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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.