Joachim Fest’s “Not I”: A Review

Joachim Fest’s memoir, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, as translated by Martin Chalmers, is a fascinating, well-written story of his family’s plight during the Hitler years. Fest is already well known to scholars and amateurs of the Third Reich, having previously published a number of books on that era, most notably his biography of Hitler, originally published in 1973, just 28 years after the end of the war. In my view, Hitler remains one of the best biographies of the Fuhrer, despite the fact that historians have since delved more deeply into the particulars of the Third Reich, largely because Fest experienced that era first hand, and from the perspective of an educated, well-read German who also had the perspective of an outsider. It is that outsider experience that makes Not I such an insightful book.

Fest’s family was headed by Johannes Fest, an educated Catholic German, active during the Weimar years in the Zentrum party, patriotic but not fanatic, and convinced that representative, parliamentary government was necessary to Germany’s future. He understood from the beginning that Hitler and the Nazi party would be a disaster for Germany, and he was one of the few who verified early on the rumors of what was happening to the Jews. Unfortunately, few of his Jewish friends heeded his consequent warnings, for like the Fests, they were members of the German Bildungsbürger, the educated, bookish upper middle class and, unlike Johannes Fest, unable to accept that such a cultured country as Germany would long tolerate such a barbarian as Hitler. The price paid by German Jews is well documented elsewhere; Joachim Fest’s memoir details the costs to a German Catholic Bildungsbürger family: the dismissal of Johannes from his job and the extinction of his career (he never worked again, even after the war), the expulsions from school of the two oldest boys (Joachim and his adored older brother Wolfgang) and their eventual conscription into the German military, the hardships endured by his mother as she tried to maintain some normalcy and dignity for the family as their circumstances straitened, and the narrowed prospects and necessary compromises of the younger sisters as the German war effort deteriorated.

Culture, as opposed to mere civilization, provides the leitmotif of this book. Throughout Fest describes the literature, music, and art that formed the Idealist, Romantic infrastructure of his family and friends: Fontane, Goethe, Schiller; Mozart and Beethoven; the Italian Renaissance painters (especially Caravaggio, who was also a murderer) and their German imitators. He and his older brother Wolfgang spent hours reading and discussing the great writers of the German tradition, and Joachim spent time at museums and in the homes of intellectuals who introduced him to the subtleties of opera and art. After he was conscripted, late in the war, his closest friends were other young soldiers who shared his passions, including his great friend Reinhard Buck, a young musician. It was such friendships that sustained Fest in the dark hours of the accelerating collapse of the Reich. After the war, Fest continued in his reading and his aspiration to become an “independent scholar” of the Renaissance and spent a good deal of time in Italy, but circumstances and his status as a German who had refused to collaborate with the Reich, the “Not I” of his book’s title, led him to become one of the early historians of the Hitler years.

A perennial question (one might say mystery) of the rise of Nazism is why it occurred in Germany: How could such a cultured nation, with such a transcendent history of great literature and philosophy, succumb to the hysterical blandishments of an uncouth and uneducated bit of rabble as Hitler? One often gets the impression while reading this book that the continuous heady discussions of literature and music, of all that constitutes Kultur in the German attitude, is not only a shield against the barbarians but almost a denial of their existence—culture as a space where Hitler does not reign. It was this belief, amounting to a creed, that prevented so many of the Bildungsbürgertum from first, seeing how dangerous the Hitler movement actually was and then, realizing the danger in time to escape. The Fests’ were an exception in anticipating the reality, though they too chose not to flee Germany. Perhaps because their father Johannes not only saw the writing on the wall but also did not quite want to believe what it said: As Joachim writes, after the war his father “spoke of the main error he and his friends had fallen victim to, because they had believed all too unreservedly in reason, in Goethe, Kant, Mozart, and the whole tradition that came from that.”

Fest does not answer that question in this book, perhaps because it is a memoir of his childhood and youth and is therefore not meant to be a mature analysis of historical causes of Nazism; in his earlier biography of Hitler, however, he does address the question and hints that, besides the dislocations following the First World War (defeat, economic hardships, inflation, lack of a democratic tradition, etc.) which historians generally explore, there was an element of German culture that contributed to making Hitler possible: Idealism, of a particularly Romantic sort. Hitler was not well educated, but he was nevertheless an heir of the German Idealist tradition, and his imagination, though vulgar, was Romantic in its tenor, as exemplified in his worship of the operas of Wagner. As Fest wrote, Hitler had the “ability to build castles in the air with an intrepid and acute rationality” and “In his way of sharply opposing an idea to reality, of elevating what ought to be above what is, he was truly German.” (Aside: Fest might have said that he scorned the “reality-based community.”) When the devil becomes an Idealist, he turns into a Hitler.

Nonetheless, there is still the question of why so few of the Bildersbürgertum joined the Fests in seeing what was bearing down on them. Perhaps one answer is that they vastly overestimated the influence of the German intellectual tradition on the general German population and perhaps did not realize that their own class constituted a tiny percentage of the general German “volk,” perhaps as little as 1%. It is easy enough, when you read and debate in a book-lined study, with friends of similar inclination, to believe that you represent a significant and influential class, when the truth is quite the contrary. Perhaps if they had read more books like Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) they would have understood their own country better, perhaps would have realized that the hapless, directionless, and instinctively brutal Franz Biberkopf represented a larger slice of the population than they did, and that lacking in the education of the gymnasium and the university, the Biberkopf’s of their day knew nothing of Kant or Goethe, et al. But then, who among the New York intelligentsia would bother to consider the residents of Boise or Yuma in their pontifications on the American national attitude?

However, screening out the barbarians would not necessarily prevent a Hitler. All too many well-educated men and women, including leading professors of the German universities, as well as artists, novelists, orchestra directors, and others of the cultivated classes enthusiastically joined the Hitler movement—not least among them the (supposedly) greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger, a man who could elevate what ought to be above what is with the worst of them. Fest was certainly correct when he wrote in Hitler that “a totalitarian system need not be built up upon a nation’s deviant or criminal tendencies.” Intellectuals, particularly those who deliberately insulate themselves not only from the realities of their own times but from the cultures of other nations, can, inadvertently or intentionally, set the stage for a tyrant as easily as can the frustrated feral class.

After Fest was captured by American soldiers and interned in a POW camp in France, and after his brother Wolfgang died of a lung infection on the eastern front and his musical friend Reinhold Buck was shot to death only a few hundred yards from where Fest had been captured, Fest learned for the first time of a different cultural tradition, that of the Anglophone world of Great Britain and the United States. During his captivity, Fest improved his English and read the works of contemporary English and American authors, including Somerset Maugham, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, and William Golding. As he writes, his readings “brought home to me that my knowledge of literature had so far been much too dominated by classic German works.” It was likely that that domination clouded the vision of many Germans as Hitler hove into view.

Alas, it is not only Germans who have idealized the intellectual life, the life of thought. Even in America, among certain segments of the bourgeoisie at least, writers and artists are often viewed as set apart from the rest of mankind, not only in their talent but morally as well. We too have inherited much of the attitude expressed by Shelley, that poets, and artists in general, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. But it may be more true to say that while the ability to live in our heads may be our finest trait and the one that most distinguishes us from the other animals, it may also be our fatal flaw.

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