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on 26 September 2012
This is the Memoir of Joachim Fest (1926-2006), the distinguished historian, critic and editor who is probably best known for having written the first German biography of Adolf Hitler (published 1973). In that biography, Fest challenged the reassuring left-wing consensus that Hitler's rise owed primarily to economic factors, and argued instead that Hitler was the beneficiary of a reaction to the severe social, political and economic upheavals that dislocated the moral sense of the German middle class following the Great War. Hitler's political appeal, he said, was to Germans humiliated by the outcome of that conflict, impoverished by the recurrent financial crises which followed it, and fearful of the threat to private property posed by communist activists. `Given its manifest powerlessness both at home and abroad, the new state appeared to a growing number of Germans as a synonym for disgrace, dishonor and political powerlessness. Increasingly, people surrendered to the idea that poetic, Romantic Germany - at home with profundity of thought and spirituality, had committed an act of metaphysical self-betrayal with the declaration of the Republic. German Culture had been worth far more than the shallow `Western Civilisatiion' it had been given in return.' Anyone with an interest in German social history in the CXX is likely to be interested in assessing the personalities and experiences that contributed to the formulation of what was seen, in its own time, as a conservative, contrarian and provocative view.
Fest's mother, Emma Straether, came from a well-to-do catholic family of drapers from the Lower Rhineland. She was the daughter of a respected estate manager who helped to develop Karlshorst in Berlin. Joachim's father, Johannes, came from a humbler background in Brandenburg, and was a Prussian catholic. A teacher and headmaster, Johannes Fest became a significant force in Catholic Centre Party, and in the Reichsbanner, a paramilitary organization set up by the Centre Party, the SDP, and the Trade Unions to defend the Weimar Republic. Johannes' commitment to democratic government was deeply rooted. He never accepted the commonly held view that in 1932, the choice for Germany was between the Nazis and the Communists: the Germans, he said, could have chosen the SDP , the Centre Party, and the Republic. `The republican associations had millions of members, but had not even managed a general strike. Instead, within a few days of a government decree, they had dissolved into thin air without resistance and followed the Nazi flag at the big Labour Day parade'. Johannes never forgave his party leader, von Papen for the ignominious part he played in the carve-up - he described Papen and Kaas as traitors and the SDP leadership as a bunch of cowards `When we set up our organization `Black-Red-Gold' our slogan was "Deutsche Republik, wir alle schworen/Letzten Tropfen Bluts soll dir gehoren!" But what did we do? We handed over our arms stores to the Nazis'.
On 30 January 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of the Reich; on 27 February the Reichstag burned down and civil liberties were suspended; on 23 March the Enabling Act gave Hitler the right to rule by Decree; and on 20 April Johannes Fest was summoned to the Lichtenberg Town Hall and suspended from public service with immediate effect. Thereafter, he was without employment. When, in summer 1934, it was discovered that he was giving private lessons, Johannes was again summoned to the Town Hall, and was told that he was also forbidden to offer private tuition. As the regime tightened it's grip, the opportunists who had welcomed it began to take positions of social prominence which gratified their sense of self-importance, while those who had merely accommodated themselves began to find reasons in what Johannes called `Hitler's social appeasement' for modifying their attitude. Economic recovery, social stability, the acceptance of the regime abroad, and the first successful assertions of nationalism on the world stage turned accommodation into support. The consequences for the family were social isolation: the awareness that old friends would not meet their eyes but would cross the street rather than talk to them; harassment by neighbours, bullying from local functionaries, and threatening visits from party officials and the police. Johannes declared that `a state that turns everything into a lie shall not cross our threshold as well', and that he would `not submit to the reigning mendacity, at least within the family circle.' But even that principle proved difficult to maintain: `Have you thought of your children and what your obstinacy could mean for them?' asked his wife. Wouldn't he `reconsider joining the party? The gentleman from the education authority had called twice in the course of the year to persuade him to give way; at the last visit they had even held out the prospect of rapid promotion... joining the party would not change anything, `After all, we remain who we are... joining the party would be a lie `to those in charge,' but then let it a lie... it amounted to hypocrisy, but... untruth had always been the weapon of the little people against the powerful...' Few books that I have read demonstrate in so compelling away the human cost of adhering to principle, and the easy steps by which one may induced to depart from it, and the fact that, while it may appear to be the decisions o the `powerful' that are all important, it is in fact the countless small decisions of little people that set the general moral tone.
His father's refusal to compromise or to collaborate with the regime and the human consequences of that decision are at the heart of Fest's Memoir. The title, `Ich Nicht' - or `Not me' - in the form `Etiam si omnes - ego non!' derives from St Jerome's translation into Latin of Matthew 26.35 where St.Peter insists `etiamsi oportuerit me mori tecum non te negabo'. Fest's English translator, Martin Chalmers, notes, rather ponderously, that the verse does not seem to correspond with the translation in the King James version, but then he thinks the reference is to Matthew 26.33. It is quite right to say that the verbal correspondence is not, in any case, direct, but the Latin tag was well known: it was the motto of the house of Clermont-Tonnerre, and was sufficiently well-known for the second to last surviving member of Von Stauffenberg's bomb plot, Phillipp von Boeeslager, to have had it inscribed above the entrance to his home in Kreuzberg. This hasn't prevented one English Reviewer translating the phrase as `Not me, guv', describing Fest, as `a man with an alibi' and his Memoir as `revealing the universal desire among the Germans for an alibi that will get them off the hook of the Third Reich' - a judgment he might have reconsidered had he read the book a little more carefully, and thought a little harder. For the fact is that any christian knows that St.Peter's expostulation was made in defiance of Christ's prediction that he would actually deny his Master no less than three times`that very night, before cock-crow.' Fest himself records an emotional outburst when his father, goaded by a remark about his inactivity over more than 10 years, exploded with fury that `For years he had suffered from his inactivity. For the sake of his family! So what! To damn the regime at the garden fence, to listen to the BBC, and to pray for those in need: that was nothing at all.' `Yes! `I keep out of things like everyone else! And I've got good reason to do so! But I now know that under the present conditions there is no separation of good and evil. The air is poisoned. It infects us all! No one can acquit themselves, not even the most justified hate grants absolution! And what does that mean anyway? Hate's not enough. Just stop talking! You only do it to get the guilt off your shoulders.'
When, after the war, was over, it was suggested that he might write an account of what he'd been through, Johannes commented that `when he heard others talking about the times and what they had experienced , he often though that the Nazi had got rid of a sense of embarrassment along with everything else.' Of the mass murder which he discovered and verified to his own certainty at the beginning of 1943 but which he did not divulge to his family until after the end of the war, he said ` I didn't want to talk about it then and I don't want to talk about it now! You understand that!' and `In the house of whole battalions of hangmen it is better to remain silent! One doesn't talk in front of mass graves.' An old friend from Reichsbanner days drops by for tea and tells the Fests excitedly that he had been allocated a viila in the fashionable quarter of Licterfelde which had previously belonged to a high ranking Nazi opportunist - `Just imagine,' he says `a villa in posh Lichterfelde. Even though Mum always said "Paul? He'll never get anywhere - as a socialist? Don't make me laugh?' and now she has lived to see it!' They discuss `the plans for the housewarming, the guest list, the most suitable date, the furniture, the drinks and the fact that, `inappropriately, only `shabby Berlin pretzels and rolls could be handed round.' After the lucky man leaves, the family start discussing `legitimate compensation... justice... whole suites of rooms... the garden we would soon have again... a swimming pool.' Johannes interrupts to ask whether he is surrounded by lunatics `Do you really want me to be paid for my political decisions? Then I might just as well have joined the Nazi Party. A villa in `posh Lichterfelde' says Paul. But there are much posher ones in Zehlendorf and in Grunewald anyway. But that's not where a class-conscious worker goes. And guest lists with rolls! Dear Lord...! A minute ago I asked myself if was surrounded by lunatics. Now I know they're everywhere.' The educative effects of this attitude are immediately picked up in the reaction of Joachim's brother, who comments 'He's completely right! We were rying to take away his life. Everything we said must have sounded like an insult to him. We behaved like crooks. And itwon't be long before others follow us and make a profit out of the Hitler years. I can see them coming...'
Rigorous application of principle applied even to literature. Finding Joachim with a copy of `Buddenbrooks', Johannes says he won't have it in the house. In his view Thomas Mann `was certainly a significant author, but a politically irresponsible person. As far as he was concerned, continued my father, he had lost all respect for Thomas Mann with `Reflections of an Unpolitical Man' (1918). Precisely because it was so well written it had done more to alienate the middle classes from the Republic than Hitler. That sort of thing was impossible to forgive.' (With what a wry sense of irony must Johannes have looked on at Mann's international lionization, and his Nobel Prize (1929). 'Buddenbrooks' had been lent to Joachim by his father's Jewish friend, Dr.Meyer. Confronted with the returned book, Meyer says to Joachim that Johannes 'evidently did not know that literature was only a game. He took both books and their authors too seriously. All of 'belles lettres' was at home in the circus, as it were, and had a side which liked to play jokes'. But this reads with calculated irony against Dr.Meyer's subsequently recorded belief 'that a nation... that had produced, Goethe and Schiller and Lessing, Bach, Mozart and whoever else, would simply be incapable of barbarism.' But when it came to it; his wife retired to bed, and refused to get up 'explaining that she was not made for these times and simply didn't want to go on anymore. Finally, she put her hands over her eqrs, mutely shaking her head, and had not taken another bite of food.' After 11 days she died; Dr.Meyer hmself 'disappeared' some time later, after Joachim had left Berlin.
This miserable experience of folly, supidity, self-deception, hypocrisy, betrayal, and brutality worked out against a remarkable instances of fixity of purpose and firmness of conscience burned itself deeply into Joachim Fest's personality and temperament. Throughout his life, he remqined constantly alert to the discrepancy between fine words and shabby behaviour, remebering how his fqther hqd said that one of the things that had shocked him most was when 'he had begun to realise that it was completely unpredictable how a neighbour, a colleague, or even a friend might behave when it came to moral decisions.'
Hearing Sartre speak just ater the War, Fest concluded that 'everything he said seemed to me to be notably well-informed and yet disordered, in part also muddled, but always touching on our sense of the times. Everyone was impressed'. A fellow listener said that Sartre reminded him of 'a South American peasant working his way forward with a machete through the thickets of confusing contemporary phenomena.'But what falls down,' puts in Fest, 'is quite fortuitous.' 'Oh yes', says the other, 'and the parrots as they fly display the most beautiful wing colours.' 'Only Sartre' says a third, 'does not see himself as a parrot, but as a prophet.' Long after, when Sartre made a much publicised visit to Andreas Baader in Stammheim Prison, 'he remarked to those accompanying him: 'What an ****' 'but then, in public, burst out with the usual, delliberately misleading lament about prison conditions.' And one recalls Johannes' remarks about Thomas Mann, when, many years later, Joachim greets the`confession' of another German Nobel Prize Laureate that he had joined the Waffen SS in the closing days of the War, by saying that he didn't understand `how someone who has for decades set himself up as a moral authority, and a rather smug one at that, could have pulled it off.' Here he adds that `When Gunter Grass or any of the other countless self-accusers pointed to their own feelings of shame, they were not referring to their own part - they felt themselves to be beyond reproach - but to the many reasons which everyone else had to be ashamed. However, the mass of the population, so they said, was not prepared to acknowledge their shame.'
A little humourless? A little inflexible? Perhaps. But perhaps, too, it requires little lack of humour, a little lack of flexibility, to maintain a sense of decency and dignity in a world that has gone off its head. In England, and except to those for whom it has a spurious glamour, the word `Prussian' is a synonym for discipline, inflexibility, and brutal militarism. Fest reminds us that it once stood for the protestant virtues of `voluntary self-limitation of demands, the avoidance of self-pity, and the ability to cope with life with a pinch of irony' - which his father called `the entry ticket to humanity'. `Often he amused himself at the various efforts to lend Prussia `a soul' or even `a mission'. As civilizing powers he accepted only Greece and Rome. What had Spain, England, or France given the world, he once asked at table, apart from the swagger stick, five o'clock tea, Inca gold and a few fine phrases? Ultimately each of these world powers had been about exploitation with a little added humane decoration. He preferred the unadorned will to survive, which was the whole of Prussia's idea of state. 'It robbed, too, but at least it didn't lie' - a line which might have prompted his own summation - 'that he had made many mistakes in life, but done nothing wrong'. Far from relying on an alibi, it is Fest's unblinking fidelity to the truth, his merciless ear for cant, and his refinement of conscience that make this book so admirable - they were qualities learned in an appallingly harsh school, but under a wholly admirable teacher: