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The intellectual who shames today's intellectuals

The misery of today's intellectuals is always just a political talk show away.

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The intellectual who shames today's intellectuals

The misery of today's intellectuals is always just a political talk show away. What someone heard on the subway or picked up somewhere else is considered by some on these programs to be the basis of an entire social theory. Of course, this is only possible without further empirical tests or formally correct arguments. But that would be work, and you're a bit too proud for it.

In the great confusion of "everyone is allowed to say anything in the service of freedom of expression", it is considered wise to win more than three viewers and listeners. And now seriously, friends: Four people in a room with the same views - should we just iron them out? They can't all be completely wrong together, especially if they don't go with the mainstream; so there must be something in their talk. In other words, what is currently happening is proof of the old thesis of the sociologist Rainer Lepsius: Those who criticize their profession often do not know what they are talking about.

Nevertheless, there are always more or less big exceptions - and without them intellectual life would be decidedly poorer. As far as the biggest exceptions are concerned, one could ask what an intellectual like Sebastian Haffner would have had to say about today's hustle and bustle. This idea certainly doesn't put you in a good mood, the difference is too big. But it is worthwhile in spite of this, or precisely because of this, to call attention to the central positions of this man.

Born Raimund Pretzel on December 27, 1907, he had experienced two world wars – one of them in exile in England – the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall when he died in 1999. To even begin to equate someone with such a full biography with the fast talkers of today would be quite painful; where one gained life-and-death experiences, the others sat in lecture halls, if at all. This is exactly what fascinates Haffner: despite all his mistakes, he always remained a spirit who combined decades of study with a keen eye and, above all, was able to write down what he thought in a way that was both pointed and original.

These are all skills related to talent, but not only. In Berlin in the 1920s, Sebastian Haffner enjoyed a school and university education of the kind that higher Prussian officials gave their sons: Despite all literary inclinations, he studied law. There was a simple reason why he didn't stick with this profession, preferring instead to turn to journalism: being a lawyer under National Socialism meant destroying the rule of law. Haffner couldn't reconcile that with his conscience. So he hired himself out as a journalist.

Keeping a civil tone during the years of agitation is an achievement that is hard to imagine today, in times of free freedom of expression. His early feuilletons are documented in the volume "The Life of Pedestrians". What you can read about late risers, cigar smokers or the difference between people with a world view and people with taste has that wit that proves that acumen can make people smile. The ease with which Haffner conjured up small liberal islands in the brown sea makes you gape.

Since the political departments were of course no longer an option after 1933, the author switched to fashion journals such as "Die Dame". These are probably his most spontaneous texts, but this is precisely what gives them their value and confirms that there were still gaps in the early years of Nazi rule that the Nazi cultural establishment was unable to fully fill. But in 1938 Haffner, who had previously been in Paris, had himself sent to England. There he asked for political asylum on the grounds that his wife was pregnant. His father had warned him that life as an emigrant could be very hard. But Haffner stayed.

It was around this time that he wrote the book that would posthumously bring him fame in 2002, which he had never enjoyed during his lifetime, with all due respect for his person: "The Story of a German", the unfinished memories of his youth, give a picture of the time between the years 1914 and 1933, which one would otherwise look for in vain. Keeping it radically subjective, there is an idea in almost every sentence - regardless of whether it is about family, political personnel or social contexts.

One wonders how many historians banged their keyboards in anger after reading Haffner's description of a camp for legal assessors in 1933. Because the methods with which the National Socialists captured people he presented here so here so outstandingly clearly as only intelligent contemporary witnesses can.

The irony of this writing is that Haffner correctly recognized that he was writing the wrong book for the time. So he broke off - which doesn't bother reading today - and started on "Germany - Jekyll and Hide": a work that was supposed to help the British to understand who they were dealing with in the war. On the island, that consolidated his status quite quickly, so the author had done the right thing for his life situation. After the Second World War, Haffner was naturalized and returned to Berlin in 1954 as a correspondent for the Observer.

This was also the time when he wrote for WELT. From 1962 he worked as a columnist for the "Stern", his thinking shifted to the left in the years to come, so in 1968 he took part in a number of demonstrations. But nobody could really classify this man politically - and that was probably part of his attraction. Incidentally, this is a pose that today's intellectuals also like to strike, but without having Haffner's background and analytical skills at their disposal.

In 1978 he proved that a concisely written book full of clear theses can contribute to raising historical awareness even if some things later turn out to be mistakes. The "Notes on Hitler" were so enlightening precisely because their interpretations did not obscure the larger picture. The fact that Haffner misjudged Nazi economic policy, for example, takes second place to the fact that he initiated a wide-ranging discussion worthy of the name.

After increasingly struggling with health problems in the 1980s, the publicist largely withdrew from the public eye. Some history teachers tormented their students with his late work “From Bismarck to Hitler”, although it could have been much worse for them – in terms of style and readability.

It's a melancholic look back, which Haffner's disillusioned facial expression on the cover photo fits only too well. The sight is almost painful when one thinks of the freshness and cheerful irony that speaks from Haffner's early feuilletons. But old age and illness are: old age and illness.

"I have a good nose, I can tell when it stinks," writes Haffner in the "History of a German." Perhaps this is his greatest legacy. Because unfortunately it is all too often the case these days that those who claim to know where it smells bad spread the most unbearable stench themselves.

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