November 15, 2007

WHEREAS GRASS WAS...:

From a Good German, a Different Kind of Story (JOHN VINOCUR, 10/22/07, International Herald Tribune)

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.

In effect, and in political terms (and surely inadvertently), Grass called attention to the importance of Fest's book last week when, preparing to be honored on his 80th birthday, he complained about the "despicableness" of the critics of his delays in coming (incompletely) clean. He said they wanted to sentence him to "a death of silence."

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.

Superimpose this episode from "Ich Nicht," for example, against all those crushing terrors and pressures for political conformity in American suburban life in 2007:

Fest's father, Johannes, is out of a job as a school principal because he will not sign a statement of allegiance to the Nazis. His little girls are celebrating a birthday in the backyard. Herr Henschel, their vicious neighbor, is standing on his balcony in his black SS uniform, "fists balled on his fat hips, screaming that he forbids the Fest girls" to bring disorder to a garden that is not his own.

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.

Rather: One night, Fest overheard his mother asking his father, the Roman Catholic, Prussian nationalist, and friend of Jews, can't you join the Nazi Party? We won't really be changing, she said, and lying is how little people have always dealt with the powerful.

"We are not little people," Fest's father shot back. "Not on this subject!"


...fittingly, a dwarf.


Posted by Orrin Judd at November 15, 2007 3:13 PM
Comments

Good Americans, comparable in their submissiveness on Iraq to the so-called Good Germans who went along with Hitler.

Good Americans, comparable in their submissiveness on getting rid of Hitler to the so-called Good Germans who went along with Hitler.

Posted by: ic at November 15, 2007 5:56 PM

Rather: One night, Fest overheard his mother asking his father, the Roman Catholic, Prussian nationalist, and friend of Jews, can't you join the Nazi Party? We won't really be changing, she said, and lying is how little people have always dealt with the powerful.

"We are not little people," Fest's father shot back. "Not on this subject!"

True indeed. Herr Feist, your father was a giant among men.

Posted by: Mike Morley at November 15, 2007 10:52 PM
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