Thursday, March 14, 2019

Jay Howard Geller's "The Scholems"

Jay Howard Geller Jay Howard Geller is the Samuel Rosenthal Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany, 1945-1953 and co-editor of Three-Way Street.

Geller applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Scholems: A Story of the German-Jewish Bourgeoisie from Emancipation to Destruction, and reported the following:
From page 99:
member of the party was the Hamburg banker and German patriot Max Warburg. Reinhold Scholem joined the party in 1919 and was an active member in the 1920s. While there is no reason to think that Reinhold disapproved of republican democracy, he was certainly a German patriot.

Overall, the Reichstag elections of May 1924 ended disastrously for the two liberal parties. The German Democrats slumped from 39 representatives to only 28, despite the votes of Betty Scholem and her maid. Similarly, Reinhold’s People’s Party went from 66 seats to 45 seats. However, as Betty reported to Gershom in Jerusalem, “German Nationalists (read: antisemites) and the Communists received the biggest increase, the Communists from 16 seats to 60.” The German Nationalists won 95 seats—24 more than four years previously. The gains made by the Communist Party were even more extreme than Betty described: going from 16 representatives (with only four originally elected as Communist Party candidates in 1920) to 62 representatives. One of the new Communists in the Reichstag was Werner Scholem.

His career was nearing its zenith. After the failure of the Communists to mount a successful revolution during the unrest of autumn 1923, Werner Scholem and his allies in the left wing of the party exploited the situation to take over the leadership of the Communist Party. They mobilized the rank and file against party chairman Heinrich Brandler, who belonged to the party’s right wing. At the same time, they cultivated important comrades in Moscow, including Grigory Zinoviev, the chairman of the Comintern, and Joseph Stalin, then still an ambitious member of the Russian Communist Party central committee. While Stalin had earlier criticized the Left Opposition, now he sided with it. He proclaimed that the German working class sought true revolutionary leaders—such as Werner Scholem, Max Hesse, and Ruth Fischer—not theoreticians. He specifically criticized Brandler, who enjoyed the patronage of Stalin’s rival Karl Radek, the Comintern’s representative in Germany. At the German Communist Party’s ninth party congress, held in April 1924, one month before Reichstag elections, the so-called Left Opposition came to power.

While Jews comprised a minuscule percentage of the Communist Party’s membership, they had been vastly overrepresented in its leadership since the party’s establishment in 1919. Moreover, this overrepresentation was never greater than in 1924. Of the fifteen members of the party’s new central committee, five came from Jewish families: Werner Scholem, Ruth Fischer, Iwan Katz, Arkadi Maslow, and Arthur Rosenberg. Moreover, all five were university educated, a rarity in a workers’ party. In addition to serving in the Reichstag and on the party’s central board and politburo, Werner Scholem also directed the party’s Organization Bureau, giving him vast power
It’s the mid-1920s in Germany, and the Weimar Republic offers unprecedented opportunities to Jews. The professorate and judiciary are fully open to Jews. Jews sit in the Reichstag as representatives of center-left and left-wing political parties. But dark clouds also loom on the horizon. The First World War inflamed social tensions that were muted or latent, including antisemitism. Extreme German nationalists overtly call for excluding Jews from positions of authority. Popular perceptions of the Treaty of Versailles, war reparations, and even Western democracy induce many voters to support illiberal and anti-democratic political groups rather than the social democratic and liberal parties that are the mainstay of the Weimar Republic.

Under these circumstances, how did German Jews respond? What political options did they see available to them? These questions figure prominently in The Scholems and particularly on page 99, which captures the flavor of this book about German Jews and their society.

Betty Scholem—as well as her son Erich and most German Jews—gave their support to the left-liberal German Democratic Party. They maintained their belief in liberalism and saw the preservation of the progressive republic as the best defense against political extremism and antisemitism. Betty’s oldest son, Reinhold, served as an officer in the World War and still maintained a highly patriotic outlook after the war. He supported the national-liberal German People’s Party (DVP), whose social conservativism alienated it from the bulk of German Jewry. Son Gerhard (later Gershom), who does not figure on page 99, embraced Zionism and emigrated from Germany. He saw his future and that of the Jewish people in their historic homeland, the Land of Israel.

But son Werner turned to socialism and later communism. And 1924 was his moment. He and his circle on the left wing of the German Communist Party rose to power. He was elected to a seat in the Reichstag, Germany’s national parliament, and was selected to run the Communist Party’s internal bureaucracy. But his power base was narrow. Moreover, he soon came into conflict with Joseph Stalin as he outmaneuvered his rivals in the Soviet Union and other communist parties.

But at this moment, in 1924, it was unclear what the future held in store for the Jews of Germany.
Learn more about The Scholems at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue