Wednesday, November 27, 2019

An Analogy Feuchtwanger Applied to Hitler’s Regime Applies with Equal Force to Putin’s, Zaydman Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 22 – Several commentators have observed that Putin’s Russia is perhaps best understood as a mad house in which the mentally ill have seized power and put the healthy into straightjackets, Vadim Zaydman says; but few know who first came up with such an image and about whom it was used. The origin is instructive.

            In his novel The Opperman Family (1933), Leon Feutchwanger described Hindenburg’s installation of Adolf Hitler in the following terms: “Germany has been transformed into a mad house in which the sick have taken power over their guards. Does the world see this? What will it do?” (

            “Replace the word ‘Germany’ with ‘Russia’ and you will get an exact description of the current situation even down to the word ‘Reichspresident,’ with regard to the imperial pretensions of Russia,” the Moscow commentator continues. “There is no need to delete anything” or make anything up either. 

            “The old Reichspresident Boris Nikolayevich Hindenburg handed over the country to his chosen successor, reminding him to ‘take care of Russia!’” It would be worth knowing whether the first Hindenburg demanded that his successor not investigate him, but in any case, that didn’t happen with the first or the second.

            But despite this charge, the first and the second Hitler undermined reforms, destroyed law, order and civilization, and in their place introduced “arbitrariness, chaos and force. Russia was transformed into a mad house in which the sick took power over their guards. As you see, everything corresponds down to the smallest detail.”

            “And Putin even arranged his own ‘Reichstag fire’ by blowing up the apartment houses” in 1999.

            When one rereads Feutchtwanger’s novel, many things one overlooked the first time jump out because they have such clear analogies with Putiin’s Russia and the world’s reaction to it, Zaydman continues.

            After Hitler was defeated, many asked how it could have been possible for him to dehumanize an entire nation, especially one that up to that time had been among the most cultured and enlightened.  But considering Russia’s experience under Putin, one sees that what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945 was hardly unique.

            But there is another commonality that is also striking: the failure of the outside world to react to what Hitler did then and what Putin is doing now. Feuchtwanger wrote his novel just after Hitler took power and asked the fateful question about how the rest of the world would react. The answer was not quickly but eventually overwhelmingly.

            The world preferred right after 1933 to “close its eyes” and to dismiss as alarmist those like Feuchtwanger who warned that ever more horrific things were going to come. “’Don’t exaggerate, don’t panic, with time as they are in power, they will calm down and be civilized,’” he and others were told. 

            “If the Germans themselves and even more if the German Jews were initially so blind, what could one say about the rest of the world? Even after 1938 when even the blind could not avoid seeing, the world preferred to occupy itself with trying to make peace with the aggressor,” Zaydman says.

            Today, “the world does not see the danger which the Putin regime represents and therefore does practically nothing to stop it,” even though it has the lesson of Hitler to draw upon.

            But if Feuchtwanger had no illusions about Hitler and tried to warn the world from the outset of Nazi rule, he himself “in relation to another cannibalistic regime displayed shocking blindness and naivete,” writing a book about Moscow in 1937 which ignored all that Stalin was doing in fact and in parallel.

            “Let us compare the two,” Zaydman says. “The Nazis came to power in 1933; and Feuchtwanger from the very beginning” saw what was going on and warned the world. But in Russia, “the communists had already been in power 16 years,” had organized concentration camps that the Nazis were to copy, and destroyed civilization.

            Despite what his defenders say, “there was sufficient information” about all this for Feutchtwanger to draw the necessary conclusions about the Soviet system much as the Marquis de Custine did a century earlier about the Russia of Nicholas I in his classic study, Russia in 1839.

            But Feuchtwanger didn’t, and it remains “completely beyond explanation” why a writer who was so insightful in one case was so blind in another.

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