In November 1932 Gustav Opperman turns fifty. He is the senior owner of a furniture manufacturing company, owner of a solid current account in a bank and a beautiful mansion in Berlin, built and furnished to his own taste. The work attracts him a little, he appreciates his worthy, informative leisure more. A passionate bibliophile, Gustav writes about people and books of the 18th century, he is very pleased with the opportunity to conclude an agreement with the publishing house on the biography of Lessing. He is healthy, complacent, full of energy, lives with taste and pleasure.
On his birthday Gustav collects relatives, close friends, good acquaintances. Brother Martin gives him a family heirloom – a portrait of their grandfather,
However, reality now and then rudely breaks into their fairly closed world. Martin,
Jacques Lavendel, husband of the youngest sister Oppermanov Clara, regrets that Martin missed the chance, failed to agree with Wels. Martin is annoyed by his manner of calling unpleasant things by his own names, but we must pay tribute, the brother-in-law is a fine businessman, a man with a large fortune, cunning and rash. You can, of course, translate the furniture company Oppermanov to his Name, because he once wisely won himself an American citizenship.
Another brother of Gustav – a doctor Edgar Opperman – heads the city clinic, he loves everything related to his profession as a surgeon, and hates administration. The newspapers attack him, he allegedly uses the poor, free patients for his dangerous experiments, but the professor tries in every possible way to protect himself from the vile reality. “I am not a German doctor, a German scientist, there is no German medicine or Jewish medicine, there is a science, and nothing more!” – he tells the secret counselor Lorentz, the chief doctor of all city clinics.
Christmas is coming. Professor Arthur Mulheim, the firm’s legal adviser, suggests that Gustav transfer his money abroad. He refuses: he loves Germany and considers it dishonest to withdraw his capital from it. Gustav is confident that the overwhelming majority of Germans on the side of truth and reason, no matter how Nazis pour money and promises, they will not be able to fool and a third of the population. What will the Führer finish, he discusses in a friendly circle, barking at a fairground booth or an insurance agent?
The seizure of power by the fascists stunned the Oppermanov with his imaginary surprise. In their opinion, Hitler – a parrot, helplessly babbling on someone else’s clue, is entirely in the hands of big capital. The German people will understand the loud demagogy, will not fall into a state of barbarism, Gustav believes. He frowned at the feverish activities of relatives in setting up a joint-stock company, considering their arguments as arguments of “confused businessmen with their eternal penny-pinching skepticism.” He himself is very flattered by the proposal to sign an appeal against the growing barbarity and wildness of social life. Mulheim views this step as an unacceptable naivety, which will cost a lot.
The seventeen-year-old son of Martin Bertold has a conflict with the new teacher Vogelsang. Until now, the director of the gymnasium, Francois, Gustav’s friend, managed to protect his school from politics, but the ardent Nazi who appeared in its walls gradually establishes his own order, and the soft, intelligent director can only watch cautiously how the nationalism on the broad front quickly envelops the fog of the head his pupils. The cause of the conflict is Berthold’s report on Armine Hermantz. How can you criticize, debunk one of the greatest feats of the people, Vogelsang is indignant, regarding this as an anti-German, anti-patriotic act. Francois does not dare to stand up for the protection of an intelligent youngster against a rabid fool, his teacher. Berthold does not find understanding among his relatives. They believe, that the whole story of an egg is not worth it, and it is advised to bring the required apology. Not wishing to adhere to the principles, Berthold accepts a large number of sleeping pills and perishes.
The wave of racist persecutions is widening, but the doctor does not dare to touch Professor Edgar Opperman in the medical world, because he has international fame. And yet he tells Lorenz that he will throw everything himself, without waiting for him to be thrown out. The country is sick, the secret counselor assures him, but this is not an acute, but a chronic disease.
Martin, having broken himself, is forced to accept the outrageous terms of the agreement with Wels, but still he manages to achieve certain business success, for which it was so dearly paid.
After the burning of the Reichstag, Mulheim insists that Gustav immediately go abroad. At his friend novelist Friedrich-Wilhelm Gutwetter, this causes misunderstanding: how can one not be present at a stunningly interesting spectacle-the sudden capture of a civilized country by barbarians.
Gustav lives in Switzerland. He wants to communicate with his compatriots, wishing to better understand what is happening in Germany, the newspapers publish horrible reports here. From Klaus Frishlin, who headed the art department of the company, he learns that his Berlin mansion was confiscated by the fascists, some of his friends are in concentration camps. Gutvetter gained the glory of “the great truly German poet”, the Nazis recognized him as their own. With a high-spirited syllable, he describes the image of the “New Man”, which affirms his primordial savage instincts. Arrived to Gustav to spend a vacation Anna keeps as if nothing special happens in Germany. According to the manufacturer Weinberg, it is possible to get along with the Nazis, the coup d’état was reflected in the economy of the country quite well. Lawyer Bilfinger gives Gustav for examination documents,
In Lavendel’s house on the shore of Lake Lugano, the whole family of Oppermani celebrates the Jewish Passover. We can assume they were lucky. Only a few managed to escape, the others simply were not released, and if someone was allowed to leave, they seized their property. Martin, who happened to get acquainted with the Nazi dungeons, is going to open a store in London, Edgar is going to organize his laboratory in Paris. His daughter Ruth and favorite assistant Jacobi left for Tel Aviv. Lavendel intends to go on a trip, to visit America, Russia, Palestine and personally to see what and where it is done. He is in the most advantageous position – he has his own house here, there is citizenship, and they do not have their own shelter now, when the term of passports ends, they are unlikely to be resumed. Fascism is hateful to the Oppermanam not only because,
Gustav does not want to stand aside, he unsuccessfully tries to find contacts with the underground, and then returns to his homeland under a foreign passport, intending to tell the Germans about the gnats in the country, to try to open their eyes, awaken their asleep senses. Soon he is arrested. In the concentration camp he is exhausted by his overwork on the construction of the highway, he is tormented by vexation: he was a fool and returned. No one from this benefit.
Learning about what happened, Mulheim and Lavendel take all measures to release him. When Sybil comes to the camp, she finds there an exhausted, thin, dirty old man. Gustav is sent across the border to the Czech Republic, placed in a sanatorium where he dies in two months. Reporting this in a letter to Gustav’s nephew Heinrich Lavendel, Frishlin admires the act of his uncle, who, ignoring the danger, showed his readiness to stand up for a just and useful cause.