Saturday, March 22, 2014

From Our Place Behind the Wall by Joachim Fest

In early 1936, from our place behind the wall, my brother Wolfgang and I eavesdropped on a rare argument between our parents. There had been a strangely irritable atmosphere all day. My mother evidently started it, reminding my father in a few short sentences what she had put up with, politically and personally, in the last there years. She said she wasn’t complaining, but she had never dreamed of such a future. From morning to nighty she was standing in front of pots, pans, and washboards, and when the day was over she had to attend to the torn clothes of the children, patched five times over. And then, after what seemed like a hesitant pause, she asked whether my father did not, after all, want to consider joining the Nazis party. The gentlemen from the education authority had called twice in the course of the year to persuade him to give way; at the last visit they had even held out the prospect of rapid promotion. In any case, she couldn’t cope any more . .  .. And to mark the end of her plea, after a long pause she added a simple “Please!”

My father replied a little too wordily (as I sometimes thought in the years to come), but at the same time revealed how uneasy he had been about the question for a long time. He said something about the readjustments that she, like many others, had been forced to make. He spoke about habit, which after often difficult beginnings provides a certain degree of stability. He spoke about conscience and trust in God. Also that he himself, as well as my brothers and I, could gradually relieve her of some of the work in the household, and so on. But my mother insisted on an answer, suggesting that joining the party would not change anything: “After all, we remain who we are!” It did not take long for my father to retort: “precisely not! It would change everything!”

My mother evidently hesitated for a moment. Then she responded that she knew that joining the party would be a lie “to those in charge,” But then let it be a lie! A thousand lies, even, if necessary! She had no qualms in that respect. Of course, such a decision amounted to hypocrisy. But she was ready for that.  Untruth had always been a weapon of the little people against the powerful; she had nothing else in mind. The life she was leading was so terribly disappointing! Now it seemed to be my father’s turn to be surprised. At any rate he simply said, “We are not little people, Not when it comes to such questions!”

Head next to head we pressed our ears to the wall in order not to miss a word. But we did not find out what happened in the long intervals, amidst the clearing of throats, the adding of fuel to the tiled stove, and, if we really did hear it properly, occasional sobs. My mother said something about the reproaches of many friends, according to whom my father was too inflexible and only thought of his principles. My father, however, replied that he could not go along with the Nazis, not even a little bit. That, exactly that, was how it stood. Even if their expectations of life had been disappointed as a result. It happened to almost everyone that their dreams ended up on the rubbish heap. Once again there was a pause before my mother replied, “My dreams aren’t in danger. I’m not talking about them! They were shattered long ago! Don’t fool yourself!” Both of them knew that nothing would change in their lifetimes. They would never get rid of Hitler again. And at the very end, after another of those long delays which were impossible to interpret: “It is just so hard to make that clear to oneself every day.”

Years later, after the war, when I asked her about this argument, my mother remembered it immediately. She had considered every word for some time and had to gather up all her courage to speak, since she knew what the answer would be and that my father would be in the right; it had taken her a while to get over it. The ten years of their marriage before that had been untroubled. Then from one day to the next everything had turned “dark.” She had only been in her early thirties. The argument I was talking about had been the beginning of a second phase in her being-in-the-world. After her eternally beloved young days with boarding school, piano and Eichendorff poems, and the early years of marriage, she had been forced to learn that life showed no consideration; more or less from one day to the next everything had been turned upside down. For her girlish mind it  had been a catastrophe. Sometimes she had thought the rupture would destroy her life. “But we saw it through,” she said after a pause, which I did not interrupt, “even if to this day I don’t know how wee managed it.”

                                        .  .  .  .  .  .

In the early 1960s my father died. On the day before his death I spent several hours by his bedside in the hospital, and we talked in broad terms about his times and life. Some of what was said has found its way into these memoirs. Reviewing those years, he managed one of his characteristic play on words which Wolfgang has called “parsing syllables.” “Ich habe,” he said, “im Leben viele Fehler gemacht. Aber nichts falsch.” I have, he said, made many mistakes in life. But I have never done wrong.

Part of the time we spent talking about the whereabouts of old friends and those we had lost in the turmoil of war .  .  . I told him that with Mother’s help and despite all the mishaps, he had made our youthful years happy ones. Then he said, as he was fading away into some state of half-awareness: “Please tell me a story! Any story!” And some parable about life came to me, a mix of constructed things tread and invented. It was probably pointless to base the narrative loosely on the Odyssey, but I thought he, being a Prussian Bildungsburger, might find it pleasing.

When man first stepped onto this earth he had to get to now the gardens, the animals, and the bushes –just as we did in the Hentigstrasse. One he had become reasonably familiar with all, he might do well to explore the city near and far, as we did when driving to Unter den Linden, to Potsdam, and to the Stechlinsee. At some point he will find himself a wife, start a family, and sally forth into the world where many challenges await, perhaps even a war, albeit not like the one Hitler had started so willfully. On that and other similar occasions he will encounter a lot of useless things and even lose his way. I continued, increasingly leaning on the Odyssey: At some point everyone has to deal with a modern version of Polyphemus – the world was stilled filled with monsters, taking on technological or hierarchical shapes nowadays. Later it would behoove one not to submit to a magical Circe, to pass through Scylla and Charybdis and whatever else one might encounter, not to forget the graceful and barely resistible Nausicca and her tears. And once one returned to one’s home, some stranger or other is occupying it, strutting about, and when they have finally been removed –then what? What was there to add? Then ennui awaits. Nor is there end to travail –that much, at least, I had grasped. It seemed as if my father, lying below me on his pillow, slightly tilted his head. It seemed to me as if he smiled one more time.

A short time later my mother asked me to write down her recollections of the Nazis years. She was willing to help me record them, which neither my father nor younger brother Winfried agreed to do. Our conversation lasted all evening. Once or twice it seemed to me that she regarded her life as a failure. I suggested that she had born a greater burden than my father, but she firmly denied it. “It was his decision,” she said, “his responsibility.” She had borne nothing but external burdens, whereas his life had been destroyed. Did one suffer more at the hearth, she asked, or from the utter lack of prospects imposed on one’s life? That depends on how one looks at it, I said. Her life, too, had been ruined. She replied that she had never seen it like that and did not want to do so, either. “Ruined”: was in any case the wr5ong word. Only her girlish dreams had been smashed. But where were they ever fulfilled anyway. No matter how much she tried to downplay her own role, I could tell she was very far from having come to terms with the Hitler period, even if it had been long ago by then.

After this conversation my mother chose to say nothing more about the Hitler period. She remained stubbornly silent, as if she had erased it from her memory as a final sacrifice. However, when read a draft chapter of my Hitler book, she was moved top observe that, from a distance, world events seem rather grand, whereas if one looks at the fates of individuals, one discovers a great deal of shabbiness, powerlessness, and misery.

Some time later she fell ill. When I visited her in the hospital for the last time, a few days before her death, she had begun to lose consciousness with increasing frequency. She talked unceasingly and ever more quickly. With every word that could be understood the misfortunes of her life burst out of her. It was the first time I heard her quarrel with fate. She spoke about never-ending worry, the constant shortages and making do, the informers everywhere, and, above all, how much she suffered losing a son in Hitler’s war. From time to time she returned to the world from her confusion, became aware of me, and managed a sign of acknowledgement by raising her hand rom the blanket. After that she fell into a semiconscious state and damned the world and her botched life. I had never heard her curse before, but now it seemed to me she was making up for it –all those years of repressed bitterness. I took her hand, but she hardly noticed and went on cursing. It lasted for hours. When it had already grown dark, she managed some coherent words, Once she said, with lengthy pauses, “The days are no longer lost .  .  . God knows they are not! .  .  . They count again .  .  . Each one is another twenty-four hours less! .  .  . That’s what I always tell myself!  .  .  . That is my comfort.”

Two days later nothing was left of the rebelliousness which had haunted her semiconscious state only hours earlier, and she passed away in her sleep .  .  .


  1. Not I is the portrait of an anti-Nazis family in Berlin during the brutalizing Hitler years. The title is derived from a free translation of Mathew 26:33: ‘Even if the others do –I do not.”

  2. "At some point he will find himself a wife, start a family, and sally forth into the world where many challenges await, perhaps even a war, albeit not like the one Hitler had started so willfully." Just to recap: the Anglosphere and French starved about a million Germans to death after WWI; cleaved their country into several pieces; over a million were ethnically cleansed (property nationalized; undoubtedly 100s to 1000s were killed in ethnic conflict). Next, Germany was getting close to Soviet Communist takeover which had exterminated millions by the late 1930s. The Germans democratically elected National Socialism to protect them from both the West and East.

    In 1939, the Anglosphere and French created alliances with the dictatorship in Poland which gave the dictatorship a carte blanche to cleanse the remaining German diaspora in former West Prussia (about 100K were in German refugee camps by late summer 1939) . The NS could have either stood by while this process unraveled, but Hitler decided to invade After Poland's fall, he offered peace with the West which was rejected. He then took over the West. He offered peace once more with Britain but this was rejected. By the beginning of the following year he offered to exit all of Western and Northern Europe and to resign in exchange for peace. This offer was again rejected by Britain and thus in order to end the war and thwart an inevitable Soviet attack in alliance with the UK, the democratically validated "disciplined states" launched Operation Barbarossa... and the rest is history.