Tittelen på Joachim Fests selvbiografi. Det er tatt fra Matteus og var farens motto under krigen: «Andre forråder deg, ikke jeg». Oversatt til Det Tredje Rike: Hans nei til nazismen. Det kostet. Fests bok er beretningen om hvordan det var å vokse opp i en familie som sa nei.
Fest var noe av en institusjon i Tyskland, som medutgiver av Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung og forfatter av den store Hitler-biografien. Han hjalp Albert Speer å utgi sine Erindringer, og er anklaget for å ha gått god for Speers livsløgn om at han ikke visste. Dette var noe Fest tok et oppgjør med på sine eldre dager.
John Vinocur sammenligner Fests selvbiografi med en annen kulturstørrelse: Günter Grass, og sammenligningen faller ikke ut til Grass’ fordel. I sin selvbiografi avslørte Grass at han hadde vært medlem av Waffen SS i krigens sluttfase, og at han hadde meldt seg frivillig. At en mann som har spilt rollen som moralens vokter på tampen av sitt liv avslører en slik fortid ble for mye å svelge for mange. Men Grass har hatt vanskeligheter med å ta kritikken.
Vinocur sier det er en anstendighet over Fest, som mangler hos den venstreorienterte moralisten. Likevel er det Grass som er oversatt til mange språk, mens Fests bok ikke fikk en eneste interessent på engelsk under årets bokmesse i Frankfurt. En skam.
Last week, after this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair closed up shop, a reporter called Rowohlt Verlag in Hamburg to find out if a book in its catalogue called «Ich Nicht» had found an English-language publisher.
The answer was no. The woman from the foreign rights department said it was a shame.
Agreed. Published in Germany 13 months ago, «Ich Nicht» is a memoir by the late Joachim Fest, author of the best-known German study of Hitler and a co-publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It describes his father, his family and growing up in Nazi Germany.
The book is exceptional because it tells in a modest, believable, quietly bitter and totally proud way of the family’s extraordinary decency – no ironically «good» Germans here – and its refusal to bend before Hitler.
The title packs it all in: Ich nicht, Fest’s father’s phrase, borrowed from the Book of Matthew. Others betray you, Ich nicht. The words are more powerful and less theatrical sounding in German than «Not I» in English (and less ordinary, exclamation point added, than the French «Pas Moi!», which is what the book is called in a translated version appearing in France this month).
I first read parts of it haphazardly in serialized form in Fest’s old newspaper last year. It appeared shortly after his death at age 79 in September 2006, and was pretty much drowned out by the uproar at the same time over Günter Grass’s memoir of his youth, and, in it, his hazy, I-can’t-quite-remember admission – 60 years and a Nobel Prize after the fact – that he was enrolled in (volunteered for?) the Waffen SS in the last months of the war.
Just days before he died and his book came out, Fest said of Grass: «This confession comes a bit too late. I can’t understand how someone who for decades set himself up as a moral authority, a rather smug one, could pull this off.»
A year later, going over Fest again, and thinking vast English-speaking audiences have no access to «Ich Nicht,» it’s clear his book should be read in tandem with, or in opposition to, Grass’s «Peeling the Onion.»
On one hand, Grass the great novelist has composed a personal recollection almost absent of history, but suffused with willful imprecision about his days in infamy’s uniform.
On the other, Fest has written with remarkable detail about being a teenager in that awful time, describing his father’s unfailing resistance to the Nazis, how a family could work to learn of Germany’s atrocities and mass exterminations, avoid having its middle son get pulled into the SS and keep its honor to the end.
The juxtaposition of the books is remarkable, and it goes against reflex thinking about what or who is automatically prone to good or evil.
Nazi horror has not much place in the account by Grass, the leftist icon. A knock on the door, a letter, the phone ringing are the daily terrors, confronted and often overcome by the Fest family in the memoir by a man who didn’t argue with those who called him a conservative.
In effect, and in political terms (and surely inadvertently), Grass called attention to the importance of Fest’s book last week when, preparing to be honored on his 80th birthday, he complained about the «despicableness» of the critics of his delays in coming (incompletely) clean. He said they wanted to sentence him to «a death of silence.»
Other current happenings struck home, too, at the absurdity of «Ich Nicht» not finding a publisher in English:
A German opinion poll, appearing last week, showed 25 percent thought there were «good sides» to the Nazis; and a 1,238-page book by Jean-Luc Leleu, published in France with the title «La Waffen SS, Soldats Politiques en Guerre» (or, the Waffen SS, Political Soldiers at War), came out detailing the training, indoctrination and political function of this component of the SS world that Grass has so much trouble remembering.
That’s not all.
Fest’s book, in its description of his family’s difficult life in Berlin, also testifies to the absolute trivialization of the Nazi era (and demonization of America) present in blogs seeking to create a category of Good Americans, comparable in their submissiveness on Iraq to the so-called Good Germans who went along with Hitler.
Superimpose this episode from «Ich Nicht,» for example, against all those crushing terrors and pressures for political conformity in American suburban life in 2007:
Fest’s father, Johannes, is out of a job as a school principal because he will not sign a statement of allegiance to the Nazis. His little girls are celebrating a birthday in the backyard. Herr Henschel, their vicious neighbor, is standing on his balcony in his black SS uniform, «fists balled on his fat hips, screaming that he forbids the Fest girls» to bring disorder to a garden that is not his own.
As Fest makes clear, nobody in Berlin in 1940 was listening to radio call-in shows debating whether the invasions of France and Poland were morally acceptable.
Rather: One night, Fest overheard his mother asking his father, the Roman Catholic, Prussian nationalist, and friend of Jews, can’t you join the Nazi Party? We won’t really be changing, she said, and lying is how little people have always dealt with the powerful.
«We are not little people,» Fest’s father shot back. «Not on this subject!»
Read now, Fest’s memoir can work as a warning to today’s easy claimants of righteousness, and against the reflex appropriation of the moral high ground by any person, or faction.
«Ich Nicht,» is strong and unique. Without it, the English language these days is short a very good book.