WE HAVE had many books of documentary evidence against Nazi Germany, its leaders and its-led, books by refugees, investigators, journalists, pamphleteers and propagandists. They have been on the whole, searing indictments, indictments to rouse even the most indifferent to indignation. Only in the case of one of these, “Murder—Made in Germany,” was there the least effort to give the anti-Nazi material a fictional formal form. It has remained for Germany’s greatest living Jewish novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger, who had the great good luck to be out of Germany when the mailed fist struck, to give us the first great expression in fiction of what the impact of Hitlerism has meant, on a large scale as affecting the nation and on a small, intimate scale, as affecting a family group of German Jews. The book bears the title of “The Oppermanns.”
There is passion in the book, but passion does not get the better of the novelist. Nothing so clearly indicates the measure of Herr Feuchtwanger’s power as a novelist as the manner in which he has leashed his own sense of indignation. In fact, I believe that Herr Feuchtwanger did a little leaning backward so that it becomes somewhat inadvisable, against the burden of newspaper reports, for the Nazis to call him an atrocity-monger. But the drive of the book as a whole is not impaired by the evidences of self-restraint. There is not in the whole range of the book such a scene as that with which Heinz Liepmann opens his “Murder—Made in Germany,” but nonetheless “The Oppermanns” will stay with us longer, as a work of art, as pure narrative, carrying, and more than able to carry, its full weight of propaganda value.
The Oppermann family, before the terror came, was entrenched, socially, in business and in the medical world. It was an intermarried family, with sons half-Gentile. It had none of the marks of the proletarian or nouveau riche. It was a Jewish family but it was entrenched in German soil and German culture. The book opens with Gustav Oppermann, eldest of the three brothers, celebrating his 50th birthday. Senior partner in the Oppermann Furniture Stores, he is rather philosopher and litterateur than business man. On the slightly younger brother, Martin, falls the responsibility of conducting the business, Edgar is the famous surgeon, a treasure of German medicine. Only Gustav is unmarried and he is at the begining more concerned about his Lessing biography than about the rising Nationalist movement.
Lion Feuchtwanger tells us what the Nazi revolution means by showing us how it affects these three brothers, their wives, their sisters and their sons; their employees and their club associates. Through young Berthold, Martin’s son, we see eloquently stated the meaning of the Nazi invasion of the German school system, and what happens to such high-minded German Germans as Rector Francois, who holds firm to his ideals against the crude martinet who is Nationalizing, that is brutalizing, the minds of his charges. Through Marcus Wolfsohn, a salesman in the Oppermann Furniture Stores, we see what the Nazi revolution means to a German Jew of the middle class who has no Jewish consciousness, but would like to be left alone. M
GROWTH OF A SOUL
Herr Feuchtwanger has done another thing in “The Oppermanns. He has given us the development of a mature soul under pressure. Gustav Oppermann is shown at the opening of the book as a dilettante, living the life of cultivated leisure, untouched by any of the vital currents of the day. In fact, he is rather child-like and childish. Then comes impact after impact. He sees what is happening. But it is not until he has reached refuge in a foreign land and evidences of the Nazi terror come to him, in document and verbal report, that he awakes to the true state of affairs, and then, to make amends to his murdered comrade, Professor Cohn, at whose anti-Nazi ardor he had once jibed, he returns on a forged passport to take upon his own shoulders the double burden of discovering the truth for himself and of suffering.
In brief, “The Oppermanns” is a fine novel and a deeply-moving work of art.