BOOK REVIEW: 'Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood': Joachim Fest's Account of Survival During the Nazi Nightmare

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

"If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.'" -- Henry David Thoreau

Joachim Fest (1926-2006) uses this quote toward the end of his engrossing memoir "Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood" (Other Press, 464 pages, $15.95, trade paperback, photographs, index, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers, with an introduction by Herbert A. Arnold) to explain why he retained the conservative beliefs of his father in writing some of the best accounts of Hitler and Nazi Germany that have been published by any author. Many of the other writers on the subject approached it from a leftist perspective but Fest believed the Communists were as bad as the Nazis -- only they had better PR.

BOOK REVIEW: 'Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood': Joachim Fest's Account of Survival During the Nazi Nightmare

The quote from Thoreau appears on Page 409, in the part of the memoir that deals with his adult life -- a relatively short section compared with his experiences up to 1945 when he was captured by American troops near the Remagen bridge in western Germany. 

Fest had joined the regular army -- the Wehrmacht --  to avoid being drafted into the Waffen S.S., he writes, much to the consternation of his father, who opposed the Nazi regime from the conservative spectrum of the Weimar Republic. His father said: "one does not volunteer for Hitler's criminal war."

His father, Johannes Fest, was dismissed from his teaching position in 1933, when Hitler was elected chancellor and night descended on Germany. The footnotes by the translator and Arnold explain the literary and cultural references in Fest's memoirs and are an invaluable addition to the book for the general reader.

"Not I" is a depiction of  an intellectually rigorous German household opposed to the Nazis and how its members suffered for their political stance.  Fest offers a far-reaching view of how he experienced the war and National Socialism. True to the German Bildung tradition, serious bookworm Fest grows up immersed in the works of Goethe, Schiller, Mörike, Rilke, Kleist, Mozart, and Beethoven. 

His father, a conservative Catholic teacher, opposes the Nazi regime and as a result loses his job and status. Fest is forced to move to a boarding school in the countryside that he despises, and in his effort to come to terms with his father’s strong political convictions, he embarks on a tireless quest for knowledge and moral integrity that will shape the rest of his life and writing career.

Here's an excerpt: 

In early 1936, from our place by the wall, Wolfgang [his older brother] and I eavesdropped on a rare argument between our parents. There had been a strangely irritable atmosphere all day. My mother evidently started it, reminding my father in a few short sentences what she had put up with, politically and personally, in the last three years. She said she wasn’t complaining, but she had never dreamt of such a future. From morning to night she was standing in front of pots, pans, and washboards, and when the day was over she had to attend to the torn clothes of the children, patched five times over. And then, after what seemed like a hesitant pause, she asked whether my father did not, after all, want to reconsider joining the Party. The gentlemen 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. In any case, she couldn’t cope anymore…And to indicate the end of her plea, after a long pause she added a simple “Please!”

My father replied a little too wordily (as I sometimes thought in the years to come), but at the same time revealed how uneasy he had been about the question for a long time. He said something about the readjustments that she, like many others, had been forced to make. He spoke about habit, which after often difficult beginnings provides a certain degree of stability. He spoke about conscience and trust in God. Also that he himself, as well as my brothers and I, could gradually relieve her of some of the work in the household, and so on. But my mother insisted on an answer, suggesting that joining the Party would not change anything: “After all, we remain who we are!” It did not take long for my father to retort: “Precisely not! It would change everything!”

As an avid reader of just about every aspect of World War II and the Nazis, I was impressed with the insights Fest provides about everyday life in Germany. Fest's father had many Jewish friends and he urged all of them to get out of Germany as quickly as possible. Some followed his advice: all too many said the gangsters called Nazis would soon be gone, that Germany was too civilized a nation to continue the persecution of a people who had contributed so much to Germany. Fest writes about the special connection between German Jews and the nation, calling the destruction of the Jewish community a "fratricidal" catastrophe.

"Not I" is a must-read book for anyone interested in understanding how Europe descended into the madness described so vividly by British historian Mark Mazower  in his 1999 book "Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century."

Joachim Fest
Joachim Fest

About the author

Joachim Fest was one of the most important authors and historians of the Federal Republic of Germany. From 1963 he worked as chief editor of Norddeutscher Rundfunk (North German Broadcasting), and from 1973 to 1993 as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. His biography "Hitler" (1974) has been translated into more than twenty languages. His other works include "Inside Hitler’s Bunker" (2005), "Speer: The Final Verdict" (2002), and "Plotting Hitler’s Death" (1996).

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