A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany

Review of
Ralf Hoffrogge, A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany: The Life of Werner Scholem (1895-1940), Chicago: Haymarket, 2018
by Merilyn Moos

This 600 page book requires a strong interest in revolutionary politics in Germany in the early 1920s. Werner Scholem is a figure rarely heard of in the UK though he was party to the many splits within the KPD (Communist Party) at the very time when a German revolution, post 1919, would have broken the isolation of the Russian revolution and changed twentieth century history. That he fell out with the KPD in the direction of Trotskyism has not helped! The author presents much detail on the period 1919-1926, drawing on a remarkable number of original sources about Scholem’s personal and political life.

After belonging to a Jewish youth group, Scholem joined the SPD’s (Social Democratic Party’s) youth organisation: ‘Workers Youth’ and became heavily involved in anti-war work, for which he was arrested. In part radicalised by the war, critical of the SPD for their ‘this is a defensive’ pro-war position, sympathetic to the October/November Russian revolution, and a witness to the mass strikes and widespread street battles in Berlin, he – and many other young people – in 1917/18 joined the USPD (the Independent Social Democratic Party, a more rooted, left-wing and activist organisation, including around anti-Semitism, than the SPD). The USPD then split, the majority, 300,000 including Scholem, going over to the KPD (the German Communist Party, founded in January 1919) and forming much of the KPD’s ‘left’. (The ‘rump’ of the USPD largely returned to the SPD.) Scholem became the editor of the KPD paper, Rote Fahne, and then a member of the Prussian assembly.
Soon after Luxemburg and Liebknecht, the leaders on the revolutionary left and of the 1919 Berlin uprising, and the leaders of the Bavarian uprising were murdered by the Freikorps, the agents of the Social-Democratic Government. Paul Levi took over the KPD leadership from 1919 to 1920. Levi, who can be seen as on the right of the KPD, was faced with a conundrum. The SPD, the established leadership of the German working class, had sold out in 1914. But the SPD remained strong, got more working class support than the KPD and therefore how to relate to SPD supporters remained a key issue. Hoping to attract Social Democratic workers, in early 1921, Levi favoured a ‘united front’ strategy and promoted the “Open Letter” calling for joint action by workers’ organisations over, for example, wages, unemployment, the cost of living and food supplies. Some leading members of the Comintern and a significant part of the KPD membership opposed this strategy, including opposing participation in parliamentary elections (a position carried at the KPD’s founding Conference in December 1918) or working within the existing trade unions.

Scholem condemned Levi’s ‘united front’ as opportunistic and likely to lapse into reform-orientated/Social Democratic reformism. At the KPD’s second congress in October 1919, Levi expelled the party’s ‘ultra-left’, losing almost half the membership (and many industrial workers), many of whom then formed the KAPD (the Communist Workers Party). Scholem also opposed the KAPD as anti-Bolshevik. (Levi was subsequently expelled in February 1921 for criticising party polices and later joined the SPD.)

Heinrich Brandler, who had opposed Levi, became the new leader in February 1921.
The crucial ‘March Action’ of 1921, an insurrectionary general strike, led by the KPD, occurred soon after (though Hoffrogge does not give it much attention, perhaps because Scholem was not directly involved). But it lacked support outside the KPD, was brutally crushed, precipitated a massive loss of members and destroyed the KPD’s credibility with members of the SPD. Scholem, in Rote Fahne, condemned it as ‘putschism’: the attempt to take power without mass working class support (as did Levi who frequently criticised “putschism’). The theory of the ‘offensive’ turned out to be too much theory and not enough offensive.

The March Action created a crisis in the KPD and the Communist International (or Comintern), encouraging a move away from ‘adventurism’ and towards a new sort of ‘united front’. (Arguments about the March action divided the Comintern and still persist!) The new position’s main advocate was Ernst Meyer, the KPD’s parliamentary leader and one of the leaders of the ‘Conciliation’ faction or ‘Middle Group’. After this terrible defeat, what was needed, Meyer argued, was not to boycott elections but to raise workers daily grievances by making specific demands.

Further party conflict was triggered by the French takeover of the Ruhr in January 1923, supposedly to compensate for Germany’s unpaid reparations. Scholem wrote that the KPD leadership needed to take a clear line against the German as well as the French bourgeoisie. Scholem (and Ruth Fischer’s) Ruhr policy was rooted in the Schlageter fiasco. Schlagater was a member of the Freikorps, who was arrested by the French army because he had participated in bomb attacks on railway lines; the fascists were leading a strong popular campaign to free him.

The Left Opposition (sometimes known as the Berlin Opposition or, pejoratively, ‘ultra-lefts’) had been formed in opposition to the KPD leadership and became Scholem’s new home. It now disagreed with the KPD leadership’s exploiting of anti-French sentiment. They argued that the KPD leadership advice to remain neutral pandered to the prevailing fascist rhetoric and was tantamount to a dissociation from the workers movement.

Scholem stated that there was no difference between German workers killed by the henchmen of French imperialism and the German unemployed murdered by German police and fascists (of whom there were many locally), as had recently occurred. A revolutionary strategy would be to call for workers’ occupation, a strike for higher wages and an anti-fascist campaign to distinguish the KPD from the fascists. In mid-1923, Scholem did not deride the SPD as ‘fascist’ and instead called for united action against the Freikorps and other right-wing groups as well as for workers’ self-defence units from across the left.

But the Left Opposition’s position was defeated at the national Leipsig KPD Conference in late January, 1923, indicating their declining influence. A draft resolution had been prepared by Scholem in May 1923 criticising the KPD’s line that Ruhr workers should not fight the fascists. (Scholem was then threatened with expulsion.) Scholem also condemned the KPD’s subsequent parliamentary regional alliances with the SPD, especially in Saxony: a workers government, he argued, had to come from below, not above. This is the point Scholem becomes a junior partner in the ‘Left Opposition’, led at the time by Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow, advocating a ‘revolutionary’ approach as opposed to a ‘united front’ with Social Democrats or trade-unions, seen as a concession to reformism.

In 1923, a period of rising inflation and threatened government cuts, the KPD organised a well-supported militant general strike, which suggested the possibility for successful insurrection. But a works council congress in June refused to join a general strike, never mind an armed uprising. The KPD’s planned revolution of October 1923 was called off by Brandler, but not before Hamburg had ‘risen’. The consequences were disastrous: the membership melted away. Scholem, one of Brandler’s fiercest critics, argued this was all the leadership’s fault (though Hoffrogge does not develop on all this). (Brandler, and 6,000 of his supporters, expelled in 1928/29, then set up the Communist Party Opposition, KPO, the ‘Right Opposition’.)

By April 1924, the minority: the ‘Zentralle’ (Fischer, Maslow and Scholem) became the majority. In effect, Fischer became the leader of the KPD, the first woman to lead a mass Communist Party. (Later she became a virulent anti-Communist.) In April 1924, Scholem became a KPD deputy in the Reichstag (where he regularly faced ridicule and anti-Semitic taunts) but his main area of activity was the Party: he became the KPD’s ‘org’ man, the ‘party executioner’, insistent on party discipline and ‘Bolshevisation’.
But, amongst ever shifting alliances, the left leadership were ousted in 1925; one reason, the declining membership: almost 300,000 in September 1923, about 100,000 in 1924. The final straw was the catastrophic vote in the Presidential election in 1925 when the KPD candidate, Thaelmann, only received 6.4% of the vote against Hindenburg. Scholem had backed Thaelman and argued strongly against a ‘united’ candidate with the SPD. As the ‘left’ squabbled and disintegrated, Thaelman took over as leader, condemning Scholem as a sectarian. Thaelman then installed a ‘Scholem commission’ leading to Scholem’s removal from the Central Committee.

The KPD became increasingly Stalinised. After initiating the ‘Declaration of 700’ in solidarity with the Leninbund and demanding more party democracy in the Soviet Union, Scholem (and other signatories) were expelled from the KPD on 5th November 1926. Hauled before the Comintern, Scholem reaffirmed his willingness to accept their decisions. But after Brandler was expelled (to Scholem’s surprise), in early 1927, Scholem and Hugo Urbahns (and then Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow) tried to gather expelled and dissident members around a paper, what became known as the Urbahns group (or the Left Opposition, founded in April 1928, or the Leninbund). Their – unsuccessful- aim was to rejoin the KPD and purge it of its Stalinist tendencies. It questioned the ongoing proletarian character of the October Revolution, considered the Soviet state to be a form of state capitalism, were critical of the position of ‘Socialism in One Country’ and promised to offer an anti-Stalinist alternative to the KPD leadership. Trotsky increasingly became Scholem’s point of reference.
Unfortunately the book does not focus much on Scholem’s increasing support of ‘Trotskyism’. In 1925, in line with the KPD leadership’s position, Scholem still saw the Trotskyist current as an anti-Bolshevist, right wing threat, only distancing himself from Stalin in March 1926 and demanding a return to true Leninism. But the Left Opposition, initially with several thousand supporters which rapidly shrank to several hundreds, was itself faction ridden and soon dissolved, partly because of splits over whether to stand candidates against the KPD, which Scholem opposed and partly because of varying positions on the nature of the USSR. Scholem never publically distanced himself from the Soviet Union, but, in late January 1928, he publically sided with Trotsky. Although the book does not go into detail, from September 1930, Scholem wrote for Trotskyist publications such as ‘Permanente Revolution’ and, according to Ruth Fischer, corresponded with Trotsky.

Despite the book’s title, the book does not focus so much on ‘Jewishness’ as anti-Semitism. Scholem was originally a part of a Zionist youth group, Jung Juda but soon fell out with Zionism, criticising its ‘war objectives’ which would end up by the occupation of Syria and parts of the Sinai peninsula!

Displays of anti-Semitism were a regular event in the Reichstag which Scholem, unlike most of the KPD deputies, railed against, bringing out its class roots. He highlighted that the especial prejudice against Eastern European Jews, including by Western European Jews, was a matter of class. The SPD deputies, on the other hand, although not explicitly anti-Semitic, talked in code: of the ‘foreigner problem’ and not allowing more Jews into Germany. Nor does it sufficiently examine the KPD leadership’s early appeal to members of the ultra-right .

Scholem, probably more than any other of the KPD leaders, took the Nazis and anti-Semitism seriously. As early as 1922, Scholem was warning both the SPD and the KPD about underestimating the threat of a fascist dictatorship and repeatedly called for united action against the Freikorps, other right wing groups and ‘German fascists’ and supported ‘workers’ self-defence units’. The KPD wanted to draw people away from fascist ideas but it is a regular though controversial indictment that they were themselves anti-Semitic. Ruth Fischer’s appalling speech to far-right students in July 1925 when she called for Jewish capitalists to be hung from lampposts was a consequence of the KPD leadership’s tactic of neutralising the fascist movement but was atypical. Scholem condemned the fascist movement as barbaric and saw it as a continuation of the counter-revolution of 1918. Scholem repeatedly called for united action against ‘German fascists’ and supported ‘workers’ self-defence units’.

From early on, the Nazis used Scholem as a stereotype in their propaganda. He was briefly arrested immediately after the Reichstag fire in 1933. Why he did not flee is unclear. (A practiced mountaineer, he helped Ruth Fischer escape, taking her across the Czech border.) Ending up in Buchenwald, Haffrogge asks whether the strong KPD underground there contributed to his murder. Assigned quarry duties, he was taken off to one side by the SS guards and shot in July 1940.