The Past and Future of the Bourgeois Citizen

Article excerpt

Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood by Joachim Fest, trans. Martin Chalmers (London: Atlantic, 2012)

Joachim Fest, who died in 2006, was a kind of public intellectual much more common in Europe than in the United States. Beginning as a radio journalist in postwar Germany, he rose to one of the top positions in the German journalistic world as an editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He also published a series of bestselling historical books and essays on the Nazi period. Most famous was his monumental 1973 biography of Hitler, which remains influential for relating the dictator's life to the larger intellectual currents in early-twentieth-century Europe, as well as a biography of Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, based on interviews the young Fest conducted with Speer in the 1960s. In his later years he also published a series of shorter works, including a historical study of Hitler's last days, which became the basis for the award-winning film Downfall (Der Untergang).

Never an active partisan, Fest nonetheless became known as a critic of the left-wing dominance of German intellectual life, most publicly during the so-called Historians' Quarrel (Historikerstreit) in the late 1980s over the uniqueness of the Holocaust. His arguments placed Fest to the right of center, but at the same time he prided himself on his political and intellectual independence. As he puts it: "If asked about my guiding principles, I would always refer to my skepticism and even to my distaste for the spirit of the age and its fellow travelers." He traces the roots of his "political distrust" back to his father, who taught his children a motto based on a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (26:31) that became a family mantra: "Etiam si omnes ego non--even if all [abandon you], not I" (292). The point of this quotation from Saint Peter is that the most important thing in any crisis was maintaining one's personal integrity and devotion to first principles, even in the face of overwhelming public pressure.

Drawing on that basic insight, Not Me offers a sympathetic portrait of the traditional German middle-class world and its collapse during the 'Third Reich. Published in 2006, the year of Fest's death, this impressionistic biography, now available in a very readable English translation, traces his life from childhood in the comfortable Berlin suburb of Karlshorst through school days in Berlin and Freiburg, his service in the Wehrmacht during the last year of the war, and subsequent experiences as a POW, concluding with reflections on the postwar world. Fest clearly has great affection for the world that produced him, solidly burgerlich (a much less pejorative term in its German usage than the French import bourgeois is in English)--learned, devout, and patriotic. At the same time, he saw that this world carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. "Seen as a whole," Fest writes, "what I had experienced was the collapse of the bourgeois world, a world of civic responsibility. Its end was already foreseeable before Hitler came on the scene. ... What survived the years of his rule with integrity were solely individual characters--no classes, groups, or ideologies" (281).

Both Fest's affection for that lost world and his critical autopsy of it focus on one particular character with integrity--his father, Johannes. Fest senior was a pillar of the traditional Berlin Bildungsburgertum. Although a Catholic, which made him part of a sometimes embattled minority, Johannes Fest was in many ways a stereotypical Prussian schoolmaster and paterfamilias--strict, devoted to duty, and serious about the power of learning. He raised his family to revere the classics of German culture and to cultivate serous conversations on art, literature, and music. A strong supporter of the Catholic Centre Party, he was anti-Nazi and pro-republic, skeptical of utopianism of all kinds. Even as the republic collapsed, he clung to a deep Prussian and German patriotism. …