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Hitler’s Jews: Max Von Oppenheim and the Myth of German Jewish Guilt

New biographies shed light on the cohort of Germans of Jewish descent who historians have portrayed as having served the Nazis

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Cartoon depicting Max von Oppenheim by Leonard Raven-Hill, Punch, January 25, 1911. (Princeton University Library)
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If Max von Oppenheim is remembered today, it is as an unlikely (if also unsuccessful) proponent of jihad. The grandson and namesake of the founder of the famous German Jewish banking family, Oppenheim was fascinated by North Africa and the Arab world and eventually settled in Cairo, where he became a prominent fixture in the city’s social life in the years before and after WWI. His great ambition was to enter the diplomatic service, but his application was turned down time and again—the main reason appearing from the files was that someone of Jewish (or even part-Jewish) origin was undesirable. After many futile attempts Oppenheim became an attaché, not a permanent, regular member of the diplomatic service.

After visiting Tell Halaf, a place some 200 kilometers from Cairo, Oppenheim became a passionate archaeologist and resigned from the diplomatic service a year after the excavations at the site began in earnest in 1909. He was in touch with fellow archaeologists such as T.E. Lawrence (who thought him stupid and disliked him), published on his findings, and participated in professional conferences, despite the fact that he had not trained as an archaeologist and some of his interpretations were disputed by leading figures in the field. He also had a great interest in the customs and manners of the Bedouin tribes and published and edited widely on this subject.

Soon after the outbreak of WWI, Oppenheim submitted a now-famous jihad memorandum (Denkschrift) in which he argued for enlisting pan-Islamism in the struggle against Britain (and also Russia). Pan-Islamism had been discussed (and preached) for a number of years before the outbreak of the war. In 1940, he submitted his second Denkschrift to the German government of the day, suggesting that use should be made of pan-Islamism and jihad as a major weapon in the war against Germany’s enemies.

Oppenheim’s second memorandum—dated July 1940, after the defeat of France—complained about the lack of German support (“cautious hesitation”) for the anti-British forces in the Middle East such as the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Rashid Ali in Iraq, and the Lebanese politician Shaqib Arslan, who was  a personal friend of Oppenheim. In his memorandum Oppenheim mentioned his lifelong involvement in Middle Eastern affairs and his close personal relationship with (anti-British) Muslim politicians. He specifically mentioned Palestine, where the struggle against the British and the Jews was to be taken up “as energetically as possible.” Oppenheim suggested that the Jews living in Palestine in 1914 should be permitted to stay, but all others should be removed. Some Nazi support was given to the Arab politicians mentioned by Oppenheim at the time. But on the whole, the German foreign ministry was far more skeptical with regard to the help expected on the part of the Muslims and particularly the Arabs. This view was also shared by Hitler; Italian interests had to be taken into account, and there was the hope that an agreement with Britain could somehow be reached. After 1941 Germany suffered military setbacks in North Africa, and Nazi planning for the future of the Middle East was considered premature to say the least. Oppenheim’s memorandum was shelved.

In later years, the second Oppenheim Denkschrift became of interest for very different reasons: How to explain the extreme views of a person of part-Jewish extraction who had suffered discrimination in Wilhelmian Germany and a fortiori in the Nazi Reich where he was considered a Mischling, hence a person of inferior racial background. Indeed, Oppenheim’s story, as told in a recent full-scale biography by Lionel Gossman, The Passion of Max Von Oppenheim, and in a recent study by Sean McMeekin, The Berlin Baghdad Express, sheds an odd and fascinating light not only on the recent history of the Middle East, but on the small but not insignificant cohort of Germans of Jewish descent who in one way or another are portrayed by latter-day historians as having served Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.


By and large, Oppenheim did not greatly suffer under the Nazis. Many people of a background similar to Oppenheim were ashamed of their Jewish (or part-Jewish) origins and hid it from their offspring. Others thought it unimportant and more or less successfully suppressed it. The 19th-century German Jewish establishment in its majority no longer felt Jewish and to a considerable extent converted to Christianity. Judaism was not intellectually or emotionally attractive and constituted a hindrance in most careers—the state service, the armed forces, academia, and elsewhere. The motives were not always ignoble and careerist. Judaism as the walls of the ghetto came down was considered by some German Jews to be an ossified religion inferior to other creeds. Jewish intellectuals in central but also often in Eastern Europe unsurprisingly preferred Faust and War and Peace to Fishke der Chigger.

Max Oppenheim felt not in the least Jewish. In his letters after 1945, he blamed Hitler for having caused the death of millions of German soldiers, with nary a mention of the fate of his fellow Jews. His German patriotism was intense and, since not all accepted him as a fully fledged bona fide German aristocrat, he may have felt doubly motivated to prove his patriotism. He truly believed in German conservatism and belonged to the leading right-wing clubs and political organizations of that world both before WWI and after. While radical assimilation sometimes led to anti-Semitism, for Oppenheim the whole issue was apparently so irrelevant that he did not become an outspoken anti-Semite—as some of his fellow former Jews did.

All this was by no means a specific German phenomenon. An interesting similar case is that of Daniel Halevy (1872-1962), a French historian and man of letters and close friend of Marcel Proust who became a propagandist of the Vichy regime. Another fascinating case was Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-1987) a person of considerably greater political acumen than Oppenheim, who prior to WWII became a deputy of the fascist leader Jacques Doriot. The French historian Marc Bloch (author of Les Rois Thaumaturges) was one of the great medievalists of his time and was shot by the Germans for his resistance activities. But about the more recent Jewish arrivals in France he wrote in 1941 that their problem was not his.

Similarly, while Tsarist Russia was not propitious ground for Jewish assimilation, the cases of Boris Pasternak and Semyon Frank were by no means unique. Both writers believed that total identification with Russia and Russian culture implied embracing the Orthodox church. Pasternak’s father, the painter Leonid Pasternak, had already converted (as had Anton Rubinstein [1829-1894], the famous pianist and composer). But Pasternak junior went further, recommending that all Jews should convert. A list of leading prewar Polish writers also makes interesting reading: Moshe Agatstein became Mieczyslaw Jastrun, Wiktor Zisman is better known as Bruno Jasienski, Aizik Wagman was transformed into Adam Wazyk, Boleslaw Lesman polonized his name slightly but significantly, and Wiktor Lesman ended up as Jan Brzechwa. Julian Tuwim did not convert or change his name, but what he wrote about his fellow Jews prior to WWII was not complimentary.

Oppenheim was by no means a dyed-in-the-wool Nazi, though he was not critical of the new regime either. His post-1945 denigration of the Nazi regime was quite dishonest—but this was a fairly frequent phenomenon in Germany. But why did the Nazis, with their relentless persecution of the Jews, spare him, and perhaps even make use of him? Nazi policy toward half- and quarter-Jews (Mischlinge of the first and second degree) was contradictory and changed over time. Half-Jews who were not brought up as Jews (Geltungsjuden) were not deported and killed: There were legal problems, and Hitler, who did not want to be bothered by lawyers, declared that he would take a binding decision only after the final victory. Those of military age had to serve in the army both at the beginning of the war and its end when the armed forces were depleted. But in between they were excluded from military service, and they were not permitted to serve in positions of command. It was quite common for half-Jews to try to improve their status by becoming quarter Jews and of quarter Jews to turn into full Aryans simply by claiming that their non-Aryan father or grandfather was not their biological grandfather—in this respect Nazi authorities were quite liberal in helping to improve the records (Goering’s famous “I decide who is a Jew”).

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Hitler’s Jews: Max Von Oppenheim and the Myth of German Jewish Guilt

New biographies shed light on the cohort of Germans of Jewish descent who historians have portrayed as having served the Nazis