WITH no heroes, plot or villains, this account of Nazi Germany is as stark and brutal as it gets.
Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood
by Joachim Fest
Atlantic, 317pp, £20
Joachim Fest never did run away from trouble; usually, he was the one making it. He looked such a neat, short-back-and-sides kind of conservative, a good Catholic and deeply suspicious of the chic Left in Sixties and Seventies Germany, a man in a good suit with real power: he was a very influential editor in television and in newspapers. This, his last book, even looks like the plain, unfussy memoir you’d expect from such a man, not unlike other memoirs of family life and the Nazi years. Then it starts working in your mind and you realise: even dead, Joachim Fest is making the most disturbing kind of trouble.
He was, after all, the first German to tell Germans out loud who Hitler was and what he did and why they should think very hard about how they let it happen; he told them on radio, in books, on film. He wasn’t obvious, and he wasn’t sentimental, and he didn’t take the fashionable line that the rise of the Nazis was purely economic; instead, he saw a perverse quest for security. He wouldn’t blame his own class, the educated middle sort, since they were only one per cent of an electorate that gave Hitler a majority in 1933.
And he understood how things worked, that Hitler’s speeches, for example, weren’t extravagant at all; they were a careful mix of the rational and the frenzied, always surprising, and always in control down to the artificial lighting, the glare and shadows. He wrote a biography of the man, and then worked with the architect Albert Speer on a book about life inside the Third Reich; it’s arguable he was too kind to a man who was somehow at the heart of things and yet said he knew nothing much. He had to tell Speer to mention the horrors of Kristallnacht because people would notice if he didn’t.
All this was necessary and extraordinary, and of course it was controversial – not just Germans who wanted to keep their victimhood, but also critics who pointed out that Fest didn’t write much about genocide or even the Second World War; Fest’s real subject was how the Nazi regime was possible, rather than its manifest crimes.
Now we have this memoir about growing up in Germany in the Nazi years; Fest was born in 1926. Memoirs invite you to live along with events, share the day-to-day of what in retrospect were such obvious atrocities; they make the reader an accomplice. Fest knows this and that is why this book is so disconcerting. It is a seemingly cool account of a tragedy: a man with a fatal flaw facing extraordinary circumstances. It is also a kind of summary of everything Fest ever wrote about responsibility: an invitation to think again.
It’s about a boy, so it’s about his family: about his father’s principles, his refusal to have anything to do with the Nazis, how his principles cost him his job as a schoolmaster and the legal right even to try to get another job, and the price a family paid for a man being mercilessly right. Fest’s mother had somehow to clothe and feed four children and keep them in school. She begged his father to listen to the colleagues who wanted him back, tried to get him to make the gesture of joining the Nazi Party so the secret police would visit less often and survival would be easier; “After all,” she said, “we remain who we are.” His father’s answer was brisk: “Absolutely not. It would change everything.”
There was pride in this. “We are not little people,” his father said. “Not when it comes to such questions.” There is a sniff of social as well as moral snobbery; Fest likes to say where his mother was invited before she was married. There was also intense frustration, a man who had once been on the brink of a political career and now could do nothing at all in case his family suffered; “Yes! I keep out of things. Like everyone else!” And there was an element of moral grandstanding, not visible until this book; other people might do wrong, but “not me.”
State crimes became ordinary, meanwhile. “Curiously,” Fest writes, “I often recollect distant cries for help yet I do not know what gave rise to them or where they came from.” The next-door neighbour called the police on children walking in a garden with Chinese lanterns. Secret police arrive to see which station the radio is set to receive. Jewish friends can no longer be persuaded even to answer when their doorbell rings.
Fest remembers bookish disagreements in the back garden, and thinks them perfectly civilised, the “quintessence of a difference of opinion among members of the educated classes.” He wants to see continuity when his subject is the opening of hell. And the result is some devastating moments which are not obvious at all – like the night Fest left Berlin with his father running alongside the train, seeing his two sons off to school, shouting: “I do hope we’ll meet again.”
This is fascinating because it is the history of the mind that told Germans what had happened in Germany so they couldn’t turn away: the odd little evasions, the insistence that Jews somehow have more in common with Germans than any other Europeans, the pride in German culture and the willingness to confuse that great tradition with a state that was barely 60 years old when Fest was born, and none too stable. There is also a certain provincialism. The omniliterate and inquisitive Fest is writing about a time when he hadn’t read Thomas Mann, let alone Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens or the great Russians, which may have made his sense of German uniqueness rather easy to maintain. He adores the awful, witless sadism of Max und Moritz. He is sure Prussians have irony. All this is almost endearing – unless we’re asked to see the local as some kind of universal truth.
And this book puts in question the whole shelf of memoirs other people wrote: the war in all 57 varieties. Reading Fest, you ask what it means to remember, right up to his final lines about how biographical truth does not exist (which, of course, is a quote from a great man, in this case Freud; Fest likes authorities.) You can’t miss the attitudes, mean or heroic, which shape memory first, and then history.
Consider how Heidi Scriba Vance wanted you to know she danced for the depressed of Berlin, and they threw roses; she had gentlemen callers who brought salami and coffee and cheeses and wine up to the very end. Then she was gang-raped by Russian soldiers, and suddenly she looked older.
Hans-Georg von Studnitz, liaison to the Berlin diplomatic corps, was alarmed that his whole comfortable, gentlemanly world depended on only one thing: “the iron will of the German soldier”; “tomorrow we may well be homeless again, as so often during this war.” He was at Nuremberg after the war, reporting the war crimes trials.
Ursula von Kardorff, a much better writer than the others, saw the banners for Hitler’s birthday strung between the bones of ruined buildings, the nice fish restaurant in between burned out houses, the well-organised men who come with a stretcher to carry away a Jewish woman aged 85 to the death camps in Poland (the woman just had time to kill herself.) She notices how money starts to move faster and faster – a concierge splashing out on a couture suit because what’s money worth any more, a waiter buying a place in the country with the almost indecent tips that everyone gives him. Class, art, money, the fixed things; they were all quite suddenly uncertain.
Every one of those books is about seeing all your assumptions, sense of order and sense of yourself, being cut up and burned in front of you like so much used paper. Fest is a little different; he wants to remake a continuity that was fatally broken, to give Germans back a time before the rise of the Nazis. But he, too, is concerned with social position, with the glories of art (mostly music) and with how to buy bread for the table.
In 1940, Marie Vassilitchikov was in Berlin from her schloss and estate, dancing at the Chilean Embassy until five in the morning, cross at the January ban on baths except on Saturdays and Sundays (“one gets amazingly dirty in a big town and it was one of the few ways to keep warm.”) Four years later she still managed to buy tulips and people stopped her in the street to ask where she found them; “it’s pathetic how one tries to keep up a semblance of civilised life.” By 1945 she has foraged for food, knew the stench of dead bodies and was trying to travel by making friends with engine drivers and hitch-hiking on the railways.
Her diaries are sharp-eyed, and almost without compromise; they can be quite alarming. They tell, indirectly at first, the story of practical resistance against the Nazis and against Hitler in particular, the wrong kind of man to lead Germany to war, the man inevitably leading a proud military class to disaster. Her friends tried to kill the man, but the bomb went wrong. They resisted, which was heroic, but they were also defending a rigid system of class: the right people. By 1945, that system was almost irrelevant; “the struggle for sheer physical survival,” Marie wrote, “absorbed all one’s remaining reserves of energy and nerves.” The heroes were losing their point.
The easiest diaries to read are the ones that have a plot, which is something Fest denies us; we want villains, heroes, hope. The story of Bella Fromm, 1930s gossip columnist, is so satisfactory because she got out in time in 1938, because her reports on the wretchedness and brutality of life in Nazi Berlin were published to the rest of the world, because she went from agreeable garden parties to seeing the blood on the streets when bigotry crashed into lives; and because of one famous story. She once interrupted one of Goering’s anti-Semitic rants and reminded him she was a Jew. Goering told her: “I decide who’s Jewish.”
For we want to be sure we’re on the right side, and Fest won’t let us be sure. The close observation of a Victor Klemperer of his half-life in the Jewish houses, the story of a “half-breed in the first degree” like Heinz Kuehn, the story and drawings that Thomas Geve made when he was shipped to Auschwitz at the age of 13, young enough to have his bright life survive 22 months of the death camps and then the death marches where the only landmarks were the frozen bodies glimpsed on the roadside; we don’t need a moral compass to read such books. But Joachim Fest wants us to know about his father, who was absolutely right and completely ruinous.
He makes it hard to think about those blighted years, and it should be hard. His book is a glory, but only if you dare.
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