An Unfathomable Nightmare


Donald Weber admires a new translation of Lion Feuchtwanger The Oppermanns.

“Berlin is a city full of future émigrés,” Lion Feuchtwanger declared in 1931, prophesying his own fate two years before the 1933 publication of his deeply prescient novel, The Oppermanns. By then, the well-known author, a political novelist and playwright affiliated with Brecht and other figures on the German cultural Left, had become a displaced person, deprived of his German citizenship, hounded out of his homeland for his stinging critiques of the emergent–and ruthlessly repressive–Nazi regime.

To encounter Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns ninety years later, in a new edition published by McNally Press, with an introduction by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Joshua Cohen, is a deeply unsettling – yet necessary – reading experience. Feuchtwanger drafted The Oppermanns “in real time, as the events he was writing about were still unfolding” intending, as Cohen explains, “to sound an alarm”. The “alarm” was in response to the startling rise of Hitler and his brutal gang of Nazi stormtroopers; the year of the book’s publication coincided with the Nazis’ ascent to power.  For Cohen, The Oppermanns remains “one of the last masterpieces of German Jewish culture”.    

Feuchtwanger’s dire vision of his homeland breaking apart– one of the novel’s characters nervously remarks that “the whole country had become a lunatic asylum” –uncannily resonates with the current political malaise in America, and the emergence of authoritarian regimes around the world. As Cohen and other literary critics have noted, The Oppermanns anticipates many of the social and cultural deformations that mark our own time. “Lies and violence went hand in hand”, Feuchtwanger’s narrator identifies; life in Germany had become “barbarous”; “it reeked with lies and brutality”.  

Feuchtwanger’s achievement in The Oppermanns is the vivid, sprawling portrait he paints of the multi-generational Oppermann tribe. The four Oppermann siblings and their respective extended families, friends and co-workers are unforgettably drawn. Each takes their place in Feuchtwanger’s closely observed portrait of German-Jewish life: Gustav, the oldest, inflated with literary pretensions, savouring his “respectable well-ordered idleness”; Martin, the head of the family’s large furniture enterprise, “reserved and dignified” in his demeanour; Edgar, a man of science and reason, a world-famous throat specialist who “smiled at the arbitrary character of all race theories”; and Klara married to Jacques (né “Jake”?) Lavendel, an East European Jew with “a connoisseur’s love for the objects of the old Jewish rituals” who “practiced the old customs”.

In their respective intellectual passions and careers in the arts, medicine, and manufacturing, the family represents the long history of Jewish embeddedness–and, in their own view, acceptance–in German society.  Feuchtwanger grants readers access to the assimilated German-Jewish psyche, dramatizing its internal dialogue, its rationalization of the signs of the approaching Nazi threat, and above all its struggle to fathom a horrific, unforeseeable fate looming on the horizon.

The challenge for readers of The Oppermanns in 2022 is to resist what scholars term “back-shadowing,” the impulse to interpret pre-Holocaust literature from the perspective of tragic hindsight.  To appreciate The Oppermanns we must bracket what we already know regarding Hitler’s “unknowing” victims. The unsettling power of Feuchtwanger’s book is its evocation of the psyches of assimilated German Jews beginning to sense in their bones that something was breaking apart in their seemingly comfortable worlds, long-imagined as safe and welcoming.

Encountering the newly emboldened Nazis on his familiar Berlin streets in the wake of Hitler’s ascent to the German Chancellorship in late January 1933 (the novel appeared at the end of 1933 in German, in a Dutch imprint), Gustav views “with distaste”, but as merely theatrical,  the stormtroopers’ ugly behaviour, “the stiff newness of their uniforms, with the smell of the tailor shop still upon them” ; “their salutes in the ancient manner,” we are told, “reminded him of extras in a provincial theater”.  In this respect, Gustav’s interpretation, however naïve or in denial, feels prophetically apt, even wicked, in light of Leni Riefenstahl’s subsequent propaganda movie, Triumph of the Will (1935).  Confronted by his brother Martin’s growing anxiety about the ugly atmosphere of this new Germany, Gustav staunchly defends his adamant perspective about his long-standing place in the homeland: “‘I am not going to let myself be infected with your panic’”.

As the critic Marco Roth observes, “The Oppermanns presents how extinction feels from the inside.”  We witness the family’s collective epiphany of “upheaval” as they sit for a group portrait beneath the image of the family’s worshipped patriarch, Immanuel:  

There they sat together, all the Oppermanns, at a great round table that went back to the time of Immanuel Oppermann…Everything else around them was disappearing, slipping from under their feet…They were strong men, each one a power in his own particular sphere…But their confidence had vanished, they brooded in heavy-hearted distress…It was an earthquake, one of those great upheavals of concentrated, fathomless, worldwide stupidity.  Pitted against such an elemental force, the strength and wisdom of the individual was useless.

By 1933 the Oppermanns “had lost their nucleus”.  As Feuchtwanger had earlier predicted, they become émigrés: to London (Martin), to Palestine (Klara), to Paris (Edgar).  The family is scattered: displaced, self-exiled, or dead. Gustav, the most refined and optimistic of the Oppermanns, is sent to a brutal Nazi work camp in Moosach (a pre-Dachau-like internment camp) as a political prisoner, where he is forced, absurdly in his view, to push an empty wheelbarrow and utter “Heil Hitler” at prescribed intervals.  The faces of his fellow inmates are “emaciated, exhausted, and broken”; he becomes a self-described “wreck,” his world characterized by “everlasting monotony… everlasting gloom”. Martin’s teenage son Berthold, harassed and tormented by a vicious, nationalist-crazed teacher, commits suicide rather than embrace a Nazified genealogy of German mythic history.

Feuchtwanger himself survived; after being detained in France, designated by the state as an enemy alien, he was able to relocate to Los Angeles, where he continued to write until his death in 1958, a central presence among the famous enclave of German exiles which included Thomas Mann, Brecht, and Arnold Schoenberg. USC sponsors a Lion Fuechtwanger Society and hosts a biennial Conference in his honour. 

Like the scattered Oppermanns, Feuchtwanger’s “homeland had slipped away”.  The reprinting of The Oppermanns almost a century later invites us to witness–to overhear–how a generation of assimilated German Jews in 1933 registered an approaching, unfathomable nightmare, from the inside.

Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns, translated by James Cleugh, revised and introduced by Joshua Cohen is published by Persephone, priced £14.


Donald Weber writes on Jewish American literature and popular culture.  His current project is a book on OTD cultural expression titled "On and Off the Derech: A Family Story."  He divides his time between Mohegan Lake, NY and Brooklyn.
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