The Opper­manns

Lion Feucht­wanger; James Cleugh, trans; Joshua Cohen, trans­la­tion and introduction

  • Review
By – December 5, 2022

Berlin is a city full of future émi­grés,” Lion Feucht­wanger prophet­i­cal­ly declared in 1931, two years before the appear­ance of his deeply pre­scient nov­el, The Opper­manns. By then Feucht­wanger — a well-known polit­i­cal nov­el­ist and play­wright affil­i­at­ed with Brecht and oth­er fig­ures on the Ger­man cul­tur­al Left — had already become a dis­placed per­son, deprived of his Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship because of his sting­ing cri­tiques of the emer­gent, and ruth­less­ly repres­sive, Nazi regime.

To encounter Feuchtwanger’s The Opper­manns nine­ty years lat­er, in a new edi­tion intro­duced by the nov­el­ist Joshua Cohen, amounts to a deeply unset­tling yet nec­es­sary read­ing expe­ri­ence. Feucht­wanger draft­ed The Opper­manns in real time, as the events he was writ­ing about were still unfold­ing.” As Cohen explains, The Opper­manns intend­ed to sound an alarm” — the alarm refer­ring to the star­tling rise of Hitler and his bru­tal gang of Nazi storm troop­ers, who began maraud­ing the Berlin streets in 1933. For Cohen, The Opper­manns remains one of the last mas­ter­pieces of Ger­man Jew­ish culture.” 

Feuchtwanger’s dire vision of his home­land break­ing apart bears uncan­ny resem­blance to our cur­rent polit­i­cal malaise. As Cohen and oth­er lit­er­ary crit­ics have not­ed, The Opper­manns antic­i­pates many of the social and cul­tur­al (d)evolutions that haunt our own time. 

Feuchtwanger’s crown­ing achieve­ment is the sprawl­ing can­vas he paints of the Opper­manns, a fam­i­ly that rep­re­sents, in their var­i­ous intel­lec­tu­al pas­sions and careers in the arts, med­i­cine, and man­u­fac­tur­ing, the long his­to­ry of Jew­ish embed­ded­ness — and, by their own def­i­n­i­tion, accep­tance — in Ger­man soci­ety. Feucht­wanger grants his read­ers access into the con­fi­dent­ly assim­i­lat­ed Ger­man Jew­ish psy­che, reveal­ing how it talks to itself, how it ratio­nal­izes the emer­gent Nazi threat, and, above all, how it strug­gles to fath­om the unfore­see­able, loom­ing on the horizon.

The chal­lenge for read­ers in 2022 is to resist what schol­ars term back-shad­ow­ing,” the impulse to inter­pret pre-Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture from the per­spec­tive of trag­ic hind­sight. To appre­ci­ate a work like The Opper­manns, we must brack­et what we already know about Hitler’s unknow­ing” victims.

All four Opper­mann sib­lings and their respec­tive fam­i­lies, friends, and co-work­ers are unfor­get­tably drawn, imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able in Feuchtwanger’s por­trait of Ger­man Jew­ish life: Gus­tav, the old­est Opper­mann, inflat­ed with lit­er­ary pre­ten­sions, savor­ing his respectable well-ordered idle­ness;” his broth­er Mar­tin, the reserved and dig­ni­fied” head of the family’s large fur­ni­ture enter­prise; the youngest broth­er, a man of sci­ence and rea­son, a world-famous throat spe­cial­ist rec­og­nized for his inven­tion of orig­i­nal med­ical pro­ce­dures, who smiled at the arbi­trary char­ac­ter of all race the­o­ries;” and their sis­ter Klara, mar­ried to Jacques Laven­del, an East­ern Euro­pean Jew who prac­ticed the old customs.”

As the crit­ic Mar­co Roth observes, The Opper­manns presents how extinc­tion feels from the inside.” Indeed, we wit­ness the family’s col­lec­tive epiphany of upheaval” as they sit for a group por­trait, beneath the image of the fam­i­ly patri­arch, Immanuel: 

There they sat togeth­er, all the Opper­manns, at a great round table that went back to the time of Immanuel Opper­mann.… Every­thing else around them was dis­ap­pear­ing, slip­ping from under their feet.… They were strong men, each one a pow­er in his own par­tic­u­lar sphere.…But their con­fi­dence had van­ished, they brood­ed in heavy-heart­ed dis­tress.… It was an earth­quake, one of those great upheavals of con­cen­trat­ed, fath­om­less, world­wide stu­pid­i­ty. Pit­ted against such an ele­men­tal force, the strength and wis­dom of the indi­vid­ual was useless.

In the end, the Opper­manns are either dis­placed, self-exiled, or dead, with one Opper­mann son tor­ment­ed to sui­cide by a vicious, nation­al­ist teacher. Most, as Feucht­wanger has pre­dict­ed, become émi­grés: to Israel, to Paris, and, in the case of Feucht­wanger him­self, to sun­ny Los Ange­les, where he con­tin­ued to write until his death in 1958. Like the Opper­manns, Feuchtwanger’s home­land had slipped away.” The reprint­ing of The Opper­manns allows us to wit­ness how a gen­er­a­tion of assim­i­lat­ed Ger­man Jews reg­is­tered an unfath­omable nightmare. 

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

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