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The Oppermanns

by Lion Feuchtwanger
Persephone book no:

135 136 137

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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.’


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

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

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