Civilisations do not usually enjoy the luxury of a slow decline, sinking into sedate oblivion. More often, they are overwhelmed without warning. We are still living with the aftermath of the last time this happened in Europe, when the most highly educated nation on the Continent unleashed the most destructive war in history. What the historian Friedrich Meinecke called "the German catastrophe" began with the demolition of the country's legal, political and moral foundations. Only after the Gleichschaltung ("co-ordination") of the remaining institutions of a free society could the Nazis put into practice Hitler's megalomaniac fantasies — above all the murder of the Jewish people. How exactly the metamorphosis of the Weimar Republic into the Third Reich occurred with such pitiless punctiliousness remains relevant in our time.
This is the background to two marvellous new memoirs: Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood by Joachim Fest (Atlantic, £20) and An Almost English Life: Literary, and Not So Literary, Recollections by Miriam Gross (Short Books, £14.99). Fest, a distinguished historian and journalist who died in 2006, was the son of a headmaster: Johannes Fest, a Catholic republican who stood squarely in the tradition of German liberal nationalism. Fest Senior refused to submit to the Nazi regime, lost his job and was punished with Berufsverbot, a ban on practising his profession. Thereafter, his family endured constant petty persecution and ostracism, which they resisted with a Zivilcourage ("civic courage") all the more admirable for being so unusual.
Fest makes no pretence that his family's ordeal was comparable to that of their Jewish friends and neighbours. One, Dr Meyer, asks him to read from the German poets and then explains bitterly that he had refused to emigrate because, ignoring warnings from Fest Senior, he had trusted that such a cultured nation would be incapable of barbarism. Like countless others, he was proved wrong.
Many years later, after the German defeat, Fest found himself part of another Berlin intellectual circle in which a handful of survivors tried to revive the German-Jewish "symbiosis". Looking back, he insists that "the relationship between Germans and Jews was always deeper and more profound than, for example, that between Jews and the French or Jews and the English." Fest bases this "sense of fellowship" on three common factors: a delight in speculation, a theological-utopian bent, and an obsessive love of music.