September 12, 2006


Joachim Fest (Daily Telegraph, 13/09/2006)

Joachim Fest, who died on Monday aged 79, was the most celebrated historian and the most distinguished journalist of the post-war generation in Germany.

For some 20 years, he was one of the publishers (i.e. editors) of Germany's leading newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, responsible for its prestigious Feuilleton or culture section.

Because he was a journalist rather than a scholar, Fest's popularity aroused the envy of professorial rivals, none of whom could match the incisive elegance of his writing. Equally important was his flair for controversy. He was determined to prevent the wrong lessons being drawn from the past by the Left-wing establishment that had dominated German intellectual life since the 1960s.

Conservative in politics and Catholic by upbringing, Fest stood out among his contemporaries for his rejection of the influence of the Marxist sociologists of the Frankfurt school on the historiography of the Third Reich. Fest saw the Nazi phenomenon not as a product of capitalism, but as a moral catastrophe, made possible by the abdication of responsibility on the part of educated Germans.

IN MEMORY OF JOACHIM FEST: The Proud Loner (Matthias Matussek, 9/13/06, Der Spiegel)

When he told me about his memories of childhood and youth over dinner in London one-and-a-half years ago, he seemed to want to supplement his previous work with information about everyday life, the history of common people. There was nothing proud or arrogant about that. On the contrary. "It was no special childhood," he said casually. "Nothing spectacular. Except that my father prevented me and my siblings from becoming Nazis."

But that was exactly what was extraordinary. He kept telling me about how his work was progressing - sometimes in euphoric tones - but then his declining health forced him to take painful time off. Now we know that when he was working on this book, he was working on his testament. This was what he wanted to bequeath to his compatriots: a tale about how it was possible to remain decent. And that a good upbringing - bourgeois, Catholic, Prussian - was essential.

He sent the first proofs to SPIEGEL. In the midst of the ruckus caused by Günter Grass's confession - a ruckus that had its mindless moments - it became possible to let Fest's more quiet and far more important voice be heard.

Fest's book can be considered the counterpart to Grass's coquettish confessions and elaborations about his membership in the Waffen SS. Now Günter Grass is touring Germany's theater stages, stuffing his pipe and announcing: "I was there too, buddy. Everyone was - even the Pope, in a way." Fest said: "I wasn't."

The fact that such a fuss is being raised about Grass speaks volumes about the German public's interests and moral fiber. People appreciate what is crooked, not what is straight, because what is straight always contains an implicit accusation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 12, 2006 11:00 PM

I haven't read it, but Mr. Fest's biography of Adolf Hitler is supposed to be excellent.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 13, 2006 7:52 PM

Anyone who took on the pernicious nitwits of the Frankfurt school can't be bad.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at September 13, 2006 9:04 PM