Brotherly hatred

Joachim Fest was a renowned German historian and publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, who wrote award-winning biographies of Hitler and Albert Speer. Born in Berlin in 1926, he died in 2006 and had the perfect ringside seat to chronicle the rise of Nazism. His memoir — Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood (Atlantic, £20) — has, despite its mostly turgid prose, received shoals of praise on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fest’s father, Johannes, was a Catholic Prussian schoolteacher who lost his job in 1933 when the Nazis seized power. He was plainly a man of deeply held principles, who had a strong circle of political and social anti-Nazi allies and friends, including many Jews.

Meal-times at Schloss Fest sound absolute purgatory, conducted, as they were, as a sort of endless, high-minded tutorial in which sons Joachim, Wolfgang and Winfried (if you get the feeling you are in the middle of a Wagner opera, you’re not far wrong) were subjected to a series of extended rants by Fest Senior about the state of the nation. Sisters Hannih and Christa weren’t able to take part. Lucky girls.

Johannes Fest could have made the lives of his family infinitely easier had he joined the Nazi Party (as his wife suggested) but he never would and it is difficult to understand what the family lived on and how they functioned during the war.

Joachim Fest was conscripted and ended the war as a PoW in the hands of the Americans. Compared with the fate of many, his war was relatively bearable, despite the loss of his beloved elder brother Wolfgang.

Towards the end of the book, he muses on the relationship between Germans and Jews, surmising that it “was always deeper and more profound than, for example, that between Jews and the French or Jews and the English.”

Fest believed this symbiosis was based on three things: “a delight in speculation, imaginatively taking an idea as far as it will go”, together with “an inclination towards complicated structures of ideas, which possibly have a theological aspect”, and “an obsessive love of music.” His somewhat astonishing conclusion is that “perhaps the Germans’ hatred of the Jews and the genocide may be interpreted as a kind of fratricide.”

This is a difficult book, characterised by excessive name-dropping, primarily of German intellectuals, and endless dull anecdotes of a quotidian, German-Catholic childhood. The young Joachim sounds like a tiresome boy, but he did grow up into a wholly admirable member of society.

    Last updated: 2:34pm, October 12 2012