Wern­er Scholem: A Ger­man Life (Jew­ish Cul­ture and Contexts)

Mir­jam Zad­off; Dona Gey­er, trans.
  • Review
By – April 11, 2018

As William Blake spoke of see­ing the world in a grain of sand, Mir­jam Zad­off reveals the world of Ger­man Jews in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry through the life of one minor politi­cian, Wern­er Scholem. Scholem was a sol­dier, dis­si­dent Com­mu­nist, mem­ber of the Reich­stag, and vic­tim of the Nazis.

Eigh­teen years old when World War I broke out, Scholem, like mil­lions of oth­er Ger­mans, suf­fered in the trench­es and faced heavy ene­my fire. As the war end­ed, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies — many of them Jew­ish — tried to declare a social­ist repub­lic. Long fas­ci­nat­ed by the idea of rev­o­lu­tion, Scholem gained a rep­u­ta­tion as a stir­ring ora­tor and emerged as one of the lead­ers of the Ger­man Com­mu­nist Par­ty, get­ting elect­ed to the Pruss­ian leg­is­la­ture in 1921 and to the nation­al Reich­stag in 1924.

Because he refused to accept the dic­tates of the Com­intern in Moscow, he even­tu­al­ly joined a Trot­skyite, anti-Stal­in­ist fac­tion called the Left Oppo­si­tion. Now he had to deal not only with attacks from the Right for being a trai­tor” and for being a Jew, but also with the vit­ri­ol of the hard-line Com­mu­nists. Mean­while, the prospects for the Left dimmed as the Nazis won more and more seats in the parliament.

When the Reich­stag burned in 1933, a month after Hitler took pow­er, the police arrest­ed Scholem. Aston­ish­ing­ly, he was soon released, yet did not flee Ger­many. He still had faith in the Ger­man legal sys­tem, and did not want to leave his wife and daugh­ters behind. His next arrest led to a pro­gres­sive­ly wors­en­ing ordeal in pris­ons and con­cen­tra­tion camps, end­ing with his mur­der in Buchen­wald on July 171940.

As Scholem had set aside Judaism in favor of the utopi­an pos­si­bil­i­ties of social­ism, his younger broth­er, Ger­hard, lat­er known as Ger­shom, was drawn to the redemp­tive qual­i­ties of Zion­ism and the apoc­a­lyp­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties in Kab­bal­ah. By con­trast, their two old­er broth­ers, Rein­hold and Erich, were busi­ness­men — Ger­man patri­ots of Jew­ish descent who sim­ply want­ed to suc­ceed as mem­bers of the mid­dle class. Their fam­i­ly serves as a micro­cosm of Jews in the Weimar Repub­lic and their journeys.

Though Ger­shom and Wern­er fol­lowed seem­ing­ly dif­fer­ent paths, Zad­off believes the two broth­ers rep­re­sent two utopias seat­ed at one table.” They react­ed against their bour­geois fam­i­ly in dif­fer­ent ways, yet shared a fas­ci­na­tion with the project of human redemp­tion. The schol­ar Michael Löwy sim­i­lar­ly finds an affin­i­ty between sec­u­lar utopi­anism and Jew­ish mes­sian­ism among Ger­man Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als in the 1920s, which in his view result­ed from a mix of Ger­man Roman­ti­cism and the kab­bal­is­tic idea of tikkun olam.

Wern­er Scholem: A Ger­man Life rep­re­sents an enor­mous achieve­ment in research, biog­ra­phy, his­to­ry, and thought. Zad­off is a born sto­ry­teller: she has a great gift for digest­ing enor­mous amounts of infor­ma­tion and weav­ing it all into a nov­el­is­tic, often sus­pense­ful nar­ra­tive. Like a great nov­el­ist, she sit­u­ates her pro­tag­o­nist in his social con­text, amid his fam­i­ly, friends, col­leagues, and adver­saries — all of whom come vivid­ly alive in the telling.

Discussion Questions