Edgar Feuchtwanger was 5 years old when Adolf Hitler looked at him for the first time. It was 1929. The child peered out of his window in Munich and watched the future chancellor of Germany step out of a black automobile. Hitler glanced up and made eye contact with the boy. That was when the boy's nanny, Rosie, slammed the window shut and made him go to bed.
Some time later, Feuchtwanger was taking a walk with Rosie in his neighborhood when the same man emerged from a building and entered a vehicle. "He looked at me quite benevolently, because he had no clue who I was," says Feuchtwanger. "People in the street shouted immediately, 'Heil Hitler!' But he didn't salute back. He just lifted his hat a little bit. And then he got into the car."Every kid grows up with a mean neighbor. For Feuchtwanger, that neighbor would eventually be responsible for the systematic genocide of six million Jews. And Feuchtwanger’s prominent literary family was Jewish. In 1929, Hitler was on the rise, his power growing; he took up residence at Prinzregentenplatz 16, in a luxurious nine-room apartment visible from the boy’s childhood window. “I knew he wasn’t a good thing,” Feuchtwanger says, speaking via Skype in his German-British accent. His parents were politically engaged; they read the papers and paid close attention to their neighbor’s virulent anti-semitism. “What nobody knew was that he was going to turn the whole world upside down.”The boy is now 93—and likely one of the last surviving humans to have lived in close proximity to Hitler and encountered him regularly in the flesh. Feuchtwanger eventually became a writer and historian, teaching for three decades at the University of Southampton in England. Much of his academic research has focused on European empires of the 19th century, but his latest book, Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood, 1929-1939, is more personal. It chronicles his 10 years of living alongside a man who would become the modern definition of evil.
Composed of diaristic vignettes, Hitler, My Neighbor offers a singular portrait of 1930s Germany, unique both for its intimate glimpses of Hitler in semi-private moments and for its point of view. The narrative unfolds from a child’s perspective but benefits from an adult historian’s attention to detail.The book begins with countryside picnics, childhood fantasies—an idyllic pre-war Germany. By the early 1930s, Feuchtwanger had come to fear the man with the dark mustache. He listened to his elders discuss the prospect of Hitler's rise in worried tones. His father considered Hitler “disturbed, bitter, paranoid, violent and—most of all—dangerous.” His uncle, the novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger, insisted the Nazi party could never win. Every day he worried that Hitler would discover that his family was Jewish. “He presumably could see my apartment,” says Feuchtwanger, who watched as Nazi associates came and went, and as protesters and Nazis clashed violently in the street.Related: Is it OK to punch a Nazi in the face? Ethicists weigh inIn 1933, Hitler became chancellor and things changed quickly. The Nazis occupied one third of the seats in the Reichstag. The Nuremberg Laws went into effect: Feuchtwanger's parents were stripped of their rights, his father lost his publishing job and at school he was fed Nazi propaganda as though it were arithmetic. Eventually his beloved Rosie was gone; Nazi laws forbade Jews from employing nannies with “German blood.” Soon he was encountering signs reading “No dogs or Jews.”In 1938, Feuchtwanger’s father was arrested and imprisoned at Dachau. The family’s possessions were seized. Miraculously, he survived and was freed that December. The younger Feuchtwanger, then 14, traveled alone to England by train the following year. His parents secured the immigration paperwork and soon followed, beginning a new life together far away from Hitler.
Reading Hitler, My Neighbor today, it is difficult not to think about the emboldened presence of hate groups and neo-Nazi ideologies in Donald Trump’s America. The specter of demagoguery on the rise in Germany will remind some American readers of 2015 and 2016, including Feuchtwanger’s elders scoffing at Hitler’s chances of rising to power. (“But that’s impossible!” Feuchtwanger remembers his uncle saying of the Nazis coming to power. “The country’s far too republican to vote for them.”) These eerie parallels were unintended; the memoir was written well before Trump’s election.Feuchtwanger does not believe that white supremacists will have the same power here that the Nazis did in Germany. He seems to regard them as fringe groups, whose influence exists outside the government. Then again, like his uncle, he didn’t expect our recent election to play out the way it did. “Trump completely puzzles me. Why on earth was he elected or selected as a Republican candidate? One doesn't really know what his plans are, whether he has any plans or whether he has any rationale.”
He was more disturbed by the xenophobic sentiments stirred up by the Brexit vote in England, where he still lives today. “Immigrants are blamed a lot here for everything,” he says. “I didn't like that vote at all, not at all.”Feuchtwanger says he is now finished with writing, but he continues to travel and actively speak about his experiences. Eighty-eight years after becoming Hitler’s neighbor, he is glad to have experienced what he did. He is a historian by profession, and he has seen extraordinary history. “I am in a way a witness, aren't I?” he muses. “In me, there’s somebody who has this firsthand knowledge of the whole damn thing. I’m quite proud of that. I survived.”If he, and his book, were to accomplish one thing, it would be to encourage vigilance: “You cannot be too careful about prejudice and anti-Semitism,” he says. “It’s always lurking.”