Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger

Hi Dear Folk,

I read a book I wanted to review and share with you, it was pertinent in it's time and I would say today too.

The Oppermanns written by Lion Feuchtwanger and published in Amsterdam in 1933 and the edition I have was published in 1934 by The Viking Press, in the USA.  As I've often said love my local library, but I have to say it was brought to my attention by Persephone Books, as one of their newer releases.

It is set in 1932 Germany, current at the time, and is the story of a German Jewish family who own a furniture store, founded in the late 1800s, by their grandfather Immanuel Oppermann, and their coming to terms with National Socialism and all that that will mean for them.  Lion Feuchtwanger saw the writing on the wall, but did not have the skills to decipher it, no powers of prophecy.  Who could have foreseen? And thus makes it even more poignant.  Nationalists, even the name sounds benign but it and they were not.

Goethe:  "There is nothing the rabble fear more than Intelligence.  If they understand what is truly terrifying, they would fear ignorance."

I will set down the characters as it is hard to get a handle on who's who.

The Siblings:-

Gustav Oppermann - Batchelor, fifty years old, a minor literary scholar and writing a biography of Lessing, living in a beautiful house in a lovely suburb of Berlin.  The eldest.

Martin Oppermann - Running the family furniture business from which they all receive an income.

Edgar Oppermann - A world renowned doctor, who came up with a special procedure for throat surgery.

Klara Lavendel - Married

Souses and Children:-

Lisolette Oppermann - Martin's wife, who is a Christian, son Bethold (Baruch) seventeen years old.

Gina Oppermann  - Edgar's wife.  Ruth their daughter is a Zionist and wants to move to Palestine.

Jacques Lavendel - Klara's husband, a Jew, born in an Eastern European country, but has lived in and holds an American citizenship, as does his wife and son Heinrich.

Mistress:-

Sybil Rauch - Mistress of Gustav

The story opens on the day of his fiftieth birthday, Gustav in his home, reminiscing on the beauty of his house, where he lives and how well he looks for his age; he has an indolent, self-absorbed existence.  About twenty guests gather together in the evening at his house for a birthday party, the talk is of politics.

"Here in the charming rooms of Gustav Oppermann, people were not inclined to concede that a thing as imbecile as the Nationalist movement had a chance."

"The paltry varnish of logic is being scraped away."  Says Freidrich Wilhelm Gutwetter an aryan literary critic and writer.

Frau Emilee Francoise, nicknamed Little Thundercloud is the wife of Rector Alfred Francoise, headmaster of a boys school, which Berthold Oppermann attends.  They were originally from France.

"He always believed everything was all right as long as one could prove one's statements.  If she tried to explain to him that accuracy meant nothing ..."

Jacques Lavendel:-

"Why, in the devil's name, had so many French aristocrats been so asinine as to be caught in the Revolution, whereas any schoolboy nowadays knows that the writings of Rouseau and Voltaire, decades earlier, had indicated precisely what would happen."

Winds are changing everywhere and at the hospital where Dr. Edgar Opperman works along with his faithful Nurse Helene and his protege Dr Jacoby, who looks very Semitic.  He believes:-

"He was a German doctor, a German scientist.  German science and Jewish science did not exist, the only thing that existed was Science."

Rector Francoise has had to accept Master Bernd Vogelsong, from Bavaria who is a Nationalist.  He finds it hard to listen to his speech, as it is a low German and even harder to listen to his rhetoric.

"The bombastic German, the ranting, mass-meeting oratory made him physically uncomfortable. ... The worst of it was that he sincerely believed the gibberish he was talking.  Due to an inferiority complex, he had encased himself in an armor of the cheapest nationalism, ..."

Vogelsong quotes Hitler to Francoise:-

"He had made a mistake.  He ought not to have quoted the Leader's book to this misguided man.  It was unfortunately only too true.  Rector Francoise was right in a certain sense.  The greatest living German, the leader of the German movement, was not familiar with the rudiments of the German language."

I found this most interesting that Hitler, who of course was born in Austria, did not speak and have a grasp of higher German.

Professor Mülheim, the family lawyer urges Gustav to invest some money outside of Germany.

"He had been urging Gustav for years to invest his capital abroad.  The outlook in Germany was becoming steadily more threatening.  Would he not be a madman who should  continue to sit in a train, the staff of which showed unmistakable signs of madness?"

"... Gustav agreed with Goethe, who preferred to put up with injustice rather than lawlessness."

Bertold Oppermann's form teacher was Master Vogelsong, his previous form master, who had died suddenly; had asked him to prepare a lecture for the class, a lot of work had gone into this.  He asks Vogelsong if he may give the lecture, but Vogelsong does not like the theme title and gives him an option to write a lecture on the life of Arminius.  A character held in high esteem by the Nationalists as a true aryan hero, who fought against the Romans.  Bertold gives the lecture the way he has been taught pros and cons as to character and outcome.  Vogelsong can only take the pros, no cons must be said about this hero.  He goes into a rage, he considers the Jewish boy, not just a problem in class, but a problem in the school.  He must apologize.  Berthold does not see it that way he was just presenting Arminius in the way he had been taught.

Rector Francoise must set this right, he sits on it for a while, he agrees with Bertold, but as Little Thundercloud points out to him this could mean his job.  He agrees to ask Gustav to intervene and say something to the family about this.

"It could only be hoped that the irritating new teacher who they had planted in his beloved institution, like a potato in a tulip field, would not spoil things too much.  And then he related the Vogelsong affair." 

"On the 30th January, the President of the Republic appointed the author of the book entitled My Battle to the post of German Chancellor."

That was in 1933.

Things are not looking well for Oppermann's Furniture Stores and it is decided very quickly to change their name to the German Furniture Company.  This had been discussed previously but now they see the necessity of changing their name and taking on Herr Heinrich Wels a competitor; who's grandfather had established his furniture company at a similar time to which their grandfather had established theirs.  In fact Wels had made previous offers to come in, but they had always turned him down, but now as a Nationalist, it would be good to have him on board.  Herr Wels has the upper hand, they no longer do.

Martin speaking to Herr Brieger, Herr Hintze who help run Oppermann's Furniture company, along with Jacques.

".... Do you believe that, because a few thousand young, armed ruffians roam about in the streets, there is an end of Germany?"  

"There are no pogroms in Germany nowadays."

Back at the hospital Nurse Helene is trying to warn Dr. Oppermann of what could happen at the hospital.

"In the hospitals, in the University, on all sides, medical men without ability were seeing signs of hope.  An era was beginning in which the requisites were no longer talent and accomplishment but the ostensible consanguinity to a certain race."

"On one of the following afternoons it so happened that a patient of the third class, which was treated gratis, was caught smoking a cigar contrary to strict instructions."

The nurse told him to put it out, he would not do so, so she called in Dr Jacoby.

"The sight of the Jew made the man raving mad."

Dr Jacoby:-

"He had nothing to offer the shouting, rebellious ward but the arguments of reason, the least suitable of all sedatives."

Herr Markus Wolfsohn is a shop floor salesman at the furniture store.  His brother in law Moritz Ehrenreich has booked passage to Palestine.

"Perhaps his brother-in-law Moritz Ehrenreich was right in clearing out now as he was doing.  Yes, they had got to that point now:  Moritz Ehrenreich was due to sail for Palestine on 3rd of March, from the French  port of Marseilles, on the steamer Mariette Pacha."

Herr Rudiger Zarnke lives next door in the same two-hundred and seventy apartment building to Herr Wolfsohn.  He would like Herr Wolfsohn's apartment for a relative.  It isn't fair that Oppermann's has a special block deal on a number of the apartments especially for their employees.

"In booming tones, impossible to ignore, he would tell his wife how the Nationalists, the moment they took over the reins of government on the fifth of March, would make mince-meat of the Jews."

Herr Wolfsohn:-

"Yes, it was all over with his snug security in the beloved flats in Friedrich Karl Strasse."

Berthold has been in a turmoil over his speech and the thought of apologizing to Vogelsong.  He decides to visit his uncle Joachim Ranzov, his mother's brother who holds a high position as a Commissioner.

Berthold says:-

"Must I now go and confess that I am a bad German because I spoke the truth?"

Muhlheim entreating Gustav to leave Germany:-

"What nonsense!  Because the Reichstag was on fire, he, Gustav, would have to leave Berlin."

Gustave decides to travel to Bern, Switzerland.  He is given a bundle of papers to read from a man who introduces himself as Dr. Bilfinger this man has documented atrocities in Germany, he reads it.

"The aged President had handed the Reich over to them in good order.  They had ruthlessly broken their solemn pledges, trampled law underfoot, and submitted caprice, disorder, and brutality for civilization and order.  Germany had become a madhouse in which the patients had overpowered their warders.  Did the world realize this?  What was he going to do about all this?"

In this passage I wonder whether the writer Lion Feuchtwanger had a spark of hope, but I think not.

"Very many people had left Germany but very many more had remained.  The Nationalists could not kill or imprison all their adversaries, for their adversaries comprised two-thirds of the population."

Bernd Vogelsang is appointed as Minister of Education.  A former student of his Werner Rittersteg a tall blond nicknamed Long Lummox, of no great intelligence, takes it upon himself to stab a journalist Richard Karper for printing the truth.  He does it to attract the attention of Heinrich Lavendel, a great football player at school, who he has silently hero worshipped for a long time, the cousin of Berthold.  He Rittersteg gets of scot-free.

Did they intend to entangle a young hero in the maze of stupid rules, to impede his career, his activity on behalf of New Germany, merely because his scholarship had not stood the hazards of an examination?"

Rector Francoise stands up to Vogelsong, he knows he will lose his position.  His wife is pragmatic.

"These comforting words did Francoise good.  He had always known that Socrates must have had some good reason for marrying Xanthippe."

"Jacques Lavendel informed Friedrich Pfanz, the head of the Department of Economics, that he proposed to leave Germany and that he would liquidate his German business interests."

A turn of events with Herr Zarnke, who has become disillusioned with unfulfilled promises.  He listens and agrees with his little troop, not turning them in for subversive speech.

"Such rebellious views were gaining more and more control over the simple soul of storm-troop-leader Rudger Zarnke."

The Oppermann family are together at the Lavendel's house in Switzerland.  They are celebrating Passover. Enjoying each other's company and using all the old utensils dedicated to the celebration, reading the Haggadah.

"They wanted to sterilize all Jews, as well as the Socialists and the intellectual classes.  Nationalists only were to be allowed to propagate, there would be no one left to spoil their power."

"In Nationalist Germany there was no worse crime than the profession of reason, peace, and honorable sentiments."

"Unemployment figures rose to staggering heights.  Germany's percentage of unemployed became the highest in the world.  But the stiff-necked Nationalist declared that they had reduced unemployment.

Lies, profiteering, and selfish indulgence went hand in hand.  Anyone who belonged to the party in power could have his competitor spirited away to a concentration camp."

The story by no means ends here, the ending is quite incongruous.  I think it had to be, because it was published in 1933 and at that time it had taken National Socialism fourteen years to rise to power, and only at the beginning of their government control of Germany.  So how could Lion Feuchtwanger actually end his story.  The Third Reich did not come to an end until 8th May, 1945.

I hope my humble review of The Oppermanns has moved you to read this book.

Christine

1 comment:

  1. This book sounds very interesting -- and very timely (unfortunately). For several years -- since the last campaign -- I've seen far too many similarities in the U.S. to the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 30s. The fact that this was written in 1933 is really quite striking. Thanks for telling us about this.

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