Joachim Fest was forced to fight by Hitler, and he has been forced to return to the Führer time and again as a historian. Doron Arazi meets a giant of German journalism.
On May 8 1945 it was all over: the bark of machine guns had died down in the streets of Berlin, the Führer s charred corpse was lying in the rubble of his bunker and the remaining Wehrmacht top brass had been led to Soviet headquarters to sign Germany's unconditional surrender. History's bloodiest war had come to an end.
A thousand miles to the west, in a US prisoner-of-war camp in France, 18-year-old private Joachim Fest huddled with 80 fellow detainees around the noticeboard the news bulletin had been nailed to. Six months before, he had been taken prisoner in the Ruhr, one of the thousands of expendable young conscripts thrown into battle so that the Führer could avoid the jaws of certain defeat for a little while longer. And now the war, the damned war, was at last truly over.
Six decades later, Fest is navigating London's media venues to promote his book Inside Hitler's Bunker , a study of the final 14 days of the Third Reich. Now a youthful 78, he is tall, slim, thin-lipped and upright, with a sharply contoured face and an enviably full shock of short-trimmed hair.
Fest, a proud Prussian, is a scion of the last generation of Germany's old bourgeoisie, the Bildungsbürgertum , a uniquely German middle class that defined itself by aesthetics rather than money or power. It believed in Goethe, not the goose step, and it was created by Frederick the Great's enlightened absolutism, which pioneered religious tolerance and the rule of law. As a class it was humane, conservative and apolitical; Hitler seduced, corrupted and destroyed it.
Fest was born into it in 1926, the son of a cultured, devoutly Catholic anti-Nazi civil servant in Berlin, who was thrown out of his job when the Nazis took over and had to scrape through the 12 years of the Third Reich.
The decline and death of this class is the tragedy of Fest's life; his works are its obituary and tombstone. Now he is the grand old man of German journalism, a veteran of 50 years in a profession that in Germany has always cultivated a genteel high-mindedness far removed from Britain's raucous hackery. Fest is the acknowledged master of German journalism's most typical genre, the subtly ironic essay known as the Feuilleton . Ten years ago he retired from a decades-long stint as co-publisher of Germany's premier and highbrow daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , where he had been presiding over the culture pages.
And he has always returned to the history he experienced first hand. His weighty 1973 biography of Adolf Hitler is considered a milestone of historiography and a literary masterpiece. It became an international bestseller. He followed it with a string of studies of Hitler's armaments minister, the "good Nazi" Albert Speer, of the July 20 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler, and now his study of the dictator's last surreal days in the cocoon of the Berlin bunker.
The book has been praised for its narrative drive and attention to detail.
Hitler's Berlin bunker, the centre and the symbol of history's most dramatic downfall, has become one of the most powerful images in the historical imagination. It was first sketched in 1946 by Hugh Trevor Roper in the classic Last days of Hitler , when, as a young MI5 officer, Trevor Roper had been sent to disprove the legends of Hitler's secret escape.
Fest, in an afterword to his book, sees it as a metaphor: the Fuhrer's atavistic reversion into a caveman's existence under the neoclassical magnificence of the Reich Chancellery is symbolic of the unredeemingly destructive nature of his politics and ideology.
But Fest is irritated by reviewers repeating that the story has been told before. "Where?" he asks. "Where are the books about it? Perhaps in MI5's secret cellars. I was asked to write an article on the Berlin Reich Chancellery and could find no truly accurate history of this crucial two-week period. My late friend Trevor Roper wrote a true masterpiece, but it did not handle the last battle of Berlin. And other books are pure military history, or riddled with inaccuracies. So I told my son, who happens to be my publisher, to find some young historian who could make a name for himself. And after a few weeks he returned to me - I don't know whether he had searched in earnest - and told me I had to do it. This is how, with a sinking feeling, I started to delve into Hitler all over again."
Some historians have complained that Fest's biographical approach is outdated. And that it confers on Hitler and his henchmen historical greatness, albeit negative.
"That is what my father told me on his deathbed - that Hitler was a 'gutter subject'," Fest says. But for him, social history is simply boring. "We Germans inflicted social history on the world, and now it has infected English historians, too. German historians used to write well; now, because of us, history books are almost unreadable."
So did he experience the downfall of the Third Reich as a defeat or a liberation? "That's a silly question that theorising academics invented a generation later without any foundation in reality," he says. "It was much debated in Germany in the 1980s, but no one thought of a choice between liberation or defeat at the time - the all-important thing was that the war was over and the senseless slaughter ended. In a prisoner-of-war camp you never think about liberation. I first felt a sense of liberation when I was released and could go to a bookshop and buy all the books that had been forbidden."
And how was it to serve and be expected to fight for a regime he detested?
"My father was an active leader of the Reichsbanner , the joint militia of the democratic parties that was supposed to defend the Republic against the right. I remember him trying to survive in the Third Reich, and my mother often weeping out of sheer despair. When my time came to be enrolled in the Hitler Youth, which was compulsory, my father wouldn't hear of it - he threw the Nazi party officials out of the house, and they came back later, their visits becoming ever-more menacing. Then suddenly we started getting anonymous calls from a public phone booth that would warn us about a forthcoming visit. So we could try to avoid the party henchmen in a kind of hide-and-seek game. We soon recognised the voice: it was the block warden, a Nazi petty official responsible to the party for supervising our neighbourhood. He was a thoroughly loyal Nazi, but somehow must have retained this little shred of decency to try to warn us. Even years later - and he remained a Nazi even after the defeat - he would refuse to admit that he had been the caller.
"And then I was conscripted to the army - on July 1 1944. The only pleasant aspect of this was the military salute - I didn't have to raise my hand in that hideous Nazi salute. And then I experienced, as a lowly soldier, the aftermath of the failed July 20 coup attempt against Hitler: the Nazi salute was promptly introduced into the army and there went this little refuge. Finally, I was twice reported by a corporal for 'defeatist remarks'
- innocent musings such as 'oh, if only this damned war were over!', but they could bring you before a court martial and a firing squad.
Fortunately, my lieutenant colluded with my company and battalion commanders to open a lengthy disciplinary procedure against me, just to procrastinate when every passing day was bringing the war nearer to the end. Finally they produced a truly nasty 'verdict' condemning my conduct in the fiercest terms and stating that 'Fest should be punished most severely - right after the war'. That would have meant practically never; and they knew it. Then we were marched off to take part in the great battle in the Ruhr, and there, near the imposing Rhine bridge at Remagen, I was taken prisoner by the Americans."
Didn't he have to rethink his Prussian ideals about obedience since it helped Hitler hold such sway over the Germans?
"I interviewed all those Prussian generals as a young journalist right after the war - General Heinrici, the commander of the army group that defended Berlin, and others. They always returned to the Prussian ideal of obedience to excuse themselves. But it was my beloved Frederick the Great who said: 'Above the rank of general, obedience ends and responsibility begins'. That is the original Prussian ideal - irony and scepticism. The English were very enthusiastic about it once - it was Lord Chesterfield who advised his son to go to Berlin to study Prussian manners. And the Nazis betrayed it."
Inside Hitler's Bunker is published by Macmillan, £16.99