Werner Scholem, a Jewish Communist Murdered by the Nazis

Ralf Hoffrogge
Nathan French

This day in 1940, the Jewish communist Werner Scholem was murdered at Buchenwald concentration camp. A champion of socialism and democracy, his life was intimately tied up with the dramatic defeat of the interwar German left.

Werner Scholem (1895–1940), a leading member of the Communist Party of Germany.

On July 17, 1940, the communist and former Reichstag deputy Werner Scholem was shot dead. After a life that reflected the promises and tragedies of the German communist movement, he died at the hands of SS officer Johannes Blank in the quarry of Buchenwald concentration camp. He was mourned by his brother, Gershom Scholem, as well as by his friend Walter Benjamin.

In the years after World War I, Werner Scholem had been one of the most renowned figures in the German Communist Party (KPD). Yet his name would soon enter into obscurity. After robbing him of his freedom, in 1937 the Nazis robbed him even of his face: a bust of his head, created under duress, was shown in the antisemitic “The Eternal Jew” exhibition in Munich. A press photo from the exhibition is the last picture we have of Scholem.

After his murder, only a few family members and friends kept his memory alive. Given his communist politics, Scholem was not remembered or recognized in West Germany; but the German Democratic Republic in the East also ignored the memory of a militant it considered “ultraleft.” Only after 1990 did posterity remember this fascinating figure — one of the first German communists to warn against Stalinism.

Communism with Conditions

Born in 1895 into a Jewish entrepreneurial family, Werner Scholem had to serve in the Prussian infantry for three years after completing his school-leaving certificate in 1915. This was a great catastrophe for such a resolute opponent of war, who joined a Zionist youth group in 1912 in protest against German nationalism before moving over to the Socialist Workers’ Youth.

During World War I, Scholem sympathized with the “Bremen Left Radicals.” a political current that sharply criticized the paralysis and reformism within the Social-Democratic movement. But in 1917, he joined the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) — a party of opponents of the war, embracing both radicals like Rosa Luxemburg and more reformist figures. Scholem hoped that the USPD as a whole would turn to the left — but he soon saw it split.

The stumbling block came from the “Twenty-One Conditions” that the Bolsheviks imposed on all parties who wished to be part of the Communist International (“Comintern”). The left wing of the USPD voted for these conditions in October 1920 and thus united with the KPD, which had been founded the year before and in which the Bremen Left Radicals also participated. Communism had, by this point, become a mass movement for the first time, with the united KPD boasting about 300,000 members. But the majority of the working class continued to follow the SPD.

In these circumstances, the KPD faced a dilemma: Was it sufficient to be a movement rallying together those sections of the working class that had been radicalized in the war and revolution? Would it lead the next wave of revolution as a minority vanguard? Or would capitalism stabilize, thus requiring a longer period of transformation, and the intensification of reformist trade-union struggles? 

Left Opposition in the KPD

From 1921, Scholem, like later party leader Ernst Thälmann, was one of those who warned against working too closely with the Social-Democratic movement and trade unions. In Berlin and Hamburg, these skeptics slowly formed the “Left Opposition.” “Left” here meant opposition to any reformist policy. According to Scholem, they wanted to “preserve the communist face” of the KPD. This meant rejecting partial demands and embracing an instrumental relationship with action in parliament, which was only to be used as a stage for agitation.

However, in terms of their thinking on the form of the party, these leftists were centralizers. They supported Lenin’s Twenty-One Conditions and their demand for the exclusion of all reformist elements from the Comintern’s parties. This “new left” thus clearly distanced itself from another generation of syndicalist leftists, who represented base-union and federalist organizing models and had already been expelled from the KPD in 1919. Instead, this new left tried to combine organizational centralism with the anti-reformism of the November Revolution — something like a Leninist left-wing radicalism.

Scholem and the Left Opposition had their chance when the KPD met with catastrophe in 1923, with its failed attempt at revolution. The uprising planned as the “German October” was canceled in advance due to a lack of mass support — and in Hamburg, where fighting did nonetheless break out, the 300 Communist insurgents remained completely isolated.

Although revolutionary vanguardism had thus far failed, the radical left was able to profit from the situation. Without delay, they declared party leader Heinrich Brandler the scapegoat for the failure of the revolution: he had canceled it at the last minute and therefore betrayed it. In reality, Brandler had pulled the rip cord in the face of a clearly foreseeable defeat. It was Ernst Thälmann who caused the catastrophe by allowing the uprising to take place in Hamburg anyway, not only costing human lives but leaving the KPD banned until March 1924.

Nevertheless, the fiasco benefited the radicals, considering that it was mostly moderate and trade-union members who resigned in protest at what they saw as an irresponsible attempt at an insurgency. Ruth Fischer, Arkadi Maslow, and Werner Scholem from the Berlin opposition, as well as Thälmann from Hamburg, moved to the top of the party.

A Fervent Supporter of “Bolshevization”

With Maslow arrested shortly afterward, Werner Scholem and Ruth Fischer led the party starting in April 1924. As the head of the KPD apparatus, Scholem initiated a centralizing “Bolshevization” of the party, with the plan to instill greater discipline in the KPD and forge it into an agile revolutionary unit along the lines of its big Russian brother.

He skillfully used staffing cuts to get rid of representatives who favored a united front and a trade-union oriented policy. In addition, KPD-controlled districts were stacked with cadres who were loyal to the headquarters. Scholem, who had been in the opposition of the Berlin district leadership for years, wanted to prevent new opponents from rising up the ranks.

But despite this Bolshevization policy, the new leadership did not have a good relationship with Moscow. The head of the Comintern, Grigory Zinoviev, feared a weakening of the KPD by the left-wing radicals, which would in turn hurt Zinoviev in a quite different struggle: the battle to succeed Lenin, who died of a stroke in January 1924. Now, Zinoviev tried to mobilize the Third International against Stalin, who dominated the Russian party apparatus and supported the German left.

The KPD consolidated itself: Scholem managed to rebuild the structures that had been destroyed and to reorganize the party finances. However, the opposition soon fell prey to its own dogmas. The economy had stabilized, and the mood tipped between social democracy and conservatism. This was clear in the presidential elections of 1925, when the KPD ran Ernst Thälmann as its candidate for “red president” in both rounds. He was defeated both times with around 7 percent support, and monarchist Paul von Hindenburg became president of the republic. Scholem and Thälmann strongly refused support to the SPD in the runoff contest — they did not want to hide the KPD’s own “communist face” for mere tactical reasons.

Scholem Discovers Democracy

The 1925 election defeat finally turned the Comintern against the KPD, and internal cracks within the leadership soon became apparent: Maslow and Ruth Fischer now supported a united front with Social Democracy against Hindenburg. Werner Scholem was isolated. The winner in all this was, paradoxically, Thälmann — the “red president” in the failed election campaign.

Thälmann himself changed allegiances and, with the support of the Russian “Stalin Faction,” managed to push his old comrades out of the race. For him, it was helpful that Scholem and Fischer attacked each other.

The KPD also showed the potential radical effect of demands for reform. Its campaign for the expropriation of the nobility prompted a referendum with unrivaled capacities for mass mobilization. But the left wing of the KDP remained isolated and didn’t know where its criticism should start from. Thälmann’s authoritarian leadership methods had, after all, earlier been introduced by Scholem himself, and Thälmann’s opportunistic change of position also had the support of Fischer.

Scholem was removed from the KPD leadership in 1925 and expelled from the party itself in November 1926. Previously, he had unsuccessfully opposed the abolition of party democracy at a plenary session of the Third International in Moscow. His former ally Stalin now commented gloatingly: “Scholem used to be against internal party democracy. Now he has gone to the other extreme by advocating boundless democracy that is not limited by anything. God preserve us from such a democracy. It is not without reason that a Russian proverb says: ‘Let a fool pray and he will break his forehead.’”

Scholem, who had initiated the “Bolshevization” of the KPD, now had to watch as others continued his work and initiated a next phase — one for which the historian Hermann Weber coined the term “Stalinization.” When, during 1927, waves of purges in both the Soviet Union and Germany silenced all critics within Communist ranks, it was only Scholem and his comrades who disavowed Stalinism with their newspaper, the Fahne des Kommunismus. The paper became the mouthpiece for the former ultraleft, who organized themselves in a new party called the Leninbund.

Together with Amadeo Bordiga, founder of the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I), these German left-wing radicals formed the first generation of Marxist critics of Stalinism. They criticized the disempowerment and arrest of old revolutionaries ten years before the Great Purge of 1937, and they coined the term “Stalinism.” However, they always saw the Soviet Union through the lens of their critique of reformism: Scholem insulted Stalin as a reviled social democrat who would establish a kind of peasant state-capitalism in Russia.

Scholem and Bordiga’s criticism, which could not spread more widely, was formulated as purely negative “anti-reformism” and aimed at restoring the old vanguardist concept of Leninism. They criticized the content of Stalin’s policies — but only marginally criticized the abolition of party democracy. When Stalin initiated a turn to the left in 1928 and declared social democracy his main enemy, the critics remained silent: Werner Scholem and Ruth Fischer resigned from the Leninbund and called for the election of the KPD. Only around 1930 did a second generation in the Leninbund under the influence of Leon Trotsky abandon the old dogmas and call for a united front between social democracy and communism, in light of the rise of the Nazis.

What Remains?

The German Communist Party, to which Werner Scholem dedicated his life, is long gone. Today’s Social Democratic Party is almost unrecognizable in comparison to its size and influence at that time. The term “ultraleft” has a different meaning today than it did during Scholem’s lifetime. But what can be said about his strategic understanding and his career in the party?

Certainly, the ultraleft’s criticism of SPD reformism was justified: the Weimar Republic suffered from the fact that a thin layer of parliamentary democracy could never really displace the monarchist-authoritarian forces in the state administration, the military, the judiciary, and the school system. The lifelong lie of the social democratic movement consisted in ignoring this fact — even in 1932, when it was driven from the most important centers of power by a coup d’état in Prussia (by far the largest state), it did not change course.

The authoritarianism behind the Prussian coup did not develop in a vacuum. The nobility and the owners of big industry defended their economic privileges not only against communism but also against democracy. Particularly in the final phase of the Weimar Republic from 1930 onward, it was simply not possible to involve the elites in any way in overcoming the world economic crisis through redistribution. On the contrary: a policy of austerity imposed the costs of the crisis on employees, workers, the self-employed, and the army of the unemployed.

The failed referendum on the expropriation of the nobility’s property in 1925 had shown a counter-direction: the redistribution of property was not to be organized in an authoritarian, but rather in a democratic manner from within society. However, the ultraleft was unable to make precisely this connection. It held on to a militarized vision of revolution, whose predecessor lay in Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution of 1917.

For this reason, the ultraleft’s social analysis did not distinguish between the Tsarist Empire in Russia and the situation of Weimar democracy. In its endeavor to be as radical as possible, it built up a distorted view of reality. Its anti-reformism was not, therefore, a concrete criticism of reforms that were being made and were either too shortsighted or lacking, but rather a rejection of all demands for reform. Its politics was, therefore, only one of condemning, as being against reforms in principle — a dead-end street into which the German left continued to turn even later.

The tragic fate of Scholem and Germany’s ultraleft was that, through their dogmatism, they helped to power those who had no scruple in shifting their positions. In 1928, Stalin took over all the phrases of the ultraleft in a 180-degree turn. His maneuvers had purely power-political motivations: they served as a pretext to remove the exponents of the united front from the Comintern. Nevertheless, the old ultraleftists were not taken back into the fold — for the point was to get rid of all independent-thinking communists.

After 1925, Werner Scholem had several chances to reel back his stances and to stand by Stalin’s side. His colleague Thälmann took this opportunity — he changed course from the Left to the United Front and then back to ultraleft. Scholem decided otherwise and stuck to his views. For this, he was first ostracized — and then forgotten.