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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

Walter Laqueur
August 21, 2013
Princeton University Library
Cartoon depicting Max von Oppenheim by Leonard Raven-Hill, Punch, January 25, 1911.Princeton University Library
Princeton University Library
Cartoon depicting Max von Oppenheim by Leonard Raven-Hill, Punch, January 25, 1911.Princeton University Library

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”).

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.”


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.

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 Boliviafor 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)..

Walter Laqueur was head of the Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library in London and concurrently university professor at Georgetown University.