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‘The Oppermanns’ Brings Us Some Bad News From 1933

Everything you thought would prepare you for success instead narrows your chances of survival

Marco Roth
June 30, 2022
A Wandering Jew
Marco Roth on literature and culture in exile.
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Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Lion FeuchtwangerSasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Lion FeuchtwangerSasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We already know the Oppermanns. Whether or not we admit it, we might even resemble them. There’s the oldest brother, Gustav—snobbish, debonair dilettante literary scholar and intellectual, member at all the best clubs; he entertains his friends with his collection of antisemitic literature and reads Mein Kampf “for the lulz.” There’s earnest, anxious Martin, who runs the family’s furniture business and keeps Gustav in clothes and cars, and his Prussian aristocrat wife, Liselotte; their adored son Berthold is the star student of his elite Berlin school’s literature and history program, at least until their humanist professor is replaced by a National Socialist ideologue. There’s wise sister Klara, married to an arriviste real estate speculator and banker with American connections, a French last name, and an Eastern European Jewish background, and their son Heinrich, Berthold’s more popular classmate and star of the soccer team; there’s Edgar, an ear, nose, and throat specialist who’s perfected a pioneering surgical procedure, and teenage daughter Ruth, whose idealistic Zionism is a source of wonder when it’s not an embarrassment; and then there are mistresses, friends, colleagues, lawyers, servants, and employees, variously loyal and disloyal, envious or admiring, self-centered or selfless who comprise the supporting cast of Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1933 novel that bears the family name.

Writing at the speed of events, Feuchtwanger, a star Weimar novelist who had been stripped of citizenship and was already a lucky exile in Provence—he would eventually make his way to Los Angeles—produced this symphonic and even leisurely paced twist on the classic German “decline of a family” novel (think Buddenbrooks with Nazis) in a few remarkable weeks. The various Oppermanns’ fates are traced out from the autumn of 1932—at Gustav’s 50th birthday party—through the Reichstag fire and the early promulgation of Nazi racial laws; then, with the aid of smuggled letters and testimonies, Feuchtwanger leaps a few short years into a future that would prove far worse than even this remarkably prescient novelist could imagine.

The novel was almost simultaneously translated and published in England, where Feuchtwanger hoped to mobilize anti-Nazi sentiment. As it turned out, Feuchtwanger’s intervention was about as effective as his character Gustav’s belated forays into amateur journalism and spying. In the novel, one of his more pragmatic friends in the burgeoning resistance offers an epitaph, “he merely saw things as they were and could not devise a way in which he could be constructively helpful.” Even so, The Oppermanns was something of a “bestseller,” translated into 10 languages and selling around 250,000 copies (an unthinkably large number by the standards of contemporary literary publishing). But, as Joshua Cohen notes in his introduction to this new edition, “[Feuchtwanger’s] example shows that art can challenge power, as it were ‘powerfully,’ yet still have no political effect.”

Or lasting literary effect, either. After its initial success, The Oppermanns did not become part of the canon of American Jewish postwar reading about the Holocaust or the lead-up to the Second World War; nor did this very German novel with its dinner parties, its refined ironies, and lively philosophical debates between characters about “idealism” versus “pragmatism” enter the postwar West German literary canon.

Its revival now, out this fall under the imprint of McNally Editions (the newly launched publishing arm of McNally Jackson independent bookstores), raises a different set of issues around its reception. Much of what was once fresh, newsworthy, and shocking about Feuchtwanger’s novel comes to us with a sense of déja vu. Even if we’ve never read it, we’ve already read some version of The Oppermanns. We know what’s going to happen to these characters before they do and also before the author does. At a moment when the impotence of the world’s commitment to “Never Again” has never been clearer, why do we need another story of European Jewry on the eve of their destruction?

Feuchtwanger’s now much more widely known contemporary, Walter Benjamin, in his essay on Goethe’s novel The Elective Affinities, proposes a distinction between a work’s “material content” (what we’d now call “informational content”) and the “truth content” that arises from the material, the transcendent element of a work that makes it endure beyond the moment of its composition and renders it available to succeeding generations beyond the dusty preserves of scholarship. This is one way to understand the idea of “the classic.”

The “truth content” of The Oppermanns, nearly a century after the events depicted, remains deeply uncomfortable. Once we get past the fog of our own knowingness, Feuchtwanger’s novel reads as a powerful case study of how particular cultures and life-worlds die, the way that F. Scott Fitzgerald says we go broke “gradually, then suddenly.” All the Oppermanns’ thoughts, their short-term decisions, their ideas, make perfect sense—and indeed sound quite rational given the environment they’d known and the identities they’d chosen for themselves. The family is doomed by their successes, and their inability to separate themselves from the markers of success they had earned and the institutions that bestowed them. The novel is anthropology or sociology, not satire.

There’s a reason why Feuchtwanger divides the novel as he does, crosscutting between scenes at school, corporation, clinic, and the literary world. When Berthold tells his new Nazi schoolmaster that he’s “Just as good a German as you are,” refusing to apologize for his argument that Gutenberg did more for Germany than the quasi-mythical leader of the Alemanii rebellion against Caeser, “Arminius” (aka “Herman the German”); when Gustav declares his disbelief that “a whole nation of 65 million has ceased to be a cultured people because it has conferred free speech upon a few fools and scoundrels”; when Martin tries to negotiate with the uppity goy who wants to take over his business; when Edgar thinks “German medicine and Jewish medicine did not exist, the only thing that existed was science” and continues to push for the promotion of his “ugly, inhibited” and ghetto-born assistant Dr. Jacoby; these are all habits of institutional mind that can’t be unlearned overnight, even if the night in question is the eve of Hitler’s appointment as Reichskanzler.

If the tiny chess moves that the Oppermanns make in the face of an impending global catastrophe appear to us as naive, then we too are naive in exactly these ways. We may believe that “race is unscientific”; that “markets are self-regulating”; that the phrase “all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” may reasonably be expanded to all genders; we might even believe that rights are unalienable. We may say “we are a nation of laws”; we may believe that the excellence of our work counts more than the boxes we check on census forms or the color of our skin. We may think our doctoral degrees guarantee us freedom of speech without consequence; that the Federal Reserve will keep our economy on course; we might be shocked, shocked to discover that Supreme Court nominees lie to Senate committees, and that those who swear oaths to uphold the constitution one day would threaten violence against it the next. We might think our political enemies—or just the people who want our jobs, who envy our status—are weak-minded, barbarous, cruel, hysterical, narcissistic, immature, mentally unstable, ignorant, and hate-filled. Yet we also believe that things will carry on much as they have before, with only minor interruptions to the status quo, the way a car might get a tire puncture.

Although Feuchtwanger was a friend of Brecht’s and collaborated with him on several early plays, his chosen method in The Oppermanns is exactly the opposite of the godfather of 20th-century interventionist, activist avant-gardes. Instead of creating distance and estrangement and shock, Feuchtwanger draws us into the comfortable interiors where life-damning decisions are really made. The Oppermanns presents how extinction feels from the inside. The habits that once kept you alive, passed on from generation to generation, no longer work. Everything you thought would prepare you for future success instead narrows your chances of survival. The news from 1933 is still news, if we know how to listen to it.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.