Review: A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany

Merilyn Moos reviews a new biography of Werner Scholem: an implacable opponent of any accommodation with the far right, and an uncompromising critic of Soviet state capitalism.

Werner Scholem 1895-1940)

Ralf Hoffroge, A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany: The Life of Werner Scholem (1895-1940) (Chicago: Haymarket, 2018). 600 pp. £31.99.

***

Werner Scholem is a figure rarely heard of in the UK. That he fell out with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in the direction of Trotskyism has not helped. This new biography uses Scholem’s life to reveal the long-term impact of the revolutionary days of 1918-19 in Munich and Berlin on both the left and hard right in Germany and the isolation of the Russian Revolution after the failure of the German revolution. It also exposes how early the KPD leadership saw its task as to appeal to members of the ultra-right, rather than to defeat them.

This 600-page book requires a strong interest in revolutionary politics in Germany in the early 1920s. For those who persevere, the author presents much detail on the period 1919-1926, drawing on a remarkable number of original sources about Scholem’s personal and political life, although not always providing a full analysis of the material it presents.

Despite the book’s title, the ‘Jewish’ aspect is brief. Scholem was originally a part of a Zionist youth group, Jung Juda. Zionism of the time was secular and had broken with traditional Judaism and with the prevalent assimilationist perspective. Although the book does not suggest this, maybe this involvement encouraged Scholem’s later resilience and refusal to bow to instruction. He soon fell out with Zionism, criticising its ‘war objectives’, which would end up with the occupation of Syria and parts of the Sinai Peninsula.

Displays of antisemitism were a regular event in the Reichstag where Scholem was a KPD deputy. Scholem, unlike most of the KPD deputies, railed against it, and emphasised the class roots of much of the antisemitic prejudice. He argued that the way Eastern European Jews were targeted, including by Western European Jews, was a matter of class. The SPD deputies, on the other hand, although not explicitly antisemitic, talked in code: of the ‘foreigner problem’ and not allowing more Jews into Germany.

Scholem joined the SPD’s youth organisation, Workers Youth, and became heavily involved in anti-war work, for which he was arrested. In part radicalised by the war, he was critical of the SPD for their ‘this is a defensive’ pro-war position, and sympathetic to the October Revolution in Russia. As a witness to the mass strikes and widespread street battles in Berlin, he – and many other young people – in 1917-18 joined the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), which was a far more rooted, left-wing and activist organisation, and also more active in confronting antisemitism, than the SPD. The USPD then split, and the majority (300,000 members), including Scholem, went over to the KPD, which had been founded in January 1919. These formed much of the KPD’s ‘left’. The ‘rump’ of the USPD largely returned to the SPD. Scholem became the editor of the KPD paper, Rote Fahne, and then a member of the Prussian assembly.

Soon after, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by the Freikorps, agents of the Social-Democratic Government, as were the leaders of the Bavarian uprising. Paul Levi briefly took over the KPD leadership. Against a background where the SPD were winning more support and working class votes than the KPD, in early 1921, Levi favoured the ‘united front’ strategy, trying to attract Social Democratic workers, a position Scholem condemned, seeing it as opportunistic and likely to lapse into Social Democratic reformism.

The KPD, far from being rooted in the advanced working class, was already in historic convulsions. At the 1919 Party conference, Levi expelled the left wing of the KPD who then formed the syndicalist-leaning anti-parliamentarian Communist Workers Party, the KAPD. Scholem strongly opposed them for being ’anti-Bolshevik’, ‘anti-centralist’ and ‘syndicalist’. Levi lost his position (and later joined the SPD).

Heinrich Brandler, who had opposed Levi, became the new leader in February 1921. The crucial ‘March Action’ of 1921, a regional workers uprising, led by the KPD and KAPD, was brutally crushed. This created a crisis in the KPD and the Communist International, encouraging a move away from ‘adventurism’ and towards the so-called ‘united front’. Its main advocate was Ernst Meyer, the KPD’s parliamentary leader and one of the leaders of the ‘Conciliation’ faction. After this terrible defeat, what was needed, Meyer argued, was not to boycott elections but to raise workers’ daily grievances by making specific demands.

The KPD’s disastrous attempted revolution of October 1923, the last throw of the dice to stop the USSR’s isolation, was called off by Brandler (but not before Hamburg had ‘risen’). It was condemned by Scholem as ‘putschism’. Scholem then moved against Brandler.  Brandler, and 6,000 of his supporters, expelled in 1928/29, then set up the Communist Party Opposition, KPO, the Right Opposition.

In April 1924, Scholem became a KPD deputy in the Reichstag. This is the point Scholem joined the Left Opposition, along with Ruth Fischer (temporarily) and Arkadi Maslow, advocating a ‘revolutionary’ approach and action as opposed to a ‘united front’ with Social Democrats or trade-unions or the seizure of power through gradual stages. Scholem became the ‘org’ man, the ‘party executioner’, insistent on party discipline and ‘Bolshevisation’.

After the French took over the Ruhr in January 1923, the Left Opposition disagreed with the KPD leadership’s exploiting of anti-French sentiment and pandering to the dominant right-wing, nationalist and fascist rhetoric. But their position was defeated at the national Leipzig KPD Conference in late January, 1923, indicating the Left Opposition’s declining influence. There was no difference between German workers killed by the henchmen of French imperialism and the German unemployed murdered by fascists in February, Scholem stated.  A draft resolution prepared by Scholem in May 1923 criticised the KPD’s line of warning Ruhr workers not to fight the fascists (a sign of what was to come). Scholem also condemned the KPD’s subsequent parliamentary regional alliances with the SPD, especially in Saxony where, in June, the government killed nine unemployed demonstrators: a workers government, he argued, had to come from below, not above. By April 1924, the minority: the ‘Zentralle’ (Fischer, Maslow and Scholem) became the majority.

But, amongst ever shifting alliances, the left leadership were ousted in 1925. One reason was the declining membership: almost 300,000 in September 1923, about 100,000 in 1924. The final straw was the catastrophic vote in the Presidential election when the KPD, candidate, Ernst Thälmann, only received 6.4% of the vote against Hindenburg. As the left squabbled and disintegrated, Thälmann took over as leader, condemning Scholem as a sectarian. Thälmann then installed a ‘Scholem commission’: Scholem was removed from the Central Committee.

The book also discusses Scholem’s shifting alliances with members of the Comintern, and the Comintern’s own shifting alliances. As is well known, the KPD became increasingly Stalinised, increasingly a pawn of Comintern policy, whose main concern in its foreign policy was preserving the interests of the USSR.  After initiating the ‘Declaration of 700’ in solidarity with the Left Opposition and demanding more party democracy in the Soviet Union, Scholem (and other signatories) were expelled from the KPD on 5 November 1926, despite an appeal to Moscow.

Unfortunately the book does not focus much on Scholem’s increasing support for ‘Trotskyism’. In 1925, in line with the KPD leadership’s position, Scholem still saw the Trotskyist current as an anti-Bolshevik, right wing threat, only distancing himself from Stalin in March 1926 and demanding a return to true Leninism. The Left Opposition, founded in April 1928 by Scholem amongst others, questioned the ongoing proletarian character of the October Revolution, considering the Soviet state to be a form of state capitalism and were critical of the position of ‘Socialism in One Country’. The faction-ridden Left Opposition soon dissolved, largely because of splits over whether to stand candidates against the KPD, which Scholem opposed. Although Scholem never publically distanced himself from the Soviet Union, in late January 1928, he publically sided with Trotsky. Although the book does not go into detail, from September 1930, Scholem wrote for Trotskyist publications such as Permanente Revolution and, according to Ruth Fischer, corresponded with Trotsky.

As early as 1922, Scholem was warning both the SPD and the KPD about underestimating the threat of a fascist dictatorship and repeatedly called for united action against the Freikorps, other right wing groups and ‘German fascists’ and supported ‘workers’ self-defence units’. From early on, the Nazis used him as a stereotype in their propaganda. He was briefly arrested immediately after the Reichstag fire in 1933.  Why he did not flee is unclear. (A practiced mountaineer, he helped Ruth Fischer escape, taking her across the Czech border.) Scholem ended up in Buchenwald: Haffrogge asks whether the strong KPD underground there contributed to his murder. Assigned quarry duties, he was taken off to one side by the SS guards and shot in July 1940.

1 COMMENT

  1. Must get this book. It just goes to show the amount of hidden history which exists. In todays turbulent times the warnings from history need to be taken on board. Keep up the good work RS21.

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