Tim Wegner/laif/Redux

Joachim Fest, Kronberg im Taunus, Germany, 2005

Since the German word Bildungsbürger, let alone Bildungsbürgertum, is probably untranslatable, Martin Chalmers wisely leaves it in the original and explains the meaning in a footnote. Briefly, a Bildungsbürger was a member of the pre-war bourgeois German elite whose status was marked less by birth than by a solid classical education. Some of the proudest Bildungsbürger were Jews. If sportsmanship, good manners, and fine tailoring were the vaunted signs of the English gentleman, the minimum requirement for a Bildungsbürger was a sound knowledge of Latin and Greek, the classics of European literature, and of course German classical music. The gentleman was shaped by the English public (meaning private) school, the German bourgeois by the Gymnasium.

All of which is to say that Joachim Fest, the acclaimed biographer of Hitler and Albert Speer1, cultural editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from 1973 to 1993, and conservative scourge of the postwar German left, was a paragon of Bildungsbürgertum. His politics were not of the far right; there was no hint of revanchism. Fest was a liberal in the classical European sense, a believer in free-market economics with the habitus of a cultivated banker and a taste for Mozart operas and Italian Renaissance art.

His childhood education during the Third Reich is the subject of Fest’s extraordinary memoir, written in a polished style full of irony and wit, not all of which survives in translation. It is also a trifle self-regarding. Ich Nicht, the German title, conveys this a little more clearly than Not I. Perhaps it should have been Not Me, as it is in the British edition. The point made is that Fest was not one of the vulgar mob that cheered for Hitler. Fest’s nemesis, Günter Grass, whose memoir Peeling the Onion appeared in the same year (2006), may have volunteered for the Waffen SS—“not I.”

Fest points out early in his book that the values of the educated German bourgeoisie were already old-fashioned before the war and discredited after 1945. Leftists who saw fascism as the logical culmination of bourgeois capitalism partly blamed this upper-middle class for the rise of Hitler. Fest responded that “this accusation merely reflects the resentment of spoiled children intent on being morally superior to their parents.” He meant the student rebels of 1968 and their literary mentors, such as Grass. Fest didn’t think much of them, nor they of him.

In fact, the rise of Hitler’s Reich was also the end of Bildungsbürgertum. But the left-wing criticism of that class started much earlier. A prime example was Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat, better known in its cinematic version, The Blue Angel, directed by Josef von Sternberg, the film that made Marlene Dietrich’s name. The downfall of Professor Raat, ruined by his liaison with a nightclub dancer, is a satire that sticks the knife into the moral pretentions of a typical bourgeois pedagogue. The novel was written in 1905, in the Empire of Wilhelm II, when the prestige of a classical German education was at its height. A devastating world war, a chaotic and weak republic, and the ensuing Nazi catastrophe left the world of Professor Raat in ashes.

Joachim Fest’s father, Johannes, the hero of his son’s memoir, was in many respects the perfect example of a Bildungsbürger. He taught at a good school in Berlin. He took pride in his complete works of Goethe, Shakespeare, Heine, and Lessing. A bronze bust of Dante stood in his study. From a solid Prussian family of minor officials, Johannes Fest was also a devout Catholic, whose idea of decent Prussian values included a lack of sentimentality and a sense of irony, which may not be everyone’s idea of Prussianness, but to the old man was “the entry ticket to humanity.”

And yet, as Fest points out, his father’s various qualities did not always fit together easily. For example, he could never forgive Thomas Mann, whose literary talent he acknowledged, for writing Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (1918). Mann’s notion of the Bildungsbürger was that he should stay away from politics, which was a sordid business, unworthy of a civilized humanist. Kultur is what mattered, not politics. Most members of his class would have agreed. Johannes Fest did not. Mann’s prejudice, he maintained, had done more to alienate the bourgeoisie from the Weimar Republic than Hitler.

He was partly right. By turning away from politics, the educated elite in Germany had made it easier for demagogues to monopolize politics to their own ghastly ends. The typical conservative Catholic Prussian, often with strong royalist sympathies, was probably a poor defender of the Weimar Republic anyway. But Johannes Fest defended it to the last. And he was intensely political too, attending meetings of the Christian democratic Center Party. He even joined the Reichsbanner, a paramilitary group of pro-republican Christian and Social Democrats.


Alas, Fest was in a rapidly shrinking minority, battered, like the Weimar Republic itself, from all sides; by the Communists, who loathed the old bourgeoisie as well as the Social Democrats, and of course by the Nazis. Violence in Weimar Berlin, where the Fest family lived in the middle-class area of Karlshorst, could erupt quite suddenly. One night, Johannes Fest came home limping with his head in a bandage. He had been beaten up by members of the Communist Red Front, who had come to disrupt a meeting of Social Democrats. This was in 1932, one year before Hitler took power, when the left really ought to have been sticking together.

Many Bildungsbürger, following the antipolitical philosophy of Thomas Mann, refused to get involved in public affairs, hoping that all the unpleasantness would simply go away. But Johannes Fest, in the words of his son,

entertained none of the delusions to which so many politically informed minds fell victim at the time: that Hitler would become more reasonable, be moderated by success, or that, charlatan as he was, he would be a failure.

After Hitler took over, Johannes Fest did something even more unusual for a man of his class. He refused to conform to the new order, even when it became dangerous to show dissent. Having made his disdain for the Führer and his “rabble” quite clear, Fest was fired from his teaching job in April 1933, precisely the time when many Germans hastened to join the Nazi Party. The first thing he noticed was how members of the school staff avoided looking at him as he packed his belongings. Fest had not just lost his livelihood and his status; he was a nonperson, a potential traitor, a man to be shunned. Previously friendly neighbors and acquaintances would quickly cross the street when they saw him coming.

His wife, Elisabeth (“Tetta”), did not like the Nazis any more than her husband did, but she wished he could have been a bit more flexible. There was the occasional argument, when the outcast life became too much for her. Why did he have to be so blatant in his contempt for the Nazis? The family was suffering. Money was running out. It was she, and the children, who had to pay the price for his intransigence. Couldn’t he just join the party for the sake of the family? He was even promised a promotion if he did. Just joining wouldn’t change anything, surely. “After all,” she implored, “we would stay who we are!” To which he replied: “Precisely not! It would change everything!”

Joachim and his brothers and sisters did not notice much change in the first years of Hitler’s rule. Unlike many of their cohort they didn’t join the Hitler Youth, of course, but they continued to play soccer with their neighbors. They visited their grandparents in the Prussian countryside, helping out on the farm and swimming in the lakes. Their friends tended to be from “reliable” families, who shared their father’s views.

The writer Horst Krüger was a few years older than Joachim Fest, who was born in 1926. He, too, went to school in Berlin during the 1930s. In an essay about his school days, he remembers that Jewish schoolmates disappeared at some point. But this didn’t really leave much of an impression. He knew in retrospect that it was the first step on the way to mass murder. But he writes:

Honesty compels me to say that none of this seemed very dramatic to those of us who weren’t affected. History, while it is happening, actually appears rather trivial. Life is rarely heroic; it is usually banal.2

Other writers of Fest’s age even rather enjoyed their experiences as Hitler’s children. The essayist Dieter Wellershoff remembers his time as a pre–Hitler Youth cub for its fun and games (Sportlich-Spielerisch). Carola Stern, who became a prominent journalist after the war, loved being in the German Girls Association (BDM), singing Nazi songs around the campfire and pledging public oaths to Hitler. She remembers how in 1936, the Olympic year, “pretty much everyone I knew was for the Führer.”

The atmosphere in the Fest household was different. Johannes Fest insisted that Hitler’s lies would not be allowed to corrupt his family: “A state that turns everything into a lie shall not cross our threshold as well.” At home, he would speak openly, for otherwise life would be intolerable. After the youngest children had had their evening meal, a “second dinner” was served for the adults and the two elder brothers, Joachim and Wolfgang. As Joachim recalls: “At table, friends were mentioned who had suddenly disappeared; others disappeared from conversation, because they were no longer friends.”


This created an air of conspiracy, which was not entirely unpleasant to a growing boy. Wolfgang, the elder brother, told Joachim that it was “us against the world.” Joachim nodded, “without having the faintest idea what it might mean to be against the world. I just felt myself to be favored in some indefinable way by my father.”

But he was not totally oblivious either. Sinister figures in belted leather coats would appear with a Heil Hitler! and enter the Fest home “without waiting to be invited.” Distant cries of help were sometimes heard, in Fest’s recollection, but he wasn’t sure where they came from, or whether they were just echoes of the fear, which “for all our ignorance of what was going on outside had also taken hold of us and made the air strangely thick.”

What made Fest’s father, the staunch Bildungsbürger, into a courageous nonconformist? His Catholic faith might have played some part. Führer-worship struck some Catholics as a kind of blasphemy. Social disdain for Hitler’s “band of criminals” may have had something to do with it too. The Nazi movement, to him, had emerged from “the gutter.” He could never understand why his son, after the war, chose to write books about those plebeian thugs instead of, say, the Italian Renaissance. But above all, it was perhaps a matter of personal dignity.


Ullstein Bild/Granger Collection

Adolf Hitler, Albert Speer, General Alfred Jodl, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, and Joachim von Ribbentrop in Hitler’s underground quarters during the Ardennes Offensive, January 1945

The crucial scene in Fest’s childhood memoir is his father’s lesson to his two eldest sons. He told them to write down a Latin motto from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, and to commit it to memory: “Etiam si omnes—ego non!”—Even if all others…not I! Fest does not mention this, but a variant of these words was written on the house of Philipp von Boeselager, one of the officers who plotted to kill Hitler in July 1944. He, too, was a pious Catholic.

Not to follow the common herd became Joachim Fest’s prevailing attitude in life. It informed his conservatism. He felt, perhaps a little too smugly at times, that to be a conservative in the Federal Republic, when the fashion among intellectuals was to be on the left, was a courageous form of dissent. He mentions “older radicals” who wore jeans and let their hair grow long: “I never found words for them and never wanted to.” De gustibus non est disputandum, but this was a rather far cry from being a resistance hero.

Fest’s own classical education in German letters and music owed much to a Dr. Meyer. He was one of the Jewish family friends whom Johannes Fest had implored to leave Germany after Kristallnacht in 1938. Only one of them, named Rosenthal, heeded his advice. Dr. Meyer, like his confrère, Dr. Goldschmidt, considered it beneath his dignity to flee from his own country. In Fest’s words, Dr. Meyer “had always felt himself to be a German. He didn’t even feel that culturally he was a Jew,” and he viewed the Eastern European Jews with a certain distaste. A Bildungsbürger to the core, Dr. Meyer didn’t believe that his nation of Beethoven and Goethe could ever pose a danger to him. But things soon went from bad to worse. He lost his medical practice, violence threatened everywhere, his wife died of fear and misery. All that was left to him in his increasingly squalid apartment was his library of great classics and minor German poets. “Life is no longer sticking to the rules,” he muttered in desperation. “But why?”

It was Dr. Meyer who introduced Fest to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. But father Johannes sternly insisted that Joachim return the book forthwith. Dr. Meyer, a copy of Buddenbrooks in his loving hands, told the young Fest during one of his last visits before Meyer disappeared forever, that his father took novels too seriously. Literature, he explained, was a kind of game. The old Fest would not let the works of authors whose political views he disapproved of in the house. The difference between the two friends tells us something about Fest’s unbending attitudes, for better and worse.

Dr. Meyer’s ultimate fate can be guessed at but is not disclosed in Fest’s memoir. How much most Germans knew about the Jewish genocide while it was happening is still endlessly debated. But Johannes Fest, after a period of disbelief in the rumors of mass murder, was left in no doubt. As Joachim Fest writes, “the accumulation [of rumors] turned what was reported into near certainty.” Johannes did not tell his son what he knew, but Joachim found out anyway in the spring of 1944, when a friendly priest spoke in detail about stories he had heard from members of his congregation who had served on the Eastern Front.

Fest was seventeen then, a boarder at a Catholic school in Freiburg. His time at the Leibniz Gymnasium in a working-class area of Berlin had come to an abrupt end when he was caught carving a caricature of Hitler into his desk. Fest’s attitude toward his fellow pupils in Freiburg, mostly sons of Black Forest farmers, was rather lofty; he was a snobbish Berliner among the peasantry. But he noted how most teachers at his new school were more openly critical of the Nazi regime than the ones in Berlin, something he ascribes to “the self-confident Catholicism of the region.”

Fest survived the last years of the war, during which he was compelled to join the Hitler Youth and, in the end, the army, and during which his beloved elder brother died of war wounds. He himself was almost shot for treasonous sentiments when he openly blamed his brother’s death on the criminal neglect of his superior officers. His closest friend, named Reinhold Buck, a gentle figure whose love of music matched Fest’s adoration of poetry and Renaissance art, was killed in the last months of the war. By then, when the Third Reich was close to its gory end, even Fest’s father was drafted into the army.

When father and son met again, after the war, both had spent time as POWs—Joachim in an American camp in France, and Johannes in the much worse conditions of a Soviet camp. Their reactions to the past are fascinating. For they reveal their respective views on the class and culture that shaped them. Johannes Fest once told his son that men like himself had placed too much trust “in reason, in Goethe, Kant, Mozart, and the whole tradition which came from that.” They had never believed that a “primitive gangster like Hitler” could take power in such a cultured country.

But like so many Germans of his generation, Johannes Fest chose to be silent about the immediate past. Not because he had a guilty conscience; but he felt ashamed about his powerlessness to stop the Nazi crimes. When asked by his son why he hadn’t told him about the Jewish genocide, even when he knew the facts, Johannes answered: “I did not want to talk about it then and I don’t want to talk about it now! It reminds me that there was absolutely nothing I could do with my knowledge. Not even talk about it!” His disillusion with the fragility of civilized values had left him speechless.

Joachim grappled with the collapse of German high culture in a different way. Soon after his return to Berlin, he went to a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. When a person in the audience remarked that the composer’s pathos seemed very French, Fest said that Beethoven’s metaphysics were surely very German. To which the other person replied that it was no longer permissible to speak in such “national” terms. This clearly irritated Fest. Part of his postwar conservatism must be seen in this light. He tried to save German high culture from the wreckage, as though a revived form of Bildungsbürgertum were the way to national salvation.

Unlike his father, however, he did not wish to remain silent about the past. Hitler’s sway over Germany became the subject of his most famous works, among them his biography of Hitler. But he wrote with a degree of detachment. His aim was to understand the past, dispassionately, not to atone for it in public displays of breast-beating. This put him at odds with Günter Grass and other leftist intellectuals who believed in German collective guilt. As Fest put it: “In all their lamentation, they were very ready to defame anyone who didn’t do as they did and constantly beat their sinful breasts.”

In fact, Grass and others managed to find a literary expression for the shame and guilt that others could or would not voice. The left-wing students and intellectuals of the 1960s, despite their occasional shrillness, lapses into extremism, and moralizing tendencies, forced the Germans to face the darkest years of their history. Fest did not give them enough credit for this. And in his attempt to resurrect what was best in the gentlemanly German class, he had blind spots of his own. His claim, for example, that communism was in some ways worse than Nazism, because the East German regime would “not have tolerated the survival of such a halfway happy family home as ours had been,” seems oddly obtuse.

Fest himself admitted that he had been deceived by Albert Speer, the gentleman among the thugs, the educated Bildungsbürger, who was an industrial slave-master and Hitler’s closest friend. His case clearly gnawed away at Fest. How could this man, of all people, have sunk so low? At first, Fest was rather charmed by Speer, helped him write his memoir, and found reasons for his criminal complicity. He argued that Speer was a technocrat, an artist, oblivious to the immorality of the cause he served. Finally, however, Fest came to a conclusion that echoed his father’s criticism of Mann’s Reflections of an Unpolitical Man.

Speer was from “a respected home with strict values.” He was “by origin and upbringing the product of a long process of civilization.” He really should have been able to resist the temptations of his terrible age. But his conceits about being antipolitical led him straight to the gutter: “Speer far more than Hitler makes us realize how fragile these precautions are, and how the ground on which we all stand is always threatened.”3

This, too, was a reason for Fest’s conservatism. “Civility,” for him, had to be defended against radicals of all stripes. Classical liberalism, in politics and economics, was the proper antidote to ideological zeal, especially on the left. High culture had to be protected from the vandals in jeans and long hair. Yet like his father, Joachim Fest was a Bildungsbürger with reservations. He became only too well aware that when the chips are down, Goethe and Mozart might still offer some solace, but they cannot stop the descent into barbarism.