In Berlin on the evening of December 5, 1930, Nazi brownshirts staged an assault on Weimar democracy. Their target was not this or that political rival, but rather a movie theater—the one premiering All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of the bestselling Erich Maria Remarque novel that had drawn the ire of Nazi Gauleiter Joseph Goebbels for its denunciation of war. Many Germans considered Remarque a traitor for revealing the German army’s cynical disregard for life. Yet his novel invited readers to share the lives of ordinary German soldiers suffering in the trenches of World War I; war itself was the enemy, and readers were meant to empathize with a lost generation, regardless of nationality.

Joachim Fest’s memoir invites similar acts of sympathy. Fest (1926–2006), one of Germany’s most respected historians and publishers, was a veteran of WWII, and readers of Not I will share his grief over the loss of young friends. This is an important service, as little in American popular culture has done for WWII what Remarque’s novel did for the prior war. Remarque himself did contribute a post-WWII novel—A Time to Love and a Time to Die—later made into a movie by the German-born American director Douglas Sirk. The impression it gives is of decent people drawn into complicity despite their better selves.

Were Germans culpable for what their nation did? Fest’s absorbing memoir is an unprecedented attempt to take American audiences deep into Hitler’s Germany from the point of view of Germans who rejected Hitler. The author’s father, Johannes, was a Catholic democrat and teacher who was sent into early retirement in 1933 for evident disdain of the Nazi movement. He then witnessed the consequences of this opposition, as bit by bit his family’s comfortable bürgerlich life disappeared: the maid was let go; rooms of their spacious apartment were surrendered; and his wife, who loved theater and music, was forced to clean, cook, and sew patches on the fraying clothing of the family’s five children.

Johannes and his friends blamed Catholic Center Party politicians for surrendering to Hitler. But those leaders themselves had been surprised—caught sleeping when, instead of the Nazi coup they had anticipated, a small group of politicians brought Hitler to power legally, making him chancellor on January 30, 1933. Contrary to all expectation, the little known Austrian corporal proved adept at ruling one of Europe’s largest and most complex states, putting millions back to work and scoring one foreign-policy triumph after another. From the autumn of 1936 Fest recalls a “big defection” to the National Socialists, even in middle-class Berlin-Karlshorst where he grew up.

Amid this enthusiasm, the stubbornly non-Nazi Fest family seemed an embarrassment, and people began crossing the street to avoid them. Mrs. Fest pleaded with her husband to relent. The regime held his quiet dissent against the family, and she feared for the children’s future. But Johannes’s principles were adamant. He could not abide silence on politics and culture, and each night he invited his older children to a “second supper” of critical discussion of politics, culture, and history. All others might praise Hitler and his successes, but they would not: “Not I,” the book’s title, was the motto Johannes passed on to his children. It supposedly derived from Matthew 26:33, where Peter at the Mount of Olives proclaims that all others might abandon Christ but he would not. As the translator notes, this is a liberal rendering of Matthew, which in fact reads: “though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.” But arguably Johannes got the deeper meaning.

Herr Fest was principled but also lucky. Calling the regime a “band of criminals,” as he did in the refuge of the family dining room, would invite a death sentence if the words leaked outside. One Sunday morning officials showed up at the Fest residence demanding that Johannes enroll his sons in the Hitler Youth. He sent the men packing with undisguised contempt. That took courage—virtually every German family signed their children up for Nazi youth groups—and, but for the protection of a friendly Nazi party official, Johannes would have been arrested.

Sensing the coming war and mass murder, Fest advised Jewish friends to escape (some did). Until it became too dangerous, he and his friends collected money for those in desperate straits. When war came, Johannes watched helplessly as his sons did service in flak batteries, compulsory labor brigades, and finally the armed forces. Like other Germans, the Fests suffered staggering losses. Some 5 million German soldiers lost their lives, including Joachim’s older brother, Wolfgang. Mrs. Fest was so shaken that even twenty years later Joachim could not mention his name in her presence.

After the war Joachim Fest embarked on a career of increasing prominence, first in radio, then with the right-of-center newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He became known for biographies of Hitler and other Nazi leaders; before dying in 2006 he also managed to complete a study of Hitler’s last days, Downfall, that became a successful film.

Some criticized him for minimizing the complicity of ordinary Germans in the regime’s atrocities. (The Holocaust features on just three of over twelve-hundred pages of his Hitler biography.) In the late 1980s Fest seemed to make excuses for Germans in the “historians’ debate” (Historikerstreit), which addressed the question of whether the Holocaust had features in common with other genocidal crimes, or represented something historically unique. Fest stood with conservatives who emphasized Nazism’s commonality with other totalitarian regimes; his essay appeared next to a photograph of a mound of skulls of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Within this debate emerged the question of whether German soldiers fighting under Hitler could claim our sympathy. One right-leaning historian, Andreas Hillgruber, insisted they must. When studying the Eastern front of 1945, he wrote, historians should “identify” with the “sacrificial exertions” of Wehrmacht soldiers holding back the marauding Red Army. Harvard Historian Charles Maier objected that these soldiers also “preserved a monstrous regime and allowed prolongation of suffering and hundreds of thousands of further Jewish or other civilian deaths.”

For Fest the question was not simply academic. His brother may have died with a weapon in his hand, but his aunts and cousins were among the hundreds of thousands of defenseless women brutally raped by Soviet soldiers in spring 1945; when one uncle attempted to shield his wife, he was shot through the head. An aunt, crippled by polio, was pulled out of her wheelchair and raped repeatedly before being thrown down the cellar stairs and left to die.

It may be too much to call Fest’s book part of a trend, but German authors have produced more “German perspectives” of the war in the past twenty years than in the five postwar decades preceding them. These efforts, made almost entirely for internal consumption, have focused on such topics as the mass bombing of German cities (which killed some six hundred thousand civilians, including eighty thousand children); the starvation and mistreatment of German POWs; the rapes of women by Soviet soldiers; the expulsions of some 10 million Germans from the East; the loss of just under a quarter of German territory (to Poland and Russia); and the division of the rest into two states that lasted fifty years. Such efforts have given voice to stories that Germans quietly told themselves for decades but that never became part of a national conversation, let alone an international one—reflecting a bitter implicit assumption that the penalty for having perpetrated a war of aggression, in which millions were killed, was silence concerning Germany’s own national suffering.

Ironically, but perhaps logically, as the war recedes deeper into the past, and Germans who lived under Hitler die away, portrayals of life under the Nazis have proliferated. Last year some 7 million Germans watched the miniseries Our Mothers, Our Fathers (released in the United States as Generation War), which told the story of five young friends and their experiences of war. The film presents its characters as “types”: a sensitive intellectual, for instance, who as a soldier becomes a ruthless killer; an ambitious artist who climbs her career ladder via moral compromise; and so on. In comparison with such archetypes, Joachim Fest’s father comes off as completely original, indeed almost impossible. Representative of neither Catholicism nor region nor middle-class education, he is a man no novelist could imagine.

As for his son, in an interview a year before his death, Joachim Fest rejected popular explanations for Hitler’s rise to power—the social-history perspective, for example, which views fascism as a movement of the lower middle class. As Fest knew, most Germans endorsed the Nazis, even the working class, some of whose leaders congratulated Hitler when he beat unemployment. Firm support also came from the educated middle classes who loved Goethe and Schiller as much as Johannes Fest did. In the end only “character” was decisive—or, perhaps more accurately, stomach. The Nazis made Johannes Fest want to vomit.

And yet in the end he could not escape. In the war’s final months, the regime had pressed teenage boys and old men into military formations called the Volks-sturm, and Johannes was called to serve. In April 1945 Soviet forces took him prisoner after the battle of Königsberg. Half a year later he returned from Soviet captivity a shell of himself. “He was hardly recognizable,” Joachim’s mother recalled, “a man abruptly grown smaller, slighter, grey-haired. Most of the time he simply sat there, his eyes sunken…”

Germany was free, but Fest senior felt no sense of triumph. Despite the urging of his children, he refused to write his memoirs. He rejected all talk of his past, so as not to create the impression that he had been a resister. The task of depicting what the Nazis had created was beyond him; what had happened went beyond the capacities of human comprehension. Among the most incomprehensible features of the months after Hitler’s seizure of power, Johannes recalled, was the “fact that state crimes [like massive arrests of political opponents] were the most natural thing in the world.” The Germans had not chosen Hitler, yet they had made Nazism their own, in a sense, domesticating it.

After the war, Johannes not only had occasion to weigh what had happened, he had a certain duty. The Allies learned of his quiet resistance and made him a member of a denazification court. Yet he disavowed any right to pass judgment, for example on a father of three who had acted as head of the local Nazi party branch. “Life has reasons,” he said, “which no court in the world can understand.” During the war he had chastised Joachim for volunteering for the Luftwaffe. When his son pleaded that he had joined in order to avoid being drafted into the SS, Johannes replied, “One does not volunteer for Hitler’s criminal war. This decision you must leave to God…it’s not in your hands, even if that’s what you assume.”

Readers of Not I will understand that some choices faced by Germans under Hitler were not choices, and will have little difficulty feeling the pain of Joachim or Johannes. Still, the suffering brought upon Europe by Germany defies the powers of imagination, and any sympathy with Germans exists within a monstrous shadow of wrongdoing. As I pondered Fest’s memoir on the train from Verona to Munich a few months ago, an employee of the Austrian federal railways brought me that day’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. A front-page article, “Forgotten Crimes,” told of German President Joachim Gauck’s visit of conciliation to the Greek village of Lyngiades, where on October 3, 1943, German paratroops massacred everyone—from an unbaptized baby to a hundred-year-old patriarch—in reprisal for the killing of a German officer. Germans today still do not grasp the extent of the atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht. If Gauck were to visit one village a day in Greece that German forces had destroyed, he would need over three months; extend the list to Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland, and the Czech lands, and he would be busy for more than a year. Then there are the millions of Soviet POWs starved to death, the citizens of Leningrad and countless other cities killed by brutal conduct of war and attrition—not to mention the Holocaust of the Jews, the full dimensions of which historians have yet to chronicle.

These horror stories were suppressed, and are surfacing now, because the men and women of Fest’s generation refused to rebuild their lives and country while staring countless crimes in the face. Historians reduced the misdeeds to numbers and assigned blame to a few leaders—the antiheroes of Fest’s bestselling biographies—thereby facilitating the “Hitler’s henchmen” theory of the horrors of Nazism. The SS were the villains, in this view, but the German army supposedly “decent” (a myth perpetuated by Generation War). Between this view and outdated ideas of broad culpability, where does the reality lie? Not I gives us a glimpse of society beneath the guilty leaders. Yet Fest waited until a few months before he died to publish his own memoir, effectively escaping probing questions.

When President Gauck, born in 1940, appears in Greece, he does not need to squirm. Graced by what Chancellor Helmut Kohl memorably called die Gnade der späten Geburt —“the blessing of a late birth”—he never wore a uniform with a swastika. Still Gauck can wonder—as might we—how he would have behaved as an adult with children in Berlin-Karlshorst in 1933 or 1944. This is not sympathy exactly, but a humble recognition of our limits to comprehend what happened not that long ago and not that far away.

John Connelly teaches the history of East Central Europe at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton, 2020).

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Published in the June 13, 2014 issue: View Contents
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