Exile and ‘Heimat’: Tensions in Lion Feuchtwanger’s Historical Fiction and Drama 1933-1951

Scientific Essay, 2009

33 Pages



The rise of National Socialism in Germany and the subsequent events of the mid-twentieth century transformed the literary landscape as well as that of the political. Feuchtwanger’s work from 1933 onwards is noticeably characterised and coloured by his status as an Exile author: his somewhat strained relationship with both homeland and adopted country, the United States, comes to the forefront in his writing. There is a convincing argument to be made that that Feuchtwanger’s development of the historical novel was essentially a didactic exercise, mastered against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism and the later political dynamics of the 1950s with the onset of the Cold War and the Red Scare in the United States. The author had as his purpose to convey the lessons of history and, by extension, to afford the reader the opportunity to apply these lessons to the political affairs of the present, all the while maintaining a steadfast belief that the reason would prevail over unreason – an unwavering faith in the eventual enlightenment of man.

The liberal artistic climate of the Weimar Republic came to a sharp and final end with Hitler’s seizure of power in January 1933, which inevitably led to the mass Exodus of many Jewish intellectuals and in 1930, when Feuchtwanger made the observation that Berlin was populated by future exiles, Goebbels added that Feuchtwanger had earned his place among them.[1] Of Hitler’s stance on Jewish intellectuals as early as 1933, Longerich quotes the Völkischer Beobachter of 7 April 1933, reporting a speech made my the Chancellor at a reception for senior medical officials.

It was necessary to satisfy Germany’s natural right to its own unique brand of spiritual leadership, and to do this via the imminent eradication of Jewish intellectuals from the cultural and spiritual life of Germany.[2]

The reasons behind exile are clear: even before the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 – a series of denaturalisation laws – measures against Jews were commonplace any literary works deemed incompatible with the principles of National Socialism were targeted by the student-organised book burnings of 10 May, 1933 and more than 25,000 volumes of ‘un-German’ books were burned, with Feuchtwanger’s work specifically included alongside those of authors such as E.M. Remarque. Such early demonstrations of aggression acted as precursor to the strict censorship and official Nazi control of the German cultural sphere, spearheaded by Goebbels as head of the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda, which existed with the express purpose of regulating German culture and society through the dissemination of National Socialist ideology. In the light of a comprehensive purge of all dissenters and the persecution of German Jews, it is hardly surprising that during twelve years of Nazi rule nearly 300,000 Germans and Austrians emigrated to the USA to find shelter. As a rule, these exiles were generally from the higher social classes and predominantly intellectuals, a far cry from generations of German immigrants of previous decades. These exiles, Feuchtwanger one of their number, experienced a huge culture shock in this new environment, a shock for which they were, for the most part, very ill prepared. In order to make the international community more aware of the situation, Feuchtwanger’s work developed a more pronounced political dynamic, “confess[ing] to a clear political agenda in his writing of historical novels”[3], using a didactic mechanism to appeal to society’s sense of reason.

Feuchtwanger’s earlier novels – including Erfolg (1930) and Die Geschwister Oppermann (1933) – overtly opposed Hitler and the National Socialists, and accordingly his German citizenship was revoked in the first list published by the official Nazi Reichsanzeiger on 25 August 1933. While he was touring the United States in late 1932, the authorities in Berlin confiscated and ransacked his house in the capital, destroying much of his library, manuscripts and collected works, in the process. From this point on the author was never to return to his homeland. When he returned to Europe, it was to join his wife, Marta in Sanary-sur-mer in the south of France. After the German invasion of France in 1940, Feuchtwanger was captured and placed in an internment camp – Camp des Milles – until his wife helped him escape with the help Varian Fry and Hiram Bingham, the US vice-consul in Marseilles. After travelling to New York in 1940, he found asylum in the USA and settled in Southern California.

The historical novel is the literary genre that predominantly comes to mind whenever Feuchtwanger’s name is mentioned. Indeed, it was not without considerable difficulty that Feuchtwanger succeeded in completely “modernizing the nineteenth-century historical novel by using historical facts as allegorical material for his literary analysis of contemporary issues”.[4] Traditionally, the idea of historical fiction is often met with the accusation that it cannot be deemed a serious intellectual pursuit on account of an alleged tendency towards the banal. Feuchtwanger, more than aware of this prejudice, defended his point of view in vehemently disputing this preconception in Centrum Opuscula. Moltschanova quotes him on the subject:

Ich verstehe das Vorurteil gegen diese Literaturgattung, aber es ist ein Vorurteil...Ich habe mir oft die großen, gültigen historischen Kunstwerke daraufhin angesehen, ob sie wohl Historie oder Mythologie um ihrer selbst willen haben darstellen wollen, ob ihre Urheber sich vom Kostüm, vom farbigen Hintergrund haben locken lassen, ob sie historische oder zeit­genössische Inhalte haben gestalten wollen. Ich bin in jedem einzelnen Fall zu dem Schluss gekommen, dass der Künstler nichts anders beabsichtigte, als sein eigenes (zeitgenössisches) Lebensgefühl, sein subjektives (keineswegs historisierendes) Weltbild so auszudrücken, dass es sich ohne weiteres auf den Leser übertrage.[5]

At the 1935 Paris Congress on the Defence of Culture, he confronted critics of the genre directly by maintaining that he used historical material and fact as parables, thereby “raising the subject matter from the personal and the private to the higher level of the socio-political”.[6]

An open and clear political agenda was the motive behind Feuchtwanger’s historical fiction and drama; he sought to appeal to his readers’ human reason. Faulhaber notes that: “while history appeals only to the intellect, historical fiction appeals to the man’s emotions as well […] although Feuchtwanger exhibited proficiency as a researcher and scholar in his essays and articles on history, he remained primarily an artist”[7] He considered it the duty of any politically minded author to “activate the events of the past for the present and the future” so that this might appeal to reason the human mindlessness and stupidity exhibited in the violence of the Second World War. O’Dochartaigh quotes the author on the subject.

Ich für mein Teil habe mich, seitdem ich schreibe, bemüht, historische Romane für die Vernunft zu schreiben, gegen Dummheit und Gewalt, gegen das, was Marx das Versinken in die Geschichtslosigkeit nennt. Vielleicht gibt es auf dem Gebiet der Literatur Waffen, die unmittelbarer wirken: aber mir liegt, aus Gründen, die ich darzulegen versuchte, am beste diese Waffe, der historische Roman, und ich beabsichtige, sie weiter zu gebrauchen.[8]

Feuchtwanger takes an historical framework and by makes it relevant to the goings-on in contemporary society. All of the lessons afforded by Feuchtwanger’s writings are void without the subject matter essentially being of the present regardless of the era depicted in the text.

Whilst at first glance it seems strange that an author preoccupied with an engagement with human reason might complicate matters through blatant refusal to offer a pure and balanced analysis of history, the historical context is a mere backdrop for greater political comment, a far cry from say the works of Alexandre Dumas and other novelists of historical fiction in the past. For Feuchtwanger, the historical aspect to his work was necessarily secondary to the political dynamic: his intention was not to tell a story for its own sake through depiction of a given historical period or to excite the reader through action, intrigue and suspense. Feuchtwanger subscribed to Nietzsche’s philosophy in that that the human characteristics and the problems faced by men were constant throughout time. In his essay Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben (1874) he states: “das Vergangene und das Gegenwärtige ist eines und dasselbe, nämlich in aller Mannigfaltigkeit typisch gleich und als Allgegenwart unvergänglicher Typen ein stillstehendes Gebilde von unverändertem Werte und ewig gleicher Bedeutung.”[9]. The entire premise behind Feuchtwanger’s conception of the historical novel is based on the activistic view of historiography’s function, influenced by Theodor Lessing. In Lessing’s Geschichte als Sinngebung des Sinnlosen (1919) he “subscribes to the idea that the intellectual activity of ordering the chaos of diffuse historical events into a meaningful whole does not primarily depend upon given empirical data, but rather on the sociological and psychological needs of an individual, a group, or a whole civilisation”[10]. In effect, he sees the function of historian as a social guardian, writing in such a way that any threats posed against the socio-political norm are confronted directly. Keune notes that Feuchtwanger would quote Mark Twain’s advice to the young Rudyard Kipling: “Young man, first get your facts, then distort them as you please.’ Here we have Feuchtwanger’s general stand on the issue of historical positivism versus historical fiction”[11]. Faced with the decision between a focus on strict and verifiable historical fact and deviating from positivist historiography on artistic grounds through embellishment and modification, Feuchtwanger took the latter course. He stated that: “the artistic representation of history is a more serious pursuit than the exact writing of history. For the art of letters goes to the heart of things whereas the factual report merely collocates details”[12].

Like many of his contemporaries, Feuchtwanger’s work developed in such a way that didacticism became a significant component. Fellow exile author Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus (1947) introduced the allegorical figure Adrian Leverkühn, whose moral and spiritual downfall parallels the German nation’s demise into the clutches of Nazism and Fascism. Die Füchse im Weinberg (1948) and Goya oder der arge Weg der Erkenntnis (1951) can also be seen as part of a wider trend of socio-political documentation in literature: the dissemination of didactics relating to universal human themes regardless of the time-period specific to the novel. The root of Feuchtwanger’s development of the genre is that “he shifted the emphasis from inner to outer conflict. Instead of penetrating the psyches of key personalities, he concentrated on the external forces which guided or moved these men”[13]. Going against the grain of historical novels being an exercise in biography or narrative of the past, Feuchtwanger’s texts make use of the historical construct simply in order to achieve an allegory for analysis of the present. The importance of circumstance and the wider political picture in the novels had the effect of relating the universal human and political condition: the only time he would present a character’s thoughts would be when they were succinct representations of either history of philosophy presented a character’s thoughts only when those thoughts reflected either his own philosophy or conception of history.

Die Geschwister Oppermann (1933), based firmly in the conditions of the present, not only responds to the contemporary social and political reality but it also serves to anticipate the future. The text, in effect deals almost exclusively in “publically known matters [where] reality or plausibility exists essentially within the consciousness of the audience.”[14] Its completion in 1933 was achieved five years before the end of appeasement as official foreign policy and more significantly many years before the true extent of the Holocaust was to be known. Indeed, it was during the period after the text had been published, government policy towards the Jews was to undergo incremental change. Longerich notes that National Socialist policy underwent “three distinct phases” during the period 1933-1939.[15] Up until 1934 the focus of anti-semitic policy had been centred on removing Jews from ‘public life’ and it was not until 1935 that policies “of segregation and comprehensive legal discrimination” were initiated.

It was in autumn 1937 that the last and most radical phase of anti-Jewish policies was initiated: the German Jews were then completely stripped of their judicial rights; the gradual process of expropriating Jewish wealth that had begun as early as 1933 was rapidly brought to its conclusion in a formally legalised manner.[16]

Reflecting the present allowed Feuchtwanger to portray the devastating consequences National Socialism wreaks upon one family. In doing so he very quickly became one of the principal spokespersons for the opposition to the Third Reich, resolute in his desire to not accept the status quo and made his resistance to the harassment faced by the Jewish people in Germany known and understood by an international readership. In fact, the novel had originally been commissioned by Ramsay MacDonald to be written as the script for an anti-Hitler screenplay,[17] and Feuchtwanger collaborated with film-producer Sydney Gilliat whilst writing the script until the British government decided upon appeasement of Hitler as foreign policy, at which point the project was dropped. Feuchtwanger then proceeded to convert the story into a novel, to be published in September 1933 by Querido Verlag, a publishing house based in Amsterdam that specialised in the publication of texts by German writers in exile from Nazi Germany.

The Oppermanns are a wealthy Jewish family, running a large and successful furniture production and sales empire. There are three brothers: Martin who runs the family business; Edgar who is a distinguished laryngologist and Gustav is a successful writer and literary critic, each of whom has to endure considerable hardship as a consequence of the rise of the National Socialists. The action of the novel runs from late 1932 until the summer of 1933 and there are a number of identifiable thematic strands, all which combine to form Feuchtwanger’s didactic mechanism. The most poignant of these is the case of Martin’s son, Bertold, who resorts to suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping medication as a means of escape from the harsh reality of daily existence, where he faces increasing problems at school from his Nazi schoolmaster, Vogelsang, and classmates as a result of being half-Jewish. His father attempts to save the family firm and this is to no avail: his efforts end with arrest and humiliation at the hands of the SA, whilst Edgar loses his position at the hospital on account of the hatred his co-workers, students and patients feel towards him: he is targeted by the government-controlled media who accuse him of using disadvantaged patients as guinea pigs for dangerous experiments, and on the day of the Jewish boycott, he is expelled from his clinic, along with thirty other Jewish doctors. Given that the text was only published in 1933, this treatment of Jewish doctors is very much a prediction on Feuchtwanger’s part – Longerich, for instance, mentions that at this point in 1933,


[1] Harold von Hofe, The Novelist Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958), Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, http://www.usc.edu/libraries/archives/arc/libraries/feuchtwanger/ writings/novelist.html.

[2] Peter Longerich, The Unwritten Order: Hitler’s Role in the Final Solution (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), pp. 42-47 (pp. 45-46).

[3] Pol O’Dochartaigh, ‘The Present Sense of an Historical Novel: Feuchtwanger’s Waffen für Amerika ’, in German Monitor: Refuge and Reality: Feuchtwanger and the European Emigres in California, ed. by Pol O’Dochartaigh and Alexander Stephan (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), pp. 31-39 (p.31).

[4] Roland Dollinger, ‘In Defense of Reason and Justice: Lion Feuchtwanger’s Historical Novels of the Weimar Republic’, in German Novelists of the Weimar Republic: Intersections of Literature and Politics, ed. by Karl Leydecker (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2006), pp. 61-70 (p. 62).

[5] Lion Feuchtwanger, ‘Vom Sinn und Ursinn des historischen Romans’, in Lion Feuchtwanger, Centrum Opuscula, ed. Wolfgang Berndt (Rudolstadt: Griefenverlag, 1956), pp. 508-15 (p. 509).

[6] Jost Hermand: ‘The Case of the Well-Crafted Novel: Lion Feuchtwanger’s Goya’, in High and Low Cultures: German Attempts at Mediation, ed. by Jost Hermand and Reinhold Grimm (Madison & London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), pp. 75-92 (p. 77).

[7] Uwe Karl Faulhaber, ‘Lion Feuchtwanger’s Theory of the Historical Novel’, in Lion Feuchtwanger – The Man – His Ideas – His Work – A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by John M. Spalek (Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls, 1972), pp. 68-81, (p.68).

[8] Lion Feuchtwanger, ‘Vom Sinn und Unsinn des historischen Romans’, in L.F., Centum Opscula, ed. Wolfgang Berndt (Rudolstadt: Griefenverlag, 1956), pp. 508-15 (p. 514-15), quoted by Pol O’Dochartaigh, The Present Sense of an Historical Novel, p. 32.

[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben’ in Ungezeitmäße Betrachtungen I-IV, Vol.1 of Sämtliche Werke, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag/de Gruyter, 1999) pp.248-260 (p. 256).

[10] Faulhaber, ‘Lion Feuchtwanger’s Theory of the Historical Novel’, p. 69.

[11] Manfred Keune, ‘Das Haus der Desdemona: Lion Feuchtwanger’s Apologia for a Mimesis of History’, in Lion Feuchtwanger – The Man – His Ideas – His Work, pp. 85-96 (p. 86).

[12] Faulhaber, ‘Lion Feuchtwanger’s Theory of the Historical Novel’, p. 68.

[13] Faulhaber, ‘Lion Feuchtwanger’s Theory of the Historical Novel’, p. 78.

[14] Herbert Lindenberger, Historical Drama: The Relation of Literature and Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975) pp. 1-29 (p. 2).

[15] Longerich, The Unwritten Order, p. 45.

[16] Longerich, The Unwritten Order, p. 46.

[17] Angela Vaupel, Zur Rezeption von Exilliteratur und Lion Feuchtwangers Werk in Deutschland 1945 bis heute (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 28-51 (p. 32).

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