Lion Feuchtwanger

and his Josephus Trilogy

By Jim Bloom

JB Historical Research Consultants Ltd.

The neglected German-Jewish author Lion Feuchtwanger is one of the most stalwart defenders of Josephus’ blighted reputation. Feuchtwanger ’s fiction trilogy, approximately based on Josephus’ discernible life history, is considered by many Josephan scholars to be in the forefront of the modern tendency towards moderation of the latter’s conventional traitor image. In Germany, paperback editions of Feuchtwanger’s novels have been enjoying a renaissance. They have sold close to a million copies from the late 1970s to the present day. No such recognition has been forthcoming among the world’s English-speaking population. Even among those English-speaking commentators that have mentioned Feuctwanger’s work the Josephus trilogy is overlooked. Yet, knowledgeable specialists generally agree that Feuchtwanger’s depiction of the noted Jewish historian is his finest achievement.

Feuchtwanger was a German Jew who wrote his works in German even after he resettled among LA’s German expatriate arts colony in 1941--- all refugees from Hitler’s regime. His Josephus, (the German title was der Judische Krieg, after Josephus’ own semi-fictional history) the first episode of the trilogy, reflects his determination to make the historical novel (his forte) relevant to contemporary issues. Josephus Flavius is a wonderful vehicle to illustrate the modern Jew’s schizophrenia. On the one hand, the Diaspora Jew of the early 20th century was pressured to be a nationalist patriot within his adopted country, and as such a "citizen of the world." On the other hand, he is obliged to champion Judaism and be a defender of the "Jewish people" refuting the ignorant slanders of those alien to its rich culture. During the waning days of Weimar Germany when the Nazi handwriting was already on the wall, this duality was very much on the mind of Feuchtwanger and his fellow German-Jewish intellectuals. Josephus, who -- in his own words -- was a leading light of the aristocratic Priestly order in Jerusalem, trained in the worldly Hellenistic culture as well, saw the inevitable and invincible rise of Roman political supremacy. He also watched the confrontational collision course that rebellious factions of Judaean Jews were taking toward the Roman colossus. He feared for the future of his people.

Feuchtwanger’s name had already become a literary by-word by 1926-1927 in England and America. It was then that his first major novel, Jud Süß, was brought out. It was known as Jew Suess in its London edition, and as Power under the imprimatur of the Viking Press in New York.

The usually brutal London reviewer Arnold Bennett described the story about the eighteenth century Jewish courtier Joseph Süss Oppenheimer as a novel that fascinated at the same time as it educated the reader. Equal critical acclaim greeted the novel throughout the world. In a cruel twist, Nazi film-makers appropriated the story for one of the first Nazi-influenced motion pictures, also titled Jud Süß. Of course the Nazi rendering depicted Suess-Oppenheimer as a typically rapacious Jewish money-manipulator.

There is a bizarre parallel to this Nazi desecration. When the inaugural installment of the Josephus trilogy was released in Germany under the title, der Judische Krieg (the Jewish War), anti-Semites initially snapped it up under the misconception that the novel concerned the final reckoning between Christians and the wicked Jews, in which the Jews get their come-uppance.

As the German-Jewish author of novels that astutely portrayed Jewish themes Feuchtwanger was repulsive to the National Socialist party, which was burgeoning in the twenties. His novel Success (Erfolg), on which he started to work in 1927, was published in 1930. In that year the Nazis received 18.3 percent of the votes. To Goebbels, Feuchtwanger became an un-German Jewish criminal. When Hitler came into power, Feuchtwanger was fortunately on an American tour. He realized he could not go back to his home…which, in fact, had been plundered by the Nazis and much of his invaluable rare manuscript collection…including many Josephus related items, was destroyed. He elected to take up residence in France.

In France Feuchtwanger completed the trilogy, begun in Berlin, on the life and work of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived in "officially" friendly Rome in the first century AD. As Feuchtwanger saw Josephus, the latter wished to transcend his Roman affiliation as well as his Jewish nationalism and achieve world citizenship. The literary contrivance, Josephus’ alleged "Psalm of the World Citizen", is the heart of the trilogy. Josephus sought an undivided cosmopolitan world but, again and again, was thrown back to his Jewish origins. At the end of the final novel Josephus realized that he had pursued worldwide consummation too soon, but, with his dying breath, prayed that Der Tag wird kommen, (The Day Will Come) as the German title reads. The American version is called Josephus and the Emperor, emphasizing the contest of wills between Josephus and the increasingly hostile Domitian. Volume 2, Die Sohne (The Son) is translated as Jew of Rome in the English and American editions  to highlight Josephus' "integration" into Roman society,  which falls far short of his unrealistic expectations. The German title denotes the significance -- and tragedy -- of Josephus’ legacy: the sad fate of his children.

While Feuchtwanger was working on the last chapters of Josephus, World War II broke out. Feuchtwanger and thousands of other anti-Fascists were interned in France. German exiles were, after all, Germans and thus potentially dangerous. His escape and eventual refuge in America, with the covert connivance of US diplomats, is quite an adventure story in itself.

In Germany, paperback editions of Feuchtwanger's novels have sold close to a million copies from the late seventies to the present day. His Frankfurt publisher asserts that "In my thirty years of experience as an editor, I have never seen a renaissance comparable to that of Feuchtwanger."

No such popularity has attended Feuchtwanger in the United States, where he remains largely unknown, except among cognoscenti of modern German literature. This reader unfamiliarity most likely stems from the fact that Feuchtwanger was anathema to American Cold Warriors of the late 1940s and the 1950s. In 1937, in the midst of the vicious "show trials" of falsely accused army officers, Feuchtwanger had made a visit to Moscow, in which he was granted an interview with Stalin, based upon Feuchtwanger’s already apparent sympathy with socialism. His report on the experience warmly praised Stalin and his program. He never formally recanted that naïve attitude. This taint as a fellow traveler, while it might have been appropriate to some of Feuchtwanger's colleagues in the West Coast German colony, such as Brecht, was unfair. Feuchtwanger believed in egalitarianism, and hated the fascism that had done so much evil to him and his people. But he was hardly a cheerleader of the Communist cause.

As far as his attitude towards using historical themes in a contemporary and politically relevant novel, the following excerpt from one of Feuchtwanger’s essays is instructive:

One topic that has deeply moved me as long as I can remember is the conflict between nationalism and internationalism in the heart of a single individual. If I were to tackle this theme in the form of a contemporary novel, I fear my presentation might be overshadowed and contaminated by personal grudges and resentment. I chose therefore to transplant this conflict into the soul of a man, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who, it appeared to me, had experienced it in the same way as so many do today, with the difference that he did so 1860 years ago.

I hope I have retained the peace of mind to judge things fairly; still I believe I can do a convincing job of depicting the persons who - 1870 years ago - put the torch to various central buildings in Nero's Rome, poor, foolish implements of the feudalists and militarists of their day that they were, and indeed do a more convincing job of it than I could of describing the people who two years ago set fire to the Reichstag in

Berlin, poor, foolish tools that they were of the feudalists and militarists of our own era.

Some Josephus specialists have cringed upon perusing Feuchtwanger’s liberties with their subject. For example, in Josephus, the protagonist is depicted as having been a temporary convert to the Zealot cause (styled as Makkabees by Feuchtwanger). This characterization is certainly a stretch; whatever sympathy Josephus may have had for the uprising was seen from the wary viewpoint of his self-aggrandizing priestly caste. Feuchtwanger had this to say with respect to such artistic license:
I have always made an effort to render every detail of my reality with the greatest accuracy; but I have never paid attention to whether my presentation of historical facts was an exact one. Indeed, I have often altered evidence which I knew to be documented if it appeared to interfere with my intended effect. Contrary to the scientist, the author of historical novels has the right to choose a lie that enhances illusion over a reality that distracts from it. Hindenburg scolded the artist who painted his portrait for incorrectly reproducing the buttons on his uniform: the painter Liebermann had different views on portraiture. It is not difficult to demonstrate that Homer, the authors of the Bible, Shakespeare, and countless other writers of historical works down to the present day have been surprisingly bold and cavalier in their handling of documented reality.

The final installment of the trilogy was published in the United States in 1942. It revealed Josephus as having failed as a father.
Both sons (by different wives, matrimony being another of Josephus’ failings) have met tragic ends:  the one becomes a stalwart Roman military commander fighting the Jewish rebels, the other has an "accident" at sea, arranged by Domitian -- for the young man is a would-be Messiah, and as such a threat to the principate. Josephus himself is killed in Galilee attempting to reach a Jewish rebel band in another rising in the year 107 CE. This invented rebellion occurs under the aegis of a young Rabbi Akiba, in reality, spiritual backer of Bar Kochba during the latter's rebellion of 132-135 CE.

Some critics, who admire the unappreciated fictional studies of Josephus, marvel that it was never brought to the screen. In fact, the film producer Dino De Laurentis near the end of Feuchtwanger’s life, had asked the latter to work up a screenplay adaptation of his Roman-Jewish War epic. Before he did this, however, Feuchtwanger had wanted to complete a screenplay on Simon Bolivar. In any event, there is no trace of a manuscript in Feuchtwanger’s records, as they reside in the Feuchtwanger Archives at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

I have been seeking leads to the whereabouts, or existence, of any such Josephus screenplay. This quest has been energized by my discovery of a play manuscript written by Feuchtwanger in Hebrew, based on the first volume of his trilogy. Titled "The Jewish War", it is a faithful representation of the novel, albeit in a mere 32 pages. The brevity of this manuscript suggests that it is an unfinished product. The provenance of the work is unknown. There is a Hebrew language translator – coincidentally reminiscent of Josephus’ alleged Greek language assistants. I have forwarded copies of the play to several professors in Israel, England and Switzerland – authorities in Josephus and German-Jewish literature. The play is being translated for me, although I have had a woman translate orally for me. From my preliminary review, it appears to be very faithful to the novel.

One of my informants tells me that the person listed as a translator or redactor on the title page used to write scripts for Israeli radio, indicating that the piece may have been performed on the air.

My hope is that this short piece can be expanded into a full screenplay and, as such, will attract some persons or organizations in the film industry who will at last do justice to this fascinating and powerful story…a tale that touches on the intense cataclysm in history when the Jewish people were in the last throes of the Temple cult, and the Christians were forming a new faith. Most importantly it will bring the amazing life and works of Josephus Flavius to a wide audience.

Jim Bloom

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