What It Feels Like When Fascism Starts

A 1933 novel tracks the Nazis’ rise to power in real time.

Nazis marching
Getty; The Atlantic

Among the many Holocaust anecdotes I heard again and again as a child—my grandparents were the kind of survivors who liked to talk—certain stories took on the force of fables. And none was more common than the tale of the brother who stayed and the brother who left. Different versions of this basic narrative abounded, set in 1933, in 1938, in 1941. One brother couldn’t bear to abandon his small shop or his parents or his homeland, while another brother packed a suitcase at the first inkling of danger and set off toward the French border or over the North Sea or into Soviet territory. The more impetuous one lives. That was the takeaway. When the social and political barometric pressure begins to drop, when you can feel that tingling: Leave.

Even recounted by survivors, maybe especially so, the simple story of a threshold, in or out, always seemed too shaped by retrospect. A decision like that—ethical, national, personal—must have been grueling and not at all obvious. How many of the people who swore they would leave after Donald Trump was elected, fearing the same collapse of democratic norms that the Nazis portended, actually did? Not so many. Identifying the point at which all is lost is not that easy.

This existential dilemma is Lion Feuchtwanger’s abiding concern in The Oppermanns, a long-forgotten masterpiece published in 1933 and recently reissued with a revised translation by the novelist Joshua Cohen. It is a book written in real time—written, that is, right on that threshold. Feuchtwanger was one of the most popular German writers of his generation, and he meant for this family saga (think of a high-speed Buddenbrooks) to open the eyes of those blind to Hitler’s full intent. It offers something more, though, almost in spite of itself. The novel is an emotional artifact, a remnant of a world sick with foreboding, incredulity, creeping fear, and—this may feel most familiar to us today—the impossibility of gauging whether a society is really at the breaking point.

In The Oppermanns, the members of one German Jewish family come to realize, each at a different pace, that they are no longer welcome in the country they have come to think of as home. Showing us this dawning, its varying velocity and consequences, is Feuchtwanger’s project. The best-selling writer of popular historical fiction was already living in exile in the south of France by the spring of 1933, when he began writing this book. The Nazis had ransacked his personal library. His own work was being burned in massive bonfires. And his German citizenship had been stripped. It was at this moment that he cast back just a few months to begin his story of the Oppermann siblings, describing their fate over the course of nearly a year, from November of 1932, just before Hitler was appointed chancellor, through his quick consolidation of all power, and ending in the summer of 1933 with the family “scattered to all the eight winds.”

Feuchtwanger endows his titular clan with a 19th-century forebear, Immanuel Oppermann, a paragon of successful assimilation who built a well-loved business producing affordable, good-quality furniture for the German middle class. His portrait serves as the firm’s logo, a testament to a man who made “the emancipation of the German Jew a fact, not a mere printed paragraph.” His four grandchildren have inherited this sense of ease in German society. Martin is the serious-minded steward of the company. Gustav is a self-satisfied intellectual and playboy, whose passion project is a biography of the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing. Edgar is an internationally recognized throat specialist. And Klara, though mostly absent from the book, is married to Jacques Lavendel, an outspoken Eastern European Jew who has remade himself in Berlin through his connections to the family. (We learn of a fourth brother, Ludwig, who was killed as a soldier in World War I—the ultimate tribute to fatherland.)

When we meet them, staying or going is not the siblings’ immediate concern. They are not there yet. They confront a different choice: maintaining dignity versus heeding common sense. These two phrases, dignity and common sense, echo throughout the book, and Feuchtwanger’s characters are troubled, in this moment of emergency, by the tension between these imperatives: Do you follow where your ethics and ego lead, or do you pay attention instead to the sounds of breaking glass outside, the “barbarism,” as the Oppermanns describe it, and recognize that it cannot be overcome by one person, let alone by a Jew?

Martin, for whom dignity is “a quality that was so dear to his own heart,” is given one of the first tests. When the newly empowered Nazis begin moving toward the “Aryanization” of all Jewish businesses, his advisers, including his brother-in-law, Lavendel, tell him to come to an agreement with a competing furniture firm’s owner, Heinrich Wels, and allow for an orderly takeover before the family is dispossessed of everything. Martin won’t do it. He won’t abase himself in front of Wels, who is very much enjoying his sudden advantage.

Common sense here dovetails with historical sense, and it’s left to Lavendel, the fatalistic Eastern European, to make the argument (and a Jewish joke of sorts), telling a totemic story about a town: “Grosnowice changed masters seventeen times. Seven times the changes brought pogroms with them. Three times they seized a certain Chayim Leibelschitz and told him: ‘Now we are going to hang you.’ Everyone said to him, ‘Be sensible, Chayim, Leave Grosnowice.’ He did not leave. They seized him a fourth time and again they did not hang him. But they did shoot him.”

Eventually, Martin relents. Wels demands that he come visit him, makes Martin wait 40 minutes, and then finally appears dressed in a storm-trooper uniform. Martin is then denied an honorific (“he would not be Herr Oppermann any longer”) and at first even a chair, a hint of what will come in the book’s last act, when he finds himself forced to stand in a dank prison basement for hours as a form of torture. This, though, is the first premonition of dehumanization. Martin’s belief in his individual value, in his everlasting, exalted place in Berlin, is no match for the societal forces shaping the moment. “I let you wait a long time, Oppermann,” Wels tells Martin. “A matter of politics. As you know, Oppermann, politics are now the first consideration.”

Feuchtwanger ratchets up the moral intensity for Martin’s 17-year-old son, Berthold. A Nazi has recently become his instructor and informed him that the report the young man had been planning to deliver to the class—“Humanism and the Twentieth Century”—won’t do. The Nazi forbids him “on principle” from taking on such “abstract subjects.” Instead, he switches Berthold’s topic to Arminius, an ancient tribal leader who triumphed in battle over the Romans and is heralded as a proto-German nationalist. From “Humanism” to “What can we learn today from Arminius the German?”: Feuchtwanger here, as in many other places, is far from subtle.

Berthold’s talk goes awry when he begins to raise a few possible objections as to Arminius’s lasting significance. From the back of the classroom, the glowering Nazi instructor starts shouting, “Who do you think you are, young man? What sort of people do you suppose you have sitting here before you? Here, in the presence of Germans, in this time of German need, you dare to characterize the tremendous act that stands at the beginning of German history as useless and devoid of meaning?” To this harangue, Berthold answers, “I am a good German, Herr Senior Master. I am as good a German as you are.” A battle of wills ensues, with the Nazi demanding a public apology from Berthold if he wants to avoid expulsion, and Berthold, like his father, standing on principle, defending his dignity.

Berthold can’t understand what he did wrong. He fails to see that national identity and power matter more than intellectual inquiry in Nazi Germany. The greatest injury to his sense of dignity is the notion that he must lie. Or, more precisely, that he must take back something he said in his lecture that was irrefutably true—that Arminius’s resistance to the Roman legions, the source of the nationalists’ pride, made hardly a dent on the empire. The primacy of lying, its role as the building block for this new form of German-ness, is something that he, and the other Oppermanns, simply can’t handle. “Was it un-German to tell the truth?” he asks himself.

But Berthold, unlike his father, does not abandon his dignity for common sense. On the evening before he must publicly apologize in front of the entire school, he swallows a fatal handful of sleeping pills—the hinge moment of the novel. On top of the manuscript of his lecture, Berthold leaves behind a short note: “There is nothing to explain, nothing to add, nothing to leave out. Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.” The date is March 1, 1933, one day after Hitler’s Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspends civil liberties and due process of law. In a few weeks, the Dachau concentration camp will open.

The fact that Feuchtwanger could write with such clarity about history-altering events that had not yet been fully digested is astonishing. We still don’t have the 9/11 masterpiece or the pandemic novel to silence all other pandemic novels. The book has its share of heavy-handedness, to be sure: the busts of Voltaire and Frederick the Great, standing in for reason and brute power, respectively, that sit in opposite corners of a schoolmaster’s office; a stain on the wall of one character’s apartment that grows as his situation worsens. Feuchtwanger intended his book to be a morality tale, a work of proselytizing by the brother who left.

But what pulses through this story of the Oppermanns is the emotion. Feuchtwanger, sitting in exile, was grieving and angry. He was panicked. Not enough people were seeing just how corrosive this confusion of truth and lies could be, how harmful it was for the most vulnerable in society, who were liable to be turned into scapegoats for almost anything. Hannah Arendt elaborated on these insights in The Origins of Totalitarianism 18 years later, after Auschwitz, but Feuchtwanger just felt them. He wants to provide a structure, a container for the story of madness that he’s telling, but what leaks out is the madness itself, the experience of men enduring the same pain and sorrow that he is.

The varied reactions to what feels, in 1933, like a rupture that might lead to worse or might not, will be recognizable to readers of the reissue in 2022. Some of the first pages are filled with laughter at these new contenders for power, at just how “ridiculous” they are, how “vulgar.” Certainly they are no match for the civilizing force of German culture and Bildung. Gustav Oppermann mocks the terrible German of Mein Kampf. The crudeness of Hitler and his followers seems enough to strangle National Socialism in its cradle. Mockery leads to incredulity: How can people not see what’s in front of their noses?

One by one, each sibling is confronted with a reality that feels as determined as a natural disaster, in which the volume of lies being hurled against them, and against Jews in general, becomes impossible to even begin to refute. “It was an earthquake, one of those great upheavals of concentrated, fathomless, worldwide stupidity,” Feuchtwanger writes at the moment of no return. “Pitted against such an elemental force, the strength and wisdom of the individual was useless.”

Once in exile, they still must contend with how hard it is for Germans to acknowledge exactly what is happening. When Gustav’s girlfriend, Anna, visits him in the south of France, where he (like Feuchtwanger) is taking refuge, he tries to impress upon her that the Germany they knew is slipping away. A national boycott of Jewish businesses has just taken place. But she can’t, or won’t, absorb this. “One national government had given place to another, which was still more nationalist,” is how Feuchtwanger captures Anna’s point of view. “That boycott was, of course, an atrocious thing and so was the book burning. It was disgusting to read the papers and disgusting to hear the row the Nationalists made. But who took that seriously? As a matter of fact, life was going on just the same as before.” Gustav doesn’t even blame her too harshly. This self-deception is “the only way to protect oneself; even honest, right-thinking people did it, so as not to lose their very foundations, their homeland.”

We do get a glimpse of the horror to come, the aftershock upon aftershock of that earthquake: Gustav, for example, sneaks back into Germany under an assumed name to confirm the facts in a dossier passed on to him detailing pogroms and other acts of local violence, and is arrested and taken to a concentration camp, where he is tortured before being released. But in 1933, deracination seems to be as bad an outcome as Feuchtwanger can imagine for Germany’s Jews. Occasionally, I’d be reminded of how little, for all his worry, he could really guess about what would follow. A minor character, upset that the new anti-Jewish sentiment might mean the loss of his job and his apartment, thinks to himself, “If the rest of his life were to go on as it was at present, one might just as well turn on the gas right away.” I almost dropped the book.

Feuchtwanger himself had a harrowing escape from Europe. When Germany and France went to war in 1939, he was detained, eventually released after his publisher paid a bribe, then detained again. He managed to break out of barracks in Nîmes with the aid of his wife, and he became one of the many German Jewish artists and intellectuals (including Arendt) whom the journalist Varian Fry helped flee to the United States. Feuchtwanger settled into his unlikely Edenic exile in Los Angeles alongside Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann. There, he continued writing novels at a steady pace until his death in 1958.

It’s hard to know how much to relate a book like The Oppermanns to our present reality. The same retrospective knowledge that can produce needed foresight and activism can also lead to overreaction, panic, and distraction. Has it ever really been that useful to compare Trump to Hitler? Sometimes yes, but oftentimes no. Feuchtwanger himself doesn’t seem to be offering a template for how democracy dies. If anything, in his novel, templates shatter easily and quickly. For all the lessons he is trying to impart in 1933, there is no clearer answer about when exactly it’s time to go, when holding on to dignity becomes self-indulgent and dangerous. What remains instead is a deep sense of that rumbling “elemental force,” and the impossible choices should you find yourself stuck in its path.