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Parsing Max Von Oppenheim’s Legacy

Oppenheim biographer Lionel Gossman responds to Walter Laqueur’s review

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Cartoon depicting Max von Oppenheim by Leonard Raven-Hill, Punch, January 25, 1911. (Princeton University Library)

In August, Walter Laqueur reviewed Lionel Gossman’s new biography, The Passion of Max Von Oppenheim, and a recent study by Sean McMeekin, The Berlin Baghdad Express, two books that shed light on the cohort of Germans of Jewish descent who historians have long portrayed as having served the Nazis. Max Von Oppenheim, the scion of a famous German Jewish banking family, is one particularly interesting example.

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.

Gossman contacted us with a response to Laqueur, which we have published here. Laqueur’s reply to Gossman follows below.

Lionel Gossman writes:

In his substantial and generous review of my book on Max von Oppenheim in Tablet magazine, Walter Laqueur praises in particular the “fairness in my approach.” As I consider “fairness” perhaps the highest of scholarly virtues, I was overjoyed to receive such praise from one of our most distinguished historians. For the same reason, however, I was disturbed by his judgment later in the review that “toward the end” of the book, I “suddenly change gears.” Without stating it directly at first, Laqueur implies that in the book’s fourth and final section, titled “Max von Oppenheim’s Relation to National Socialism in Context: Some Responses of ‘Non-Aryan’ Germans to National Socialism,” I have contributed to a literature about the German Jews that is “sometimes malevolent, more often ignorant, and breathtakingly obtuse in its conclusions.” He describes this section, which deals briefly—in his words—with “several Jewish personalities and organizations that (the author believes) showed pronounced Nazi sympathies,” as my “rogues’ gallery” and attributes its alleged misunderstandings (the sudden gear change) to my good fortune in having been born and brought up in Scotland. Had I been born in Germany as Laqueur was, it is suggested, and had I spent my youth there, as he did, I might have been in a better position “to understand life in a totalitarian dictatorship” and consequently to judge properly the behavior of the individuals and groups I discuss in my “rogues’ gallery.” As it is, however, having enjoyed “die Gnade der spaeten Geburt”—the good fortune of having been born late—I have also “paid the price for such good fortune” by failing to understand the situation of the German Jews in the mid-1930s and, in particular, that there “was no ‘Oppenheim context’” and that there is no reason to believe there were more Jews in Germany “collaborating with the Gestapo than elsewhere.”

I would like to correct some misapprehensions that may have led Laqueur to make his judgment of the last section of the book.

First, the matter of Oppenheim’s Jewishness. Laqueur objects that “Oppenheim was not a Jew except in accordance with Nazi doctrine.” In fact, I take great care to emphasize that he was the son of a Catholic mother and a father who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, that he was baptized and brought up as a Catholic, and that, however others might think of him, he himself did not think of himself as Jewish or even “half-Jewish”—a term I place in quotation marks in the book in order to make clear that it is a category defined by the Nuremberg Laws. I even mildly fault Professor Sean McMeekin, the author of The Berlin-Baghdad Express (2010), for expressing indignation at Oppenheim’s silence on the fate of his “Jewish fellow-kinsmen” under the Nazis. Oppenheim, I insist, never thought of Jews as his kinsmen.

Next, the relevance of the “context” in light of Oppenheim’s own view of himself as not Jewish. As I myself acknowledge that the case of Oppenheim may well have been sui generis, Laqueur questions the relevance of the samples I provide in the book’s final section of the behavior of other patriotic Germans who, though classified by the National Socialists as Jews, seem to have sympathized for a time at least with some aspects of National Socialism. “What does the author want to prove?” he asks. The answer is that I do not want to “prove” anything—and certainly not that more German Jews collaborated with the Nazis than Jews elsewhere. I would simply like to understand better how certain individuals and groups in Germany, despite being threatened and abused by the National Socialists on account of their “racial” background, could have been drawn in some measure to the National Socialist program. Was it patriotism and pride in their nation’s restored power and status? Fear of Bolshevism? Hope, utterly unfounded as we now know it to have been, that a show of support might win favor and lead to some abatement of the Party’s anti-Semitism? A seemingly shared view of the relation of art and society, as with the art historian Nicholas Pevsner? The belief that the new regime might be a distant earthly reflection of a transcendent ideal, as in the case, for a time, of some in the circle of the great poet Stefan George? (Incidentally, as I have never described George as a Nazi, there was no need to defend him against a non-existent and ignorant accusation. Similarly, whatever Norman Cantor may have said about Kantorowicz, it would never have occurred to me to describe him as a Nazi. So why bring Cantor’s view of Kantorowicz as a Nazi into the picture?)

The term Laqueur uses to describe the last section of my book—“the author’s rogues’ gallery”—may be the key to what I believe is his misunderstanding of the point of the section. If “rogue” is taken in its meaning in biology (according to Webster’s) of “an individual varying markedly from the standard,” I would not object to that. But Webster’s defines the term “rogues’ gallery” specifically as “a collection of photographs of criminals,” or “a collection resembling a collection of photographs of criminals,” and that, or something close to it, does seem to be the meaning most people ascribe to the term. In that sense, as applied to the groups and individuals presented in the final section of my book, it is thoroughly misleading. The point of the whole section was rather to try to understand how, without being a rogue, without being guilty of inhumanity, improbity or almost criminal stupidity, it was possible for an individual of Jewish background in 1930s Germany to view National Socialism with some degree of sympathy or at least not to reject it totally out of hand. If I could get readers to see how even some so-called “full Jews” genuinely saw some good in National Socialism and sought to accommodate to it, then perhaps the behavior of Oppenheim, who after all was only a “half-Jew,” might become more understandable than it would be without this “context.”

To read the section as an indictment of German Jews, as suggested by the title of Laqueur’s review (“Max von Oppenheim and the Myth of German Jewish Guilt”) or as an attempt to demonstrate that there were more Jews in Germany “collaborating with the Gestapo than elsewhere” is thus a misunderstanding of my intent. As far as I can tell, there is nothing in my book that required Laqueur to engage in a fairly extended and even personal defense of German Jewry, unless it be the extreme and often blinkered patriotism that I attribute to assimilated German Jews as well as to Oppenheim himself.

Finally, on a personal note, though it is true that I had the good fortune to be a relative latecomer and to be born in a free country that has never known totalitarian rule and in which anti-Semitism, by no means absent as a social phenomenon, has not been a political force, I was quite aware in the years immediately preceding WWII (I was born in May, 1929) of the fate that awaited us as Jews if the Germans succeeded in invading our island. The Jewish community in Glasgow—15,000 strong in 1939, chiefly from Lithuania and the other Baltic provinces of the Czar—took in many refugees from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. My own family was joined by a young girl of 15, whose parents subsequently perished in Dachau. She and the other refugees had many stories to tell of “life in a totalitarian dictatorship.”

I cannot close this note without thanking the editors of Tablet for being willing to publish it and expressing to Professor Laqueur my sincere appreciation of the time and care he devoted to reviewing my book—and of the tantalizing vignette of Günter Holzmann near the end of his review.

Walter Laqueur replies:

I am grateful for Prof. Gossman’s letter which helped to clarify a number of points. I regret that he objects to the “rogues’ gallery”—I for one would not hesitate to use the term with regard to Jews who sympathized with the Nazis.

If misunderstandings occurred it probably has to do with the fact that in a review article I felt free to refer not only to Gossman’s book but to a few others dealing with German Jewry under Nazism. It goes without saying that this is not a monolithic literature but that these writings are not of the same level of knowledge and understanding. What I said for instance about “Hitler’s Jewish soldiers” does not apply necessarily to the Oppenheim biography. I thought this self-evident but in view of the sensitivity of the subject it should perhaps be stated expressis verbis.

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

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Parsing Max Von Oppenheim’s Legacy

Oppenheim biographer Lionel Gossman responds to Walter Laqueur’s review

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