August 9, 2014

German writer’s spiritual biography not so spirited

“Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood” by Joachim Fest, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers (Other Press, 427 pages, $16.95)

The German historian, cultural critic and part-time journalist Joachim Fest is best known in the West for his 1974 biography of Hitler, which was translated into 20 languages and became pivotal in the revisionist histories of the Nazi regime undertaken not by the victors, but by the vanquished. As chief editor of the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany’s most prominent national newspapers, Fest’s political and social opinions defined for many center-conservatives in Germany the emerging consensus about the country’s past guilt and future prospects. Although he died in 2006, his books “Speer: The Final Verdict” (2002) and “Hitler’s Bunker” (2005), remain in print and widely read, and his Hitler biography looms as a landmark of scholarship.

Fest’s spiritual biography (known in Germany from the “Bildung” tradition) has just been published by Other Press in an elegantly made trade paper edition, appearing in the United States at last after its original publication in Germany by Rowahlt Verlag in Berlin.

Fest was born to a Catholic family of substantial means in 1926, and his youth was spent in comfortable circumstances in one of the leafy bourgeois suburbs of western Berlin, where much of the turmoil, inflation, and violence of the Nazi-Communist civil war rarely penetrated. Fest’s father was a conservative-center schoolmaster, his mother a traditional Hausfrau from the wealthy merchant class. Fest idolized his puckish older brother, Wolfgang, and revered his stern father, Johannes, whose iron rules the brothers often broke, but never despised. Much of “Not I” concerns Fest’s strong-willed father, who led the family in resistance to Hitler, a resistance which cost the elder Fest his job, and threw the family into difficult economic circumstances.

The book also involves remembrances of Fest’s grandparents and siblings, books read, school days, squabbles with classmates, and the long gestation of his literary, poetic, and cultural yearnings, a European upbringing so typical that it almost seems satiric. Fest describes his youthful indiscretions, dalliances with “naughty photos,” and the crumbling political scene with a kind of unsentimental detachment that is almost unnerving. A few dashes of humor intrude – Fest quotes a boarding school report that observes: “Joachim F. shows no intellectual interest and only turns his attention to subjects he finds easy. He does not like to work hard. He is hard to deal with. He shows a precocious liking for naked women.” Joachim and his father Johannes both served in the war, both were captured (son by the Americans, father by the Russians), and both returned home, the father somewhat miraculously, having lost 100 pounds in prison.

Sadly, “Not I” is a tepid book at best, untempered by passion, which is perhaps a faithful rendering of Fest’s personality. Precious little is said about the Holocaust, though Fest, true to his conservative principles, denies any notion of collective guilt, and bandies on about post-war left-wing insistence on national guilt and shame, a particular hobbyhorse of conservative Germans after the war, particular those reacting, as Fest does, to writers like Gunter Grass.

Without a doubt, Fest’s family was a unique example of people who formed a kind of spiritual resistance to Hitler and the fascist program. They were never physical resisters plotters or bombers. The book, however, feels rigid and cold, unlike so many of the best memoirs of Russians who survived the Gulag, in which memory and resistance transcend Stalin, becoming memorials to the human spirit. Perhaps it is merely Fest’s writing style and personality that stand in the way of the book. But stand in the way they do.

Gaylord Dold is a crime novelist based in Wichita. Visit his website at

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