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Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood Paperback – February 11, 2014
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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2014
"Quietly compelling, elegantly expressed… Not I shrinks the Wagnerian scale of German history in the 1930s and 1940s to chamber music dimensions. It is intensely personal, cleareyed and absolutely riveting.” —The New York Times
“The socially conformist thing to do for a man of distinction—journalist, filmmaker, author of the best-selling first postwar German biography of Hitler, eventually co-editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung—would have been to recount the history of his own distinguished career. Instead Joachim Fest (1926-2006) chose to write Not I, a colorful and dramatic account of his childhood and youth in the nonconformist family that made him what he became.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Exceptional…it tells in a modest, believable, quietly bitter, and totally proud way of a family’s extraordinary decency…Strong and unique. Without it, the English language these days is short a very good book.” —New York Times (Global Edition)
“Joachim Fest’s fascinating memoir about what it was like to come of age during the years of the Third Reich is unusual because its central character is not the author but the author’s remarkable father.” —The New York Times Book Review
"Fest’s portraits of his brothers, his mother, and his cousins—and of himself as a teenage soldier and POW—are equally vivid and full of pathos." —Lorin Stein, The Paris Review
"[An] extraordinary memoir, written in a polished style full of irony and wit." —New York Review of Books
"A stunning portrait of a strenuously anti-Nazi family in Berlin who managed to hang on to their moral convictions during the brutalizing Hitler years...A beautifully written and translated work that creates rare, subtle portraits of Germans." —Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"[An] extraordinarily humane addition to our understanding of those who acted heroically not alone, but alongside a few intimates, together facing into the void." —America Magazine
“A heroic interrogation of Germany’s past.” —Sunday Telegraph
“I loved it, both as a story of great personal courage but also as a very moving witness to the fact that decent liberal values were not entirely lost during the Nazi period. It gives a fascinating and unusual slant on a time that has been so heavily worked over in more obvious ways. In its own manner, it stands alongside Victor Klemperer’s extraordinary diaries of the same period.” —Simon Mawer, best-selling author of Trapeze and The Glass Room
“Fest’s accounts of being called up, of trying to avoid military service, fighting, seeing comrades die, and being caught and kept as a prisoner of war are engrossing.” —Independent On Sunday
“[Fest] makes it hard to think about those blighted years, and it should be hard. His book is a glory, but only if you dare.” —The Scotsman
About the Author
Joachim Fest was one of the most important authors and historians of the Federal Republic of Germany. From 1963 he worked as chief editor of Norddeutscher Rundfunk (North German Broadcasting), and from 1973 to 1993 as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. His biography Hitler (1974) has been translated into more than twenty languages. His other works include Inside Hitler’s Bunker (2005), Speer: The Final Verdict (2002), and Plotting Hitler’s Death (1996).
Herbert A. Arnold holds a PhD from the University of Würzburg and is a professor emeritus of German and Letters at Wesleyan University.
Martin Chalmers’s recent translations include Summer Resort by Esther Kinsky and Brussels, the Gentle Monster: or the Disenfranchisement of Europe by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. In 2004 he was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for The Lesser Evil, his translation of the post-1945 diaries of Victor Klemperer.
Top Customer Reviews
Joachim Fest (1926-2006) uses this quote toward the end of his engrossing memoir "Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood" (Other Press, 464 pages, $15.95, trade paperback, photographs, index, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers, with an introduction by Herbert A. Arnold) to explain why he retained the conservative beliefs of his father in writing some of the best accounts of Hitler and Nazi Germany that have been published by any author. Many of the other writers on the subject approached it from a leftist perspective but Fest believed the Communists were as bad as the Nazis -- only they had better PR.
The quote from Thoreau appears on Page 409, in the part of the memoir that deals with his adult life -- a relatively short section compared with his experiences up to 1945 when he was captured by American troops near the Remagen bridge in western Germany.
Fest had joined the regular army -- the Wehrmacht -- to avoid being drafted into the Waffen S.S., he writes, much to the consternation of his father, who opposed the Nazi regime from the conservative spectrum of the Weimar Republic. His father said: "one does not volunteer for Hitler's criminal war."
His father, Johannes Fest, was dismissed from his teaching position in 1933, when Hitler was elected chancellor and night descended on Germany. The footnotes by the translator and Arnold explain the literary and cultural references in Fest's memoirs and are an invaluable addition to the book for the general reader.
"Not I" is a depiction of an intellectually rigorous German household opposed to the Nazis and how its members suffered for their political stance. Fest offers a far-reaching view of how he experienced the war and National Socialism. True to the German Bildung tradition, serious bookworm Fest grows up immersed in the works of Goethe, Schiller, Mörike, Rilke, Kleist, Mozart, and Beethoven.
His father, a conservative Catholic teacher, opposes the Nazi regime and as a result loses his job and status. Fest is forced to move to a boarding school in the countryside that he despises, and in his effort to come to terms with his father’s strong political convictions, he embarks on a tireless quest for knowledge and moral integrity that will shape the rest of his life and writing career.
Here's an excerpt:
In early 1936, from our place by the wall, Wolfgang [his older brother] and I eavesdropped on a rare argument between our parents. There had been a strangely irritable atmosphere all day. My mother evidently started it, reminding my father in a few short sentences what she had put up with, politically and personally, in the last three years. She said she wasn’t complaining, but she had never dreamt of such a future. From morning to night she was standing in front of pots, pans, and washboards, and when the day was over she had to attend to the torn clothes of the children, patched five times over. And then, after what seemed like a hesitant pause, she asked whether my father did not, after all, want to reconsider joining the Party. The gentlemen from the education authority had called twice in the course of the year to persuade him to give way; at the last visit they had even held out the prospect of rapid promotion. In any case, she couldn’t cope anymore…And to indicate the end of her plea, after a long pause she added a simple “Please!”
My father replied a little too wordily (as I sometimes thought in the years to come), but at the same time revealed how uneasy he had been about the question for a long time. He said something about the readjustments that she, like many others, had been forced to make. He spoke about habit, which after often difficult beginnings provides a certain degree of stability. He spoke about conscience and trust in God. Also that he himself, as well as my brothers and I, could gradually relieve her of some of the work in the household, and so on. But my mother insisted on an answer, suggesting that joining the Party would not change anything: “After all, we remain who we are!” It did not take long for my father to retort: “Precisely not! It would change everything!”
* * *
As an avid reader of just about every aspect of World War II and the Nazis, I was impressed with the insights Fest provides about everyday life in Germany. Fest's father had many Jewish friends and he urged all of them to get out of Germany as quickly as possible. Some followed his advice: all too many said the gangsters called Nazis would soon be gone, that Germany was too civilized a nation to continue the persecution of a people who had contributed so much to Germany. Fest writes about the special connection between German Jews and the nation, calling the destruction of the Jewish community a "fratricidal" catastrophe.
"Not I" is a must-read book for anyone interested in understanding how Europe descended into the madness described so vividly by British historian Mark Mazower in his 1999 book "Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century."
So this book is not so much about Joachim Fest per se, but is about the story of what he and his family went through and did to survive the war even as they rejected Hitler and his Nazism. Joachim and his brothers were sent to the eastern front; his sisters and mother were raped by the Russians as Germany was overrun, and he spent two years in an Allied internment camp.
The hero of this book is Joachim's father, Johannes Fest: who, as noted above, was a primary school headmaster, a cultural conservative who revered Goethe and Kant, a loyal German patriot, a fierce Weimar republican; a pious Catholic, and a father of five. It was his father that laid down a strong enough set of moral values that allowed them to see the coming moral and physical destruction that Adolph Hitler and his Nazi thugs and their debased racist ideology represented, and would wreak on German society and culture. Once they saw Hitler coming they braced themselves, prepared to weather the storm -- and in large part succeeded in efforts to survive through the war.
Johannes, urged his Jewish friends to get out while they could, but believed they had lost the will to live. Johannes' wife, even though she shared her husband's politics, and stood by him, was not nearly as morally committed to resisting Hitler as her husband was. She was constantly reminding him not to continue taking the risks involved in giving money to those in need, forging documents, and sheltering Jews.
While Joachim was no Bonhoeffer, and this book does not quite rise to the same level as his biography on Hitler, his family was a singular voice in the vast Nazi moral desert. However, it will not be this book that I will remember him for, but his best-selling biography of Hitler. Three stars