Joachim Fest: One man's war for truth

Joachim Fest, once a teenage PoW, became Germany's first and finest analyst of the Third Reich. Henning Hoff talks to him about history, literature and Hitler
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The Independent Culture

When Adolf Hitler killed himself in his Berlin bunker on 30 April 1945, the news took some time to travel. Eight confused days followed, until the German Wehrmacht finally capitulated. Joachim Fest, then 18 years old, heard about it in a PoW camp in Laon, France, after having been taken prisoner by the US Army at the famous Remagen bridge.

When Adolf Hitler killed himself in his Berlin bunker on 30 April 1945, the news took some time to travel. Eight confused days followed, until the German Wehrmacht finally capitulated. Joachim Fest, then 18 years old, heard about it in a PoW camp in Laon, France, after having been taken prisoner by the US Army at the famous Remagen bridge.

He still pictures the scene vividly. "There was a large crowd in front of the camp notice board, and some jostling was going on. Someone said, with a sigh: 'Thank God, he's dead, and the war's over.' Others disagreed: 'How can you say that? It's the Führer!' Ear-boxing was in the air." Then, Fest remembers, an older soldier came along, hands in his pockets, and quite lax in his manner: "'Stop quarrelling,' he told the young PoWs. 'It was madness, not just the end. It was madness right from the start.'" This set the tone, and the crowd dissolved.

For Joachim Fest, distinguished German historian, writer and journalist, it came as a relief. However, he was "not typical". For the majority of Germans, or the country in general, it was an end in many ways: the spectacular, violent demise of an empire. Its crimes, against European Jewry, against Slavs, political opponents and many others, set records beyond imagination. The unparalleled destruction Hitler unleashed turned more and more against Germany in the final days. The Battle of Berlin, in April and May 1945, was an orgy of death, just as the Nazi leadership had hoped.

The final days of the Third Reich are the topic of Fest's latest book, Inside Hitler's Bunker (Macmillan, £16.99; translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo). After his Hitler biography in 1973, a historical as well as a literary masterpiece, Fest has returned to the dictator, whose end in his bunker, commanding armies that no longer existed, proves a focal point. As Hitler's failed assassin, Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, put it: "Hitler in the bunker - that's the real Hitler."

Fest not only manages to provide an authoritative version of events, in some ways updating Hugh Trevor-Roper's 1947 classic, The Last Days of Hitler. He also reflects on the origins of Hitler's rule. The decline of Germany, he says, started even before the Nazis came to power: "The betrayal of the principles of not only democracy, but also of civilisation, started during the Weimar Republic."

Fest's refusal to be "typical" is an underlying theme of his impressive career. He is often called Germany's great conservative thinker, but is not easily pigeonholed. Take German reunification. Fest talked about German unity when it was quite unfashionable, but what has happened since 1990 he describes as "a string of mistakes". He is critical of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, of the conservative Christian Democrats, commenting dryly: "Simply to extend West Germany's system to the East, well, that was just too unimaginative." Kohl's successor, the social democrat Gerhard Schröder, does not get better marks.

Fest was born in Berlin in 1926 into an anti-Nazi family. His father, a teacher, was a member of the Zentrum party, the political organisation of German Catholicism, and a leader of the paramilitary Reichsbanner, which tried to defend the Weimar Republic as a counter-force to the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) and the German Communist formations. Immediately after Hitler came to power, Fest's father was forced into early retirement with a reduced pension. While he struggled to care for a family of seven, he fended off all overtures by the new regime. "I wasn't allowed to join the Hitler Youth," Fest says. "My father threw emissaries out when they came asking us to join."

Fest grew up something of an outcast. Today he thinks it one of his father's greatest achievements that "he taught us not to run with the crowd, let alone when they marched in columns". This, he says, has helped him all his life. Over the years, he has been attacked from many quarters. His great work on Hitler came at a time when West German historians were in the grip of sociological thinking. The biographical form was considered old-fashioned. Yet Fest couldn't be further away from "chaps and maps" history.

Fest's uneasy relationship with university historians goes back a long way, and undoubtedly, there is an element of envy in it. "You go on writing bestsellers, and we go on doing the serious work," a professor told him. Fest played a controversial role in the Historikerstreit, the "historians' debate" of 1986 about the interpretation of the Nazi past and the Holocaust. He was accused of relativist views, which, judging by his work, is baseless. He even has been called a Nazi. "You have to know how to deal with this," he says. "You cannot make your life dependent on what someone writes about you."

While writing a thesis at the new Free University, he started contributing to Berlin newspapers, and composed radio scripts. The RIAS offered him a permanent position, which he accepted, leaving his thesis unfinished. One of his editors, an American, put to him the idea of drawing up a series of programmes retelling German history to the defeat of 1945. Fest was initially dead against it: "At first, I considered this a cruel stroke of fate," he remembers. It proved the point of departure in his remarkable career.

The series was a great success. In 1963, as its offspring, Fest published his first book, The Face of the Third Reich. It was one of the first substantial works about the Nazi era, and is still in print in Germany, selling 4,000 copies a year.

Meanwhile, Fest had moved to Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) in Hamburg. He became editor-in-chief of television, and anchored its investigative Panorama programme - a role that did not endear him to people in high places. Fest left after a dispute over a programme to mark the death of West Germany's first postwar Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. Fest wanted two dissenting voices, one the novelist Günter Grass. He was not allowed to go ahead, and resigned.

Earlier, he had declined an offer by an American publisher to become the first German after 1945 to write a biography of Hitler. The only serious work had been Alan Bullock's Hitler: A Study in Tyranny; Fest initially thought that there wasn't much to add. Only later, with more sources available, did he undertake what turned out to be his masterwork.

During that time, he met the only surviving member of the Nazi elite, Albert Speer, "Hitler's architect" and later ruthless organiser of the German war effort. Speer, by admitting guilt at Nuremberg, had escaped the death penalty and served 20 years in Spandau. Fest acted as an "inquiring editor" for his memoirs, and had many conversations that he used for his Hitler biography. When the book was published in 1973, it was an immediate and immense success, both at home and internationally.

Fest then joined the editorial board of Germany's leading, conservative newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. For 20 years, he was responsible for the influential arts section, and retired in 1993. Since then he has returned to writing bestselling books. Plotting Hitler's Death (1994), about the resistance, was followed by his biography of Speer (1999). He is full of new plans. Inside Hitler's Bunker has been made into a film, to be released in cinemas this autumn.

While Inside Hitler's Bunker offers a great number of reflections and insights, he writes at one point that the "question of which threads lead from Germany's past to Hitler... remains unanswered". On the other hand, he laments the inflation of Hitler and the Nazi era as a topic for books and TV programmes. Most of this is a thoughtless repetition of the same platitudes, he says. At this point, his calm, friendly manner gives way to anger. "All this gabbing about the Third Reich, it makes me sick," he says, when he knows from his own experience "how difficult it is to get behind the glittering surface and gain some insights that might help us today". When he thinks of the future of historical writing, he is rather pessimistic.

"Human beings have been driven out of history, and it is unclear how they can be brought back," he says. His view of history is different, and his own credo sums him up quite well: "History is literature, or it is nothing."

Biography: Joachim Fest

Joachim Fest was born in Berlin in 1926. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht and experienced the end of the war in a PoW camp in France. Back in Germany, he finished school and studied law, literature and history in Freiburg and Frankfurt am Main. He went to Berlin to write a doctoral thesis, and started working for RIAS radio station as editor with responsibility for contemporary history (1954-61). At the NDR broadcasting service, he was editor-in-chief of television from 1963 to 1968. Resigning after a quarrel, he researched and wrote his famous biography of Adolf Hitler (1973), an instant international bestseller. Fest joined the editorial board of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and was, until 1993, responsible for the culture section. Among Fest's books available in English are The Face of the Third Reich, Plotting Hitler's Death, Speer: The Final Verdict, and his latest work, Inside Hitler's Bunker (Macmillan). Joachim Fest is married with two sons and a daughter, who all work in publishing or the media.