Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood, By Joachim Fest (trs Martin Chalmers)

What did you do in the war, daddy?

The late Joachim Fest dedicated much of his working life to analysing the psyche of his fellow Germans, and pondering how they allowed the rise of the Nazis. He wrote biographies of Hitler and Albert Speer. This memoir's title is a maxim taught to Fest by his father, a staunch opponent of the Nazis.

In fact, it is Fest Sr who is the hero here: the clever, erudite headmaster refused to embrace Hitler's regime, was consequently sacked from his job in 1933 and saw his professional, material and social life wither. Not that he cared about the "street crossers" who snubbed him: he maintained close links with his educated intelligentsia friends. A tragic aspect of this book is that the family's Jewish friends refused to believe Fest Sr's warnings about Hitler's plans; they argued that they were as German as anyone. Some had medals from the First World War to prove it – tokens that meant nothing to the cold bureaucracy of the Fuhrer's killing machine.

Joachim was one of a large family and was the impudent one. He wears this irreverence with pride, and indeed, he often used his quick wit to assert his non-conformist political views. At other times he mocks his father needlessly. For example, interrupting the latter's comment about everyone owing a debt to society according to their means, by suggesting his father was justifying his own unemployment.

Fest tells us about Kristallnacht (the "Night of Broken Glass") in 1938, and the appalling restrictions thereafter placed on Jews, who were excluded from professions, banned from park benches and forests and from owning pets, bikes or typewriters, obliged to don the yellow star.

Fest was so young, though, that it is his father's fury and devastation we sense, and emotion relayed second-hand inevitably loses some of its potency. The children eavesdropped on their parents' talks: their mother begged their father to comply superficially with the regime to save the family from poverty, but their father admirably refused to compromise his principles. Despite this, Fest Sr was eventually taken prisoner by the Russians.

Much of this memoir is about Fest's intellectual development, his reading of great literature and appreciation of classical art and music. While this is interesting, it seems an emotionless diversion from the harrowing political events occurring contemporaneously. But his accounts of being called up, of trying to avoid military service, fighting, seeing comrades die, and being caught and kept as a prisoner of war are engrossing.

Fest has no easy explanations for the Nazi regime's rise and popularity. He cites the economic crisis, inflation and fear of communism, among others. To these can be added envy and the resentment of "otherness", especially of those who seemed self sufficient and successful. We would do well to remember lessons from the past in these straitened times.