A Gutter Subject

Neal Ascherson

  • Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood by Joachim Fest, translated by Martin Chalmers
    Atlantic, 316 pp, £20.00, August 2012, ISBN 978 1 84354 931 4

To be right when everybody else has been wrong can be a lonely, even disabling experience. This may be a way of understanding the enigmatic character of Joachim Fest, the German historian, journalist and editor who died six years ago. His Berlin family belonged to the Bildungsbürgertum – roughly, the well-educated middle class – and rejected Hitler and National Socialism from the very first moment. They were not part of any resistance group; they did nothing ‘active’ to damage the Nazi dictatorship. They simply refused to let this dirty, vulgar, evil thing across the threshold until, in the final stages of the war, it broke in and took their sons and their father away to defend the collapsing Reich. For their defiance – refusing to join the Hitler Youth or League of German Maidens voluntarily, refusing to abandon their Jewish friends until they ‘disappeared’ – the father lost his job as a headmaster and was banned from all employment. The family was repeatedly threatened by the Gestapo and denounced by its neighbours. They were lucky nothing worse happened to them.

Fest was six when Hitler came to power and an 18-year-old prisoner of war when the Führer committed suicide. Much later, he was to become a historian, a maverick conservative of independent mind. He wrote one of the earliest postwar biographies of Hitler in German, and another of Albert Speer. In 1986, as cultural editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he published the article by Ernst Nolte which was held to ‘relativise the Jewish Holocaust’ and touched off the Historikerstreit dispute over the uniqueness of Nazi crime.

Fest was a handsome, restless, rather unhappy man. In postwar West Germany, he never fitted into any of the conventional slots. He had no time at all for Soviet socialism, which he considered an early variant of the virus that later produced the Nazis, or for any Western form of Marxism. But although a right-winger, he neither dreamed of reversing the outcome of the Second World War nor chose to imagine the Germans as helpless victims of a single madman: Hitler did not have to happen. No iron law of economics or sociology wheeled him into history. Human beings – German human beings – could have stopped him, but didn’t.

It was the matter of postwar guilt which isolated him. His family was exceptional because it had no reason to apologise for National Socialism, although his father, especially, felt searing shame for his country. Fest clearly found the cult of guilt unconvincing. If you looked more closely, he believed, you could see that the penitent was almost always blaming other people – his neighbours, his nation collectively – and never himself. There was a silent consensus not to stare into the bathroom mirror in the search for causes. The mood was rather: ‘Yes, we admit that Germany under that criminal regime was guilty; now let’s move on.’ But Fest, because he was genuinely not guilty, couldn’t play this game. ‘Unlike the overwhelming majority of Germans, we were not part of some mass conversion … we were excluded from this psychodrama. We had the dubious advantage of remaining exactly who we had always been, and so of once again being the odd ones out.’ So, too, did quite a few survivors of the sacrificial plots against Hitler. Everyone was respectful to them (unless they had been communists) and gave them medals. But in the Bonn republic they were decorated strangers, with a space around them.

Fest was born in Berlin, into a Catholic family. His grandfather had been the manager of the new housing scheme of Karlshorst, on the eastern edge of the city, where the Fests settled. But it’s his father, Johannes Fest, headmaster of a primary school, who is in most ways the central figure of this book. He dominated his family, an imperious patriarch given to terrific rages at the dining-table but unbending in his attachment to straightness, good behaviour and democracy. His four principles were militant republicanism (he had detested the kaiser), Prussian virtue (taken with a spice of irony), the Catholic faith and German high culture as inherited by the educated middle class. He had been wounded in the First World War, and his patriotism was at once critical and old-fashioned, free of neo-pagan triumphalism and yet rooted in traditional stereotypes. When France fell in 1940, he remarked that ‘he was glad from the bottom of his heart at the French defeat, but could never be so at Hitler’s triumph.’ This kind of ambiguity – yes, but if only someone other than Hitler had achieved it – paralysed would-be conspirators’ responses to the Czechoslovak crisis in 1938, the destruction of Poland and even the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. There weren’t many like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who could cut the knot and hope for the defeat of their own country.

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