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July 27, 2012 9:14 pm
Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood, by Joachim Fest, translated by Martin Chalmers, Atlantic, RRP£20, 336 pages
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, few Germans foresaw the depths of barbarity into which their country would sink. Germany was the nation of Beethoven and Goethe, of Kant and Hegel. Its people were among the best educated and highly cultured in Europe – it seemed inconceivable that they would tolerate a vulgar thug like Hitler for long.
In this thoughtful and subtle memoir, expertly translated by Martin Chalmers, Joachim Fest chronicles the helpless astonishment with which educated Germans watched the gradual corruption of their country, their people and their beliefs. It is a subject that Fest has written about before, not only in his famous biographies of Hitler and Speer, but also in his capacity as co-editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. This book, however, which was first published in German shortly after the author’s death in 2006, is a much more personal view.
The son of a headmaster, Fest grew up on the outskirts of Berlin in the Nazi era. Much of his childhood was spent watching family friends arguing round the dinner table about what on earth had gone wrong with their country. “Why do these easy victories of Hitler never stop?” they would ask despairingly. “Why did the Nazi swindle not simply collapse in the face of the laughter of the educated?” The most outspoken of these intellectuals – and the true hero of Not Me – is Fest’s father. This passionately moral man steadfastly refused to succumb to Nazi pressure, despite being stripped of his job, shunned by former friends and colleagues, and visited regularly by the Gestapo. He kept his children out of the Hitler Youth, resisted being called up to build anti-tank defences, and did not give in even when his wife begged him to.
While many similarly intransigent family friends ended up being arrested, or simply “disappeared”, the Fests themselves seemed for years to be relatively immune from harm. (It later turned out that they were being protected by a local Nazi official, a man they all despised.) Consequently, the author was free to live a surprisingly normal childhood. He learnt the piano, monkeyed about in the garden and played practical jokes on the neighbours. Even when he was expelled from school for scrawling caricatures of Hitler on his desk, the only real consequence was that he and his brothers were sent to a new school.
This creates an interesting tension in the book. Despite the relative “normality” of some of his childhood memories, he cannot look back without feeling the constant weight of historical events. When he reminisces about the sky glowing red above the Christmas market in Berlin, for example, it is implicit that the sky would soon be glowing red for much less benign reasons. And there is something dreadfully ominous about the way one of his schoolmates plays with his toy soldiers. After painstakingly setting up more than 2,000 figures to re-enact one of Napoleon’s battles, he attacks them with an old lamp chain. “I am Fate!” he cries as he swings destructively at his toy battlefield. “No one can escape me! I am omnipotent!”
Fest cannot escape Fate either. For all his hatred of the Nazi regime, he is unable to avoid serving it. He is called up first for compulsory labour service, and then to the Wehrmacht. He is made to fight against the Americans on the Rhine, where he is shot at, blown up and finally captured. Later, as a prisoner of war, he experiences the indifference and cruelty of some of the Allied soldiers.
There is a curious emptiness about the way he describes all of this. And unsurprisingly so, because none of the normal range of emotions is open to him: nostalgia, pride, terror, even indignation – all of it has been tainted by the Nazis, who not only spoiled his childhood, but also indulged it.
The only uncomplicated emotion expressed in this book is Fest’s passion for the music and literature he devoured endlessly as a boy. There are references to Goethe, Schiller or Beethoven on almost every page – and yet even these are suffused with layers of meaning. For example, a recurring motif is that of Beethoven’s Fidelio – an opera about an evil tyrant trying to murder the political prisoners in his jail. And when the family priest talks at length about the betrayal at the end of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, we know instinctively this is not the only betrayal he has in mind. “Only Mozart,” says the priest, “had the genius to make the C major of these bars sound like cries for help.”
It is obvious that Fest is far more comfortable wrapping his feelings in literary allusions than expressing them directly. Herein, perhaps, lies a clue to the book’s title. Ostensibly it refers to one of his father’s many anti-Nazi mottos – “Etiam si omnes, ego non” (“Even if all others do, not I”). But it also describes Fest’s apparent disconnection from his younger self. This is not “me”, but rather a detached version of Fest, viewed from a distance born of unbearable discomfort.
By the end, this emotional numbness begins to feel oddly appropriate. When Fest returns to Germany after the war he finds a shattered country. His city has been reduced to “hills of rubble” and divided between the Soviets and the western Allies. His brother is dead, and other members of his family have been raped and murdered by Allied soldiers.
His father, once a political firebrand, has been broken by his experiences on the Russian front. “The preceding years had swept away almost everything,” he laments. “To what should we cling?”
Fest, like many other German intellectuals, spent the rest of his life trying to get to grips with such disturbing events. In this respect, Not Me is only a partial success: for all the unease expressed within its pages, it is painfully clear that we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg.
Keith Lowe is the author of ‘Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II’ (Viking)
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