Lion Feuchtwanger: The Oppermanns – Die Geschwister Oppermann (1933) Literature and War Readalong November 2017

When Lion Feuchtwanger left Germany in 1933 for a trip to the UK and the US, he didn’t think that he would never return to his home country. While abroad, he said to people that “Hitler is over”. When Hitler then became Chancellor – Reichskanzler – in 1933, Feuchtwanger’s opinion changed considerably. “Hitler means war” he said to a journalist, a statement that was widely quoted in the American press. Soon after the Reichstags fire – Reichstagsbrand – Feuchtwanger’s house was searched, his possessions destroyed or confiscated. He knew he could never go back. The events shocked him, but what shocked him even more was that he, like so many other Jews and other Germans, had believed for so long that anything this barbarous would never be possible in the country of Goethe and Schiller. The realization of how wrong he was led him to write The Oppermanns, a book in which we find a lot of his own experience. What struck me, while reading this, was how prescient it seemed. I rechecked my edition twice, to see whether it was really published in 1933. Yet, Feuchtwanger was very had on himself for not having seen the whole thing coming sooner. I found that so interesting. I think we are so focused on the war that we tend to forget that Hitler’s ascent, his totalitarian regime, the horrors against the Jews, the communists and the intellectuals started so much earlier. Long before the war.

The Oppermanns tells the story of a rich Jewish family. There are three brothers and a sister. Martin is the head of the family company, a furniture house, Gustav who works with his brother, is also a publicist and does research on Lessing. Edgar, is a brilliant surgeon. The sister, Klara, stays in the background. It’s her American husband, Jacques Lavendel, who is another major character. Three of the Oppermanns have children. Martin’s son Berthold, Edgars’ daughter Ruth, and Klara’s son Heinrich.

There are many minor characters that are just as important. Teachers at Berthold’s and Heinrich’s school, people who work for the Oppermann’s in their furniture store and many more.

The story starts in 1932 with Gustav’s 50th birthday. It should have been a day of triumph but their company is in danger and this overshadows Gustav’s big day. Until now, Gustav wasn’t a political man. He was more interested in Germany’s culture, its literature and, like many, he believed that someone who produced something as badly written as Mein Kampf couldn’t be taken seriously. Surely, the Germans would see through this and shake it off. His brothers Martin and Edgar were slightly more aware of what was going on. The Nazi’s were gaining ground and Jewish businesses and Jewish people were more and more threatened. In order to save the furniture business, Martin suggests to collaborate with an Aryan business partner. That someone this rooted in tradition and family values would go this way, wakes up Gustav.

Edgar on his side is threatened to leave his hospital. Although he has invented a famous cure, the Nazis’ pretend he’s killing his Aryan patients.

The saddest stories focus on Berthold, whose new teacher is a fanatic Nazi and determined to humiliate Berthold, and the story of one of the Oppermanns’ employees who, like so many, is arrested and tortured.

Towards the end of the novel, after Hitler has become Chancellor, those Oppermanns, who survived, flee the country.

An omniscient narrator tells us the many stories, switching back and forth between the characters. A bit like in Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, we get the feeling of being there, of reading a documentary, but the result is a more traditional novel with a plot.

Feuchtwanger deplored later that he wrote this without taking a step back. He felt this documentary aspect was a weakness of the novel. I don’t agree with him. I think this is exactly the reason why this book is so outstanding. It’s the first novel in which the Nazis and their ascent is criticized, in which the manipulations, the lies, the atrocities, the confiscations, the torture, the concentration camps are described in detail.

What I found particularly fascinating is how Feuchtwanger explores the different reactions to the Nazi’s rise. Many, especially cultured people, just couldn’t believe that someone who wrote a book that was as badly written as Mein Kampf could become Chancellor. Others just didn’t take the movement seriously because they thought they wouldn’t get in the line of fire, either because they were from old, rich and influential families or because they thought they were not important enough. Others, especially religious Jews, were planning on leaving for Palestine. I often wondered why not more left but I had no clue that not everyone was allowed in. Only those who could pay a certain amount, which wasn’t possible for everyone.

Another interesting aspect is the difference between race and religion. Reading this book, one becomes fully ware, that it was never really about religion but about race. Most of the characters in this book, probably like Feuchtwanger himself, were not religious. And they certainly didn’t see themselves as belonging to another race. They felt they were Germans just like anyone else. Germans first and then Jewish. Not the other way around. In a way, you could say that this self-image clouded their perception. They didn’t identify with being Jewish and therefore didn’t feel threatened.

At the beginning of this post, I wrote how prescient this book felt. But that is the perception of someone who reads this now and the longer I think about it, the more I feel, Feuchtwanger wasn’t so much prescient as just aware. Reading this, I really wonder why not more people saw it coming.

The Oppermanns is a very readable, entertaining book. The characterisations are wonderful. Feuchtwanger brings even minor characters to life and makes the reader care for them. The strength of the book however lies in its immediacy and documentary character. Reading it, one feels transported in time. And, for the first time, I understood, not only how early it all began, but why people didn’t or couldn’t react the way they should have. Some embraced Nazism, but many just couldn’t believe it. Not even when they saw or heard about the atrocities. Only when they or their loved ones experienced them first-hand did it fully sink in.

If you’re interested in the rise of Nazism or like a well-told family story, then you shouldn’t miss this. It’s outstanding.

Other reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

23 thoughts on “Lion Feuchtwanger: The Oppermanns – Die Geschwister Oppermann (1933) Literature and War Readalong November 2017

  1. Thank you for this review. Several years ago I picked up this book by chance and was just astounded by it. Like you, I wondered how he could have written this in 1933, before many knew where the regime was headed. The stories in the novel are very believable — documentary, as you say — and show clearly the various ways the Nazis asserted their control and the ways in which the Jews suffered. Their various reactions reflected what people do when faced with a difficult, unbelievable situation.

    • My pleasure. It’s amazing how much he saw and the again, why didn’t others but you’re right. It’s typical human behavior. We can’t and we don’t want to believe the worst as it would mean we have to take action and change things.

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  3. I see we have had a very similar reaction to the book. I was so surprised when I realized how early this book was written! It never occurred to me to look up Feuchtwanger’s experience, so I’m glad you included it in your review. A lot of times while reading this book I had to think of Anne Frank’s family. I’ve read several books about them, and they echoed the sense that many simply didn’t believe the situation could get worse and thought that leaving Germany was an unnecessary overreaction.

    • We did have such a similar reaction! I always think they should have seen it and left but it’s silly to say that. leaving meant so many things. Not everyone could afford it and – he mentions that as well – not many countries accepted them. Even Switzerland closed its doors eventually. France made no sense. I’m not sure how it was for the US. Could anyone go? Did it cost a fee like in Palestine?

      • It was hard to get into the US as well, since there was fear of immigrants being spies. You had to know someone here who vouched for you and agreed to pay for you as well. In 1937, the US denied a ship with almost 1000 Jewish refugees permission enter port, so it had to turn around and go back to Sweden. This is hardly ever mentioned when people talk about the American role in the years leading up to and during the war. It wasn’t until 1944 that Roosevelt took action to make it easier for refugees and later survivors of the concentration camps to enter the US (with the stipulation that they had to leave once the war was over).

  4. Superb commentary Caroline.

    I have heard about this book over the years. I want to read it more so now. The way that Feuchtwanger saw the writing on the wall sounds extraordinary. The way that various people reacted to Nazism is so interesting. Since I was young I have always wondered and thought about how everyday people would respond to the rise of totalitarianism.

    • Thank you BRian. I know you would love this. It’s a novel and a document. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about this particulat time written by someone who witnessed it all. It’s fascinating, moving and shocking. It answers many questions but raises so many more. Truly essential reading.

  5. Fantastic review. This novel sounds extraordinary for so many reasons. Interesting that you cite Suite Francaise – I loved that feeling of being there, it really brought the events to life. I think it is so important to remember that the horrors we associate with WW2 began several years before war was declared.

    • Thanks Ali. It is an outstanding book and like Némirovsky he was there and managed to write about it while still experiencing it. This makes it so amazing. I agree, we tend to forget how long before the war the atrocities began.

  6. I have this one, and I’m also interested in reading Jud Suss. I saw the film made from it (the Goebbels propaganda film) and I know that the novel was twisted for political aims.

  7. This sounds incredible, particuarly given the date it was written. It’s tragic that more people didn’t see things the same way at that time. I’ve heard a lot about this book, thanks for reminder to hunt down a copy!

  8. What a beautiful post, Caroline. I will keep an eye out for this book. It also makes me wonder about the kind of horros the current world leaders are scheming. It scares me. Books like this one should plant a forethought, I suppose. Thank you, Caroline!

    • Thank you, Deepika.
      I know what you mean. If you think how long it took Hitler to get to power it makes you wonder if some of the awful leaders we have today might not turn into something equally horrifying. It is very scary.

  9. Fascinating review, Caroline. At first, I had assumed that this was a memoir/non-fiction, but then I realised it was a novel – one grounded in the realities of the author’s experiences. Like Ali, I’m interested in your comparison with Suite Francaise, a book I admired very much. The reportage approach or ‘feel’ does seen to suit this type of subject matter.

    • Thanks Jacqui. I wonder if it was a conscious choice in Némirovsky’s case because it wasn’t in Feuchtwanger’s. He was too close to what had happened to write anything less documentary. It’s great for us, of course. It’s much more of a typical novel than Suite Francaise. I’m sure you’d like this too.

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  12. For a novel on a similar theme you might want to look at Phyllis Bottome’s The Mortal Storm, published in the UK in 1937. Bottome was an Englishwoman who lived and taught in Germany and Austria between the Wars. The Hollywood film based on this book changed several things around, so the book is different.

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