Joachim Fest

Controversial biographer of Hitler

Joachim Clemens Fest, writer and historian: born Berlin 8 December 1926; married 1959 Ingrid Ascher (two sons); died Kronberg im Taunus, Germany 11 September 2006.

Although he wrote about many aspects of the Germany of his childhood, Nazi Germany, Joachim Fest will be best remembered for his biography of Adolf Hitler.

Controversially, he explained the rise of Hitler in the fear of the German middle classes of Bolshevism, in the shape of the large German Communist Party (KPD). But, in many respects, Fest was trying to answer the question which troubled the thinking, caring members of his generation, sometimes called the "Hitler Youth generation" - "How did we, and our parents, get into that awful, diabolical mess, the Hitler mess?"

Born in 1926 in the pleasant Berlin suburb of Karlshorst, he attended grammar school there and later, after being expelled for anti-Nazi remarks, in Freiburg im Breisgau. However, the Second World War caught up with him. The town was bombed by the Luftwaffe by mistake, and later, by the RAF. Fest was sent as a boy helper to an anti-aircraft battery. When the war ended in 1945 he was serving as a soldier in the Luftwaffe. He was lucky to be a prisoner of the US Army and got early release. His father spent years in a Soviet labour camp.

Studies in law, history, art history, German and sociology took him to Freiburg im Breisgau, Frankfurt am Main and Berlin. There, he worked for the much-admired American radio station RIAS, from 1954 to 1961, as editor in charge of contemporary history. He then served as editor-in-chief of television for North German Radio, NDR, from 1963 to 1968. He resigned from NDR after a disagreement.

Fest subsequently spent more time writing and, in 1963, his first book appeared. This was Das Gesicht des Dritten Reiches: Profile einer totalitären Herrschaft (translated in 1970 as Face of the Third Reich: portraits of the Nazi leadership). This was followed by Hitler: eine Biographie (1973; Hitler, 1974), a work that became an instant success and a worldwide bestseller. Among his other works were Die unwissenden Magier: über Thomas und Heinrich Mann ("The Ignorant Magician: regarding Thomas and Heinrich Mann", 1985), Der zerstörte Traum: vom Ende des utopischen Zeitalters ("The Shattered Dream: the end of the Utopian decade", 1991), and Die schwierige Freiheit: über die offene Flanke der offenen Gesellschaft ("The Difficult Freedom: regarding the open flank of the open society", 1993).

Between 1973 and 1993, he edited the culture section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. During his time at the newspaper, Fest became involved in the so-called "Historikerstreit" (controversy among historians) because he published an article by a fellow historian, Ernst Nolte, "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will" ("The Past That Will Not Disappear") which brought criticism that it was "revisionist" in relation to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

Fest also served as editorial aide for Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and minister for armaments, when he worked on his autobiography, Inside the Third Reich. After Speer's death in 1981, and due to controversy over the reliability of the memoirs, Fest wrote an analysis on Speer's motives, Speer: eine Biographie (1999; Speer: the final verdict, 2002). Fest's major work on the German resistance, Staatsstreich: der lange Weg zum 20. Juli (1994), was published in English as Plotting Hitler's Death: the story of German resistance (1996). For this book he was awarded the Eugen-Bolz prize in 2004. His journalistic achievements were recognised when he received the Henri Nannen prize in 2006. He was the recipient of several other literary prizes.

He returned to Hitler in Der Untergang: Hitler und das Ende des Dritten Reiches (2002; Inside Hitler's Bunker: the last days of the Third Reich, 2004). This book was a major source for the successful film on the same subject, Bernd Eichinger's Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004), which was criticised in some quarters for making the Germans appear as victims. This was certainly not Fest's intention.

His last work was Ich nicht: Erinnerungen an eine Kindheit und Jugend ("Not Me: memoirs of childhood and youth", 2006), in which he tried to analyse his early life in the Third Reich. In it, he revealed that his father worked hard to ensure that his five children did not become Nazis. He lost his teaching post in 1933 for daring to criticise the Nazi regime. Matthias Matussek in Der Spiegel called it a "masterpiece". It was Fest's testament, in which he argued that you could have remained decent in the Third Reich.

It is already being seen as a counterblast to Günter Grass's revelations about his own past.

David Childs

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