Today we are excerpting The Oppermanns, a novel written by the Bavarian-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger in 1933. A reissue of the English translation with a new introduction by Joshua Cohen, the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, will be published next week by McNally Editions.
An outspoken early critic of the Nazi movement, and one of Germany's most famous writers, Feuchtwanger fled into exile months before he wrote The Oppermanns. The book is based on his own experience and that of his family and friends, as well as secret reports smuggled out of Germany by anti-Nazi activists. Following its publication, Feuchtwanger and his wife were both imprisoned by the Vichy regime in France. They eventually fled to the United States, where they lived until his death in 1958.
According to the historian Richard J. Evans, The Oppermanns was “the first great masterpiece of anti-fascist literature.” Set in the aftermath of Hitler’s rise to power, the novel revolves around the Oppermann brothers: Gustav, a literary critic and the book’s central character; Edgar, a prominent surgeon; and Martin, the manager of the family’s furniture company. With painstaking realism, Feuchtwanger charts the institutionalization of anti-Semitism and the decay of German democracy through the brothers’ desperate attempts to come to terms with a country overrun by “barbarism.”
This scene takes place the night after Martin Oppermann is confronted by Herr Hinkel, an employee of the Oppermann family’s furniture company and a member of the Nazi party, who demands that Martin fire four Jewish workers and replace them with “Aryans.”
— The Editors.
During the night, toward dawn, they arrived at Martin Oppermann’s house in Corneliusstrasse. Thrusting the bewildered maid to one side, one of them entered Martin and Liselotte’s bedroom armed with a revolver and truncheon; he was followed by four or five more, all very young men.
“Herr Oppermann?” inquired the leader in a courteous tone.
“Yes,” said Martin. It was neither fright nor a desire to be disagreeable that made his voice sound gruff, it was merely that he was still half asleep. Liselotte had started up. She stared with wide, terrified eyes at the lads. It was said all over the country that those who fell into the hands of the state police were lucky, but woe to those who fell into the hands of the Nationalists. And these fellows were Nationalists.
“What do you want from us?” asked Liselotte anxiously.
“We want nothing from you, madam,” said the young man. “You are to dress and come with us,” he said to Martin.
“Very well,” returned Martin. He tried to work out the young man’s rank in the stormtrooper army. It was indicated by the metal ornament on the collar, the “mirror” as it was called. The man had two stars, but Martin did not know what the title of his rank was. He would have liked to inquire, but the young man might take the question as a sign of contempt. Martin was very calm. It was common knowledge that many were done to death in the cellars of the stormtroopers’ barracks, their names were known. There were only very few who came out of these cellars entirely without injuries. But, strangely enough, he was not afraid. “Don’t worry, Liselotte,” he said. “I shall soon be back again.”
“That won’t be altogether left to your decision, sir,” said he of the two stars. They put him into a taxi. He sat limply, his eyes half closed.
His guards were carrying on a conversation in low tones. “Will we be allowed to stick him against the wall right away? I hope they let us and not the Thirty-Eighth examine him.” Martin rocked his head back and forth. What a childish way of carrying on. They wanted him to dismiss his Jewish employees. Perhaps they would attempt to bully him into it by ill treatment. Merchants of high standing and directors of industries had been dragged off to Nationalist barracks and concentration camps in order to extort voluntary resignations from them or the renunciation of some legal right. The Nationalists wanted to get possession of the industries that had been built up by the five hundred thousand Jews. They coveted their businesses, their positions, their money. They considered all means toward this end justified. In spite of all that, Martin instinctively felt that he, personally, was safe. He did not believe that he would be detained long. Liselotte would get busy on the telephone, so would Mühlheim.
He was taken into a dreary room on an upper floor. A man was sitting there with four stars on the collar of his uniform, and there was another seated at a typewriter. The two-starred man reported: “Troop Leader Kersing with a prisoner.” That was it, the two-starred men were called troop leaders. Martin was questioned as to his identity. Then someone appeared in a more ornate brown uniform. He had no stars on his collar but a simple leaf. He sat down at the table. It was a fairly large table, a candelabra with lighted candles on it, as well as a bottle of beer and some books that seemed to be treatises on jurisprudence. The man thrust the books aside. Martin gazed at the candelabra. What a silly setting, he thought, and in the age of Reinhardt too. The chap had a leaf on his collar, had he? As a matter of fact, it wasn’t a leaf but an oak twig. They were very exact in such details.
“Your name is Martin Oppermann?” asked the man with the oak twig. It’s about time they knew that, thought Martin. It occurred to him that the thing was called a standard. Those with twigs on their collars were called standard bearers. That man was quite a big shot, a robber chieftain.
“Yes,” he said.
“You have resisted official regulations?” came the question from behind the candelabra.
“Not that I know of,” said Martin.
“In these times,” the man with the oak twig said sternly, “resistance to the regulations of the Leader is a treasonable act.”
Martin shrugged his shoulders. “I resisted the regulations of my packer Hinkel,” he said. “I am not aware that he has been appointed to discharge any official function.”
“Write that down,” said the man with the oak twig. “The accused denies his guilt and makes evasive answers. Take the man away,” he commanded the guard.
The two-starred man and three others took Martin down the stairs again and then lower still, down badly lit steps. This is the cellar then, thought Martin. They were now in complete darkness. The way led through a long passage. Martin was seized firmly by the arms. “Walk in step, man,” said a voice. The corridor was a long one. They turned a corner, then another. Someone flashed an electric torch into his face. Then they ascended a few steps. “Keep in step, you,” one of them said to him and gave him a push in the back. What a childish way of carrying on, thought Martin.
After he had been marched in different directions for about ten minutes, he was thrust into a fairly large, dimly lit room. Here things looked a bit more serious. Men were lying on boards and on heaps of rags. There were between twenty and thirty of them, half naked, bleeding, groaning, hideous to look at. “Say Heil Hitler when you enter anywhere,” commanded one of his guards, giving him a blow in the ribs.
“Heil Hitler,” said Martin obediently. They pushed through the rows of hideous looking, groaning people. There was a smell of sweat, excrement, and blood in the room. “There’s no more room in waiting room Number Four,” said the man with the two stars.
Martin was taken into another room, which was smaller and crudely lit. A few people were standing in it, their faces to the wall. “Stand over there, Jew-pig,” said someone to Martin. He stood beside the others; a gramophone was playing the “Horst Wessel Song”:
Make way for the boys of the Brown Battalions,
Make way for the boys of the Shock Brigades,
The swastika blazons the hope of millions,
The era of Freedom and Plenty begins.
“Join in the song,” came the order. The truncheons began to swing and the people with their faces to the wall sang. Then a record of one of the Leader’s speeches was played and after that the “Horst Wessel Song” again. “Salute,” came the order. Those who did not hold their arms or fingers stiffly enough in the ancient Roman salute were struck on the offending arms or fingers. Then “Join in the song,” came the order again. Then the gramophone was turned off and perfect silence reigned in the room.
That lasted, perhaps, half an hour. Martin grew very weary. He turned his head cautiously. “Stand still, will you, man,” said someone and struck him across the shoulders. The blow hurt him but not severely. Then the gramophone started again. The needle’s worn out, thought Martin. And I’m dog-tired. Even they will eventually get bored looking at my back.
“We’re going to say Our Father now,” commanded the voice. They recited the Our Father obediently. Martin had not heard it for a long time; he had only a vague idea of it. He took careful note of the words, they were really splendid words. The gramophone proclaimed the twenty-five points of the Party’s program. I’m getting training exercises of a sort now, thought Martin. Liselotte is surely telephoning by now. So is Mühlheim. Liselotte—she is the one I am worrying about most.
To stand for two hours sounds a mere nothing. But it is not easy for a man verging on fifty and unused to any form of bodily exertion. The glaring light and its refection on the wall tortured Martin’s eyes, the squeaking of the gramophone tortured his ears. But finally, after what seemed to him an eternity, though it was actually only two hours, the thing really did get too boring for them. They released him from the wall, drove him once more up and down steps and through dark passages and finally into a small room, which was rather dark.
The young men again took charge of him. Martin would have liked to talk to them, but he was too tired. The next man who spoke to him was Hinkel the packer. He was not in uniform. “I have interceded for you, Herr Oppermann,” he said, scrutinizing him with his mean eyes. “After all, we have been associated for a number of years. I think you would be wiser to give in. Sign a paper to the effect that you will comply with the regulations of the business committee, dismiss those four people and you are free.”
“I have no doubt that you mean well, Herr Hinkel,” said Martin peacefully. “But I cannot discuss the matter with you here. I can only deal with business matters in Gertraudtenstrasse.” Hinkel the packer shrugged his shoulders.
Martin had a rough pallet in a small room allotted to him. His head ached. Also the place on his back, where he had been struck, was beginning to hurt. He tried to remember the words of the Our Father. But the Hebrew words of the prayer for the dead, which he had so recently spoken, substituted themselves. He was glad to be alone. He was exhausted. But the light had not been switched off and that prevented him from going to sleep.
Before the night was over, he was again taken to the room to which he had first been brought. Behind the table with the candelabra on it there now sat a man who had no twig on his collar, but only two stars. “You can go now, Herr Oppermann,” he said. “There are only a few formalities for you to comply with. Kindly sign this paper.” It was a statement that he had been well treated. Martin read it through, nodding his head. “If, for instance, I treated my employees in such a way,” he said, “I doubt whether they would make such an affidavit for me.”
“You don’t mean to tell me, sir, do you,” snarled the man, “that you have been badly treated here?”
“Don’t I mean to tell you?” Martin asked in turn. “Very well,” he added, “I won’t tell you.” He signed the paper.
“Then there’s this, too,” said the man. It was an order to pay two marks, one mark for lodging and one mark for board and services rendered.
The music was free, thought Martin. He paid and got a receipt. “Good morning,” he said.
“Heil Hitler,” said the two-starred man.
Taken from The Oppermanns (1933) by Lion Feuchtwanger. Translated by James Cleugh and Joshua Cohen. McNally Editions (2022).
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The Oppermanns’ lawyer.
The location of the Oppermanns’ furniture shop.
You folks are living in the past. In 1933, the US was a highly effective country and could help defeat Nazi Germany. What about now? My favorite line on this point is
“China is now very good at building dams. The US is now very good at enforcing PC. What country/system will dominate the 21st century?”
Yes. This conversation made me think the situation in China is especially dire, specifically the disastrous results of the one child policy which led to such a huge gender disparity. I'd add the caveat that this Zeihan character sounds like kind a real doom and gloom kinda guy. Still, I found the conversation fascinating. I'll probably re-listen to it when I need to ruin a good mood: https://www.samharris.org/podcasts/making-sense-episodes/288-the-end-of-global-order