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Not all Germans bent the knee before the Nazi Baal. This portrait of an ordinary but heroic man shows that some retained their integrity.
Joachim Fest, the German historian of the Nazi period and acclaimed biographer of Hitler, Speer and of the German resistance, published this memoir in 2006, the year he died. Now translated into English for the first time, it provides an important witness of a cultured, middle-class German family’s response to the trauma of National Socialism; Fest has deliberately not written “a history of the Hitler years, but only how they were reflected in a family.”
He dedicates the book to his parents and its unusual title gives the clue to its contents. Aged 10 in 1936, the author was summoned with his older brother Wolfgang to his father’s study; there Johannes Fest made his sons write down and remember his own dearly-held maxim, a quotation from St Mathew’s Gospel: “Etiam si omnes – ego non!” (“Even if everyone – not me!”)
Although Joachim Fest also charts his own youthful intellectual journey in these pages – his love for music, poetry and the classics of the German romantic period – the person who dominates his memoirs is his father. Fest senior was a high-ranking headmaster in Berlin in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Very involved in Catholic party politics during the inter-war years of the Weimar Republic, he refused to join the Nazi Party – with the inevitable consequence of losing his salaried position.
He maintained his obstinate, silent opposition for the 12 years of the Third Reich. This caused the family material hardship but it also united them and helped form his children’s own political judgment. His moral courage was to influence the author for the rest of his life.
Attempting to define his father’s character, Fest suggests there were four qualities that contributed to his strength of personality: his republicanism; his Prussian traits of duty and honour; his Catholic faith; and membership of the educated middle classes. A devoted husband and affectionate father, Johannes Fest was clear-sighted and inflexible in his attitude towards their new political masters, leading his son to conclude that the later German defence of ignorance of Hitler’s intentions and actions was simply untenable.
Interestingly, unlike the Ratzingers, parents of Pope Benedict XVI, who did not include their sons in political conversations in order to protect them from the possible consequences (though the Pope always knew his father took early retirement so as not to have to work for the regime, which he detested), Johannes Fest deliberately included his older sons, then aged 10 and 12, in a special “second supper” each evening where he spoke freely, trusting to their discretion. They never betrayed his confidence, a sign both of the respect in which they held him and of the family esprit.
Fest relates that only once did he overhear his mother remonstrating with his father; although she agreed with his moral stance it caused many economic burdens and she begged him to pretend to the Party in order to have his teaching position back. All his friends, she argued, would know it was merely a prudential gesture. There was a long silence; then his father replied, “He could not go along with the Nazis, not even a little bit.”
There are telling descriptions in the book of the way life changed after 1933, of the gradual and open persecution of the Jews: “Soon life went on as if such state crimes were the most natural thing in the world.” It was also “frightening to see how... the stable social structure of Karlshorst (the respectable district of Berlin where they lived) fell apart.”
The Fest family closed ranks, ostracised by their neighbours, yet regularly meeting with a small, trusted group of like-minded friends, including the parish priest, Fr Wittenbrink, who had a passion for Mozart, and also several Jews, whom the author’s father could not persuade to leave the country.
Despite the constant danger of unguarded talk, spying neighbours and the growing threat of war, the Fest children – three sons and two daughters – grew up secure in their parents’ love and the values transmitted by the home, surrounded by literature, music, poetry and principles. The author was expelled from the Leibniz grammar school for carving a cartoon on Hitler on his desk with a penknife. Thereupon his father sent all three sons to a Catholic boarding school in Freiburg, helped by a generous friend. Joachim hated the repressive boarding school, homesick for his conversations with his father.
When news of mass murder and atrocities in the East began to leak out during the War, Fest senior was in despair. At supper during the harsh Christmas of 1943 he burst out, “Under the present circumstances there is no separation of good and evil. The air is poisoned. It infects us all!” Both he and Fr Wittenbrink felt helpless, asking “What could be done about such crimes?” They knew “there was nothing [they] could do with their knowledge”; as Johannes Fest commented, “Not even talk about it!”
When the war was over, the family struggled to return to normality; life was hard in a different way. Wolfgang, the oldest son, had died of war wounds; their grandparents, representatives of a cultured, Christian, European country which they had witnessed descend into barbarism, lost the will to live. The Fest family home had been bombed and Johannes Fest had been conscripted into war work. The author suggests that his parents never recovered from their experiences, despite the moral integrity they had shown.
Fest relates how his father never ceased to be shocked at “how a neighbour, colleague or even a friend might behave when it came to moral decisions”. He himself reflects that the “middle class and civil virtues” of his upbringing and of society were not proof against the Nazis’ rise to power. “Inwardly the stratum of society had decayed long before, so that I was brought up in accordance with the principles of an outmoded order.”
What this memoir lacks is mention of the family’s religious practice, beyond mention of Sunday Mass attendance and being an altar boy. Thus we do not get a feel for the faith that clearly sustained his religious-minded parents during the years when the natural order of civilised life was so brutally overthrown, apart from occasional remarks such as his father’s observation that “Neither reason, nor walking upright separated [man] from the apes; the difference between the two lay in the need for a Beyond.”
The memoir also shows that it was written by an old man who admits his memories are not always clear, ordered or sequential. Yet in his recollections of his father, an ironical, witty, principled man as well as a loving father, husband and friend, Fest provides an invaluable portrait of a good German.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.
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