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The Oppermanns: timely reissue of anti-fascist classic

Feuchtwanger’s tale of Nazism and a Jewish family resonates in era of rising nationalism

The Oppermanns
Author: Lion Feuchtwanger
ISBN-13: 0000000000000
Publisher: Persephone Books
Guideline Price: £13

In April 1933, British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald made a proposal to the celebrated German writer Lion Feuchtwanger, who was living in exile in France. MacDonald wanted to warn the British public about the dangers of nazism, and suggested that Feuchtwanger collaborate with the British screenwriter Sidney Gilliat to write a film on the subject. Feuchtwanger came up with the idea of telling the story of the impact of Hitler’s regime on an apolitical Jewish family in Berlin, and the pair quickly wrote a script.

When the British government decided against the plan at the end of May, a frustrated Feuchtwanger expanded the script into a novel, drawing on first-hand accounts of what was going on in Germany at the time of writing. The result was The Oppermanns, an astonishingly vivid and moving account of the immediate impact of the Nazis’ accession to power.

It was published in German in late 1933 in Amsterdam, quickly followed by English versions inthe US and UK. It was an international bestseller, and yet somehow it hasn’t been in print in English on this side of the Atlantic since then. Now Persephone Books has reissued the novel, with a new introduction and notes by the historian, Richard J Evans.

The family

The Oppermanns are an upper middle-class Jewish German family. Gustav, who turns 50 as the novel begins in November 1932, is an urbane man of letters. The next brother, Martin, runs the family business, Oppermann Furniture Stores. Their brother Edgar is a celebrated surgeon and their sister Klara is a housewife.


Like many Germans of their class, the Oppermanns initially see the rise of the nationalists and their boorish leader as a joke or an irritation. But, first slowly and then shockingly quickly, things start to change.

One of the novel’s most powerful strands involves Martin’s 17-year-old son Berthold. Intelligent and sensitive, Berthold is popular at his progressive-minded school. But the arrival of a nationalist teacher poisons the atmosphere; soon boys who once mocked their few nationalist classmates are joining them in the Young Eagle organisation. Berthold is determined to hold on to his principles, and like his uncle Gustav is convinced Germany can’t be defined by the Nazis. Both will suffer for their beliefs.

I first read The Oppermanns in German back in 1995, when I studied it as part of my German degree. Certain scenes from the novel have been burned into my memory ever since, in particular one which seems to sum up the brutality, sadism and psychotic pettiness of nazism.

One of the characters is taken from his bed in the middle of the night by brownshirts and, after a cursory questioning, locked in a cellar for hours. There, along with others, he is forced to stand for hours under harsh, bright lighting, facing a wall, while the Nazi anthem, the Horst Wessel Lied, is played at top volume. If he moves, he’s beaten.

When they finally let him go, he has to sign an official form stating that he was well treated and, in a final insult, pay his captors two marks for lodging, board and “services rendered”. “The music was free,” he thinks.

Twenty-five years ago I didn’t see many obvious connections between the events in The Oppermanns and contemporary politics. Now it’s impossible not to get a jolt of recognition when a character warns her husband, who “always believed everything was all right as long as one could prove one’s statements”, that “nowadays accuracy meant nothing”. Or when a family friend reminds Edgar that “our opponents have one tremendous advantage over us: their absolute lack of fairness. They have always employed such primitive methods that the rest of us simply did not believe them possible”.

In his introduction, Evans describes The Oppermanns as “the first great masterpiece of anti-fascist literature”. For a modern reader, the horrors of the Holocaust inevitably hang over the book. But Feuchtwanger tells the story of the Oppermanns and their friends and colleagues with such stunning immediacy that most of the time the reader’s attention is firmly on 1933, sharing their bafflement, anger and terror as a familiar, stable world collapses around them, to be replaced by barbarism.

They always feel like real people, struggling to figure out the best way to deal with the previously unimaginable, and capable of making jokes to defy the darkness; standing in an empty furniture shop on a Saturday afternoon in April 1933 as brownshirts plaster the windows with posters urging the public to boycott the business, an Oppermann employee says, “We are finally keeping the Sabbath here…I always told you we should”.

This gripping novel deserves to be widely read. It will stay with you for a very long time.