What It Feels Like When Fascism Starts -Trending News Buzz
The rise of the Nazi party is chronicled in a novel published in 1933.
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My grandparents liked to tell holocaust stories, and some of them became fables. The story of the sibling who stayed and left was the most popular. 1933, 1938, and 1941 variants of this core narrative existed. One brother couldn’t leave his modest shop, parents, or nation, while another packed a suitcase at the first sign of danger and fled to the French border, North Sea, or Soviet Union. Lives more impulsively. The lesson? When you feel that tingle, leave.
Even for survivors, the simple story of a threshold, in or out, always felt too moulded by retrospect. That decision—ethical, national, personal—must have been difficult and unintuitive. How many people who said they would leave once Donald Trump was elected, fearing a Nazi-style collapse of democratic norms, actually did? Few. Finding the point of no return is difficult.
In The Oppermanns, Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1933 masterwork, Joshua Cohen’s revised translation addresses this existential question. It is a real-time book. Feuchtwanger, one of Germany’s most prominent writers, intended this family tale (like a fast-paced Buddenbrooks) to reveal Hitler’s true intentions. Despite itself, it offers more. The story is an emotional artefact of a civilization ill with foreboding, incredulity, creeping anxiety, and—this may feel most relevant to us today—the inability to tell if a society is crumbling.
In The Oppermanns, a German Jewish family slowly realizes they are no longer accepted in their adopted nation. Feuchtwanger shows us this sunrise, its speed and effects. By 1933, the best-selling historical fiction author was living in exile in southern France. The Nazis looted his library. Massive bonfires burned his work. German citizenship was revoked. He began his account of the Oppermann siblings in November 1932, just before Hitler became chancellor, and ended in the summer of 1933 with the family “scattered to all the eight winds.”
Feuchtwanger gives his clan a 19th-century forebear, Immanuel Oppermann, a model of successful assimilation who developed a thriving business making affordable, high-quality furniture for the German middle class. He made “the emancipation of the German Jew a truth, not a mere printed paragraph,” and his portrait is the firm’s emblem. His four grandchildren have this German ease. Company steward Martin is serious. Gustav, a self-satisfied academic and playboy, is writing a Gotthold Lessing biography. Edgar is a world-renowned throat expert. Klara, who is usually missing from the narrative, is married to Jacques Lavendel, an outspoken Eastern European Jew who has rebuilt himself in Berlin through the family. Ludwig, a fourth brother, was killed in World War I—the ultimate patriotic sacrifice.
Staying or going doesn’t bother the siblings when we meet them. Nope. They choose dignity or common sense. In this crisis, Feuchtwanger’s characters are torn between dignity and common sense: Do you follow your principles and ego, or do you listen to the noises of breaking glass outside—the Oppermanns call it “barbarism”—and realise that one person, let alone a Jew, cannot conquer it?
Martin, who values dignity, is tested first. His advisers, especially his brother-in-law Lavendel, encourage him to reach an agreement with Heinrich Wels, the owner of a competitor furniture firm, to allow an orderly takeover before the Nazis “Aryanize” all Jewish enterprises. Martin refuses. He won’t humble himself before Wels, who’s enjoying his newfound advantage.
Lavendel, the fatalistic Eastern European, makes the case (and a Jewish joke) by presenting a totemic narrative about a town: “Grosnowice changed masters seventeen times. Seven modifications caused pogroms. Three times they grabbed Chayim Leibelschitz and said, “Now we are going to hang you.” Everyone urged, “Be smart, Chayim, leave Grosnowice.” He stayed. Again, they did not hang him. They shot him.”
Martin concedes. Wels asks that Martin visit him, waits 40 minutes, and then comes in a storm-trooper uniform. Martin is then refused an honorific (“he would not be Herr Oppermann any longer”) and a chair, a prelude to the book’s final act, when he is tortured by standing in a dank prison cellar for hours. However, dehumanisation begins here. Martin’s trust in his eternal, high standing in Berlin is no match for current social dynamics. “I let you wait a long time, Oppermann,” Wels says Martin. Politics. Politics come first, Oppermann.”
Feuchtwanger intensifies Berthold, Martin’s 17-year-old son’s morality. His new instructor, a Nazi, told him that his report on “Humanism and the Twentieth Century” won’t work. The Nazi prevents him from “abstract subjects” “on principle.” He changes Berthold’s theme to Arminius, a proto-German nationalist tribal leader who defeated the Romans. From “Humanism” to “Arminius the German”: As usual, Feuchtwanger is blunt.
Berthold’s discourse goes astray when he raises some plausible concerns to Arminius’s ongoing relevance. The Nazi instructor shouts, “Who do you think you are, young man?” Who’s sitting here? “You dare to call the magnificent act that began German history stupid and meaningless here, in the face of Germans, in this moment of German need?” Berthold responds, “I am a decent German, Herr Senior Master. I’m a decent German too.” The Nazi demands a public apology from Berthold to prevent deportation, but Berthold, like his father, defends his dignity.
Berthold doesn’t grasp his mistake. He fails to realize that Nazi Germany prioritized national identity and power over academic research. Lying degrades him most. Or, more exactly, that he must retract what he said in his lecture that was undeniably true—that Arminius’s resistance to the Roman legions, the nationalists’ pride, little affected the empire. He and the other Oppermanns can’t manage lying’s centrality to this new German-ness. “Was telling the truth un-German?” he wonders.
Berthold, unlike his father, maintains dignity. The novel’s turning point occurs when he takes a deadly dose of sleeping tablets the night before his schoolwide apology. Berthold writes, “There is nothing to explain, nothing to add, nothing to leave out” on his lecture paper. Say yes and no.” Hitler’s Reichstag Fire Decree suspends civil freedoms and due process on March 1, 1933. Dachau will open in weeks.
Fechtwanger’s ability to write clearly on history-changing events that hadn’t fully digested is remarkable. The 9/11 masterpiece or pandemic fiction to silence all others have yet to be written. The book’s heavy-handedness includes Voltaire and Frederick the Great busts, representing reason and sheer might, in opposite sides of a schoolmaster’s office and a stain on one character’s apartment wall that expands as his position worsens. Feuchtwanger wrote his novel as a preaching morality story by the brother who left.
Emotion drives the Oppermann story. Exiled Feuchtwanger was angry and heartbroken. Panicked. Not many people were realizing how damaging this confusion of truth and lies could be, especially for the most vulnerable, who could be made scapegoats for nearly anything. Feuchtwanger sensed these ideas 18 years after Auschwitz, but Hannah Arendt wrote about them in The Origins of Totalitarianism. He attempts to give his story of lunacy a framework, but what spills out is the crazy itself, the misery and sorrow of men like him.
In 2022, readers will recognise the different reactions to what felt like a rupture in 1933. The “ridiculous” and “vulgar” new power challengers are laughed at in the first pages. German culture and Bildung are too civilizing for them. Gustav Oppermann mocks Mein Kampf’s awful German. Hitler and his followers were crass enough to kill National Socialism. Isn’t it obvious?
Each sibling faces a reality that feels as inevitable as a natural disaster, where the amount of lies against them and Jews in general becomes impossible to deny. “It was an earthquake, one of those vast upheavals of concentrated, fathomless, universal stupidity,” Feuchtwanger writes at the moment of no return. The individual’s power and intelligence were useless against such an elemental force.
Even in exile, Germans are reluctant to accept what is happening. Gustav tries to convince Anna, his girlfriend, that Germany is changing when she visits him in southern France, where he and Feuchtwanger are hiding. Jewish businesses were boycotted nationwide. She won’t accept this. “One national government had given place to another, which was still more nationalist,” Feuchtwanger said of Anna. The book burning and boycott were appalling. The articles and Nationalist squabbles were ugly. Who believed that? Life continued as usual.” Gustav barely blames her. Self-deception is “the only way to protect oneself; even honest, right-thinking individuals did it, so as not to lose their basic foundations, their homeland.”
Gustav slips back into Germany under an assumed identity to verify a dossier on pogroms and other local violence, but he is arrested and brought to a concentration camp, where he is tortured before being liberated. In 1933, Feuchtwanger considers deracination the worst fate for Germany’s Jews. I was occasionally reminded how little he could predict the future, despite his fear. “If the rest of his life were to go on as it was at present, one may just as well switch on the gas right away,” a minor character thinks, unhappy that the growing anti-Jewish prejudice may cost him his job and apartment. Book almost fell.
Feuchtwanger fled Europe perilously. When Germany and France went to war in 1939, he was detained, released after his publisher paid a bribe, then detained again. With his wife’s support, he escaped Nîmes barracks and joined Varian Fry’s group of German Jewish artists and intellectuals, including Arendt, who fled to the US. Feuchtwanger lived in Los Angeles with Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann. He wrote novels steadily till his 1958 death.
The Oppermanns is hard to relate to now. Retrospective knowledge can inspire foresight and advocacy but also panic, distraction, and overreaction. Has Trump-Hitler comparison ever been useful? Yes, but rarely. Feuchtwanger’s democracy-death model is unclear. His novel breaks templates soon. In 1933, he tries to teach when dignity becomes self-indulgent and hazardous. Instead, you feel that rumbling “elemental force” and the difficult decisions if you get caught in its path.
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