Books: One Man's War for Truth ; Joachim Fest, Once a Teenage PoW, Became Germany's First and Finest Analyst of the Third Reich. HENNING HOFF Talks to Him about History, Literature and Hitler
Hoff, Henning, The Independent (London, England)
When Adolf Hitler killed himself in his Berlin bunker on 30 April 1945, the news took some time to travel. Eight confused days followed, until the German Wehrmacht finally capitulated. Joachim Fest, then 18 years old, heard about it in a PoW camp in Laon, France, after having been taken prisoner by the US Army at the famous Remagen bridge.
He still pictures the scene vividly. "There was a large crowd in front of the camp notice board, and some jostling was going on. Someone said, with a sigh: `Thank God, he's dead, and the war's over.' Others disagreed: `How can you say that? It's the Fuhrer!' Ear-boxing was in the air." Then, Fest remembers, an older soldier came along, hands in his pockets, and quite lax in his manner: "`Stop quarrelling,' he told the young PoWs. `It was madness, not just the end. It was madness right from the start.'" This set the tone, and the crowd dissolved.
For Joachim Fest, distinguished German historian, writer and journalist, it came as a relief. However, he was "not typical". For the majority of Germans, or the country in general, it was an end in many ways: the spectacular, violent demise of an empire. Its crimes, against European Jewry, against Slavs, political opponents and many others, set records beyond imagination. The unparalleled destruction Hitler unleashed turned more and more against Germany in the final days. The Battle of Berlin, in April and May 1945, was an orgy of death, just as the Nazi leadership had hoped.
The final days of the Third Reich are the topic of Fest's latest book, Inside Hitler's Bunker (Macmillan, pounds 16.99; translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo). After his Hitler biography in 1973, a historical as well as a literary masterpiece, Fest has returned to the dictator, whose end in his bunker, commanding armies that no longer existed, proves a focal point. As Hitler's failed assassin, Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, put it: "Hitler in the bunker - that's the real Hitler."
Fest not only manages to provide an authoritative version of events, in some ways updating Hugh Trevor-Roper's 1947 classic, The Last Days of Hitler. He also reflects on the origins of Hitler's rule. The decline of Germany, he says, started even before the Nazis came to power: "The betrayal of the principles of not only democracy, but also of civilisation, started during the Weimar Republic."
Fest's refusal to be "typical" is an underlying theme of his impressive career. He is often called Germany's great conservative thinker, but is not easily pigeonholed. Take German reunification. Fest talked about German unity when it was quite unfashionable, but what has happened since 1990 he describes as "a string of mistakes". He is critical of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, of the conservative Christian Democrats, commenting dryly: "Simply to extend West Germany's system to the East, well, that was just too unimaginative." Kohl's successor, the social democrat Gerhard Schroder, does not get better marks.
Fest was born in Berlin in 1926 into an anti-Nazi family. His father, a teacher, was a member of the Zentrum party, the political organisation of German Catholicism, and a leader of the paramilitary Reichsbanner, which tried to defend the Weimar Republic as a counter- force to the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) and the German Communist formations. Immediately after Hitler came to power, Fest's father was forced into early retirement with a reduced pension. While he struggled to care for a family of seven, he fended off all overtures by the new regime. "I wasn't allowed to join the Hitler Youth," Fest says. "My father threw emissaries out when they came asking us to join."
Fest grew up something of an outcast. Today he thinks it one of his father's greatest achievements that "he taught us not to run with the crowd, let alone when they marched in columns". This, he says, has helped him all his life. Over the years, he has been attacked from many quarters. …