Hitler, My Neighbour: Edgar Feuchtwanger with Bertil Scali

Edgar Feuchtwanger (b. 1924) had a happy childhood with loving parents. His uncle was author Lion Feuchtwanger, and the Munich-based Jewish Feuchtwanger family mingled with intellectuals of the day. It’s 1929 and 5 year-old Edgar describes an evening with family when the subject of Mein Kampf comes up. Although the talk is light (who wrote the best book, Hitler or Lion Feuchtwanger), the subject matter is not: Lion Feuchtwanger, who was an early, vocal critic of the Nazis, argues that they will all be in trouble if Goebbels and Hitler have their way:

“Hitler’s a thug,” Uncle Lion replies, “a former prisoner, a schemer leading a band of good-for-nothings. They’ll do anything. They’re like the barons in the Middle Ages wanting to add another kingdom to their land. They want castles, gold and serfs. Like the barons, they’ll use the Jews to whip up hatred in the masses, who are just as superstitious as in those days.”

“Which is the gist of your novel,” says my father.
“Which is selling better than Mein Kampf.”

Of course we all know what lies ahead for Germany and the Jews, but these are still early days. As this memoir continues, the years pass, and Hitler comes into power, but before that, in 1929, the Feuchtwangers gain a new neighbour. Hitler moves in across the street. His house has the name of his cleaner “Winter” outside, but everyone knows who really lives there. Even at this point, members of the Feuchtwanger family debate Hitler’s staying power. By 1933 when Hitler is appointed Chancellor, the question of leaving Germany arises, but the family still remains. In 1934, Edgar is woken up by noise in the street outside of Hitler’s house as The Night of the Long Knives takes place.

Hitler my neighbour

In any household there’s the reality of the adults and the world of children. Little Edgar goes off to school, sucking up propaganda, innocently drawing swastikas without realizing their significance, and attends a screening of Triumph of the Will. Edgar is aware of danger and while he worries when his parents leave the house, he seems largely oblivious to the specific danger pointing towards his Jewish household.  By 1936, however, when Edgar loses his beloved nursemaid due to Nuremberg Laws forbidding Jews to employ staff with “German blood” under the age of 45, the realization of his Jewish identity hits hard. Soon Edgar is ostracized by former playmates at school.

The memoir recreates the surreal nature of having Hitler as a neighbour. Edgar can literally see Hitler’s apartment from a window. Here’s a man who controls what is happening to the Feuchtwanger family, and yet he passes Edgar and glances at the child and his nursemaid “quite benevolently.” Edgar notes Hitler’s social life and how he regularly hosts lunches for “a bevy of twenty girls.” The Feuchtwangers even go to the same dentist as Hitler. Hitler remains a distant figure for Edgar, an object of curiosity–in spite of the fact he lives right across the street. His presence is marked by lights behind curtains, noises during the night, and various comings and goings. This is a remarkable story.

I’d intended to read Hitler, My Neighbour for German month, but it was originally written in French.

Review copy

Translated by Adriana Hunter

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8 Comments

Filed under Feuchtwanger Edgar, Non Fiction

8 responses to “Hitler, My Neighbour: Edgar Feuchtwanger with Bertil Scali

  1. Is it a memoir or a novel?

  2. Sorry, I should have made that clear. It’s a memoir. Will edit to reflect that.

  3. My head isn’t in the right place for something like this right now, but it does sound very striking. As a slight aside, have you seen the film ‘The Childhood of a Leader’ which speculates on the key moments in the formative years of a boy who goes on to become a Fascist leader? I found it chilling and gripping in equal measure.

  4. I recently heard a radio interview with Paul Ham, who has just published “The Young Hitler”. It was interesting to hear his close friend talk about his habit of delivering long rants on all manner of subjects, rants that most people dismissed as just Adolf being a weirdo. I suppose we just have to be thankful that circumstances don’t usually come together to make an opening for charismatic misfits – but now and then they do.

    • In another non fiction book I read, Hitler was definitely seen as a weirdo. The author first encountered Hitler during H’s ‘artist’ phase. The impression was that Hitler was dressed up as an artist and had no idea how people viewed him.

  5. That sounds very interesting – thanks for bringing it to my attention. I read his Bismarck biography years ago (he was teaching for decades at the University of Southampton), and he published quite a lot on English and German 19th Century history. Glad the he co-authored his childhood memoirs, obviously an intriguing book.

  6. Very interesting indeed. I’m reading Feuchtwanger for my readalong and he’s a pleasant surprise. There’s an interest8ng part in which Mein Kampf is discussed. Apparently it was very badly written. Full of mistakes.

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