Published in Germany 13 months ago, Ich Nicht is a memoir by the late Joachim Fest, author of the best-known German study of Hitler and a co-publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It describes his father, his family and growing up in Nazi Germany. The book is exceptional because it tells in a modest, believable, quietly bitter and totally proud way of the family's extraordinary decency — no ironically "good" Germans here — and its refusal to bend before Hitler.Thus writes John Vinocur in an article that ought to be distributed throughout the blogosphere.
The title packs it all in: Ich nicht, Fest's father's phrase, borrowed from the Book of Matthew. Others betray you, Ich nicht.
…Just days before he died and his book came out, Fest said of [Günter Grass]: "This confession comes a bit too late. I can't understand how someone who for decades set himself up as a moral authority, a rather smug one, could pull this off."
A year later, going over Fest again, and thinking vast English-speaking audiences have no access to Ich Nicht, it's clear his book should be read in tandem with, or in opposition to, Grass's Peeling the Onion.
On one hand, Grass the great novelist has composed a personal recollection almost absent of history, but suffused with willful imprecision about his days in infamy's uniform.
On the other, Fest has written with remarkable detail about being a teenager in that awful time, describing his father's unfailing resistance to the Nazis, how a family could work to learn of Germany's atrocities and mass exterminations, avoid having its middle son get pulled into the SS and keep its honor to the end.The juxtaposition of the books is remarkable, and it goes against reflex thinking about what or who is automatically prone to good or evil.
Nazi horror has not much place in the account by Grass, the leftist icon. A knock on the door, a letter, the phone ringing are the daily terrors, confronted and often overcome by the Fest family in the memoir by a man who didn't argue with those who called him a conservative.
…Other current happenings struck home, too, at the absurdity of Ich Nicht not finding a publisher in English:
A German opinion poll, appearing last week, showed 25 percent thought there were "good sides" to the Nazis; and a 1,238-page book by Jean-Luc Leleu, published in France with the title La Waffen SS, Soldats Politiques en Guerre (or, the Waffen SS, Political Soldiers at War), came out detailing the training, indoctrination and political function of this component of the SS world that Grass has so much trouble remembering.
That's not all.
Fest's book, in its description of his family's difficult life in Berlin, also testifies to the absolute trivialization of the Nazi era (and demonization of America) present in blogs seeking to create a category of Good Americans, comparable in their submissiveness on Iraq to the so-called Good Germans who went along with Hitler.
…As Fest makes clear, nobody in Berlin in 1940 was listening to radio call-in shows debating whether the invasions of France and Poland were morally acceptable.
…Read now, Fest's memoir can work as a warning to today's easy claimants of righteousness, and against the reflex appropriation of the moral high ground by any person, or faction.
Ich Nicht is strong and unique. Without it, the English language these days is short a very good book.
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