Joachim Clemens Fest (8 December 1926 – 11 September 2006) was a German historian, journalist, critic, and editor best known for his writings and public commentary on Nazi Germany, including an important biography of Adolf Hitler and books about Albert Speer and the German Resistance to Nazism. He was a leading figure in the debate among German historians about the Nazi period.
Fest was born in the Karlshorst locality of Berlin, Germany, the son of Johannes Fest, a conservative Roman Catholic and staunch anti-Nazi schoolteacher who was dismissed from his post when the Nazis came to power in 1933. In 1936, when Fest turned ten, his family refused to make him join the Hitler Youth, a step which could have had serious repercussions for the family, although membership did not become compulsory until 1939. As it was, Fest was expelled from his school, and then went to a Catholic boarding school in Freiburg im Breisgau in Baden, where he was able to avoid Hitler Youth service until he was eighteen.
The fact that his father, an "ordinary German", had understood the nature of the Nazi regime and had resisted it, coloured Fest's view of his fellow Germans for the rest of his life. He never accepted that Germans had not known what Hitler was doing or that they could not have resisted the Nazi regime.
In December 1944, when he turned 18, Fest decided to enlist in the Wehrmacht, mainly to avoid being conscripted into the Waffen-SS. His father opposed even this concession, saying that "one does not volunteer for Hitler's criminal war." His military service in World War II was brief and ended when he was made a prisoner of war in France. After the war ended, he studied law, history, sociology, German literature, and history of art at the University of Freiburg, in Frankfurt am Main and in Berlin.
After graduating, he started working for the American-run Berlin radio station RIAS (Radio In the American Sector), where, from 1954 to 1961, he was the editor in charge of contemporary history. During this period, he was asked to present radio portraits of the main historical personalities who had influenced the course of German history, from Bismarck to World War II, including leading figures of the Nazi regime such as Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels. These portraits were later published as his first book The Face of the Third Reich: Portraits of the Nazi Leadership. In 1961, Fest was appointed editor-in-chief of television for the North German broadcasting service Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), where he was also responsible for the political magazine Panorama. He resigned after a disagreement with left-wingers who eventually came to dominate the magazine.
Historian of Nazi Germany
Fest then embarked on his most important work, his biography of Adolf Hitler, which was published in 1973. This was the first major Hitler biography since that of Alan Bullock in 1952 and the first by a German writer. It appeared at a time when the younger generation of Germans was confronting the legacy of the Nazi period, and proved to be a great success in commercial terms, as well as being immensely influential. It sparked controversy among German historians, because Fest, politically a conservative, rejected the then-dominant left-wing view that the causes of Hitler's rise to power had been largely economic.
- Fest explained Hitler’s success in terms of what he termed the “great fear” that had overcome the German middle classes, as a result not only of Bolshevism and First World War dislocation, but also more broadly in response to rapid modernisation, which had led to a romantic longing for a lost past. This led to resentment of other groups — especially Jews — seen as agents of modernity. It also made many Germans susceptible to a figure such as Hitler who could articulate their mood. “He was never only their leader, he was always their voice ... the people, as if electrified, recognised themselves in him."
In 1977, Fest directed a documentary entitled Hitler, eine Karriere (Hitler: A Career). Fest's film, which was intended to explain why ordinary people in Germany loved Hitler, created some controversy among some critics such as the American historian Deborah Lipstadt who wrote that, by featuring extensive clips of Hitler from propaganda films while totally ignoring the Holocaust, Fest had engaged in a glorification of the Führer.
Fest served as the editorial aide for Albert Speer, Hitler's court architect and later Minister for Munitions, when Speer was working on his autobiography, Inside the Third Reich (1970). After Speer's death, amid controversy over the reliability of the memoirs, Fest wrote Speer: The Final Verdict (2002), in which he criticised Speer for his knowing complicity in the crimes of the Nazi regime, something he successfully concealed at the time of the Nuremberg Trials. This echoed the verdict of Gitta Sereny in her major work Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. (1995)
His other major work on German history was Plotting Hitler's Death: The German Resistance to Hitler (1994), written to mark the 50th anniversary of the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler. This work marked a partial reconsideration of his earlier harsh verdict on the German people. He acknowledged that many Germans had opposed the Nazi regime within the limits imposed on them by their circumstances. He maintained his view, however, that the majority of Germans had wilfully refused to accept the truth about Nazism until it was too late.
In 2002, Fest published Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich, a work based in part on available evidence following the opening of the Soviet archives, but which largely confirmed the account of Hitler's death given in Hugh Trevor-Roper's book The Last Days of Hitler (1947). Inside Hitler's Bunker, along with the memoirs of Hitler's personal secretary Traudl Junge, formed the source material for the 2004 German film Der Untergang (Downfall), the third post-war German feature film to depict Hitler directly.
Journalist and critic
After the success of the Hitler biography, Fest was invited to become co-editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of the leading German newspapers based in Frankfurt am Main and an institution in the German-speaking world. From 1973 to 1993, he edited the culture section of the paper. His views were generally conservative, pessimistic and sceptical, and he was particularly critical of the left-wing views that dominated German intellectual life from the late 1960s up to the collapse of communism in 1991. He took a leading role in the Historikerstreit (historians' dispute) of 1986-89, in which he was identified with those rejecting what they saw as the Marxist hegemony in German historiography in this period.
In an essay entitled "Encumbered Remembrance: The Controversy about the Incomparability of National-Socialist Mass Crimes" first published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 29 August 1986, Fest claimed that Ernst Nolte's argument that Nazi crimes were not "singular" was correct. In response to the claim made by Jürgen Habermas against Ernst Nolte that there was no comparison between the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge genocide because Cambodia was a backward, Third World agrarian state and Germany a modern, First World industrial state, Fest called Habermas a racist for suggesting that it was natural for Cambodians to engage in genocide while unnatural for Germans. Fest accused Habermas of "academic dyslexia" and "character assassination" in his attacks against Nolte. Fest argued against the "singularity" of the Holocaust under the grounds that:
The gas chambers with which the executors of the annihilation of the Jews went to work without a doubt signal a particularly repulsive form of mass murder, and they have justifiably become a symbol for the technicized barbarism of the Hitler regime. But can it really be said that the mass liquidations by a bullet to the back of the neck, as was common practice during the years of the Red Terror, are qualitatively different? Isn't, despite all the differences, the comparable element stronger?...The thesis of the singularity of Nazi crimes is finally also placed in question by the consideration that Hitler himself frequently referred to the practices of his revolutionary opponents of the Left as lessons and models. But he did more than just copy them. Determined to be more radical than his most bitter enemy, he also outdid them.
Moreover, Fest argued in his defence of Nolte that the overheated atmosphere in Munich following the overthrow of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919 "...gave Hitler's extermination complexes a real background" Finally, Fest wrote as part of his attack on the "singularity" of the Holocaust that:
There are questions upon questions, but no answer can be offered here. Rather, it is a matter of rousing doubt in the monumental simplicity and one-sidedness of the prevailing ideas about the particularity of the Nazi crimes that supposedly had no model and followed no example. All in all, this thesis stands on weak ground. And it is less surprising that, as Habermas incorrectly suggests in reference to Nolte, it is being questioned. It is far more astonishing that this has not seriously taken place until now. For that also means that the countless other victims, in particular, but not exclusively those of Communism, are no longer part of our memory. Arno Borst once declared in a different context that no group in today's society has been so ruthlessly oppressed as the dead. That is especially true for the millions of dead of this century, from the Armenians all the way to the victims of the Gulag Archipelago or the Cambodians who were and still are being murdered before all of our eyes-but who have still been dropped from the world's memory.
In his "Postscript" of 21 April 1987, Fest wrote that in his view:
In its substance, the dispute was initiated by Ernst Nolte's question whether Hitler's monstrous will to annihilate the Jews, judging from its origin, came from early Viennese impressions or, what is more likely, from later Munich experiences, that is, whether Hitler was an originator or simply being reactive. Despite all the consequences that arouse from his answer, Nolte's question was in fact a purely academic exercise. The conclusions would probably not have caused as much controversy if they had been accompanied by special circumstances.
Fest accused Habermas and his allies of attempting to silence those whose views they disliked. Fest wrote that:
Standing on the one side, to simplify, are those who want to preserve Hitler and National Socialism as a kind of anti-myth that can be used for political intentions - the theory of a conspiracy on the part of the political right, to which Nolte, Stürmer, and Hillgruber are linked. This becomes evident in the defamatory statements and the expansion of the dispute to the historical museums. It is doubtless no coincidence that Habermas, Jäckel, Mommsen and others become involved in the recent election campaign in this way. Many statements in favor of the pluralistic character of scholarship and in favor of an ethos representing a republic of learned men reveal themselves as merely empty phrases to the person who has an overview of these things.
Fest argued that Nolte was motivated by purely scholarly concerns, and was only attempting the "historicization" of National Socialism that Martin Broszat called for Fest argued that:
Strictly speaking, Nolte did nothing but take up the suggestion by Broszat and others that National Socialism be historicized. It was clear to anyone with any sense for the topic - and Broszat's opening article made it evident that he too had recognized it - that this transition would be beset with difficulties. But that the most incensed objections would come from those who from the beginning were the spokesmen of historicization - this was no less surprising then the recognition that yesterday's enlighteners are today's intolerant mythologues, people who want to forbid questions from being posed.
In defence of Habermas, Fest was attacked by Hans Mommsen and Eberhard Jäckel. Jäckel charged that Fest was guilty of diverting attention away from the issues by attacking Habermas's motives in criticizing Nolte, and not with concerning himself with what Habermas had to say Jäckel maintained that the Holocaust was indeed a "singular" historical event and criticized Fest for claiming otherwise Mommsen accused Fest of subordinating history to his right-wing politics in his defence of Nolte Mommsen went on to accuse Fest of simply ignoring the real issues such as the "psychological and institutional mechanisms" that explain why the German people accepted the Holocaust by accepting Nolte's claim of a "causal nexus" between Communism and fascism. Martin Broszat wrote that Fest's attempts to "restylize" Nolte's arguments were in his opinion a failure. Charles S. Maier wrote that Fest's claims that the Holocaust was considered worse than the Cambodian genocide because the former was "mechanized" was flawed. Maier wrote that Fest "does not acknowledge that mechanization and bureaucratic arrangements horrify not because squeamish historians prefer pastoral mass murder in Cambodia, but because 'mechanization' testifies to intent and pathological planning". The British historian Peter Pulzer complained about the pictures of the piles of skulls from the Cambodian genocide that, published alongside "Encumbered Remembrance", was intended to prove that Germans may have sinned, but only "in good company". During a debate in London in 1987 to consider the Historikerstreit, Fest and Jäckel again clashed over the question of the "singularity" of the Holocaust with Fest accusing Jäckel of presenting a "caricature" of his and Nolte's views.
Shortly before his death, Fest became embroiled in a public dispute with the left-wing writer and Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass, who had admitted in his autobiography that he had joined the Waffen-SS in the last months of World War II. Fest criticised Grass, not so much for having joined, but for having concealed the fact for so many years while engaging in political criticism of others over their Nazi pasts. He said: "After 60 years, this confession comes a bit too late. I can't understand how someone who for decades set himself up as a moral authority, a rather smug one, could pull this off."
Joachim Fest was married and had two sons and a daughter; all his children followed him into publishing or the media. He died at his home in Kronberg im Taunus near Frankfurt am Main in 2006, the same year that his autobiography Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood was published. Fest took the main title from an incident in his childhood when, at the age of ten, he and his brother were summoned to their father's study after he had been dismissed from his post as headmaster at a school. Fest's father asked his sons to write down and remember a maxim from the Gospel of Matthew: Etiam si omnes - ego non (Even if all others do - not I).
- Das Gesicht des Dritten Reiches: Porträt einer totalitären Herrschaft, R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1963, München.
- Ich nicht: Erinnerungen an eine Kindheit und Jugend, Rowohlt Verlag, 2006–09, Reinbek (ISBN 3-498-05305-1)
- Speer: Eine Biographie, Fischer TB Verlag, 2001, Frankfurt am Main (ISBN 3-596-15093-0)
- Hitler: Eine Biographie, Spiegel-Verlag, 2006–07, Hamburg (ISBN 978-3-87763-031-0)
- Nach dem Scheitern der Utopien: Gesammelte Essays zu Politik und Geschichte, Rowohlt Verlag, 2007–09, Reinbek (ISBN 978-3498021191)
- Flüchtige Größe. Gesammelte Essays über Literatur und Kunst, Rowohlt Verlag, 2008-08, Reinbek (ISBN 978-3498021238)
- Hitler (ISBN 0-15-602754-2)
- "Encumbered Remembrance: The Controversy about the Incomparability of National-Socialist Mass Crimes" pages 63–71 & "Postscript, April 21, 1987" pages 264-265 from Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, 1993, (ISBN 0391037846).
- Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich (ISBN 0-374-13577-0)
- The Face Of The Third Reich: Portraits Of The Nazi Leadership. Da Capo Press. 1999. p. 420. ISBN 978-0306809156.
- Speer: The Final Verdict (ISBN 0-15-100556-7)
- Plotting Hitler's Death: The German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945 (ISBN 0-8050-5648-3)
- Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, trans. Martin Chalmers, Atlantic 2012 (ISBN 978-1843549314)