Sunday, 28 October 2007
"Ich Nicht", a memoir by Joachim Fest
"Ich Nicht" by Joachim Fest was published in Germany 13 months ago. Regrettably it has not yet found an English-language publisher. John Vinocur reports:
"It describes his father, his family and growing up in Nazi Germany.
The book is exceptional because it tells in a modest, believable, quietly bitter and totally proud way of the family's extraordinary decency - no ironically "good" Germans here - and its refusal to bend before Hitler.
The title packs it all in: Ich nicht, Fest's father's phrase, borrowed from the Book of Matthew. Others betray you, Ich nicht. ...
Fest has written with remarkable detail about being a teenager in that awful time, describing his father's unfailing resistance to the Nazis, how a family could work to learn of Germany's atrocities and mass exterminations, avoid having its middle son get pulled into the SS and keep its honor to the end. ...
Fest's book, in its description of his family's difficult life in Berlin, also testifies to the absolute trivialization of the Nazi era (and demonization of America) present in blogs seeking to create a category of Good Americans, comparable in their submissiveness on Iraq to the so-called Good Germans who went along with Hitler.
Superimpose this episode from "Ich Nicht," for example, against all those crushing terrors and pressures for political conformity in American suburban life in 2007:
Fest's father, Johannes, is out of a job as a school principal because he will not sign a statement of allegiance to the Nazis. His little girls are celebrating a birthday in the backyard. Herr Henschel, their vicious neighbor, is standing on his balcony in his black SS uniform, "fists balled on his fat hips, screaming that he forbids the Fest girls" to bring disorder to a garden that is not his own.
As Fest makes clear, nobody in Berlin in 1940 was listening to radio call-in shows debating whether the invasions of France and Poland were morally acceptable.
Rather: One night, Fest overheard his mother asking his father, the Roman Catholic, Prussian nationalist, and friend of Jews, can't you join the Nazi Party? We won't really be changing, she said, and lying is how little people have always dealt with the powerful."We are not little people," Fest's father shot back. "Not on this subject!"
Read now, Fest's memoir can work as a warning to today's easy claimants of righteousness, and against the reflex appropriation of the moral high ground by any person, or faction.
"Ich Nicht," is strong and unique."