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.
Fest’s description of some German and Jewish intellectuals may be accurate. But Gershom Scholem and more recent historians have subjected the “myth” of this German-Jewish symbiosis to devastating criticism: it was, they argue, an unrequited love, which the Germans never reciprocated. A gifted and humane writer, Fest became one of Germany’s leading journalists and an authority on the Third Reich. However, his description of the Holocaust as “a kind of fratricide” is not merely, as he says, “debatable”, but dubious. Genocide is very different to fratricide. The Germans were not, like Cain, content with murdering their Jewish brothers. First they demonised and dehumanised them; then they hunted them down wherever they could find them; finally, they tried to eradicate all trace of them.
Miriam Gross would have suffered the same fate, had Rommel’s army succeeded in overrunning Egypt and Palestine. She was born in Jerusalem in 1938, the daughter of German-Jewish émigrés. Her “almost English life” was the consequence of her parents’ decision, when they returned to Frankfurt after the war, not to educate her as a German; instead, they sent her to Dartington, an experimental boarding school in England. Like Fest, she later enjoyed a brilliant career as a literary journalist, recounted here with a beady eye and a dry wit. Her interviews are classics of the genre.
The chapters on her early life first appeared in Standpoint, of which she was senior editor. A moving passage describes her return many years later to Jerusalem, where she tries to find her family home above the fashion shop they had once owned — in vain, until she enters the “Dickensian cave” of Ludwig Mayer’s Bookshop, where the elderly bookseller (another Berliner) helps her find it.
Miriam Gross recalls a teenage argument with her father, who insisted that “however horrified and remorseful people felt about the Holocaust, however much they claimed that such a thing could never happen again, prejudice against the Jews would reappear in about 50 years’ time. I poured scorn on this view, reproving my father for being defeatist and out of touch. Now I know better.” She concludes: “There is plenty of anti-Jewish feeling in England too; but I firmly believe that it is a country where racism of any kind will never be allowed to flourish.” The key, she says, is decency — the same quality that Andrew Gimson thinks is dying out (Critique).
Let us hope Miriam Gross is right. In his memoir of Treblinka, the Yiddish writer Chil Rajchman recalls a particularly sadistic Nazi proposing a toast in the midst of his bestial work: “We drink to the imminent arrival of the Jews of England!” But for the grace of God, Britain too might indeed have succumbed. If we are to prevent the descent of Europe once again into the abyss of anti-Semitism, we cannot pass over such atrocities as the recent massacres of Jews in Toulouse and Bulgaria in silence. The time to speak out is now.