The socialist life of Werner Scholem deserves to be better known. The publication of Ralf Hoffrogge’s exhaustive biography, A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany (Haymarket 2018), means that English readers now have the opportunity to appreciate his contribution.
Werner Scholem was born in Germany in December 1895. He joined the Socialist Workers’ Youth group as a teenager in 1912 and then the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on turning 18.
Scholem opposed the First World War but was conscripted, wounded on the Eastern front and then imprisoned for anti-war activities. He was sent to the Western front and missed the November 1918 revolution – much to his disappointment. At that time he was a member of independent social democratic USPD, which had been excluded from the SPD during the war.
In 1919 Scholem became a USPD local councillor in Hanover and then editor of the Volksblatt newspaper in Halle. In November 1920, he was part of the USPD left majority that voted to fuse with the Communist Party (KPD), creating a mass party of more than 300,000 members. In 1921, he became one of the KPD representatives to the Prussian Landtag and nominal editor of the party central newspaper, Die Rote Fahne.
Scholem was a leader of the left within the KPD and a key organiser in the Berlin-Brandenburg region. In the aftermath of the failed seizure of power in October 1923, the left led by Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow became the new leadership of the KPD. Scholem became the Organisationsleiter, the central party organiser, and was responsible for the “Bolshevisation” of the party. In April 1924, he also became a Reichstag deputy, in part to give him some legal protection from imprisonment.
The Fischer-Maslow-Scholem leadership was soon ousted to make way for the Stalinist Ernst Thälmann. Scholem was the organiser of the “The Letter of the 700”, in solidarity with the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union. In November 1926, Scholem was expelled from the KPD and became a founder of the Leninbund in 1928.
The Leninbund was the Left Opposition group in Germany. It was more Zinovievist than Trotskyist, and in 1930 the Trotskyist minority round Anton Grylewicz parted ways with it.
Scholem left the Leninbund soon after its foundation, training to become a lawyer, although he maintained links to Trotskyists on the German left.
Scholem was an early victim of the Nazi terror. He was first arrested the night after the Reichstag fire. Although briefly released, between 1933 and 1935 he was held in “investigative custody”. Scholem was incarcerated in the Colombiahaus, Lichtenburg, Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, subjected to violent assaults, long hours of forced labour and arduous tasks such as cleaning the cesspit.
He wore a combination of yellow and red triangles overlaid to resemble the Star of David. On 17 July 1940, Scholem was murdered by an SS guard in the Buchenwald quarry.
Scholem is the Yiddish spelling of the Hebrew term shalom, meaning peace. However the tumult of the early twentieth century would prove anything but peaceful for the people of Jewish descent.
Werner Scholem was born into an assimilated middle class German-Jewish family, who owned a printing firm.
Werner’s two eldest brothers took over the business, only to lose it after the Nazis came to power. His family were forced into emigration in Australia and England after the Nazis came to power in 1933. Werner’s younger brother Gerhard (Gershem) emigrated to Palestine in 1923 and became a world-renowned scholar in Israel.
Hoffrogge’s biography does an outstanding job explaining the significance of antisemitism throughout Werner Scholem’s life. He was subjected to the antisemitism that was rife throughout German society. Scholem received antisemitic insults whilst a representative in the Prussian Landtag. He also suffered when the German and Austrian Alpine Club allowed some branches to insert an “Aryan paragraph”, which excluded Jews from their hiking chalets.
Scholem was also the target of the Nazi racial antisemitism, which would ultimately take his life.
He was personally caricatured in Nazi antisemitic propaganda as early as November 1924. The Nazis’ so-called “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” in April 1933 banned Jews from all forms of employment in the state apparatus, including Scholem’s position as a legal clerk.
Even while Scholem was imprisoned, his bust formed part of the exhibition “The Eternal Jew” in Munich’s German Museum in 1937.
Scholem also encountered left antisemitism in the labour movement. In December 1914, while still a member of the SPD, Werner wrote to his brother Gerhard: “For what it’s worth, the party is rife with antisemitism, although the people themselves are oblivious to it.” The trade union leader Carl Legien attacked SPD deputies like Hugo Haase who came out against the war in 1916, saying: “The Jew gang must be brought to an end”.
Nor was the KPD immune from antisemitism. The Berlin left were derided as “Jew louts”, while the Fischer-Maslow-Scholem leadership were disparaged as “a gang of Jews that stick together”.
Hoffrogge is clear that the labour movement was not on the whole antisemitic. Many socialists with a Jewish background came to play a leading role within it. However the book underscores the longstanding nature of the problem even within one of the most progressive labour movements in the world. That is something the left today must learn from and fight.
Werner Scholem’s politics exhibited a persistent leftism throughout the 1920s. He rejected the turn towards transitional demands, the united front and the workers’ government, which arose from the bitter experience of the early 1920s and was distilled by the Communist International.
The KPD “left” of which Scholem was a leader in 1923-4 rallied around a complete rejection of any sort of agreement or alliance with social democracy or the trade unions. (They did oppose KPD members quitting the SPD-led unions, for which there was a strong mood at the time, and at least on paper accepted the united front “only from below”).
They instead advocated “organise the revolution” as the immediate slogan. In 1923, Scholem denounced the Thuringia SPD-led government as a “purely bourgeois government”. He narrowly defined a workers’ government as one that would “blast apart bourgeois democracy and the commencement of civil war”.
Hoffrogge identifies a crucial weakness of Scholem’s leftism: he never (or not until he dropped out of activity) questioned the notion that the masses were ready and waiting for the revolution.
Scholem was an exceptionally capable organiser. In 1924 he reorganised the KPD apparatus, running the highly effective campaign for the Reichstag elections on 4 May 1924, when the KPD won 12.6% of the vote and secured 62 deputies. He was less successful in the Reichstag elections in December 1924, when the KPD got 9% and 45 deputies.
The debate around the 1925 presidential election also has contemporary relevance. In the first round the KPD candidate Ernst Thälmann came fourth out of 17 candidates, winning 1.8m votes (7%). In the second round the right stood Field Marshal Hindenburg.
Both the Comintern and the Fischer-Maslow leadership wanted to support the SPD candidate, but were opposed by Scholem and Arthur Rosenberg. When the SPD withdrew to support the Centre Party candidate, the KPD stood Thälmann again. Hindenburg won with 14.6m votes (48%) against 13.7m (45%) for the rival Centre Party candidate. Thälmann fared badly, getting 1.9m votes (6.4%).
Scholem was criticised for being the “party executioner” because he was not squeamish about dealing with supporters of the former leadership. As the head of the Zinoviev-inspired “Bolshevisation” campaign, Scholem restricted democracy within the party. The KPD under his leadership even printed Der Funke, a special bulletin for party functionaries rather than party members.
Yet he soon became a victim of the increasingly powerful Stalinism bureaucracy within the communist movement. Scholem had failed to criticise Stalin’s policies in terms of democracy and authoritarianism.
Scholem was deposed as Orgleiter in May 1925 and removed from the KPD Politburo in September 1925. He was the central organiser of the “Declaration of the 700” (published 11 September 1926), which came out in solidarity with the Russian opposition (Zinoviev-Kamenev-Trotsky).
Scholem was expelled from the KPD on 5 November 1926. He supported the left communist newspaper Mitteilungsblatt, published from January to May 1927 and then the Fahne des Kommunismus, a weekly from June 1927. This included the former KPD Fischer-Maslow leadership, but its most prominent figure was Hugo Urbahns.
Scholem was central to preparations to found the Leninbund in April 1928, delivering the organisational report. He claimed that new group had 100 local branches, several thousand members and 100,000 sympathisers. Hoffrogge highlights the Leninbund’s ongoing self-deception concerning its relationship to the KPD.
Urbahns proposed that the newly founded group stand candidates in upcoming Reichstag election. Scholem opposed that, arguing that they should remain an external, (expelled) faction of the KPD and call for votes for their erstwhile party. The issue split the Leninbund. Scholem resigned on 7 May 1928; Fischer and Maslow followed two days later. The Leninbund got 0.26% of the vote in the May elections.
As early as late January 1928, Scholem publicly sided with Trotsky, vehemently denouncing his deportation to the Russian hinterland. From that time onward he was regarded as a “declared Trotskyist” within the Leninbund.
In 1928 Trotsky himself had opposed standing Leninbund candidates and instead proposed backing the KPD in the elections.
Hoffrogge offers some tantalising suggestions about Scholem’s relationship to Trotskyism in the last decade of his life. Scholem is said to have published articles under a pseudonym in Trotskyist publications such as Permanente Revolution. A letter from Roman Well to Trotsky from 1931 states as much. Alas, as Scholem’s pseudonym remains unknown, it is impossible to say how many articles he published.
Ernst Federn, a fellow inmate in the Dachau concentration camp met Scholem in 1938 and described him as a follower of Trotsky, albeit one who was sceptical of the united front policy. KPD-affiliated camp inmates recalled that Scholem promoted a Trotskyist position.
Hoffrogge states that Scholem aligned himself with Trotsky’s views in early 1928 and “stuck to this orientation over the next ten years, even under the most severe conditions”.
The “Bolshevisation” of the KPD, 1924-25
The “Bolshevisation” campaign can be seen in hindsight to have been a pivotal step in the reduction of the Communist Parties to frontier-guards of Moscow. The most important Communist Party outside the USSR, the German CP (KPD), was central in the campaign.