Rupert Wickham in Defying Hitler
(Photo © Sheila Burnett)
Rupert Wickham in Defying Hitler
(Photo © Sheila Burnett)
The title of Rupert Wickham's one-person show, Defying Hitler, which is being presented as part of the 2006 Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters, is deceptively intriguing. It suggests moral steadfastness and revolt, but the play is actually about moral torpor, acquiescence, and fear -- and that's why it's such a revelatory, important work. After all, the world will always have its share of madmen and murderers. The real question has always been: Why did the Germans follow one particular madman between 1933 and 1945? Where were the people of honor and conscience who could have stopped him?

The show is based on the unpublished memoirs of Sebastian Haffner, a bright, well-to-do German with blond hair, blue eyes, and connections to the German legal system, who could have defied Hitler. He fled to England in the latter 1930s, but let's not confuse flight with defiance. As the play begins, a young Haffner explains the terrible conditions in Germany after World War I that led to the rise of the Nazi Party. Then, as he becomes an adult, he expresses his revulsion at the barbaric tactics of the Nazis and their cruel attacks upon the Jews. Most of his narrative is centered on the pivotal events of 1933, when Hitler solidified his power.

Haffner is filled with self-loathing as he sees his Jewish friends and colleagues beaten, disgraced, and driven away, but he never raises a finger to help. Finally, he witnesses his own father, a once proud and powerful man, sign a loyalty oath to the Nazis rather than lose his pension. Haffner tries to explain with honesty and simplicity how he, his father, and so many others let the Nazis take over: "Nothing in all my rich cultural and historical education equipped me to cope with anything like this....Like millions of others I felt excluded and powerless. I let events come at me."

So Haffner didn't defy Hitler. Instead, he wore jackboots, a swastika on his arm, and marched with the Gestapo. He may have told himself, "It's not me. It doesn't count." But it does. As he says, quite strikingly: "If you read ordinary history books, you get the impression that no more than a dozen or so people are involved. It's a kind of chess game between Hitler, Roosevelt and Chamberlain. Yet real historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. Decisions that affect the course of history arise out of the personal experiences of millions of individuals."

At times, Defying Hitler feels more written than spoken, but it ultimately succeeds as a piercing account of one man's inability to act -- and, by extension, a nation's inability to keep its honor and good name. Wickham's understated yet stellar performance, directed by Peter Symonds, keeps us riveted throughout.