Who, at some time, perhaps on catching a glimpse of themselves in a shop window, has not thought: who on earth is that? Who has then not gone on to wonder about the person they might have become, perhaps wanted to become, the person who occupies the shadowy margins of another, imaginary life. Peter Gay, the distinguished American cultural historian, has long been haunted by thoughts of a shadow life, a life that was wrenched from him when his family belatedly escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939. More accurately, he has been haunted by the very "Germanness" that was taken from him. "Two dates frame this initial exploration," he writes at the beginning of his sombre memoir of a Berlin childhood, "June 20, 1923, when I was born, and January 30, 1933, when Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. The first expelled me into life, the second gave my life an ineradicable undertone of mourning."
Gay grew up an only child in a middle-class family. His parents were assimilated Jews, relaxed in the city, hopeful for their son and largely uninterested in Judaic laws. With calm detachment Gay records the intimate daily rituals of home life, with its extended networks of family and friends, his passion for his local football team, Hertha Berlin, and for stamp collecting. He also notes, sometimes obliquely, as if glimpsed from the corner of his eye, the gathering Nazi storm: "Living under a dictatorship did not entail living consistently at a level of high tension."
As befits a career Freudian, Gay treats his childhood as a text and reads it against itself, as he searches for what has been unconsciously repressed and yet has shaped his adult character. He tells himself repeatedly that he was a relatively happy child, for all his lonely, bookish introspection, that the family home was unusually harmonious. And yet he will not let such ideas rest, and becomes a kind of detective of the self, picking over his adolescent rituals in forensic detail, searching for clues to decode the messages that he was sending himself but couldn't understand.
Part of the purpose of this memoir is to explain the historical context that led so many assimilated German Jews to underestimate the mortal dangers of Nazism and thus stay in a country rendered radically unstable by the humiliation of the first world war, the fiscal tragicomedy of the Weimar republic and the pan-German fanaticism of Hitler. Gay makes no attempt to locate the origins of German anti-Semitism in, for instance, Lutheran dissent, or grapple with the questions raised by Daniel Goldhagen in his book Hitler's Willing Executioners, his indictment of the banal complicity of ordinary Germans. Rather, he seeks to tell the narrative journey of one family from stoical bafflement to fear after the vandalism of Kristallnacht and then to a panicked desire for escape.
At times the narrative has a curious airlessness, and there is an eerie formality to the prose, a stiltedness, as if Gay, trapped inside his memory bubble, is overwhelmed by his own material, like a man carrying the world on his back. Gay calls his book an "unapologetic apology". It's unapologetic because he feels that critics of the supposed passivity of the German Jews, including many Jews themselves, "never quite understood our dilemmas in the 1930s". This dignified memoir certainly lays out a convincing (and moving) counterargument: the Jews never had a chance.
Jason Cowley is working on a book about Hitler's Linz