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The Oppermanns

by Lion Feuchtwanger
Persephone book no:

135 136 137


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A Well Full of Leaves
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TRANSLATED BY JAMES CLEUGH
FOREWORD AND NOTES BY RICHARD J EVANS

534pp
ISBN 9781910263266

Persephone Book No. 136 is a 1933 novel written to alert the world to the dangers of fascism. The Oppermanns describes an affluent Jewish family, and in particular three brothers, who run a successful chain of furniture shops, for eight months from the autumn of 1932 until June 1933. The reader watches in horror as a law-abiding, kindly, civilised Jewish family, a close-knit group of siblings, is gradually dispossessed of all their certainties, of everything they had owned, of their life, of their happiness – just because they were Jewish. We watch as Jews are beaten in the street and thrown into concentration camps (yes, they existed in early 1933). And yet the world did nothing. Eventually one of the brothers, who had fled to France, decides to resist, and the bittersweet ending is faintly optimistic because, as Richard Evans writes: ’Feuchtwanger could not know in 1933 that the resistance would crumble under the weight of Nazi terror, nor did he even suspect that the Nazis’ violence against the Jews would end in the deliberate murder of six million people in the Holocaust. No civilised person could imagine that genocide on this scale could take place in Europe in the twentieth century.’

In one sense The Oppermanns was written as purest propaganda, in another it is ‘very far from being a work of propaganda’ (writes Professor Richard Evans in his Foreword) but ‘achieves its effect not least because it uses the various members of the family, their friends, and the people with whom they come into contact, to paint a realistic and convincing portrait of the variety of Germans’ reactions to the rise and eventual triumph of the Nazis... Lion Feuchtwanger’s human sympathies enabled him to understand, and to make the reader understand, the motives even of the most despicable characters. He grasped, for example, the resentments that drove small craftsmen in Germany into the Nazi movement.’

The idea for the novel was initially that of the British prime minster Ramsay MacDonald. He knew Lion Feuchtwanger (who was already one of Germany’s best-known writers) and wrote to him in April 1933: Lion was by now in exile in France, his books having been burnt by the Nazis. MacDonald suggested a film alerting the world to the Nazi threat and, in May, Lion and the young screen- writer Sidney Gilliat completed a script. Then the film was cancelled; Lion, however, decided to turn the script into a novel.

People often ask us how we find our books and the answer this time is: the journalist Nilanjana S Roy mentioned ‘a lost classic’ in the Financial Times. She said: ‘Few novels strike such a stark note of warning, or capture with such accuracy the perilous years of the rise of a dictatorship.’ We had never heard of The Oppermanns then, but in 2020 were very pleased to re-print it in English for the first time since the 1930s.

Richard Evans concludes: ‘Ultimately Feuchtwanger’s work transcends any political sympathies. It is all too relevant in the twenty-first century as a warning against complacency in the face of lies and abuse, and a call for vigilance in the defence of democracy against those who would destroy it. It is the first great masterpiece of anti-fascist literature, and deserves to be as widely read today as it was on its original publication.’

Endpaper

The endpapers reproduce a rug purchased in Germany in 1933 and brought to England in 1936 by a German refugee, in a private collection.


Read What Readers Say

Alex Ross, ‘New Yorker’

[A] methodically harrowing novel . . .The question that haunts The Oppermanns is eternally relevant: what kind of resistance is possible against ruthless power? . . . Feuchtwanger is too strong a writer to give a blandly reassuring answer. But the implication of the final pages is clear: in the great theater of history, useless gestures count.

Gal Beckerman, ‘The Atlantic’

A long-forgotten masterpiece… It is a book written in real time—written, that is, right on that threshold . . . The novel is an emotional artifact, a remnant of a world sick with foreboding, incredulity, creeping fear, and—this may feel most familiar to us today—the impossibility of gauging whether a society is really at the breaking point . . . The fact that Feuchtwanger could write with such clarity about history-altering events that had not yet been fully digested is astonishing.

Claire Messud, ‘Harper’s Bazaar’

Feuchtwanger delineates—with what was, at the time, agonizing prescience—the ever-darker unfolding of the Reich’s repressive mission, resulting in a novel at once unbearable and unputdownable. It is also an alarmingly timely reminder: the Nazis’ first steps—censorship, disinformation, and the sowing of fear and mistrust among citizens—in turn permit the unspeakable . . . [A] masterpiece . . . The exhortation that we read this book is as urgent as Feuchtwanger’s need to write it.

Joshua Cohen, ‘New York Times’

One of the last masterpieces of German Jewish culture… ‘The Oppermanns’ shows that a work intended to sound an alarm can echo beyond its emergency, if written with honest detail, great dramatic skill and a deep feeling for the individual human, whose experience of the news is called “life”.

Anna Carey, ‘Irish Times’

A timely reissue of anti-fascist classic… Feuchtwanger’s tale of Nazism and a Jewish family resonates in era of rising nationalism.

LE and TM, Edinburgh

‘The Oppermanns’ is a remarkable book and it’s also remarkable that you chose to republish it, especially at this time. What’s chilling is the breathtaking rapidity with which these changes, these defilements and degradations of history and society take place. (Not to mention the removal of qualified, educated people in crucial positions and their replacement with boors and sadists.) We were both struck with the voices of the women in the family – they were regularly consulted and expected to have a say in the running of the business and later in decisions about personal safety and where, ultimately, to go. That advance obviously got lost in the tumult of war – as usual. We were a little sorry that the novel boiled down to Gustav, in the end, and didn’t follow the progress of the others much. And I wish Feuchtwanger had given us a better picture of what Gustav thought he was going to accomplish when he went back to Germany. That’s scary in itself! We were both sorry to lose the son who commits suicide. It might have been nice to see him join the resistance instead. But the suicide makes sense emotionally. The book is at its best when there are the greatest number of voices in it: smug, scared, satiric, angry, resigned – the whole range of differing opinions and responses to ‘the Leader’ and his mission. And perhaps what is most fascinating about this novel is that it was published in 1933. So much daring prescience. That is really impressive. And frightening. Because it was already that clear – to Lion F at least – what horrors were in store for every- body: the concentration camps are much on his mind, for instance, and attacks on the arts.

Categories: Abroad Gender and Race History Men (books by) Politics Translations WWII

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