“The Oppermanns” bring us bad news from 1933 | Wender Mind Kids

"The Oppermanns" bring us bad news from 1933

We already know the Oppermanns. Whether we admit it or not, we might even resemble them. There is the eldest brother, Gustav – snobbish, easy-going dilettante, literary scholar and intellectual, member of all the best clubs; he entertains his friends with his collection of anti-Semitic literature and reads my fight “for the lulz.” There’s the earnest, anxious Martin, who runs the family furniture store and provides Gustav with clothes and cars, and his Prussian noblewoman Liselotte; Her beloved son Berthold is the star student of the literature and history program at his Berlin elite school, at least until her humanistic professor is replaced by a National Socialist ideologue. There is the wise sister Klara, married to an up-and-coming real estate speculator and banker with American connections, a French surname and Eastern European Jewish descent, and their son Heinrich, Berthold’s better-known classmate and star of the soccer team; There’s Edgar, an ear, nose and throat specialist who has perfected a groundbreaking surgical technique, and teenage daughter Ruth, whose idealistic Zionism is a source of wonder when it’s not embarrassing; and then there are lovers, friends, colleagues, lawyers, servants, and employees, varyingly loyal and disloyal, envious or admiring, egocentric or selfless, who make up the supporting characters of Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1933 novel that bears the family name.

Feuchtwanger, a star Weimar novelist who had had his citizenship revoked and was already a happy exile in Provence – he would eventually find his way to Los Angeles – wrote this symphonic and even leisurely twist on the classic German novel in the rush of events “Decline of a Family” (think Buddenbrooks with Nazis) in a few remarkable weeks. The various fates of the Oppermanns are traced from autumn 1932 – at Gustav’s 50th birthday party – to the Reichstag fire and the early promulgation of the Nazi racial laws; then, with the help of smuggled letters and testimonies, Feuchtwanger jumps a few short years into a future that would prove far worse than even this remarkably prescient novelist could imagine.

The novel was translated and published in England almost at the same time, where Feuchtwanger hoped to mobilize anti-Nazi sentiment. As it turned out, Feuchtwanger’s intervention was about as effective as his character Gustav’s belated forays into amateur journalism and espionage. In the novel, one of his more pragmatic friends in the budding resistance offers an epitaph: “He saw things only as they were and could not think of a way to help constructively.” Even so, The Oppermanns was something of a “bestseller” that was translated into 10 languages ​​and sold around 250,000 copies (an unimaginably large number by the standards of contemporary literary publishing). But as Joshua Cohen notes in his introduction to this new edition: “[Feuchtwanger’s] Example shows that art can challenge power, so to speak ‘powerful’, but still has no political effect.”

Or a lasting literary effect. After the first success The Oppermanns did not become part of the canon of post-war American Jewish reading about the Holocaust or preparation for World War II; This very German novel, too, with its dinner parties, its sophisticated ironies and lively philosophical debates between the characters about “idealism” versus “pragmatism” did not find its way into the West German literary canon of the post-war period.

Its revival now, in 2022, under the imprint of McNally Editions (the newly established publishing arm of independent McNally Jackson bookstores) raises a different set of questions about its reception. Much of what was once fresh, newsworthy, and shocking about Feuchtwanger’s novel comes before us with a sense of deja vu. Even if we’ve never read it, we’ve already read some versions of it The Oppermanns. We know what’s going to happen to these characters before they do and also before the writer does. At a moment when the impotence of the world’s commitment to Never Again has never been more evident, why do we need another history of European Jewry on the eve of its annihilation?

Feuchtwanger’s much better-known contemporary Walter Benjamin in his essay on Goethe’s novel That elective affinities, proposes a distinction between the “material content” of a work (what we would today call “information content”) and the “truth content” that derives from the material, the transcendent element of a work that persists beyond the moment of its existence Composition allows it to exist and makes it available to future generations beyond the dusty realms. This is one way to understand the idea of ​​”classic”.

The “truth content” of The Oppermanns, almost a century after the events depicted, remains deeply uneasy. Once we clear the fog of our own knowledge, Feuchtwanger’s novel reads as a compelling case study of how certain cultures and environments die, just as F. Scott Fitzgerald says we go broke “gradually, then suddenly.” All the Oppermanns’ thoughts, their short-term decisions, their ideas make perfect sense – and actually sound quite rational given the environment they knew and the identities they chose. The family is doomed by its successes and its inability to part with the attributes of success that it deserved and the institutions that bestowed them. The novel is anthropology or sociology, not satire.

It is not for nothing that Feuchtwanger divides the novel the way he does, across the scenes of school, corporation, clinic and the world of literature. When Berthold tells his new Nazi schoolmaster that he is “as good a German as you are,” he refuses to apologize for his argument that Gutenberg did more for Germany than the quasi-mythical leader of the Alemanian rebellion against Caesar, “Arminius” (aka “Hermann the German”); when Gustav professes his disbelief that “an entire people of 65 million has ceased to be a cultured people because they have given free speech to some fools and scoundrels”; when Martin tries to negotiate with the snooty Goy who wants to take over his business; when Edgar says “German medicine and Jewish medicine did not exist, there was only science” and further on the support of his “ugly, inhibited” and ghetto-born assistant Dr. Jacoby urges; these are all habits of institutional thought that cannot be unlearned overnight, even if the night in question is the eve of Hitler’s appointment Chancellor.

If the tiny moves the Oppermanns are making in the face of looming global catastrophe seem naïve to us, then we are naïve about that very same thing. We may believe that “race is unscientific”; that “markets regulate themselves”; that the phrase “all human beings are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” can reasonably be extended to all sexes; we might even believe that rights are inalienable. We can say “we are a nation of laws”; We may believe that the excellence of our work matters more than the boxes we tick on census forms or the color of our skin. We may think that our doctorates guarantee us free speech without consequences; that the Federal Reserve will keep our economy on track; We might be shocked, shocked, to find Supreme Court nominees lying to Senate committees and those who swear oaths to uphold the Constitution one day would threaten violence against them the next. We might think that our political enemies – or just the people who want our jobs, who envy our status – are imbecile, barbaric, cruel, hysterical, narcissistic, immature, mentally unstable, ignorant and hateful. But we also believe things will continue as they have been, with only minor breaks in the status quo of how a car could suffer a puncture.

Although Feuchtwanger was friends with Brecht and collaborated with him on several early plays, his chosen method is in The Oppermanns is exactly the opposite of the godfather of the interventionist, activist avant-gardes of the 20th century. Instead of creating distance and alienation and shock, Feuchtwanger draws us into the cozy interiors where truly life-threatening decisions are made. The Oppermanns shows what extinction feels like from within. The habits that once kept you alive and passed down from generation to generation no longer work. Anything that you thought would prepare you for future success is instead diminishing your chances of survival. The news of 1933 is still news if we know how to hear it.