Monday 16 March 2015

Book Note: Joachim Fest, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood

Book Note: Joachim Fest, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood

Joachim Fest (1926-2006) was a German historian, journalist and public intellectual. He is perhaps best known outside Germany for his position in the Historikerstreit, or historians’ debate, about whether the Holocaust was unique: Fest argued for its comparability to other mass atrocities such as the Soviet gulag and the Cambodian genocide. Recently I read his autobiography, Not I, translated into English by Martin Chalmers and published by Other Press in New York in 2012. 
Joachim Fest

It is a strange autobiography, almost dreamlike in places. Although from the ages of seven to nineteen he lived under Nazi rule, Fest seems more interested in the books he read, the authors he encountered, and the music and art to which he was exposed as he grew up, than in the actual life he lived with his parents. Nevertheless, we learn something of his background, and especially of his father.

His father, Johannes Fest, was a school principal in Berlin. A devout Catholic, he was disgusted by the Nazis. Because he refused to submit to their authority, he lost his job in 1933. Thereafter he remained at home, but took part in some clandestine political meetings. In the late 1930s he was given a chance to work again, but because he again refused to swear allegiance to the Nazis the chance was withdrawn. He managed to prevent his sons from joining the Hitler Youth, once shouting down a couple of large recruiters who came to their door. And he taught his three sons the Latin maxim, Etiam si omnes-ego non (Even if all other do--not I), from which Fest drew his title.

Johannes Fest disapproved of the increasing isolation of German Jews. As early as 1933 he urged his Jewish friends to leave Germany so vehemently that he was accused of having the same aim as the Nazis, wanting Germany to be “Judenrein” or free of Jews. In the late 1930s he sent Joachim and his older brother, Wolfgang, to go on weekly shopping trips for Jewish friends who were no longer allowed on the streets. During the war Johannes was very upset to learn after clandestinely listening to BBC broadcasts that the Nazis were engaging in mass killings of Jews in the East. 

As for Joachim, in 1939 he and his two brothers were expelled from an elite secondary school because he had been drawing caricatures of Hitler. At the new Catholic bearding school to which they were sent, they were eventually forced to join the Hitler Youth. By the end of the war Joachim and his older brother Wolfgang were recruited into the military. Joachim volunteered for the air force, telling his mother that he could thus avoid recruitment into the SS. He seems to have spent his entire military service in Germany and later France, where he was captured by the Americans. Despite a privileged position in the American POW camp (continuing until 1947) he attempted to escape. Meantime, Wolfgang died from an illness contracted at the front, and Johannes was also drafted, although he was in his 50s. He spent 18 months in Soviet captivity, returning home much diminished.

Fest brushes over very lightly the fate of those members of his family who were conquered by the Russians. His disabled aunt was torn from her wheelchair, raped multiple times, and then thrown down a stairwell, where she died.  His farmer uncle was shot in cold blood when he protested the way Russian soldiers were abusing his wife and daughters.  (For more on the Russian rapes, see Anonymous, A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, New York, Metropolitan Books, 2005).  

There’s a lot that is missing from the book. Fest does not explain how his family was able to survive through his father’s unemployment, though it seems his mother came from quite a wealthy family. Nevertheless, she found the burden of caring for a family of five growing children without a regular income very difficult.  She would hint to her husband that for the sake of the family he should give in and join the Nazi party, but he would become infuriated by the suggestion. After the war, says Fest, she mentioned how hard it had been to run the household with very little money while her husband occupied himself with politics.

Nor does Fest explain precisely who his father was and what his activities were during the war.  Johannes Fest was important enough after the war, though, that when Joachim returned to Germany from his prison camp in France he flew on an American plane. Johannes was also a judge in a de-Nazification court after the war. But he expressed his disgust at the way these courts could be used by people who simply had grudges against each other (a problem nowadays in, for example, the Rwandan gacaca courts that are supposed to effect reconciliation between former g√©nocidaires and their victims).

It would be good to read a proper biography of Fest and his family. Meantime, the book causes us to question the facile distinction between victims, perpetrators and bystanders that characterized much of the late 20th century academic literature in comparative genocide studies. Fest’s father was not an active resister of the Nazis, as far as we can tell from this book. But he gave up his livelihood, attempted to assist his Jewish friends, and continued as long as he could to attend political meetings of those opposed to Hitler. Certainly he did not profit from the expulsion of the Jews: he wasn’t one of those Germans who gleefully took over Jews’ businesses, residences, and personal possessions. Was he, then, a mere bystander?

And what would all of us who have led privileged lives in the democratic West do in a similar situation?  If confronted with an evil as great as the Nazis, would we have the courage to renounce our livelihoods and impoverish our families?  I doubt that I would.