Werner Scholem

A German Life

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Mirjam Zadoff
Dona Geyer
Jewish Culture and Contexts
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , December
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was one of the greatest scholars of Judaism and most significant Jewish public intellectuals of the twentieth century. However, until the mid-1930s, his renown paled beside that of Werner Scholem, one of Gershom’s three older brothers. For a brief time in the 1920s, Werner Scholem was the second most powerful member of the German Communist Party and a prominent enemy of Joseph Stalin during his own rise to power. 

Like nearly all of Stalin’s enemies, however, Werner Scholem found himself on the losing side in the struggle for control over European communism. And since the winners write the history books, he was relegated to the dustbin of communist historiography. With contemporary scholars rewriting the history of German communism, Werner Scholem’s fascinating life and failed work have become the focus of several monographs, including this engaging book by Mirjam Zadoff, translated by Dona Geyer from the original German.

As Zadoff relates, Werner Scholem’s story was not his alone. It was that of an era and a particular clique. Born in 1895 as the third son of Arthur Scholem, a minimally religious Jewish, German patriotic print shop owner in Berlin, Werner was argumentative and cynical from an early age. He also found himself drawn to leftist politics. This combination incurred the wrath of his father, who sent Werner away to boarding school multiple times. As early as 1912, Werner affiliated with the Social Democrats. In contrast to many of his comrades, he opposed Germany’s participation in the First World War, yet was conscripted and served under deplorable conditions. Through his involvement with the socialist youth movement, he met Emmy Wiechelt, the daughter of a working-class Christian woman, and they married in 1917, further distancing Scholem from his roots among the stolid Jewish bourgeoisie of Berlin.

After the war ended, Werner Scholem’s political and journalistic career began, and his rise was meteoric. He left the Social Democrats for the Communist Party and served as chief editor of its official organ. He was elected to the Prussian state legislature in 1921 and to the Reichstag in 1924. Scholem was prominent in the Communist Party’s left wing and became the leader of the party’s Organizational Bureau, a position of immense power. Not coincidentally, many of Scholem’s allies in the party’s left wing were intellectuals of Jewish heritage, not industrial workers and laborers from Christian families. Their moment atop German communism was brief. As Zadoff relates, they overplayed their hand in German politics, weakening the party greatly. They were distant from the party rank and file, and positioned themselves as opponents of Stalin as he outmaneuvered Leon Trotsky and Gregor Zinoviev—incidentally, both Jews—for control of the Russian Communist Party after Lenin’s death. Within three years, Scholem had been excluded from Communist Party leadership and then expelled from the party altogether as part of the Stalinization of German communism.

But Zadoff has not written simply a history of German communism. She has written the story of a Jewish communist and his family in the early 20th century, and Scholem’s travails did not cease. He was arrested after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, put on trial, acquitted, and still remanded to a concentration camp. He never left the camp system, enduring incarceration under ever more oppressive circumstances before his murder in Buchenwald in 1940. Using a rich primary source base, Zadoff is especially adept at depicting Scholem’s experiences and inner life during these years.

Though excluded from the book’s title, an equal hero of Zadoff’s tale is Scholem’s non-Jewish wife Emmy. After Scholem’s expulsion from the Communist Party, her income helped the family survive while he returned to law school. She, too, was arrested in 1933 but managed to flee to England under fascinating circumstances. While working for her husband’s release, she supported two daughters, tried her hand at several failed businesses, and had her own adventures. Many years after Werner Scholem’s death, Emmy returned to Germany, embraced Judaism, and inhabited a Jewish space in post-World War II Germany.

Notwithstanding his radical politics, membership in an atheist political party, and non-affiliation with the Jewish community, Werner Scholem was unmistakably a scion of the German-Jewish middle class. One of Zadoff’s central points is that Werner Scholem could be very Jewish. For example, she notes his use of Yiddishisms, which she ascribes to his consciously wanting to accentuate his Jewishness with certain interlocutors rather than just being a natural, unconscious part of his speech derived from having grown up in a Jewish milieu.

Writing a book based on as many documents as this one is complicated, and it is inevitable that some mistakes will slip in, though Werner Scholem: A German Life is particularly sloppy. Frequently, dates are off by a single digit (presumably transcription errors). Zadoff misspells the names of several family members and acquaintances. More problematically, she makes factual errors or reads too much into her documents. For example, on the basis of one ambiguous and possibly incorrect letter from Werner to Gershom, Zadoff claims that their brother Reinhold had an impoverished, non-Jewish wife and makes an argument about class venality. In fact, the preponderance of evidence indicates that Reinhold’s wife was Jewish and affluent. Similarly, Zadoff writes of a conversation between Werner and his mother about Emmy’s extramarital affairs, making Werner jealous. The letter that Zadoff cites as evidence indicates Werner was jealous, but not why, and there is no overt mention of affairs.

This well-written book tells the story of two fascinating twentieth-century lives—Werner Scholem and Emmy Wiechelt Scholem—as it illuminates an important era in the history of European communism and German history and widens the focus to expand our understanding of the life of Gershom Scholem, the famous historian of religion. As such, it is a compelling and enlightening read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jay Howard Geller is the Samuel Rosenthal Professor of Judaic Studies at Case Western Reserve University.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mirjam Zadoff is the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair in Jewish Studies and Associate Professor of History at Indiana University Bloomington. She is author of Next Year in Marienbad: The Lost Worlds of Jewish Spa Culture, awarded the Salo Wittmayer Baron Book Prize in Jewish Studies and also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.


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