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.

Johannes Fest was an active member of the Zentrum, the main Catholic party, and as political violence spread in the early 1930s, a supporter of the Reichsbanner movement formed to defend the republic. At first he was cheerful, even when he’d been brought home bloody and bandaged after a communist hit squad attacked a meeting where he was one of the Reichsbanner stewards. But he watched in horror as leading figures of his own party buckled under pressure. Von Papen’s coup in Prussia, in July 1932, gave the Weimar Republic its mortal wound, but nobody rose to stop him. ‘Now everyone knows that this state does not have the will to assert itself against its declared enemies,’ Fest’s father remarked.

Hitler became chancellor, and Fest’s father lost his job. There were Gestapo visits and threats, but he refused to make any concessions to the new rulers whom he regarded as criminals and gangsters. In his opinion, abject respect for legality had disabled the political movements which might have halted the Nazis. They were defeated, he said to his friend the Social Democrat Max Fechner, by being ‘proper Germans; upholding the law was more important to them than right or wrong.’ He turned the apartment in Karlshorst into a moral fortress against the outside world. There would now be two supper-times: one for the younger children and, when they had been sent to bed, a second meal with the older children, at which the family would speak their minds with utter frankness. Joachim and his elder brother, sworn to keep their lips sealed outside the house, were made to copy out Latin words from St Matthew: ‘Etiam si omnes, ego non’ – ‘even if all the others do, not me.'

The family grew steadily more isolated as the neighbours began to relax and enjoy the Nazi regime’s early achievements and the return of national self-confidence. Friends edged away, although Johannes kept in touch with the political victims and Jews in his old circle. (He used to say that his educated Jewish friends were ‘the last Prussians’: self-disciplined, quietly polite, brilliant without sentimentality, but now without ‘the instinct for danger which had preserved them through the ages’.) Before and after Kristallnacht, he urged them to leave Germany while they could. All too few did. It was hard on Joachim’s unpolitical mother. The boys overheard a family row in which she begged Johannes to reconsider his refusal to join the Nazi Party. The whole family was suffering for it, and to join with fingers crossed would change nothing. ‘Precisely not!’ Johannes thundered, ‘it would change everything!’ When two Hitler Youth officers appeared, demanding to know why none of his three sons had joined up, he flung them out of the house.

Young Joachim and his siblings were brought up on a strict diet of German classical music and literature. When Joachim was lent a copy of Buddenbrooks, Johannes ordered him to give it back at once: he considered Thomas Mann a traitor to the republic. It’s not surprising that under these family and political pressures, Fest went into a ‘difficult’ phase of rudeness and defiance that culminated with his carving a cartoon face of Hitler on the lid of his school desk. Expulsion followed, and he and his brothers were sent off to a Catholic boarding school in Freiburg in the south-west. By now, the war had begun. The family’s Jewish friends, forbidden typewriters, bicycles and even pets, finally realised that it was too late to leave. Dr Meyer, who had privately tutored Joachim in German poetry and drama, told him not to come any more. His wife had died not long before, taking to her bed in despair and refusing to eat. ‘We have no future,’ Dr Meyer said to Joachim. ‘With our end the world ends. All of us here are appearing in a tragedy. But it has no fifth act, and there is no continuation. The conclusion to our book of life suddenly breaks off. Someone has simply torn out the last page.’

Joachim was already an opinionated 16-year-old, emerging from his father’s shadow and finding his own tastes in books and music. His generation was the last to experience total immersion in German high culture, a cultural baptism which dedicated his emotional development to Mozart and Beethoven, Schiller and Hölderlin. He saw Fidelio for the first time in Freiburg and heard the trumpet call proclaim the opening of the prison and the pardoning of the condemned. He was blown away by it, but asked, disbelieving, ‘Where has that ever happened?’ and shocked an older friend by declaring the opera ‘a fairy tale’: ‘That’s not how freedom comes about! And perhaps precisely because of that, a particularly German fairy tale!’

He was called up, serving in a flak battery near Lake Constance, in a labour service company in the Austrian Alps, and then in an air force infantry unit facing the American offensive in the Rhineland. His culture marched with him. An air-raid siren howling over the ruins of Cologne reminded him of Liszt’s Préludes; in Bavaria he was challenged by his platoon commander to recite the closing line of the ‘Erlkönig’ and got it right; he spent evenings in camp arguing with his friend Reinhold Buck about Beethoven’s ‘craving for the abyss’ or Mozart’s problems with librettists. He somehow managed to lug a leather bag containing 13 books (the usual suspects plus Ernst Jünger, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Jean Paul) across the battlefields. When he was finally captured and sent to a temporary camp in France, his first punishment was having to hear the loudspeakers around the fence blasting out Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ fortissimo for nine days and nights without stopping.

By early 1945, the family fortress in Karlshorst had been breached. Joachim’s brother Wolfgang had died on the Eastern Front. Their father had been conscripted and sent into the nightmare of besieged Königsberg; he was captured by the Russians and his fate not known until a skeletal, unrecognisable figure collapsed on the doorstep a few months later. Joachim himself was to remain a prisoner of war for nearly two years. Many of his friends were dead, and he had survived by a miracle the slaughterhouse battlefields around Remagen. The old Berlin intimates were scattered. Nobody answered the door in the apartments where Dr Meyer and their other Jewish friends had lived. And by now many people knew what happened to them at the end of their journey.

Listening to the BBC in secret, Joachim’s father had heard a dreadful, unbelievable report about events in occupied Poland. He made it his business to find out if it was true, and by 1944 he knew. In the spring of 1945, Soviet troops reached Karlshorst on their last offensive into Berlin. Frau Fest and the daughters were given only moments to grab a few belongings before being thrown out of their house for ever. (Karlshorst was to become the Soviet military headquarters in Germany, much of it a closed zone during the Cold War.) But compared to their relations in the Neumark, many miles to the east, the Fests were very lucky indeed.

Not Me describes in awful detail how ‘the American conquerors’ shot Fest’s uncle dead as he tried to defend his daughters against gang rape, then raped his paralysed sister and threw her down the cellar stairs to die. But in reality it didn’t happen, or not like that, and Fest never said that it did. The explanation is that this translation has an unhappy history. Illness meant that Martin Chalmers, the translator, apparently never corrected the proofs; the publisher handed over the editing to junior staff, and the result was a series of painful howlers. One editor had evidently never heard of Theodor Fontane, and corrected his name to ‘Jean de la Fontaine’ throughout. Another, for unimaginable reasons, inserted the word ‘American’ before ‘conquerors’, although the context makes it absolutely clear that this was an atrocity committed by Russian soldiers. Many passages from the original have been silently dropped. This was done with the permission of Fest’s son, but some of the cuts are a loss. I particularly regret the scene in which a West German potentate was slipped the text of a speech he had once made adulating the Führer and promising imminent victory in the war. The potentate, seeing that everyone around him knew what was on the paper and was sniggering, crumpled it up and, with great difficulty, ate it.

Fest, stagnating in a prison camp near Laon in France, broadened his reading to discover Conrad, Maugham, Musil, Flaubert and even the disloyal Manns. He started work on a study of Renaissance history. By now his relations with some of the American camp staff were friendly, and he was particularly valued by the commandant, the sensitive, dandified Captain Donaldson, who gave him special privileges. Donaldson was deeply shocked when Fest and a comrade tried to escape. They were sent for six weeks to an open punishment cage, where Polish soldiers bullied them and they were forced to work their hands raw. One day, Captain Donaldson looked in. Fest at once protested: ‘You punished us without a formal sentence. That’s still unfinished business between us.’ Donaldson seemed stunned by this. Fest reports what Donaldson told him: that ‘at the beginning he had taken me for a young German of a familiar type: romantic, open, earnest … Now he knew he had been mistaken. I, too, was just a German like all the rest.’ This is a fascinating passage, shimmering with misunderstanding. Why is Fest telling this story? Apparently to show that the Allied camp system was founded on illegality. After all, international law admitted the right of a prisoner to attempt escape, but even the sympathetic Captain Donaldson refused to recognise it. To an English-speaking reader, however, the story can look very different. Wasn’t it blinkered arrogance on the part of this young German to argue a legalistic grievance as if he were the victim of a war crime? Had he no sense of what had just happened all over Europe, and no instinct for the reflexes of an Allied officer when accused of lawless repression by a German soldier? Surely, Captain Donaldson comes out of this exchange better.

It’s a pity that we will never know how Fest meant that dialogue to be taken. But there are elements of tunnel vision even in the courageous and unyielding way this family kept the Third Reich beyond their doorstep. Nobody could accuse Johannes of being suspicious of all politics, as millions of Germans were; before 1933, he was vigorously committed to the defence of republican values and to campaigning for the Zentrum’s brand of Catholic social conservatism. But suddenly, with no republic and only one political party, there was no space left for him. So, like countless Germans at the time, he left the toxic public sphere altogether and fell back on the Christian home barricaded against the outside world. This recipe for survival, the belief that real resistance was not to take up the sword or the bomb but to live privately in truth within four walls, was as old as the Thirty Years’ War and engrained in German pietism. As a means of undermining tyranny or bringing about political change, it has almost never worked. But what else could the Fest family have done? It’s frustrating that Not Me doesn’t tell us what they thought about the 1944 July Plot. By then many decent middle-class people like the Fests longed for Hitler’s death, and yet felt that resorting to the murder even of a satanic tyrant in time of war was wrong. Should the Fest family have tried to hide Dr Meyer? Already under surveillance as political suspects, they had no chance of getting away with that.

Fest finally returned to a ruined Berlin in 1946. His father, ‘shrunken’, never regained his old commanding certainty and wit, blaming himself and his friends for believing in the power of ‘reason’, in the tradition of Goethe, Kant and Mozart.

Until 1932 he had always trusted that that was proof enough that a primitive gangster like Hitler could never achieve power in Germany. But he hadn’t had a clue. One of the most shocking things for him had been to realise that it was completely unpredictable how a neighbour, colleague or even a friend might behave when it came to moral decisions. He still had no answer to that.

Because of his stainless political record, Johannes was offered a seat on the new Berlin city council. But he refused to write a memoir of his time under the Nazis, or even to discuss it. ‘I remain silent … It’s indecent to talk.’ Much later, when his son began to write studies of the Nazi leaders, the old man protested that Hitler and his cronies were ‘a gutter subject’, unworthy of a historian’s time.

Fest, now completing his education and moving towards journalism, could afford a colder, more detached view of the German disaster. He writes here that the collapse of the bourgeois world, the end of civic responsibility, had begun well before Hitler, who ‘merely swept away the remaining ruins’. Only some individuals survived the Third Reich with integrity; all social organisations and parties, left and right, had contributed to the destruction of their world. He points out that in their apartment block only one man had been a Nazi member; ‘if asked, each person living in our house would have passionately defended middle-class and civil virtues. Yet, inwardly, this stratum of society had decayed long before, so that I was brought up in accordance with the principles of an outmoded order.’

This line, implying that the Weimar Republic somehow died of its own moral degeneracy, is surprisingly Hollywoodish for the grave Fest. It certainly doesn’t fit with his father’s opinion that human cowardice and political stupidity, not some overwhelming Zeitgeist, allowed Hitler to take power. Elsewhere he takes a more reasoned view: ‘broad but fickle sections of the population, who were essentially well-disposed to the republic, believed themselves to be threatened not only by radicals of the right and left, but they increasingly surrendered to the idea that nothing less than the spirit of the age was against them. With Hegel in one’s intellectual baggage one was even more susceptible to such thinking.’

It’s easier to write about the ‘forces which brought Hitler to power’ than about the social and political brakes that should have stopped him but failed. Its evidence about that failure is the best reason to read this clever and unusual book, which is also among the most eloquent memoirs of any young German caught up in the war’s final bloodbath. Inevitably, it will be compared to Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler (Geschichte eines Deutschen), the memoir Haffner wrote in 1939 at the start of his British exile which became a posthumous bestseller in 2000. A generation separated Haffner, born in 1907, and Fest. But both were the sons of upright Prussian officials, and both witnessed the miserable surrender of middle-class and professional Germany to the ‘gangsters’ after 1933. Backing into the ‘moral redoubt within four walls’ was an option open to Haffner too, but he did not take it. ‘Retreat into the smallest corner if you have to, if you can only keep it free of the polluted air, so that you can save undamaged the only thing worth saving … your soul.’ But ‘I thank God that my attempt to do so failed quickly and thoroughly.’

Haffner’s is by far the better book. It was written in lucid fury, and is free of Fest’s opacities, ambiguities and musical disquisitions. But long after the war, when both had become famous and controversial historians and columnists in West Germany, Fest and Haffner began to enjoy meeting and exploring their violent disagreements. Haffner thought Fest was ominously detached in his writing about Hitler and postwar Germany; Fest thought that Haffner’s warnings about creeping fascism in the Bonn governments were ridiculous. When the Wall fell in 1989, Haffner was shocked; he had long ago decided that ‘the German question has been solved’ and was uneasy about where a united Germany might head. Fest, in contrast, seemed to hear the trumpet-call from Fidelio as the prison gate opened. For once, his ‘German fairy tale’ had come true. A novel German landscape invited these two lonely men, one an exile who had returned in British uniform, the other an ‘odd man out’ in both Nazi and postwar society, to overcome memory and imagine their nation in new ways. But neither of them lived long enough to achieve that.