Monthly Archives: January 2023

A novel for our times

Cover of The Oppermans with an illustration of police holding back a crowd

The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

The Oppermans is a sprawling novel centered around a wealthy Jewish family, the Oppermans, in Germany during the rise of the National Socialist Party (aka the Nazis). Lion Feuchtwanger wrote this book in Germany between the spring and fall of 1933 and was, in large part, documenting what he saw and heard around him.

Although Feuchtwanger dips into other people’s lives in the Opperman’s circle, most of the novel concerns the family members, who together own a successful furniture empire in Germany and, for various reasons, become targets for National Socialist propaganda. Feuchtwanger’s depictions of the attitudes in Germany toward this rise of the “barbarians,” as many call them, is chilling. He shows both the frustration of the lower classes with the direction Germany has been taking that drives this movement and the laughter and derision that the upper classes have toward their “Leader,” with his ridiculous ideas and imperfect German.

The novel is gripping and terrifying as it races along, jumping from one person’s perspective to another. This was written well before Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish question,” but it exposes how deeply cruel and inhumane things were in Germany long before that for Jewish people, those with mental illness, and others who were deemed inferior.

What’s maybe most chilling about this novel is that the social forces that powered this movement are very strong at this very moment throughout the world, and the attitudes of the various characters, particularly the wealthy class, still hold true. The Oppermans shines a light on the politics of 2023 as much as it does on that of Germany in 1933.

This new edition from Simon & Schuster, put together by Joshua Cohen, includes both the original ending and an alternate ending that was written by Feuchtwanger later at the prompting of his friends, who called the original ending “romantic,” “kitch,” and “false.” I agree, and much prefer the alternate ending. Cohen’s introduction and notes are also very helpful.

As a work of literature, I’m not sure the ultimate focus on the naive writer Gustav was really the best choice, but perhaps that was in part a self reflection for Feuchtwanger. Gustav becomes preoccupied with a phrase from the Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbinical teachings: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.” But Gustav’s recollection of this is somewhat different, “It is upon us to begin the work. It is not upon us to complete it.”

Gustav’s experiences as a result of his quest are painful on many levels. But for a novel of such weight and importance written in such a short time, it’s really hard to criticize this book. The Oppermans is highly recommended reading for our times.