A historian, Hitler biographer and publisher of the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Joachim Fest died in 2006, and was a leading figure in the debate among German historians about the Nazi period. He grew up in a principled Catholic family, and the Fests paid a certain price for their opposition to the National Socialism.
Fest’s memoir Not Me was published in German in the year of his death. Running to almost 300 pages, the work has now been translated from the German by Martin Chalmers. The book is an illuminating, moving insight into the life of a family who tried to be decent, when all the pressure was on to be the opposite, in the spurious cause of wounded national pride.
Fest’s father Johannes was a formidable, if fatalistic figure. A teacher, he had been a leading figure in the Catholic Zentrum party in the 1920s, and had nothing but contempt for the rabble-rousing, conformist mob, led by the upstart Hitler.
Johannes Fest was a man of maxims. "One sometimes has to to keep one's head down, but try not to look shorter as result, " he once declared, referring to an episode which occured during the Nazi years. "Endure the clowns, " he would also stoically urge.
Fest senior exerted a powerful influence on his three sons at least, and even devised a system of two daily evening meals. 'First supper' banned all talk of politics and was suitable for the younger ones, while `second supper' was for the father and his elder sons. The later repast functioned as a forum for fresh report and commentary on the sinister turn which their country had taken in the public realm.
Johannes also encouraged a passion for German literature and music, and the book details at length the young Fest’s immersion in the works of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Schiller, Goethe, Rilke as well as his own furtive attempts at writing poetry. Fest senior was suspicious of fiction and told the young Joachim to stop reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Happilly, his son was able to read Mann later on in his teens (and indeed finish Buddenbrooks.) He also enjoyed the works of Steinbeck, Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Somerset Maugham, as he began to get a foothold in journalism and broadcasting.
As well as imparting a valuable perspective on Germany in the thirties and forties, Fest’s memoir is in effect a homage to a civilised Germany of art and thought, embodied by his father’s passions. That Germany almost disappeared from view as the virus of National Socialism took hold.
The Fest boys managed to enjoy their childhood and adolescence, playing soccer and other street games. Joachim certainly had a propensity for boyhood pranks. He was the kind of guy who would attach a plastic bag filled with water above a classroom door-way, which would drench the next unfortunate individual to open it, most likely a teacher.
The author also recalls the occasion when he kidnapped a neighbour’s cat in his satchel, and took it out beyond a Berlin racetrack. There he released it “in order to see whether it knew its way home as well as our carrier pigeons” Whether it got home safe and sound, we are not informed.
Given the family background, it was logical that Joachim and his two brothers, Wolfgang and Winfried would refuse to join the Hitler Youth. Indeed Joachim was expelled from his first secondary school, after a fellow pupil reported him for the Hitler caricature which he had carved on his classroom desk - he had already emblazoned walls and fences with the rude scrawl. Luckily, through one of the family's many useful connections, places were found in a Catholic boarding school in Freiburg.
Thus the young Fest lads and their two sisters got on with the business of enjoying life, no matter what was happening to their father’s cherished Weimar republic. They were shielded in a certain sense by Johannes, who once ran two Hitler Youth members from the family home after they had come to investigate why his sons hadn’t joined.
But all three Fest boys were obliged to serve in the war and both Joachim and Winfried narrowly missed death, Joachim in a fox hole, where the officer he was with was shot dead, Winfried during an escape attempt. The author spent time in 1945 in an American Prisoner of War camp in the city of Laon in Northern France. His account of an escape attempt makes for compulsive reading and shows him, yet again, to be a man of incredible fortitude and patience, of necessity perhaps, but worth remarking on nevertheless.
Johannes Fest had to step down as a teacher because of his refusenik stance, a painful event which he apparently took on the chin. Resignation meant, at a basic level, reduced circumstances for his family who had to get rid of some adjoining flats they had bought, living in smaller quarters thereafter. Joachim’s mother Elisabeth faithfully endorsed the anti-Nazi stance of her husband.
However, in the last hours of her life she unleashed what her son figured was "repressed bitterness" - this woman who had never cursed, cursed for hours. Some time prior to that she had admitted that trying to rear five children in the circumstances had been very demanding. "I don't think I was made for a life like that, " she said. "But then who is? We paid a high price."
There is little evidence, certainly in this account, of self-pity on the part of Fest senior in the immediate aftermath of that forced resignation. However, his father was a gaunt, ruined and disillusioned individual after incarceration by the Russians in the Second World War. The photographic portrait demonstrating this sad truth is included, among what is a a fascinating collection of family photographs, granted space at judicious intervals within the covers of the book.
There is also a poignant, full-page image of Wolfgang, the eldest, just before his call-up to the army in 1943. Wolfgang died of pneumonia in hospital after he had been sent back to the front by a Nazi officer "with drawn pistol" who had refused to believe he was seriously ill (or didn’t care, more like. )
The death of Wolfgang is the key traumatic event in a family that had bravely coped with everything else, and the account of his loss is one of the most moving passages in this brilliant book. The author’s mother Elisabeth would not even allow Wolfgang’s name to be mentioned. If by chance his name was involuntarily uttered, even twenty years later, she would leave the room and Joachim would follow her and find her trying to compose herself elsewhere.