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Proud to be different

Jens Bisky reviews "Ich Nicht," the memoirs of Hitler biographer Joachim Fest.

The public knows Joachim Fest principally as the man who allowed Albert Speer to lead him around by the nose, as the author of a highly successful Hitler biography, and as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung publisher who printed the essay by Ernst Nolte that triggered the "Historikerstreit," or "historians' dispute" (more here). From the perspective of Germany's memory industry, devoted to coming to terms with the nation's past, he was always slightly suspect. A disreputable odour seemed to cling to him, at least for the juste milieu of the old Federal Republic. While venerating the figure of the outsider in individual instances almost to the point of cultishness, it tended toward conformity in daily life, scrutinizing people painstakingly to see whether they emitted the requisite aura of groupthink. This in no way interfered with Fest's success, especially not after the zeitgeist had donned fresh attire following the fall of communism.

Joachim Fest has nonetheless remained a peculiar phenomenon, a figure from another world. This is also true of his memoirs of childhood and youth, whose charm resides first and foremost in their invitation to reflection, not to empathy. Important here is not recognition, but the depiction of something lost.

In April 1933, shortly before Joachim Fest entered school, his father Johannes – headmaster of a Berlin school – was released from his duties without notice. The cause was his membership in both the German Centre Party and the "Reichsbanner" (site in German) or union of German combatants, which had opposed critics of the Weimar Republic. Given these associations, he could hardly be relied upon to "stand up wholeheartedly for the National State." He would henceforth be banned (as he was informed by Berlin-Lichtenberg's "State Commissioner for Monitoring the Affairs of the District Municipalities") from all professional activities. In October he was dismissed for good, and awarded a pension of less than 200 German marks, in addition to child benefits for his three sons and two daughters. Millions of Germans profited from the "national revolution." For the Fest family, it meant only a "plunge into poverty."

In early 1936, Joachim Fest and his older brother Wolfgang overheard an argument between their parents. Their mother, demoralized by restrictions and hopelessness, pleaded with her husband to consider joining the NSDAP, the Nazi party. But this, he argued, would alter nothing. Dissimulation and falsehood, he maintained, "have always been the tools of the little people against the mighty." Their father persevered in his defiance, his refusal to adapt: "We are not the little people. Not when it concerns such questions!" This elitist claim carried an ancient pedigree, and its force has become virtually incomprehensible after a century conditioned by the ideologies of equality. Taking for granted a lively resentment against people "at the top," these allow one to enjoy an effortless, indulgent life which is simultaneously refused to others. In opposition to this, Johannes Fest's sentence "we are not little people" insists upon obligations which imply special gifts, capacities and attitudes. Certain concessions, even if granted to others, are simply excluded at the outset. Joachim Fest was raised in this spirit. His father united irreconcilable qualities: he was a republican, a Prussian, a Catholic, and a "Bildungsbürger," an educated member of the bourgeoisie. In 1936, he instituted a second evening meal in the family. As soon as the "little ones" were in bed, he could speak openly: "In the presence of my family, at least, I can refuse to submit to the prevailing falsehood." To his elder sons Wolfgang and Joachim, he dictated a sentence from the Gospel of St. Matthew: "Etiam si omnes – ego non!" (Everyone else may go along: Not I). Hence the title of these memoirs: "Ich nicht."

At first, writes Fest, he experienced all of this as an adventure and a privilege. He describes in detail his discovery of the world of books, opera and people from his home in Berlin's Karlshorst district. This narrative of his intellectual formation avoids introspection. It is related through encounters, the depiction of the nearby. As though he'd had old Theodore Fontane as a teacher, Fest visualizes milieus and atmospheres by means of gestures, portraits, physiognomic descriptions, and above all conversations. The author himself confirms that he cross-fades things he's heard and experienced, simplifying some and over-emphasising others. But he does not give into those delusions of authenticity which prompt so many stories of childhood. For this reason he is not compelled to pad his narrative with dramatic effects. Here, the seemingly inconsequential, the ordinary, the conventionally human, acquires significance by means of form.

Fest was expelled from Berlin's Leibniz Gymnasium for scratching a caricature of Hitler into a desk with his pocket knife. He entered a boarding school in Freiburg, where he trained as a flak auxiliary before being drafted into the Wehrmacht. He oscillated between the regimented world of everyday life and the freedom of art, of independent thought, the waywardness of a young man. It seems almost miraculous that this apparently worked so well for as long as it did. Following the family precept "no sentimentality allowed!", Fest makes little of the stolen years, the inward strains.

It is with this restraint that he tells of the event that irrevocably shattered the family's happiness which, although besieged and harried, had nonetheless remained intact by virtue of cohesion: the death of his brother Wolfgang.

He must have been the most gifted, granted his rare knack of being agreeable to everyone. "He developed pneumonia while deployed in Riga. All forces were being mobilised, and two of his comrades brought him back to headquarters, where his battalion commander accused him of 'shirking' and sent back to the front at gunpoint. Two hours after his arrival at a makeshift dugout, he collapsed and was transported unconscious to the hospital." After the war, Fest's mother, the great heroine of the book, would leave the room whenever Wolfgang was mentioned. Joachim Fest was fortunate enough to end up a prisoner of the Americans. He was interned for two years at the prison camp near Laon. An attempted escape, undertaken after an announcement that the camp was being turned over to the French, was unsuccessful. After his release, Fest went to Freiburg, commenced his studies, and found a place in postwar Germany.

In order to sidestep the dictates of the regime, he had decided to become a private scholar, and had selected the Italian Renaissance as his topic. Now came an offer to compose a series of radio broadcasts on recent German history. His father was opposed. This, he said, was a "gutter topic," not the subject of research for a serious historian." Hitler and his cohorts had risen from the gutter, and that is where they belonged. The Nazis didn't merit the respectability of research subjects." To contemporary ears, this defence against vulgarity has come to sound almost incomprehensible.

Fest's elucidations of his later itinerary are as abbreviated as they are peremptory. Regarding his experiences in the Federal Republic, one would need to consult Fest's "Begegnungen" (encounters) or his book on Horst Janssen, "Selbstbildnis von fremder Hand" (self-portrait from another's hand). In "Ich nicht," we find only summary motifs and statements of conviction. There is Fest's certainty that he has experienced the "collapse of the bourgeois world" – this would become the lifelong topic of Fest the historian. There is the animus toward many aspects of the culture of memory prevalent in the Federal Republic, toward those who "position themselves prominently on the self-accusation bench by playing at contrition." We also find caustic anti-Communism and a "pride in deviance."

To put a name to Fest's strangeness, people often referred to him as a "conservative" – a characterization to which he presumably had few objections. Yet the term obscures more than it explains, for political conservatism exists in Germany only in the form of citations: as a private attitude or as coquetry. Here we come to know him for his fidelity to family tradition. For the book is a monument to his father – at once a dialogue with him and a testament of sorts.

Certainly, the choleric preachers of a "new bourgeois culture," the missionaries of values and virtues, all those who share a tendency to stylize Fest's world as exemplary, lack two qualities without which that lost world remains unattainable: a consciousness of one's own status, and irony. Not in order to evade his categorical stance or to relativise it, but to face it humanely. And to avoid rigidity, intolerance and blindness - in short: all redemptive fervour. These recollections belong among the late documents of a genuinely cultivated German bourgeoisie. Twenty years from now, if some young person asks about the "Third Reich" or about the fate of the German bourgeoisie, one will do well to press a copy of Joachim Fest's "Ich nicht" into his or her hands, along with Victor Klemperer's diaries and Sebastian Haffner's "Defying Hitler: A Memoir."


The article originally appeared in German in Literaturen on October 1, 2006.

Joachim Fest
, former co-publisher and Feuilleton editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, died September 11 of this year, aged 79. As editor and publisher of the FAZ, he had a profound influence on German intellectual debate for two decades.

Jens Bisky, born in Leipzig in 1966, is feuilleton editor of the Süddeutschen Zeitung.

Translation: Ian Pepper.

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