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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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In 1943, Goebbels had the male partners in mixed marriages arrested in order to have them deported and killed. But there were spontaneous mass protests in Berlin (the famous Rosenstrasse incident), and he had to beat a hasty retreat. There was a handful who escaped the net of persecution—among them the Jewish doctor who had been treating Hitler’s mother in her illness. There was also the case of Leo Blech, a world-famous conductor who, owing to the intervention of Goering, was permitted to emigrate from Riga to Sweden in the middle of the war. While there was no more rabid anti-Semite than Goebbels in his later years, when he was told that an enthusiastic racial researcher had established beyond any shadow of doubt that the great-grandfather of Johann Strauss had been a Hungarian Jew he ordered the evidence suppressed: “For if we go on like this, all we shall be left with of our racially pure cultural heritage will be Alfred Rosenberg (his pet aversion among fellow Nazi leaders) and this may not be enough.”

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Those who did not live through that period and had no personal experience of life in a totalitarian state are bound to find it difficult to make sense of these currents and crosscurrents especially in a time of war. This has given rise to all kind of explanations that are sometimes very offensive but are more often rooted in ignorance rather than ill will. Why, it is frequently asked, did German (and Austrian and Czech) Jews not leave their country hurriedly at any price in view of the horrible fate awaiting them? The brief answer is of course that Auschwitz did not yet exist in 1933 or even in 1936—and that there was the false hope that Nazi policy vis-à-vis the Jews would improve or at least not become harsher. Some authors blamed Jewish leaders in Germany (especially Zionists) for having negotiated with the Nazi government to facilitate Jewish immigration—as if there would have been an alternative approach to get Jews out of Germany. Central European Jewry consisted to a large extent of elderly people who were neither mentally nor physically capable of envisaging a new life in another country. These were the years of a global economic crisis and mass unemployment—no one wanted immigrants, especially not Jewish immigrants.

All this should have been obvious, but instead a literature was forthcoming that was sometimes malevolent, more often ignorant, and breathtakingly obtuse in its conclusions. One such study about Hitler’s Jewish soldiers (Bryan Mark Rigg’s 2004 book) found not less than 150,000 of them accepted the Nazi racialist definition of being a Jew and even went beyond it: no longer “once a Jew, always a Jew,” but “once a quarter-Jew—always a full Jew.” But even if one added all the male half- and quarter-Jews of military age and even those one-eighth Jewish according to the Nuremberg laws, the total figure was closer to 15,000 than 150,000, and even this was probably an exaggeration.

I should note here that I personally experienced many of these issues in my own family. Half, perhaps more, had been converted a long time ago; there were half- and quarter-Jews and not a few mixed marriages. The Jewish partner in a mixed marriage would usually survive—but during the war no one could be sure. There was my cousin Hans Bodle, a few years older, who coached me in mathematics, which was my weakest subject in school. His father, of Huguenot extraction, had been killed on the western front during the last year of WWI. Hans was in and out of the German army according to the changing Nazi policy. Toward the end of WWII, with a fanatical commander in charge of the defense of our home town, Hans had again to join the army, which of course he hated. He was killed in Breslau on the very last day of WWII.

Tracing the strange story of Baron Oppenheim we have followed so far the reliable account presented by Prof. Gossman. Unfortunately Gossman, having written an excellent biography of Max Oppenheim showing sovereign mastery of the sources and fairness in his approach, suddenly changes gears toward the end when he deals with “Oppenheim’s relations with the National Socialist regime in context.” This section deals with several Jewish personalities and organizations that (the author believes) also showed pronounced Nazi sympathies. Somewhere the author also notes that the case of Oppenheim may well have been sui generis. If so, what does the author want to prove? Oppenheim was not a Jew except in accordance with Nazi doctrine. He was as much identified with Buddhism as with Judaism, probably more so. It should be noted in passing that other members of the family, Oppenheim’s cousins and second cousins, half- and quarter-Jews according to Nazi doctrine, while staunch German patriots and conservatives, behaved on the whole decently during the Third Reich. Some were arrested and persecuted. They helped their Jewish business partners to escape Germany during the war even at a certain risk to their own lives. In later years the Israeli government noted their decent behavior and included them in the list of righteous gentiles.

The politics of German Jews were centrist or left of center, some were Communists but these had usually left the community or in any case were no longer active in it. A handful belonged to the extreme right, and their writings quoted by Gossman make for very embarrassing reading—for instance those of Hans Joachim Schoeps, a student of theology. (The author should perhaps have mentioned that Schoeps was in his early twenties at the time.) He emigrated to Sweden, both his parents perished in Nazi camps. After the war he became a professor at Erlangen University. He continued to denigrate parliamentary democracy, believed in the Prussian spirit, and was a monarchist at heart.

More space is devoted to Nikolaus Pevsner, who went probably furthest expressing sympathy for Nazism. But Pevsner left Germany for England in 1933, and having been baptized at age 19 he was not a Jew—and since his father held Russian nationality he was probably not a German either. In England he became a celebrity and something of a national treasure by authoring 40 volumes listing all buildings of historical or architectural interest. His history of European architecture became a best-seller, selling more than a million copies, and eventually led to a knighthood. The history professor Hans Rothfels, a student of Meinecke also mentioned by Gossman as a witness for the prosecution, was perilously close to being a Nazi fellow traveler. Gossman again calls him a Jew even though he converted at age 19.

Number four and five in the author’s rogues gallery are the medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz (“Eka”) and Edith Landmann, a philosopher married to a well-known economist. Both Eka and Landmann belonged to the inner circle of the poet Stefan George, whose esoteric and powerful poetry attracted people of very different views and backgrounds. There were anti-Semites among them, but the brothers Stauffenberg, who almost managed to kill Hitler in July 1944, were also part of George’s circle, about a quarter of whose members were Jews. What attracted Jews to this cult (George was always “the Master” to them) is a fascinating question. It rested on the famous German-Jewish symbiosis—a fatal, one-sided misunderstanding, as Gershom Scholem later put it. But George was not a Nazi—when he wrote about das Reich he did not have Hitler’s Third Reich in mind. The year the Nazis came to power George moved to Switzerland, where he died. He never endorsed the Nazis and rejected the offer to become head of the German writers academy. Nor did he ever publicly condemn Nazism. He did not comment on current affairs; on WWI he had written—“this is not our war.” His (and Kantorowicz’s) cult of a hidden, secret Germany referred to something in the realm of the spirit, not of this world.

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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