What an obscure German novel taught me about dictators
I was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1949, so I grew up playing cowboys and Indians with my cousins in the rubble fields of my native city. Family lore had it that my mother, who had survived the Hamburg firestorm of 1943, made me baby shirts from the sugar bags that came in American care packages. Her father had been sent to a concentration camp during the early days of the Nazi dictatorship because he collected dues for an illegal union; fortunately, he survived. Because of the housing shortage caused by the bombings my parents and I, for the first 11 years of my life, lived in a one-room apartment. Suffice it to say my childhood was a daily reminder of the catastrophic consequences of the destruction of the Weimar democracy and the rise of Adolf Hitler.
The other constant of my early life was a presence of things American that went beyond the baby shirts with “SUGAR” stamped on them. Even though we lived in the British occupation zone, American movies played at the local movie theater where my mother worked, and “Bill Haley & His Comets” were my fathers favorite rock n roll band. My father had been a prisoner of war of the Americans, and while he almost never talked about the war itself, he talked frequently about those years from 1945 to 1947 in camps in Germany, Holland and France. The Americans, he said, treated and fed him well and taught him to drive a 2 ½ ton truck. When my parents traveled to the U.S. for the first time for my wedding to a wonderful American woman — six years after I had visited the U.S. for the first time and three years after I had spent a year at Indiana University as an exchange student — he brought his decades-old POW drivers license in hopes that my father-in-law would let him drive his car. By that time my German education had been supplemented and improved upon by my American education and my respect for Americans generosity and openness had grown. Even more, I admired the principles of the American constitution and the strength of its democratic institutions. My wife and I had two sons (one of whom is a senior writer at POLITICO Magazine) while I was earning my Ph.D. at UCLA, which launched a long and productive career teaching German language and literature. In 1999, I became an American citizen.
Then came the election of 2016. Suddenly, I was forced to question my long-held belief that American society was constitutionally immune to the threat of dictatorship. I know I wasnt the only person who wondered if we had crossed some threshold; it wasnt an accident, after all, that George Orwells classic 1984 was suddenly at the top of the Amazon charts. Still, something told me that reacquainting myself with Big Brother and his Ministry of Truth wouldnt be sufficient to explain the moment we were living through. I decided to follow my academic instincts. I expanded the field of inquiry. I made a list of every novel about authoritarianism and totalitarianism I could think of, spanning more than a century of work. My reading list came to 12 novels in all. I read them chronologically: Jack Londons The Iron Heel, published in 1908, Franz Kafkas The Trial, which he wrote in 1914/15, and Sinclair Lewiss semi-satirical 1935 novel, It Cant Happen Here. I re-read staples of college syllabuses such as Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler and Ray Bradburys Fahrenheit 451, and of course, 1984. I dived into more obscure works such as Hans Falladas Every Man Dies Alone and Philip K. Dicks The Penultimate Truth. And I read the most modern works — Margaret Atwoods The Handmaids Tale, Philip Roths alternative history, The Plot Against America, and Dave Eggers 2013 dystopian vision of internet technology run amok, The Circle.
I would learn during my 15-week immersion, which I undertook with the help of some like-minded members of a reading club, that it was not the novels about fully formed totalitarian regimes — The Trial, Darkness at Noon, Every Man Dies Alone, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Penultimate Truth and The Handmaids Tale — that spoke loudest to me. Terrifying as those novels were, it was in fact the books that charted the ominous path from the familiar to the horrific that were the most useful in answering my questions — The Iron Heel, It Cant Happen Here, The Plot Against America and The Circle. Read in order, the events and worlds depicted in these transitional novels trace — not completely linearly, not entirely smoothly, but clearly enough — a progression from more to less brutal, from less to more sophisticated methods of achieving dictatorial power and exercising and maintaining authoritarian and totalitarian rule. From the use of raw military power in The Iron Heel to the apparently painless establishment of a heaven-like totalitarianism in The Circle, the arc of these narratives seems to describe an ever more sophisticated, subtle and insidious manipulation of human beings into the acceptance of dictatorship of one sort or another.
But of the dozen books, the one I found most memorable was perhaps the least well known, at least to an American audience. It was called The Oppermanns, and it was written in 1933 by a German exile named Lion Feuchtwanger. Ill admit that part of the appeal of Feuchtwangers book is that it deals with a chapter of German history that is also deeply personal for me. But theres more to his accomplishment. Feuchtwanger achieved something remarkable: He wrote a powerful and literary book that managed to capture the truth of a harrowing moment — immediately before and after Hitler was named chancellor in January 1933. And he did it in almost real time. Feuchtwanger wrote the novel in a few short months while already in exile in France in 1933, managing to publish it that year as Hitler implemented some of his first and most notorious policies to consolidate his power.
In The Oppermanns, Feuchtwanger narrates the story of an extended family of highly assimilated Jews during 1932 and 1933. The Oppermanns consider themselves patriotic Germans. The main branch of the family produces furniture for the middle class and sells it through a chain of their stores. Gustav, the brother with whom Feuchtwanger opens and closes the novel, is a well-to-do, cultured man who is hard at work on a biography of the father of modern German literature, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing; he also bears a strong resemblance to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that other titan of German letters. One could not imagine a character more German than Gustav Oppermann.
The novel is divided into thirds. “Yesterday” opens on November 16, 1932, 10 days after the last fully free parliamentary elections of the Weimar Republic, and the morning of Gustavs 50th birthday, and closes with the appointment of Hitler as chancellor on January 30, 1933. “Today” opens a few days after that appointment and ends, a few days after the Reichstag Fire, with Gustavs flight to Switzerland. “Tomorrow” begins in the spring of 1933 in Switzerland where Gustav receives reports of the increasing horrors of the Nazi regime. While in exile in France he decides to return to Germany for clandestine work and is arrested and brutalized in a concentration camp, the first of which, Dachau, had been opened little more than two months after Hitlers ascension. After friends with connections in high places work toward and win his release Gustav returns to France, dictates the insights of his work in Germany and awaits his death in the summer sun.
While the novel, by following the Oppermann clan and many characters around them, presents reactions to the rise of Nazism that range from alarm at the prospect of barbarism and dictatorship to denial and disbelief, it is Gustavs story that chronicles most fully the development from complacency to alarm and resistance. Soon after Hitlers appointment as chancellor, during a crisis meeting with his furniture-selling brothers, Gustav asks: “Do you believe they will forbid our customers to buy from us? Do you believe our shops will be shut up? Do you believe your capital will be confiscated? Because we are Jews?” He clearly believes that the answer to all of these questions is “no,” but within a few weeks and months Jewish businesses have been boycotted and the Oppermanns have been forced to sell their business to an Aryan competitor, i.e. the answer has become “yes.” The longer Gustav is in exile, the more he is able to read a press that is not muzzled, the more he hears the reports of other exiles, the more clearly he realizes the extent of his initial misjudgments and understands the true nature of the Nazis.
But by then it is too late. His attempt to work against the regime in Germany is a futile gesture that leaves him a broken and dying man. The Germany that he celebrated in his writings and felt at home in is no more. His extended family is scattered across Europe and Palestine in a new diaspora.
In real life, Feuchtwanger was part of that diaspora. His escape from France was itself the stuff of movies. Wanted by the Gestapo as an enemy of the state, Feuchtwangers life was in jeopardy once the Germans invaded France. An American minister and his wife helped smuggle him to Portugal (at one point disguising him as a woman) and then onto a ship bound for the United States. He joined many other German exiles in Los Angeles and continued his literary career.
What makes Feuchtwangers novel stand out in comparison to such works as Sinclair Lewiss and Philip Roths novels is that The Oppermanns is not an imagined takeover of American democracy loosely based on events in Germany a few years before, nor a retrospective imagined alternate history of the 30s in the U.S., but a realistic account of Germanys slide into dictatorship narrated by an author who was immersed in these events himself.
Feuchtwangers The Oppermanns is a case study in how quickly the institutions of democracy and the habits of civilization can be destroyed and how educated and well-intentioned citizens can watch the destruction proceed without seeing it. Feuchtwangers ability to render utterly real characters who labor with the very questions that were absorbing his contemporaries is illuminating. Reading him now — 84 years after the books publication and 60 years after the authors death — the quandaries feel very current. He overcomes the epistemological problem of modern readers: that we know how everything turned out. With hindsight we can perceive that certain beliefs (for example, that the traditional conservative parties could control Hitler and the Nazis for their purposes), events (that the Reichstagsfeuer was just a calamitous act of arson rather than a frame-up to justify persecuting Jews and other perceived enemies of the regime), and actions (that the Ermächtigungsgesetz, the Enabling Law that gave Hitler full dictatorial powers, might just be a temporary measure) were woefully mistaken. Contemporary Germans in early 1933 had no such omniscience and we feel that acutely.
All the books on my reading list, in one way or another, can be understood as warnings, but where most of them warn us to be on the lookout for certain actions and events, Feuchtwangers novel warns us — as contemporaneous citizens immersed in a historical moment — to look first and foremost at ourselves, to try to be hyper-aware of the import of the actions, words and events that surround us, to avoid the trap in which the Oppermanns found themselves and from which they escaped only when it was too late.
Jens Kruse is professor of German, emeritus at Wellesley College.