NOT I

Not I by Joachim Fest

Many facts in this volume need to be known, but the author reaches the wrong conclusion. Fest wonders how Hitler, Nazism and the Third Reich took swift root in Germany. He presents a persuasive argument, but in the end Fest didn’t get it. One statement: “Democracy…if one approached it responsibly was rather boring.” (378) 

I concede that most of what happens in a democracy is not exciting UNTIL DEMOCRACY MUST BE USED. DEMOCRACY becomes efficient and powerful, much more so than totalitarian systems like Nazi Germany where everyone must wait for the chief thug to awaken from his beauty sleep to make the wrong decision.

DEMOCRACY might be boring it it is not material, relevant or important to balance the interests of individuals, or the interests of the individual versus society, or the interests of an individual versus groups of individuals, of the interests of groups of individuals versus those of other groups. Instead, the people of a totalitarian country have no need to worry because the chief thug can make snap decisions and the problem is eliminated.

DEMOCRACY is boring if considerations, elements and factors constituting and defining freedom and liberty are uninteresting to a people who are grabbing the feet of the chief thug, heiling him at every chance and giving their lives to the caprice of a mentally ill victim of medical malpractice.

In essence Fest does not explore as fully as he should to excuse the actions of the German people into 1945. Unlike Fest’s father who never cooperated with the Nazis, Fest seems to accept still the German influences which infected his family: The glories of German culture.

This book admirably adumbrates circumstances leading the Germans to Hitler: Education, family, culture and society. Fest’s father is political; he attends political meetings. But one wonders about the naiveté and the ignorance. After the War starts the father discusses with a like-thinking neighbor whether they or anyone could justly kill a tyrant. The men discussed St. Augustine and Johannes Althusius (158). Assassination if a political act. The killer does not need theological or philosophical sanctions.

This disconnect to reality reminded me of Lenin’s comment about the Germans: (paraphrased) The Germans could not occupy a train station unless the window were open for sale of platform tickets.

Fest writes “…trust in the German culture always won out…A nation…that had produced Goethe, and Schiller and Lessing, Bach, Mozart and so many others would simply be incapable of barbarism…” (181) Having laid out facts, Fest presents a few examples. Germans quote Goethe to one another. Fest employees Goethe in the text sometimes to provide explanations. The German reaction seems to be if Goethe did it or talked about it, the solution is obvious; the matter is resolved. 

Note Americans and English use authorities, but Abraham Lincoln played games with Shakespeare. In Illinois his friends and he would recite the Bard, not as an authority about life, but to gain the upper hand.

An uneasy sensation comes from reading Not I. Germans are not always living in reality. Gather all the facts and weigh them against individual wants and needs. But Germans carry a load with them, what they call their culture which directs and controls their lives. When Germans wants their culture to restrain the Nazis and save the nation, they imposed too much culture. Culture became meaningless, and the Nazis used culture icons smartly. I believe when Hitler had succeeded to avoid war at Munich and much of Czechoslovakia was taken, German radio made the announcement and punctuated it with a Beethoven symphony, as a grace note.

How detached were the Germans swept into poetry and culture? A neighbor of Fest’s neighborhood was “singing in her wailing tremolo that she was doing to dance into heaven…” (182) Americans, at least, want to dance in the streets.

Americans knew what to do with German culture. Fest became a prisoner of war. Upon his arrival at the POW camp, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony (supremely beautiful music) “thundered from all the loudspeakers, and was still doing so nine days later when we left; day and night without stopping and with an annoying click after the sixty-fourth bar.” (295) I’m not sure Fest appreciated this aspect of American punishment combined with humor.

If I read Not I correctly (I doubt because I can’t believe such poor, ignorant advice departing from reality), Fest’s father urges him to study the Italian renaissance, especially Fifteenth Century Florence. That city as supposed to be the happy combination of art and culture plus and a positive political system. How can anyone be more wrong? The American Founding Fathers studied all Italian politics intensely and thoroughly and realized how temporary were those affair. Florentine politics were obviously not exemplary. Machiavelli thought not. He had to write The Prince.

Fest fails to provide an explanation why Germans who prize intelligence, education and knowledge did not take lessons from World War One: The failings of the German government and shifting politics (in the end it wasn’t a monarchy but a military dictatorship), the inadequacy of its leaders, limits to military success and relying to much on the military, and a necessary restructuring of the whole government. The Germans did none of those things after the First War, although the facts were before them. They acted on ignorance, misinformation and myth (stab in the back). In the end the Germans could only rely on an excuse, a superior culture. [Note the Germans had to wait until after World War Two (1955) to get an excellent book about World War One, Germany’s War Aims in the First World War, Fritz Fischer.] 

Lessons to take from Not I and the German domestic experience is how wrong a people can be. The Germans were not just misled by an evil tyrant and his herd of evil doers, but many in the country supported him, disregarded the horrors of Nazism and overlooked their deteriorating lives. Fest writes about members of his own family who refuse to talk about the Nazi years in Germany, although they knew Fest was researching and writing about those times. It is equally odd that more books like Fest’s have not been published. Germans, telling where they got it wrong, could do much to influence humanity for the better. My perception is that they have avoided that responsibility, unlike European Jews who wrote under the most adverse conditions during those times, to save humanity.

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