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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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To call Kantorowicz a Nazi as the medievalist Norman Cantor has done, betrays a profound ignorance of German politics and probably politics in general—namely the difference between conservatives and Nazis. Kantorowicz’s main work prior to WWII, which made him famous, was about Emperor Friedrich II (1194-1250). But Kantorowicz admired and probably somewhat idealized Friedrich not because he was a war hero but on the contrary, in view of his chivalry and humanism, which led his contemporaries to call him stupor mundi, the wonder of the world. At his court in Sicily he assembled Muslim and Jewish savants to learn from them—this at a time when rulers were not known for their intellectual interests and when religious tolerance was anything but common. Kantorowicz was a conservative and in the words of his friends a “Draufgaenger,” a daredevil. Politically naïve, he would join the unsavory Freikorps after WWI. But after WWII as a tenured professor at Berkeley this ardent anticommunist was also one of the few who refused to sign an anticommunist loyalty oath demanded by the university. This was no one’s business, an intolerable infringement of privacy and his rights. It cost him his job, but he could not care less. He had no difficulty finding another position—at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies.

Like Kantorowicz, Edith Landmann was highly educated but political common sense was not her forte. She wrote George in early 1933 that some of the Nazi views were in certain respects close to the ideas she and her friends had expressed earlier on. She had also been an anti-Semite (her own words); her views about Jews who were less patriotic-German than she was were similar to those of Marc Bloch. Later, on realizing how bad her judgment had been, she became not only a Zionist (as Gossman notes) but a sympathizer of the Irgun.

Gossman also deals with some patriotic German Jewish organizations active in the 1930s. One is the association of WWI veterans (RJF), which had at one time 40,000 members. The other is a youth group named Schwarzes Faehnlein. A number of declarations are quoted in which the RJF expressed its loyalty to the government that came to power in 1933; no political declarations were expected from a youth group. (Under pressure from the Gestapo it was forced to dissolve in summer 1934.) Since I was a member of both organizations (albeit at the tender age of 12), I can bear witness that the quotations are correct. And yet—the general picture presented is quite misleading. Why? Because there was a world of difference between declarations made, forced or unforced, and what really went on in these organizations. In order to survive, to lead a more or less normal life in a totalitarian regime, dissimulation was the first commandment. There is a good description in Czeslaw Milosz’ Captive Mind about the need to practice dissimulation (ketman in the Shi’ite tradition, taqi’a among the Sunnis) in such circumstances. But this is difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand by people who have had the great good fortune to lead lives entirely free of such pressures.

Why did Jews join an organization like the RJF? For the simple reason that those who had served in the army in WWI enjoyed certain exemptions from the anti-Jewish laws. According to the Nazi version of history Jews had shirked military service; this was not true, most had served, and 12,000 had been killed. These exemptions did not last long, at most a year or two, but who could blame those who wanted to make use of the temporary benefits?

As far as my generation was concerned, the explanation was even more obvious—the reasons were not ideological but pragmatic: They joined the sports branch of the RJF. True, there was also a Zionist sports organization, but it existed only in a few places and the RJF usually had better facilities. Since Jews were excluded from German sports groups, it was only natural that most would join associations such as the RJF where such facilities existed. No ideology was involved, no patriotic speeches, not even the national anthem but soccer, swimming, track and field, and some other sports. There was a legendary boxing trainer in our town named Lachmann; under cover of darkness non-Jewish boxers came for a workout with him. I served as a sparring partner of someone five or six years older than I was at the time. They went on to the 1936 Olympic games, including athletes such as Buettner, Miner 1, and his brother Miner 2. Some came home with medals. For me, it certainly was a useful experience.

Gossman had the good fortune to attend the Pollokshields primary school in Glasgow and schools in Renfrewshire and Ayrshire, and he handsomely thanks his teachers, to whom his book is dedicated. Had he gone to a German school after 1933 as the present writer did, he would have been given an assignment to write an essay on “Ludwig Uhland in the light of National Socialism”—a demeaning task that would have helped him to understand life in a totalitarian dictatorship. There was no way out but to comply with the assignment. The very subject was preposterous: Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862), a fine poet who wrote about castles (“and the moon about it standing and the mist rise solemnly”—translation by Longfellow), and his spiritual connection to the author of Mein Kampf.

The activities of the youth organization after 1933 were by no means identical with those officially stated. Anti-Nazi literature was circulated, including the Communist Manifesto. Groups had their signature songs—ours happened to be the Warszawianka and Unsterbliche Opfer (Immortal Martyrs), that is to say left-wing revolutionary statements. The head of our group (nicknamed Tom), who became a lifelong friend, suddenly disappeared in 1934. The Gestapo had made a search at his home and found literature they did not like at all, as well as a revolver. He went to South Africa, where he became one of the leaders of the Liberal party.

Not all Jews living in Germany in 1933 were clear-eyed militant anti-fascists of pure heart.

There were many similar cases, whereas the hyper-patriots were very few. One of these few was Günter Holzmann (nicknamed Akela, derived from The Jungle Book) at one time head of the local branch of our little movement, a young man of great personal courage and monumental political stupidity. Soon after the Nazis’ rise to power he published an advertisement in a local newspaper making it known that he had nothing in common with the Jewish community. One day in 1933 he decided to pay a visit to the head of the Hitler Youth in Berlin, trying to persuade him to recognize the little movement to which he belonged. He did not stay long in that building; in his 1997 autobiography On Dit Que J’ai Survécu Quelque Part au-delà des Mers…, he called this venture one of the stupidest things he ever did.

Holzmann was probably the closest approximation to the “Oppenheim context.” But his story did not end there. He went on to Cambridge to study mineralogy and geology. Later he emigrated to Peru, worked there and in Bolivia for a leading company (Hochschild or Patino, I believe), and lived and worked in places where few were willing to stay for any length of time. He made a considerable fortune, which, having become a militant left-winger, he left to Le Monde Diplomatique, the main organ of Castroism. On Page 1 or 2 of this weekly, readers will encounter an announcement expressing gratitude to the Fondation Gunter Holzmann; it would probably be too much to expect to be told that he was a latecomer to the cause.

Not all Jews living in Germany in 1933 were clear-eyed militant anti-fascists of pure heart. Many, perhaps most, lacked political understanding, hoping against hope that Nazi rule would quickly end. There were fools among them and traitors. There was a handful collaborating with the Gestapo, mostly under pressure. But were there more of them in Germany than elsewhere? I do not know of statistics that say that there were. As far as I know, there was no “Oppenheim context.” It is doubtful whether the story of the Kaiser’s spy from Cologne and Cairo teaches anything except that with a greater distance from the age of totalitarian dictatorship it is becoming more and more difficult for later generations to understand what life was really like in those far-away days. German political language has provided an expression applicable in such cases: Die Gnade der spaeten Geburt—the good fortune of having being born too late. But there is a price to be paid for such good fortune.


This is an abridged version of an essay to appear in Optimism in Politics: Reflections on Contemporary History by Walter Laqueur (Transaction 2014).


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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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