I recently read a Not I, by Joachim Fest, a memoir of the author’s ( a well known German journalist and historian) childhood, which spanned the rise of Hitler and World War II. Fest’s parents, most notably his father but his mother as well, did not support the Nazi regime, and at considerable personal risk, did not hide the fact. They never joined the Nazi party. They did not greet neighbors on the street, as they were supposed to, with a “Heil Hitler!”. They read forbidden books and listened to forbidden music. They refused to let their children join Hitler Youth. They retained Jewish friends, counseling them to leave the country (some did, some refused until it was too late), doing favors for them, sheltering them when they were out after curfew, and (at their request) burying their possessions until “after the war”.
The Fests paid a considerable price for their courage. Mr. Fest not only was fired from his job in 1933 for failure to join the Nazi party, he was forbidden to take any paid employment, throwing their formerly well off family into, if not poverty, a drastically lower scale of living. The family was shunned by neighbors and their house repeatedly searched by the SS. Joachim was expelled from public school for drawing a caricature of Hitler on his desk. (he was then sent to boarding school) After the actual outbreak of war many of their family members were killed by the Russians, and the women raped and tortured, including a relative disabled by polio. Their home was reduced to rubble from bombing and all their possessions destroyed. Joachim was forcibly drafted (at the age of 16) in the last days of the war and spent 2 years in an American POW camp. His father was imprisoned, under much worse conditions, in a Russian POW camp.
Yet, of course, all this suffering pales in the face of the Holocaust. And all these acts of resistance, no matter how admirable, remained essentially personal at a time when the only effective action was massive, probably violent,political action. Fest’s father realized this, and both he and his wife, though they survived the war,did not survive their guilt, and died broken people. As the book states: “I asked him when he had learned for the first time of mass crimes in the east….my father stared silently into space for awhile…”There were rumors, and a BBC broadcast. Alarmed by these hints I spent almost three months at the beginning of 1943 looking for irrefutable evidence. Then I was sure: they were murdering as if possessed….I didn’t want to talk about it then and I don’t want to talk about it now. It reminds me there was absolutely nothing I could do with my knowledge. Not even talk about it. In the face of a whole battalion of hangmen it is better to remain silent!”
I read this, as a Jew, and think, yes, there is something he could have done. He could have talked. He could have fought. He could have stormed the concentration camps. This of course would have required massive support, and Fest, the father of five young children, was operating in an environment where most of his neighbors would have readily turned him into the SS for listening to the wrong music. How critical a mass of people do you need before an act of martyrdom becomes an act of revolution? I realize I can’t honestly say.
I realize that in the face of all kinds of unspeakable horrors that have go on all the time–Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia–in the face of the (admittedly lesser, but still inexcusable) crimes of our government, such as Guantanamo, I also tend to fall back on living with personal integrity and raising my children to do the same. I also think of the quote I’ve had on my bulletin boards since the Vietnam war, from Phil Ochs: “Ah, in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty”. The Fests, living in a horribly ugly time, took refuge in beauty–music, literature, the fruit from their trees. They believed that if they toughed out these awful times as decent human beings, the Nazis would burn themselves out. They believed that a country that produced Bach and Beethoven would not be reduced to barbarism. And once they realized, to their horror, that they’d been mistaken , they felt impotent to do anything about it.
In the face of considerably less repression, I feel that the vast majority of Americans–and most especially those that should know better–suffer from a similar impotent malaise.
Joachim Fest admits that while the war broke his parents, for him it was, ultimately, his formative years. Traumatic as they were, he was a child for most of them. He was poor but never starving, he had a loving family, he went to school, played games, took piano lessons. He was shielded from the worst of it until he was almost an adult.
In the years since WWII the Nazis have deservedly become the representation of the worst evil man is capable of. Contemplation of that evil has spawned such studies as the famous “buzzer” one where people, subjected to various stresses, are ordered to deliver electric shocks to other participants in the experiment. A disturbing number of people, of course, do press the buzzer. I’ve always been able to tell myself comfortably–and I really do say this with assurance–that no matter the pressure, I would never press the buzzer. I am not a buzzer presser.
What makes Not I so disturbing is that the Fests were not buzzer pressers either. But that, in the context of Nazi Germany, wasn’t nearly enough.