world economic crisis and the ensuing mass unemployment, but also due to the diffusion of political force between the many parties that gained representation in the National Parliament. In 1932, the situation was so dire that the German government disintegrated twice in the same year, leading to general elections in July and in November.

Hitler and his party had already succeeded in convincing many voters to support them in previous elections, but in July 1932 the Nazis garnered the largest number of votes and entered the Reichstag as the strongest party. Together with the Communist Party representatives (both parties were anti-Democratic), the Nazis achieved an absolute majority in the National Parliament, precluding the establishment of any type of coalition. At this stage, Hitler refused to cooperate with a government that would not be under his leadership, but President Paul von Hindenburg was not yet prepared to appoint Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany. There was no choice, then, but to hold a re-election in November 1932.

These elections created the impression that the unabated rise of the Nazis had been halted: for the first time in years, they had lost votes. And yet, they were still the strongest party in the Reichstag. Despite this development, there was still no realistic possibility of forming a stable coalition. The president appointed the Prussian General Kurt von Schleicher as the Chancellor of Germany. He tried to build a government in collaboration with various moderate political forces, including the moderate branch of the Nazi Party, hoping to thus split the Nazis. Nevertheless, the attempt failed and on January 28, 1933, he was forced to resign from his post. Two days later, President Von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, though most of the government portfolios were still in the hands of other parties. Nonetheless, Hitler and his people knew how to seize control, both politically and through violent means. Within months, the Nazis already held all of the political and state power – with almost no resistance on the part of the German people, most of whom had not voted for the Nazis in the elections.

On the evening of January 30, endless lines of uniformed Nazis bearing torches marched towards the Brandenburg Gate, in order to celebrate the “victory”. There are reports that upon seeing this sight, the well-known Jewish painter Max Liebermann, who lived in the building adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, said, “I cannot eat as much as I would like to puke.”

The German publicist Sebastian Haffner (1907-1999) reported on the Nazi rise to power, and more generally, on the developments in Germany during that period. Haffner was a law student at the time, and opposed the Nazis and their barbaric political style. In 1938 he emigrated from Germany to England where he began writing political-historical works about Germany and contemporary history. He authored a series of books and even wrote for an anti-Fascist German paper published in England. Haffner’s first composition on the topic, 1939’s “Defying Hitler (Geschichte eines Deutschen – The Story of a German)”, was neither completed nor published during his lifetime. The work was ultimately published in 2000, a year after Haffner passed away. In this work, which has been translated into various languages including Hebrew, Haffner describes the political and social developments in Germany in the years 1914-1933 from a personal, everyday perspective. Writing about the events beginning in 1933, after the Nazis’ political strength had been strongly established, Haffner observed:

The whole façade of everyday life remained basically unchanged. The cinemas, cafes and theaters were full; couples danced in the open air and in the dance halls, people strolled down the streets, while others sunbathed on the beaches. The Nazis used this to great effect in their propaganda: “Come and see our peaceful, quiet country. Come and see how well even the Jews are doing. The secret vein of madness, fear and tension, of living by the day and dancing a dance of death: those one could not see. (Adapted from p. 154 of the English edition, entitled, Defying Hitler – A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner, translated from the German by Oliver Pretzel, 2002).

On the Nazis’ rise to power and the concurrent political changes, he wrote:

What is a revolution?

Constitutional lawyers define it as a change of constitution by means not foreseen therein. By this definition the Nazi revolution of March 1933 was not a revolution. Everything went “strictly by the book,” using means that were permitted by the constitution. At first there were “emergency decrees” by the president of the Reich, and later a bill was passed by a two-thirds majority of the Reichstag, giving the government unlimited legislative powers. (Defying Hitler, p. 124)

Reading Haffner’s book is both riveting and spine-chilling from the reports of the violent political takeover to the April 1st ban on Jewish businesses and the slow infusion of Fascist poison into broad segments of the general population. Haffner’s writings prove that it was already possible in 1933 to know where Germany was headed.

Those like Haffner, who so desired, could see it clearly.

“Transfer Agreement” and the Boycott of German Goods

Jewish organizations appealed to the public to forgo the purchase of goods from Germany

Beginning in the spring of 1933, objections began surfacing against the procurement of German goods. Jewish organizations appealed to the public to forgo the purchase of goods from Germany through declarations and placards, with the goal of striking a blow at the German economy, and in this manner, to the power of the Nazis who had recently taken power. The anti-German boycott was initiated following the Nazi boycott initiated on April 1, 1933, against Jewish businesses in Germany. Following this, the Jewish organizations in various countries called for a boycott of German products available around the world, including in Palestine. The boycott in Palestine itself would have little effect on the German economy, but the joint effort in various countries, including the United States, had an impact, although it did not affect Nazi policy towards German Jewry.

During this same period, German products were considered to be of particularly fine quality. Germany was already at the time a highly industrialized nation and its products were marketed internationally. Importers and retailers in Palestine sought to sell products from German factories and promoted them through ads and placards, some in Hebrew and some in Hebrew and German. The expertise of German factories in the production of machines and technical products guaranteed great success for products, especially in Palestine of the 1930s, where many branches of local industry were just beginning to develop. Despite the boycott, there were some German products sold in stores in Palestine, such as medicines manufactured by Bayer and photographic equipment manufactured by AGFA, that were promoted in the newspapers and other advertising venues (for example, in Purim celebration programming in Tel Aviv).

Following the call for a boycott – mainly instigated by the Revisionist camp – leaders of the Yishuv faced a difficult dilemma. At that time (August 25, 1933), a “transfer agreement” was signed with the German Nazi government. Both parties had a vested interest in the agreement. The Nazi leaders hoped that through it they could minimize the worldwide boycott on German products. During these years, the Nazi leaders were still of the opinion that they should promote voluntary Jewish emigration from Germany in order to “be rid” of the “Jewish problem.” On its part, the Jewish side hoped that the agreement would enable German Jews who wanted to immigrate to Palestine to bring with them a more significant portion of their possessions.

In 1931, following the global economic crisis, those who emigrated from Germany were forced to pay exceedingly high taxes for the transfer of their property to points abroad; this policy remained in effect during the Nazi period. As part of the agreement, German Jewry was given the option of depositing a minimum of 1,000 lira in a German bank, and with the money, German products were purchased for export to Palestine.

In Israel, the importers sold the German products and deposited the funds in a bank account, from which a significant sum was returned to the immigrants on their arrival. It is estimated that tens of thousands of German emigrants did just this in order to prevent simply giving their capital to the Nazi German tax authorities. Inevitably, the agreement and its results, i.e. the import of German products to Palestine during the time of the boycott – aroused a stormy debate. On the one hand, there was severe opposition to the transfer agreement, but on the other, there were also voices of support, for example, on the part of the German Olim Association, which was afraid to negatively impact the transfer of property belonging to German Jews who had not yet come on Aliyah.

Public activity surrounding the boycott continued throughout the 1930s, and the transfer agreement remained in effect during these years. It is estimated that some 140 million German marks were transferred by this mechanism to Palestine until the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Economically, the transfer agreement was a great success, both in terms of German emigrants and for the Palestinian economy. The negotiator for the Jewish side was Haim Arlozorov, but he was murdered in Tel Aviv before the agreement was signed. The circumstances of the murder and its motives are to this day not entirely clear, but there is a possibility that the motive was related to Arlozorov’s role in the Negotiations with the German-Nazi side.

Termination of Employment Letter to Ladislaus Farkas from Fritz Haber

Over 100 scientists were forced to leave large research institutes beginning in 1933, most due to their Jewish origins

In 1911, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the support of scientific research was founded in Berlin. The goal of the society was to encourage research in various fields, mainly the natural sciences. As was the practice at that time, the society was named after the German Kaiser Wilhelm, patron of the initiative. Although Kaiser Wilhelm resigned in 1918 and left Germany, the society and its network of institutes continued to bear his name until after World War II. The first two institutes established were the institute for chemistry and the institute for physical chemistry and electrochemistry, both in Berlin.

The various research projects were usually financed through private donations, to no small degree from wealthy German Jews, while the state paid the researchers’ salaries. The researchers had the special privilege of investing all of their time in research alone, and were not required to teach in any academic institution.

Over the years, additional research institutes were established, ultimately totaling 28 different institutes, a substantial portion of which were in Berlin, but also in other German cities.

Many Jews were among the outstanding researchers in these institutes. Among the well known names were Albert Einstein, Karl Neuberg and Max Bergmann, but also Fritz Haber and Laudislaus Farkas. The story of these two scientists is an example of the fate of over 100 scientists who were forced to leave large research institutes beginning in 1933, most due to their Jewish origins, but also sometimes as a result of their political beliefs.

Fritz Haber, Ladislaus Farkas

The first director of the institute for physical chemistry and electrochemistry was Jewish chemist Fritz Haber (1868-1934). While Haber was one of the most gifted scientists in his field, as a Jew, he was unable to advance in his academic career, and as a result, in 1892, he converted to Christianity. One of Haber’s great scientific achievements was discovering how to create ammonia through the synthesis of hydrogen and nitrogen, a discovery that was a breakthrough for the mass production of agricultural fertilizers, but also enabled the relatively simple production of explosives for military use. Following the discovery of nitrogen fixation, Haber won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1919, despite his more recent developments in the means of chemical warfare, which were widely used in the battles of World War I, as a result of which tens of thousands of British and French soldiers were killed. Haber’s wife, chemist Clara Immerwahr, could not make peace with her husband’s role in the development of these means of warfare in his institute in Berlin, and took her own life in 1915.

In the framework of the institute for physical chemistry and electrochemistry, Fritz Haber gave young and talented scientists a place to work and opportunities to conduct research in their fields. One was the chemist Laudislaus Farkas (1904-1948), descendant of a Jewish family from Hungary. In 1928, Farkas completed his studies in Berlin and immediately joined the staff of scientists in Haber’s institute. The talented scientist was greatly admired by the director of the institute.

Following the Nazi rise to power in January 1933, all members of the academic staffs of German academic institutions were fired already in the spring of that year. As director of the institute, Fritz Haber was forced to fire the Jewish researchers and other Jewish employees from their jobs. This can be seen from his letter of dismissal to Laudislaus Farkas on April 29, 1933. In the letter, whose tone is very personal, Haber expresses his deep regret that he is being forced to take such a step, and explains that he has no choice, given the new legislation. A day later, Haber met with the president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, physicist Max Planck, and submitted his resignation from the directorship of the institute. Planck tried to convince Haber to remain in his job, but Haber explained that under the new circumstances, he was unable to continue in his research, since his very work was affected by racist considerations. Haber left Germany. Already in 1933 he was appointed as a professor at Cambridge University in England, but the drastic change in his life led to a deterioration in his health, and the famous chemist died in January 1934 at a Swiss sanatorium.

Termination of Employment Letter to Farkas from Haber

Laudislaus Farkas also emigrated from Germany, initially to England, but in 1936 he was awarded a professorship at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in physical chemistry. Under his influence, this field began to develop in Israel, and Farkas is considered the father of this science in Israel. On December 30, 1948, when Farkas was en route to a work trip in the United States, his airplane crashed over Italy, and the young scientist met his death. His personal archive is located in the archival collection of the National Library.

“Faust” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and its Translation into Hebrew

German immigrants to Israel from the “fifth Aliyah” often carried volumes of Goethe’s works with them to Israel, in the attempt to retain something from their lost homeland, at least, at the cultural-linguistic level

From the cover of the Hebrew edition of "Faust", 1943

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is considered today one of the outstanding poets in the history of German literature. Goethe is known as the “national poet” of the German people, and throughout the generations, all of the students in the German schools encountered his works at one stage or another of their studies. Many households owned simple or elaborate editions of Goethe’s works, and until not long ago, many were able to recite the poems and ballads of this illustrious poet by heart.

The name of the small city of Weimar is closely tied to Goethe, who lived and worked there most of his life. The life there of the poet – who was also a lawyer, a statesman, and manager of the local theater – and his friendly relations with another key literary figure in German literature in that city – Friederich von Schiller – granted the city of Weimar the title “The Capital of German Classics.”

A portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe’s most famous work is the play Faust. While Goethe earned himself a reputation as a great poet already during his lifetime, mainly due to the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, his glorious reputation, which endures to this day, stems from his monumental oeuvre, Faust. The poet worked on the play for more than 60 years, publishing it in different versions and ultimately, dividing it into two parts. The first part is considered more accessible than the second. Indeed, the first part of Faust has been staged hundreds over the generations, if not thousands of times, while the second part was produced much less, due to its complex content. To this day, the play is still performed (still mainly its first part) and movies have been made based on its famous plot.

The first page of a two-part edition of “Faust”, Paris 1840

The main character in the play is a middle-aged scholar, Heinrich Faust. Faust’s character is based on an historical figure named Johann Georg Faust, who was an alchemist, astrologer and fortune teller from the 16th century, to whom were attributed dark powers and connections with the devil.

This fabled connection led Goethe, apparently, to the key element in the story of Faust, which is the pact between the scholar and the devil himself. The starting point for the pact is the scholar’s frustration with his advanced age.

The frustration that he feels stems from his inability to understand aspects of philosophy and nature and grasp new connections in these realms. This desire symbolizes the unquenchable aspiration for additional knowledge that ultimately encounters limitations, and, on the other hand, the failure of the scholar to enjoy life in all its aspects. In this state Faust meets the devil, who is in relentless pursuit of human souls.

Faust accepts the devil’s offer to make a pact: in exchange for becoming acquainted with world, acquisition of knowledge, a deeper understanding and hedonism as a young and handsome man, Faust promises his soul to the devil on condition that he will be satisfied with what he experiences and even reach complete contentment.

In the first part of the play, Faust encounters the life of emotion and the soul through a young and beautiful woman named Marguerite. Their relationship ends in disaster from her perspective, since she murders the child she bears with Faust, and loses her sanity in prison. This explains why Goethe defined the play as a tragedy: the protagonist does not solve his problems, and serious damage results to those close to him. In the second part, Faust appears as a person operating within history and society, but he fails in this arena. At the end of this part, Faust envisions a human society that operates for the benefit of all, in which the needs of the individuals are attended to, but since this world has not materialized and Faust is still striving towards it, he does not ultimately lose to the devil, and the soul of the deceased scholar is spared.

The humanistic and philosophical content of Faust made an impression on many generations and had an influence on countless readers, since they were able to identify with the dilemmas of Faust, both as a sensitive person and a man of spirit. The critique of the political, social and religious phenomena of Goethe’s time contributed to the ongoing popularity of the work, one of the reasons for which being that these phenomena have not dissipated with time.

German-speaking Jews, like fellow German speakers, were enamored of Faust. German immigrants to Israel from the “fifth Aliyah” often carried volumes of Goethe’s works with them to Israel, in the attempt to retain something from their lost homeland, at least, at the cultural-linguistic level. A printed edition of the play “Faust” (or of all of Goethe’s writings) could be found in the personal libraries of many Jews. Already in the mid-19th century, a few of Goethe’s works had been translated into Hebrew, but in the 20th century, the interest grew considerably. It is therefore not surprising that in Israel, as well, a translation into Hebrew of the first part of Faust was published by the poet Yaakov Cohen (1881-1960). Surely surprising, however, is the date of publication: 1943, in the throes of WWII and the midst of the Holocaust.

A portrait of Yaakov Cohen, a poet who translated “Faust” into Hebrew

In his introduction, Yaakov Cohen wrote about his hesitations and the difficulties in translating into Hebrew not only the language but also the intentions of the great poet. At the same time, Cohen did not relate at all to the particular problematic nature of publishing a classical work from the German literary canon at the beginning of the 1940s. While at the end of the introduction he mentioned that he had completed the translation a decade earlier (i.e. in the early 1930s), we today remain stupefied by its publication in 1943, of all years. Yaakov Cohen published his translation with Schocken, a publishing house whose German roots surely meant that they understood the significance of the matter. The result was a beautiful edition, with lithographs from 1827 by French Artist Eugéne Delacroix, who admired Goethe and his works. Thanks to this beautiful book, both in its content and its external form, one may say that during the darkest days, it was Jewish intellectuals who made the effort to preserve the humanistic values that had characterized Germany at other times.