Joachim Fest, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood,
translated by Martin Chalmers
It is nearly impossible to reflect upon the Nazi period in Germany without asking how this exceptionally cultured country could sink to such unprecedented levels of barbarity. This reflection upon what might be termed Germany’s “duality” – the land of Beethoven and Bach, Goethe and Schiller becoming the land of Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels — is so commonplace as to be a platitude. But it is also the main thread tying together Joachim Fest’s engaging memoir, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, recently translated into English. Fest, born in Germany in 1926, went on after World War II to become a respected historian, one of a handful of Germans who wrote openly about his country’s descent into barbarity during the Nazi period. His works include a biography of Adolf Hitler and books about Albert Speer and the German resistance to Nazism. Fest was 7 years old when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and was old enough in 1944, at age 18, to serve in the Nazi military. Fest died in 2006.
The duality of the Germany which Fest describes proved fatal to many of his family’s Jewish friends, whose faith in the humanism of German culture blinded them to the true nature of the Nazi regime until it was too late. They had “believed all too unreservedly in reason, in Goethe, Kant, Mozart and the whole tradition which came from that” (p.261), Fest writes. But this duality is also at work throughout Fest’s memoir in his more mundane descriptions of everyday childhood life in Nazi Germany where, within the rigidly controlled and aggresively anti-intellectual Nazi environment, young Joachim discovered humanistic German culture.
* * *
Fest describes his German childhood world, with the Nazis in firm control by his 7th birthday in 1933, as “utterly political,” where “[m]any conversations and almost all personal decisions were made with an eye to the prevailing situation.” Yet, the “traditional rules of upbringing still applied, in our home perhaps even a little more than elsewhere” (p.76), in large measure because of the structured home environment which Fest’s parents provided. Fest’s father Johannes dominates the first half of the memoir, the author’s childhood years, then recedes to the background but remains a forceful influence as the author reaches adolescence and early adulthood, which he spent in boarding school and the German military.
The senior Fest possessed an “authority which was never challenged, still less doubted” within the Fest family, where “fragments of this elevated image increasingly asserted themselves, in the face of all childish and later all adolescent resistance” (p.29). The “Not I” portion of the memoir’s title were words which Johannes dictated to his children, in Latin – etiam si omnes, ego non – “even if everyone else, not I,” from St. Matthew’s gospel, to remind them of the family’s resolute opposition to the Nazi regime. As young Joachim moved through his childhood years, his father served as the lens with which the son came to view the regime.
Johannes was from a staunch Prussian Catholic family yet, unusually, also strongly supported the Weimar Republic, Germany’s beleaguered post World War I experiment in parliamentary democracy. “If Prussia and republicanism were not easily reconciled,” Fest writes of his father, “then the contradiction was further sharpened by my father’s strict Catholicism. He was a pious man, who accounted to the ‘Lord God’ (as he usually put it in this context) for each of his private or political decisions” (p.16). Joannes never wavered in his conviction that a “human being without faith was ‘incomplete.’ Neither reason nor walking upright separated him from the apes; the difference between the two lay in the need for a Beyond” (p.112).
Professionally, the senior Fest was an erudite primary school headmaster who lost his job during Hitler’s first year in power. Unwilling to join the party and pledge allegiance to the new regime, which he repeatedly termed a “band of criminals,” the author’s father was informed that his “public speeches disparaging the Führer” were the reason for his dismissal (p.35). When handed his dismissal papers, Fest’s father reminded the Nazi bureaucrat in charge that he was a civil servant entitled to certain protections. “You can tell our Führer that. He’ll be very impressed” (p.34), the bureaucrat responded.
Fest’s mother Elisabeth shared her husband’s opposition to the Nazi regime but was far from supportive of his outspoken hostility to the regime and his refusal to join the Nazi party. Joannes’ stand in her view endangered the entire family and threatened its stability. On numerous occasions, Fest’s mother entreated her husband to yield to Nazi demands and provide the requisite assurances to the authorities to enable him to continue to hold a job and maintain the family’s comfortable living standard. If joining the party would be a lie to those in charge, the author overheard his mother telling his father, “then let it be a lie! A thousand lies even, if necessary!” (p.50).
The Fest family grew up in Karlshorst, a middle class Berlin suburb. Joachim was the second son in a family of five children, where the older three siblings were boys and the younger two were girls. Fest’s older brother Wolfgang died serving in Hitler’s military, but the other family members survived the war. Fest was 13 when World War II began in 1939. By this time, he had developed a precocious interest in poetry, literature, and music, and much of the memoir details the evolution of these interests against a backdrop of ubiquitous pressure to support the Nazi regime.
Fest’s Aunt Dolley introduced him to opera at age six, when they heard Mozart’s The Magic Flute, an “overwhelming experience” which served as Fest’s “entry to the magical world of music” (p.48-49). Another important influence on young Fest was Father Wittenbrink, the family’s anti-Nazi parish priest. Father Wittenbrink tried to convince the author that Mozart was the “most convincing proof of the existence of God. . . Every single page of his biography teaches us that he comes from another world” (p.174), Father Wittenbrink argued. Fest learned poetry through regular visits to the home of the Fest family’s friend, Dr. Meyer, who was incessantly talking about the “books he was reading for the second, third or fourth time” (p.89).
One of the family’s many Jewish friends, Dr. Meyer disappeared during the war and, although his fate is not difficult to imagine, we never learn exactly what happened to him. In their last meeting in the spring of 1939, Dr. Meyer ruminated to the young Fest that the great German poets — and thus Germany’s duality — “bore some of the blame” for the uncertainty he was then facing in his life. He had often considered emigrating and had been “close to making the decision to leave.” But then “trust in the culture of the Germans had always won out” (p.129-30). Dr. Meyer lamented that he had accepted the idea that a nation that had “produced Goethe and Schiller and Lessing, Bach, Mozart and whoever else, would simply be incapable of barbarism. Griping at the Jews, prejudice, there had always been that,” Dr. Meyer mused. “But not violent persecution. They wouldn’t do anything to us.” Dr. Meyer’s final words to young Fest were, “You know how mistaken we were” (p.130).
Joachim and his older brother Wolfgang were sent off to a provincial boarding school near Frankfurt after the war began in 1939. As he left Berlin on the train, Joachim reflected on his German childhood. Although these years had been difficult ones for his parents, his childhood had nonetheless been “happy years” because his parents had “let us feel their fears as little as possible” (p.133). A volume of Schiller’s work provided Fest with what he described as his “refuge from the irksome features of boarding school” (p.141). But Fest developed a reputation with the school’s administration for impertinence – for being a “wise guy” – as captured in a report from the school sent to Fest’s parents:
Joachim F. shows no intellectual interest and only turns his attention to subjects he finds easy . . . His religious attachment leaves something to be desired. He is hard to deal with. He shows a precocious liking for naked women, which he hides behind a taste for Italian painting . . . He is taciturn. All attempts by the rectorate to draw him into discussion were in vain (p.187).
In 1944, Joachim reached age 18 and, facing conscription into the German SS, volunteered instead for the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. When he told his father by telephone from boarding school that he had volunteered to avoid being drafted into the SS, his father reacted indignantly. “Volunteered!. . . For this war! Have you thought of me? Of us?” Finally, “after long argument and even longer silence we hung up” (p.182). In the letter that arrived few days later, his father wrote, with an “unbelievable lack of caution,” that one “does not volunteer for ‘Hitler’s criminal war’, not even to avoid the SS” (p.182).
Despite his father’s entreaties, Fest went ahead with his plan to volunteer for the Luftwaffe, where he again found refuge in literature, music and poetry, abetted by a colleague who shared Fest’s cultured passions. In March 1945, advancing American forces captured Fest and he wound up in an American prison camp as the war ended two months later. Although Fest initially found his capture a welcome happenstance, a rumor circulated within the camp that its administration was to be turned over to the French. Fest and his fellow prisoners surmised that the French were likely to be more bent upon revenge than the Americans. This prompted Fest to organize an ingenious but unsuccessful escape attempt from the camp, one of the memoir’s most memorable sections. Upon his return to prison camp, a book-loving American guard introduced Fest to English language novels, especially Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.
The memoir ends with the family reunited in devastated Berlin in late 1945, absent Fest’s older brother Wolfgang, who died of a lung infection on Germany’s Eastern Front. Upon returning home, Fest learned that his father at age 50 had been conscripted into the military, where he had been captured by the Russians and imprisoned in a Russian camp. Fest found his father “hardly recognizable: a man abruptly grown smaller, slighter, grey-haired. Most of the time he simply sat there, his eyes sunken, where previously he had always set the tone” (p.260).
In her husband’s absence during the war, Fest’s mother had “proved to be a robust person and had completely shed her [family] gentleness” (p.259). But upon seeing his mother, Fest was “dismayed by the emaciated, scraggy picture that she presented, and how empty her eyes were” (p.248). When, unavoidably, the name of brother Wolfgang was mentioned, his mother’s “mouth began to twitch” (p.260). Wolfgang’s death was an “unnameable misfortune for our family. My mother had always said as long as we were all alive she would not complain. Now that security was gone. In the almost twenty-five years that remained to her, whenever Wolfgang’s name was mentioned or an episode which had something to do with him, she rose from her seat and left the room” (p.196).
Fest’s father was given to reflection after the war on why even he and his highly literate friends, all ardent opponents of the Nazi regime, had nonetheless underestimated Hitler. Until Hitler came to power, his father had always trusted that a “primitive gangster like Hitler could never achieve power in Germany” (p.261). But, in his father’s view, Germans in the Hitler era failed to uphold their cultured heritage. They “lost their passion for introspection and discovered their taste for the primitive.” Their model was no longer the “reflective scholar type of the nineteenth century” but rather, the “tribal warrior, dancing around a stake and showing his chief a painted grimace. The nation of Goethe!” (p.280).
Remembering his Jewish friends who perished during the war, Fest’s father said that “in their self-discipline, their quiet civility and unsentimental brilliance they had really been the last Prussians; in any case, he had more often encountered his idea of Prussiansim among the long-established, often highly educated Berlin Jews than anywhere else” (p.63). Germany’s dualism, however, undermined them. Their “one failing” was that they were “overwhelmingly governed by their heads . . . [and] lost the instinct for danger, which had preserved them through the ages” (p.63).
* * *
The prose in this poignant coming-of-age memoir is sometimes dense, making for slow reading, which might be a function of its translation into English from the German original. But the memoir shines as a statement of how Fest and his family, led by his Nazi-resisting father Johannes, maintained their grasp on Germany’s cultivated heritage during the Hitler years. As this grim chapter in German and European history recedes, it remains useful to be reminded that there were Germans like Johannes Fest who said “Not I” to Hitler’s call.
Thomas H. Peebles
January 16, 2016