Atlantic, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood, By Joachim Fest, trans. Martin Chalmers

Can this historian's proud record of his family and youth show why Germans fell for Hitler?

Joachim Fest was a man with an alibi. The title of his posthumously published autobiography is drawn from the gospel of St Matthew, 26:33, "Even if all others do – not I." He intended it to encapsulate the non-conformist ethos that infused his upbringing and immunised him against National Socialism. But of course it can mean something else, as in "Not me, guv."

Yet it would be unfair to reduce his reminiscences to this ambiguity. Not Me is a richly evocative family history, dominated by his father. It is equally the biography of an upright man intent on preserving his family from the moral canker of Nazism. Johannes Fest was a teacher, a wounded veteran of the Great War, and a staunch defender of the Weimar Republic. His son notes that men like him fought the Communists and the Nazis every step of the way, but when Hitler came to power legally, their own values inhibited them from further opposition.

Germany's new rulers soon suspended Johannes from headship of a Berlin elementary school and then banned him from any teaching activity. Despite harassment, he refused to make peace with the regime. Johannes kept his sons out of the Hitler Youth and continued to meet each month with a circle of fellow-dissidents.

These men typified the Germans who embarked on "inner emigration", preserving their own purity by establishing distance between themselves and the "national community". They were constantly frustrated by Hitler's luck and the ineptitude of the powers that confronted German expansion. But they were also undermined by sympathy for his initial goals. Johannes welcomed the unification of Austria with the Third Reich in 1938 and relished the defeat of France two years later.

Meanwhile, he urged his Jewish friends to leave. Johannes was appalled by BBC broadcasts in December 1942 reporting that Jews were being deported to the east and murdered. At first he was incredulous; but he was sufficiently concerned to check for himself. The truth rocked him. Towards the end of the war he was called up for labour service and was captured by the Russians. When Joachim was reunited with his father in 1946, he found a shattered man.

Joachim himself was aged seven and noticed little change when Hitler came to power. But his father showed him the burned-out Reichstag building, presaging total repression, and introduced a "second dinner" at which he could talk frankly with his older children. Joachim's own rebelliousness got him into trouble at school.

In February 1944, he was called up to serve in a flak battery. Later he survived a brief, inglorious engagement with American troops at the Remagen Bridge in March 1945. He spent nearly two years in a POW camp in France. Once released, he studied law, and began a career in journalism.

The memoir ends with his reflections on what made the Third Reich possible. To him it was not because Germans shared Nazi ideology. They were driven towards Hitler by national humiliation, economic despair, and fear of civil war. But is Fest the best judge? His family's contempt for the Volksgemeinschaft, the national community, renders him ill-suited to understand why most Germans found Nazism genuinely satisfying.

Fest claimed that after 1945 he was out of tune with most Germans because his family had nothing to feel guilty about. "We had the dubious advantage of remaining exactly who we had always been". Unfortunately, though, there are signs that Fest was not as innocent of denial as he liked to boast. His father had encouraged him to befriend a wealthy, cultured Jew named Dr Meyer. Fest learned from him, but remarks that Jews like Meyer were passive, credulous and ignored warnings to go. So, in a sense, they brought their fate on their own heads. Not me, guv.

When he recalls his father's hunt for proof of mass murder he admits it was plain "to anyone who kept his eyes open". However, "gas chambers were never mentioned". He berates the BBC for not alerting Germans to the truth. This is incorrect, but Fest's faulty recollection enables him to suggest that Germans were kept in the dark by the Allies. Again, Not me, guv. What this memoir ultimately reveals is not only the exceptionality of an honourable family, but also the universal desire among Germans for an alibi that will get them off the hook of the Third Reich.

David Cesarani is writing a book about the fate of the Jews, 1933-1949, for Macmillan

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

    Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit