Sep 2009 Journal
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Jews in double jeopardy
The Nazis reserved a particularly vicious brand of hatred for Germans who were both left-wing political activists and Jews. When such people fell into Nazi hands, they were habitually treated with exceptional and systematic brutality. One of the first was the writer and left-wing anarchist Erich Mühsam, a colourful figure on the Munich literary and political scene. He was arrested within a few hours of the Reichstag fire, on the night of 28 February 1933, and incarcerated in a concentration camp, where he was subjected to appalling treatment. The beatings and torture continued after he was transferred to Oranienburg concentration camp, and in July 1934 his battered body was ‘found’ hanging in a camp latrine; he had been murdered by his guards.
It must be remembered that in 1933/34 the level of violence directed by the Nazis against the Jews, though severe in individual cases, was not comparable with what was to come later. Only in 1938, with the Anschluss of Austria and the ‘Crystal Night’ pogroms, did the regime escalate its anti-Semitic measures, exposing the mass of the Jewish population in Germany and Austria to overt and brutal physical persecution. And the further escalation to genocide took place only in 1941, with the onset of the ‘Final Solution’.
In 1933/34, the Nazis were still primarily concerned with destroying the organisations and resources of their political opponents, especially the Communists and Social Democrats. Their initiatives in the racial field were mainly limited in those early years to measures excluding Jews from certain fields of employment and activity and depriving them of their rights as citizens. But the bulk of the Jewish population was not yet at immediate risk of actual physical harm; indeed, many Jews continued to hope that they could live out the duration of Nazi rule in Germany. There were, of course, instances of severe violence against Jews, but these were not yet widespread on the scale of later years.
The regular use of violence and murder against Jewish left-wing political activists took root on the far right well before 1933. In January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg, leader of the infant German Communist Party and a Jew from Poland, was savagely beaten to death during the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin by men of the right-wing paramilitary Freikorps; her body was thrown into the Landwehr canal. Her partner, Leo Jogiches, was assassinated two months later. And in June 1922, Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau was assassinated by right-wing activists who considered it a slur on Germany’s honour that a Jew should hold such high representative office.
Arguably, it was in Munich, the birthplace of National Socialism (‘Hauptstadt der Bewegung’), that the practice of physically eliminating Jewish political opponents became common currency on the German far right. In Munich, with the collapse of the old regime in November 1918, power fell into the hands of a radical left-wing government led by Kurt Eisner, a Jew from Berlin, a pacifist and an intellectual. Eisner was the first to be targeted: he was assassinated in February 1919 by a right-wing aristocrat, Graf von Arco-Valley.
Eisner’s murder triggered a sequence of revolutionary events, as Munich descended into a spiral of political radicalisation. It was here that political assassination entered the bloodstream of the German extreme right; that included the Nazi Party, a previously insignificant sect that gained the potential to become a major political force in 1919, when Adolf Hitler became a member in the wake of the turbulent events in Munich. In early April 1919, the city lurched further to the left, as a group of radicalised left-wingers seized power and attempted to establish a Räterepublik, in which government was to be exercised through workers’ and soldiers’ councils (‘Räte’), on the model of the Russian Soviets (‘Soviet’ is Russian for ‘Council’).
Jews were prominent among the leaders of this movement: the young writer and activist Ernst Toller was chairman of its Revolutionary Central Council; the philosopher Gustav Landauer, an anarchist pacifist, took charge of education; and Erich Mühsam was an active supporter. Incoherently idealistic, this group was displaced on 13 April 1919 by a more tough-minded regime, led by the Communist Eugen Leviné, another Jew. But in early May 1919 right-wing militias entered Munich, overthrew the left-wing regime and bloodily ‘cleansed’ the city. Landauer, an exemplary man of peace, was shot by a soldier, then stamped to death; Leviné was court-martialled and executed; and Toller, who narrowly escaped with his life, served five grim years for high treason in Niederschönenfeld prison, alongside Mühsam.
The anarchy and violence associated with the short-lived Räterepublik in Munich left an abiding impression on many middle-class Germans, though the worst of the violence had in reality been perpetrated by the right-wing forces while ‘restoring order’. In the subsequent counter-revolutionary backlash, the fear of the perceived threat from the left to political stability, bourgeois normality and middle-class prosperity took on an obsessive quality, focusing largely on the figure of the left-wing Jewish intellectual, who became for fearful right-wingers the embodiment of an ‘alien’ menace to German society.
This blended with the image of the Jew propagated by the anti-Semites of the extreme right. For them, Jews were by reason of their race inherently incapable of becoming part of the German Volk and were thus condemned to remain outside German society, whose national characteristics, aspirations and destiny they did not share. Indeed, as members of an ‘alien’ race, Jews were deemed to be covertly united in a conspiracy to destroy ‘healthy’ German society, by contaminating its racial purity, corrupting its moral order and undermining its social and political stability. Jews, unlike ‘healthy’ Germans, were bloodless intellectuals, capable only of uncreative calculation but never of true genius, and cut off by an excess of cerebral rationality from the true wellsprings of life.
Here lay the origins of the Nazi concept of Judeo-Bolshevism, which paired the alleged racial threat from the Jews with that of Marxist political subversion. The campaign against Judeo-Bolshevism was to reach its full lethal frenzy after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Before 1933, the image of the Jew as fomenter of Communist revolution was a useful tool in the Nazis’ propaganda armoury – though when they needed to parade their pseudo-Socialist credentials, they wheeled out the stereotype of the Jewish plutocrat and capitalist instead, ignoring the evident contradiction between the two.
The Nazis came to see the left-wing Jewish intellectual as their mortal foe, the hidden antagonist behind all the opposition ranged against them. To this was added the fury of bull-necked Nazi thugs when they were lampooned by the sharp pens of Jewish humorists and political satirists; this confirmed the Nazis in their delusion that a secret intellectual mafia of Jews controlled publishing and the press and must be rooted out. Predictably, Jewish authors figured prominently among those whose books were burnt in 1933. The first German to be murdered on foreign soil by agents of the Nazis was the philosopher and writer Theodor Lessing, a Jew whose critical biography of President Hindenburg had marked him out in Nazi eyes as an enemy of the people. Lessing fled to Marienbad in Czechoslovakia, but the Nazi press campaign against him was maintained, and on 30 August 1933 he was shot and fatally wounded.
One of the first captives of the Nazis to be ‘shot while attempting to escape’ was Felix Fechenbach, a Jew from Würzburg, who as a young man had been Eisner’s secretary in Munich and had been imprisoned for high treason in 1922, after a notorious trial sometimes termed the ‘German Dreyfus Affair’. After his release, Fechenbach worked as editor of a Social Democratic newspaper in Detmold, where his highly effective brand of campaigning anti-Nazi journalism made him a marked man. Fechenbach was arrested on 11 March 1933 and held in a local concentration camp. As a Jew, an intellectual and a prominent left-wing journalist, he was duly singled out for the harshest treatment: on 7 August 1933, while being transferred to Dachau, he was shot in a wood near Detmold, apparently on the direct order of Reinhard Heydrich.
The Nazis continued to track Jews with left-wing political affiliations, even if they were little-known figures. An example was Richard Bernstein, a Jew from Vienna who worked as an editor on Vorwärts, the official newspaper of the Social Democratic Party. According to documents kindly supplied to me by Susanne Medas, Bernstein’s daughter, the Nazis were able to keep tabs on Bernstein when he fled to Prague and then to Oslo – partly because as late as June 1938 he attempted to claim from his Prague address the compensation due to him for his dismissal from Vorwärts in 1933. His son and daughter reached safety in Britain, but Bernstein and his wife Gisela were deported to Auschwitz, where both died. By contrast, even high-profile non-Jewish intellectuals on the left were left untouched, provided that they avoided political activity. The writer Erich Kästner, whose books were burnt on 10 May 1933, managed to survive the Nazi years largely unscathed.
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