Book Reviews

A Jewish Communist’s Unclaimed Legacy

Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany: The Life of Werner Scholem (1895–1940):  141 (Historical Materialism, 141): Hoffrogge, Ralf:  9781608469963: Books

A Review of A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany: The Life of  Werner Scholem (1895–1940) by Ralf Hoffrogge


Victor Strazzeri

ORCID: 0000-0001-7525-3932

Postdoctoral Fellow, Département d’histoire générale, Université de Genève, Geneva, Switzerland

Ralf Hoffrogge, (2018) A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany: The Life of  Werner Scholem (1895–1940), translated by Loren Balhorn and Jan-Peter Herrmann,Historical Materialism Book Series, Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.


Amongst the many anniversaries submerged by the pandemic’s sabotaging of our sense of time in 2020 were the eighty years since the death of Werner Scholem (1895–1940). The outcome, in this case, was not the cascade of cancelled events that marked the commemorations of his fellow Germans Ludwig van Beethoven, Friedrich Engels and Max Weber. Because, in contrast to the broad communities that cultivate the memory of these figures, Scholem’s is a legacy largely withoutclaimants. Like a long-neglected garden, it hence risks becoming overgrown with weed-like misconceptions or, worse, barren historiographical silence. Ralf Hoffrogge’s biography constitutes, in this regard, not only a first-rate exercise in historical scholarship in terms of source-work and quality of narrative; it shines precisely in its leveraging of a life story ‘[b]anished from public memory for decades’ (p. 584) into a magnifying glass aimed at the contradictions of three distinct, yet interconnected historical formations: Imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. While usually studied separately, Hoffrogge’s reappraisal of Scholem’s fate starkly raises the question of their deeper linkages.

So why was the knowledge potential of this individual trajectory not mobilised earlier? As Hoffrogge puts it, the ‘twists and turns’ of Scholem’s biography ‘made him difficult to categorize for posterity: mainstream historiography viewed him as a suspicious Communist, orthodox Communism condemned him as an enemy of the party, and Zionism treated him as a wayward son’ (p. 4). As such, Scholem’s legacy was liable to a double jeopardy of sorts; on the one hand, he paid the penalty for being Stalin’s erstwhile man in the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and key operator of its ‘Bolshevisation’; yet, he also suffered the consequences of subsequently becoming Stalin’s foe and, after his expulsion from the party, collaborating with the Left Opposition. But the ultimate persecutors of this true bête noir of German Communism were the Nazis. They targeted Scholem in the first wave of arrests of political opponents in 1933, subsequently interning him in various camps, from Sachsenhausen to Dachau. He was murdered in Buchenwald in 1940. As a Jewish intellectual and a communist, Scholem provided Nazis with an ideal embodiment for the enemy of theVolksgemeinschaft; his effigy was, in fact, part of the displays of the infamous anti-Semitic exhibitionDer ewige Jude [The Eternal Jew] in 1937 (pp. 555–7).

Any attempt to narrate Scholem’s life must, therefore,  struggle with the vortex of -isms that came to bear upon it, while somehow not losing sight of his particular fate. Hoffrogge addresses this by alternating close-ups on Scholem the individual, whose physiognomy the reader will get to know well, and wide-angle shots of the dramatic events he witnessed in his lifetime. Scholem emerges from this effort as inextricable from his fractious historical setting, yet as more than the sum of its contradictions.

The introduction constitutes the author’s first exercise in situating Scholem without burying him under the rubble of his historical circumstances (pp. 1–8). In it, Hoffrogge draws a parallel between the trajectories of Scholem and Walter Benjamin. The men were not only contemporaries, but had much in common; they experienced the same Berlin childhood and youth in an affluent Jewish family, the same turn to the labour movement and Marxism after an encounter with Zionism. A further link is Benjamin’s close collaboration with Werner’s brother, Gershom Scholem, the noted Zionist and scholar of Jewish Mysticism. There were, nonetheless, many bifurcations in these mirrored lives. Scholem was primarily a political operator, Benjamin an intellectual; their posthumous reception, in turn, could not have been more divergent. Their most intimate link would tragically be a shared fate as a result of fascist persecution, even if under very different circumstances.

Hoffrogge does not invoke Benjamin’s trajectory merely for the sake of this suggestive parallel. He engages heavily with the latter’s Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), which provides a silent counterpoint to the entire narrative. Indeed, the book was manifestly written from the standpoint of  today’s ‘moment of danger’. As Hoffrogge states: ‘A closer exploration of Scholem’s life is … a glimpse at a time that heavily influenced our own historical moment – a watershed eventfrom which there can be no turning back’ (p. 8).


The book can be divided roughly into three parts. The first encompasses Scholem’s youth in Imperial Germany and his early politicisation within German Social Democracy, also covering his time as a soldier on the Western Front; it closes, fittingly, with the November Revolution of 1918 (chapters 1–2). The second and most substantial part of the book covers the period from 1919 to 1933, i.e., Scholem’s swift rise through the ranks of the KPD – after a brief stint in the USPD –, followed by his dramatic debacle and expulsion from the party in late 1926 (chapters 3–4); the book’s core section resumes with Scholem’s activities as a ‘reluctant’ dissident (chapter 5) and his retreat into private life in 1928. That brief respite from politics would be cut short by his arrest in early 1933 (chapter 6). The book’s final segment encompasses the drama of Scholem’s internment in the Nazi camps and eventual murder at the hands of an SS officer (chapter 7) and closes with a reflection on his legacy (chapter 8).

The book’s structure corresponds not only to three distinct epochs in German history, but also to Hoffrogge’s reliance on different sets of sources, i.e., from the private letters of the first and final parts, to the party documents and political publications of the middle one. They also reflect a life that was at times entirely submerged by political activity. Surprisingly, we learn the most about Scholem’s personality in the tail-end of the book, as life in the camps threatened to destroy any semblance of his individuality. These are also the most moving and reflective passages of a book that offers a broad spectrum of moods to accompany Scholem’s eventful life.

The book begins with an overview of the Scholem family dynamic and how it inevitably refracted the multiple contradictions of a wealthy Jewish existence in Imperial Germany, notwithstanding their ‘assimilated’ status. German society in the 1900s was a strange amalgamation of cutting-edge modernity and aristocratic ‘remnants’; its political constitution a no less peculiar mix of mass electoral politics and monarchical autocracy. Completing the picture was the flammable combination of the Kaiserreich’s imperial aspirations on the global arena and many cleavages and inequalities domestically – along urban/rural, class, ethnic and religious lines. The four Scholem brothers all bore the imprint of this reality, yet each acted upon it differently. The two elder ones, Reinhold and Erich, represented German liberalism’s ‘right’ and ‘left’ wings and followed their father into the family’s printing business; the younger Scholems, in turn, found in Zionism (Gershom) and socialism (Werner) their pathway to rebellion.

The fact that the same ‘social milieu’ could prompt such diverging fates builds the central theme of the book’s first segment. Hoffrogge underscores how even a shared drive to revolt against the status quo could take on quite different forms in the peculiar setting of the Kaiserreich. Whereas for Gerhard (later, Gershom), ‘history was a bearer of myth and revelation’, ‘Werner’s materialism negated any sort of transcendence’ (p. 54). What united them, in fact, was the search for an overarching ethical orientation for what would soon become a time of constant upheaval. Against this backdrop, Werner’s ‘practical response to all questions concerning the meaning of life’ eventually boiled down to one formula: ‘taking sides’ (p. 55). Joining the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was, in this regard, his fundamental gesture. Hoffrogge highlights how the party’s egalitarian, anti-authoritarian and anti-militarist positions – also reflected in its struggle for women’s liberation – gave Scholem the ideal conduit for his oppositional attitude (pp. 40–1). One driver of this act of ‘class treason’, a repudiation of Imperial Germany’s abysmal social inequality, gets perhaps less attention from the author than is deserved.

Hoffrogge’s framing is, nevertheless, spot on: Scholem’s was very much a partisan life. What makes this biographical treatment so appealing, however, is how it manages to illustrate the ramifications of this fundamental stance while at the same time demonstrating that, to unlock the personality of a ‘political animal’ like Scholem, more intimate dimensions must also come into view. Hence the intermittent close-ups on Werner’s role as partner and family man throughout the narrative and, most notably, the attention Hoffrogge dedicates to Emmy Wiechelt. Scholem met the clerk and committed socialist activist with a working-class background during his political work before the war; the couple quickly got engaged (pp. 58–63). Emmy’s letters and voice inform, in fact, the entire account, offering a glimpse into the consequences of Scholem’s lifelong dedication to politics and revolution for those nearest to him. Crucially, Emmy is not portrayed as a passive witness or partner; Hoffrogge does his best to reconstruct her views and autonomous role despite limited source material, managing to convey not only the considerable impact she had on Scholem, but also her own struggles and adversities.


The first section wraps up with an account of Scholem’s service at the front during the First World War. In Hoffrogge’s portrayal, this experience marks both his sudden entry into adulthood and the decisive influence upon an entire generation of German leftists. In terms of brutalisation and numbing exposure to senseless loss of life, Scholem’s experience is predictably in line with countless other portrayals of war in the trenches; it was compounded as a source of rebellion in his particular case by his arrest in 1918 on treason charges (due to participation in anti-militarist activities in conjunction with the Socialist Workers’ Youth; pp. 140–4).

Crucially, ‘[t]hose who came of age in these surroundings expected neither social reforms nor democracy from the state, and believed in neither parliament nor the rule of law’ (p. 143). As the quote suggests, if the experience of war put many German youth on the path to communist revolution, it proved an equally fertile breeding ground for those mutations in right-wing politics that would culminate in Nazism. A further biographical connection epitomises such bifurcations, namely, the trajectory of Scholem’s one-time prep school classmate, Ernst Jünger. While the resulting polyphonic portrayal of the war period does enrich this segment of the book, Hoffrogge’s digression on Jünger may prove too extended for some (pp. 154–9).

That being said, the book’s considerable length –  it clocks in at 600 pages excluding appendixes and references – is not a significant issue; in fact, it only feels long when Hoffrogge’s insightful efforts at contextualisation – or at engagement with the theoretical and/or historiographical issues raised by his subject – reach essay-length proportions. The most notable instance is the sprawling dive, towards the end of the book, into the many myths that have come to surround Scholem’s trajectory, including espionage, love affairs and intrigue (pp. 494–528). Hoffrogge is arguably doing a public service with this section, especially considering how widespread the legends surrounding Scholem are in the German context. They still felt out of place to me, coming as they do between the dramatic depiction of Scholem’s arrest and the book’s moving passages on his time in the camps.


Before reaching them, however, the reader must first pass through the effective core of the book, i.e., the segment covering a truly frenzied decade of activity that begins with Scholem’s engagement as journalist and agitator for the USPD in 1919 and closes with his withdrawal from politics as a left-oppositionist to the KPD in 1928. Tackling this period, which boasts as many open political controversies as historiographical ones, is a considerable challenge. Hoffrogge’s strategy, in this regard, is to reconsider the facts on and extant interpretations of most of the convoluted matters and conjunctures the German 1920s have bequeathed us; he then makes his own position explicit and moves on with the story. There is, in other words, no attempt to circumvent controversy or settle on ‘mainstream’ positions (hardly a viable prospect with Scholem as subject). Instead, we see Hoffrogge seize the opportunity and work through every major turning point in the history of the German labour movement from fin-de-siècle Imperial Germany to Nazi rule (but focusing especially on the Weimar years). This is to the reader’s great benefit, German history scholar and non-specialist alike.

While identified with the KPD and ‘later derided as irrational and “ultra-leftist”’, Scholem was not amongst the party’s founders on New Year’s Day 1919. Instead, he ‘proved a pragmatic strategist at this point’, working to coalesce ‘revolutionary forces through a common political praxis’ during his stint as an activist in the USPD (p. 167). This phase of his trajectory would be short-lived; convinced that the defeat of the German revolution was the result of ‘an absence of sufficient clarity and leadership’ on the part of the USPD (p. 192), whose ‘murky inertia’ had, as he saw it, prevented an effective channelling of workers’ struggles towards a takeover of power, Scholem would join the KPD in late 1920. By then, the ‘revolution was over, regardless of whether radicals like Scholem accepted it or not’. Crucially, ‘workers’ councils [had] disappeared and the KPD and SPD, caught in an ongoing dichotomous interaction, [had taken] charge of events’ (p. 202).

While aware of the tragic consequences of this polarisation in German left-wing politics, Hoffrogge attempts to go beyond the facile notion that all would have been well had the KPD not compromised the Weimar ‘democratic front’ with its revolutionary agitation. As he points out, the newfound republic’s ‘entire staff of the judiciary, administration, police and army had been inherited from the Kaiserreich’. This meant that ‘elected parliamentarians represented … a thin layer of democracy superimposed on the firm base of [an] old monarchist state’ (p. 237). As Hoffrogge stresses, the forces of the Weimar establishment openly (and fatefully) tolerated rising anti-Semitism and right-wing political violence (pp. 232–3). The repeated instances of partisanship by authorities on the side of reaction and emerging fascism would play a key role in the scepticism of KPD-figures such as Scholem regarding the need to defend its constitution and promote a united-front policy.

Hoffrogge, in other words, decidedly rejects the notion of a Weimar Republic brought down by antagonistic extremes united in their ‘enmity towards democracy’. What he highlights, instead, is ‘the existence of a continuity between the Kaiserreich, the experience of the war, and the emerging Nazi movement’, crystallised early on through the collaboration of both conservatives and military personnel in Hitler’s attempted coup of 1923 (p. 277).

The portrayal of the Weimar Republic that emerges in the work is, therefore, at odds with the notion of ‘an established entity to be rejected or defended politically’ – then or now; Hoffrogge articulates it, rather, as ‘a dynamic social and political field marked by relations of power and struggles between competing interests’. Framed in this manner, the precarious ‘democratic rule of law’ that characterised that formation emerges not as a fixed set of circumstances and institutions, but as ‘both a promise and an ideal to be claimed and expanded or, alternatively, dismantled or eroded’ (p. 239).


The divisive question has always been, of course, just which of these verbs best encompasses the role of the KPD (and by extension Scholem) in the Weimar Republic’s subsequent destruction. Hoffrogge suggests that an overlooked factor in the analysis of German Communists’ relationship to democracy in the 1920s was their roots in the old SPD. The mass party had not only been the reference point for socialists from Brussels to Moscow until August 1914, it had also been the initial lever for the organisation and political education of most subsequent KPD members. This was consequential, because, while the SPD had been the one consistent force for democracy in Imperial Germany, the party framed its impending realisation (along with that of socialism) as a matter of historical necessity. Analogously, many in the KPD were convinced that ‘both the Kaisserreich and the Weimar state shared a common historical destiny, namely, to one day perish’ (p. 283). In line with Benjamin’sTheses, Hoffrogge identifies the survival of this ‘philosophy of history’, with its linear understanding of progress, as ‘the most effective of the old Social Democracy’s traditions’.

This helps explain how Scholem could be both an early voice alerting to ‘the fascist danger’ in Germany, and ‘simultaneously convinced that any future radicalization would benefit the left’. As Hoffrogge surmises, he ‘simply could not imagine that fascist ideology would also resonate among young workers’ (p. 283). In the same vein, the ambivalence of German Communists’ relationship to the Weimar constitution and its (porous) democratic framework was in no small part tied to the notion that they would be overcome by a more far-reaching council democracy.

This vantage point also sheds light on the dual drivers behind Scholem’s political activity. He aimed to counteract, namely, both the efforts of a ‘historically condemned’ bourgeoisie to delay the dawn of revolution and, once it had arrived, a reprise of the betrayal of the workers by their political leadership. The latter effort was understood to be equivalent not only to the task of negating the influence of the SPD on workers, but also establishing tighter control over the various currents within the revolutionary vanguard itself (p. 359).

Scholem, who would take over the KPD apparatus as national Organisationsleiter in April 1924, emerges, in other words, as the figure that most clearly embodied the single-minded drive to avoid a repetition of revolutionary failure due either to a watering down of the party’s revolutionary programme or to a ‘right-wing’ betrayal within its own ranks (pp. 338–60). Hoffrogge stresses that, while most Communists still believed that ‘the actual political form of a Communist society remained council-based democracy’, and saw centralism as ‘a mere means to an end’ (p. 282), they also fatally underestimated the dangers inherent in the growing suppression of democratic mechanisms and pluralism within the party. This was especially perilous in the combination of ‘political isolation’, ‘absence of the revolution’ and ‘growing dependence on the Soviet Union’ (p. 282) that characterised the KPD of the late 1920s.

The Comintern’s bearing on the KPD’s politics and personnel from 1924 onwards is another contested issue in this regard. Hoffrogge’s account clearly emphasises the internal drivers of the party’s increasing subjection to the line set by the Executive Committee of the Third International. We learn, for example, of Scholem’s keen use of Bolshevik mediation in the settlement of German Communists’ inner divisions – which included gaining favour with a rising Joseph Stalin – and how the KPD ‘grew increasingly dependent on Moscow’s interventions’ as a result (pp. 330–4). Crucially, in almost every decisive move, we find Scholem acting ‘under the strong belief that he was protecting the KPD from drifting into opportunism’ (p. 334). It would not take long, however, for the centralising measures, tight control of the apparatus and close alignment with Moscow, all of which Scholem had played a key role in implementing, to catch up with him, culminating in his expulsion from the party in 1926.


Scholem’s downfall began with his removal as Organisationsleiter after a deflating 1925 for the KPD; the party had decided to present Ernst Thälmann as sole presidential candidate on the left in the national elections, only to reap paltry results and the fateful victory of Field Marshal Hindenburg instead. Party membership had also stagnated at 120,000 – i.e., less than half of the 300,000 the party boasted before 1923. Given the KPD’s ‘tendency to mercilessly personalise tactical mistakes’, Scholem now served as ‘the scapegoat for all of its failures’ (p. 379).

In reaction to his sidelining, Scholem took an increasingly left-oppositional stance. Significantly, that now ran counter not only to the new KPD leadership around Thälmann, but also to Moscow’s line. In many ways, Scholem’s isolation in 1925/6 foreshadowed his contested legacy: he was ‘a revolutionary in non-revolutionary times’, ‘an opponent of monarchism who also refused to defend the existing republic’ and, finally, ‘an oppositional politician in a party that did not tolerate opposition’ (p. 371).

Party democracy was still largely in place within the KPD at the moment of Scholem’s expulsion. This meant that ‘every faction … was in fact obliged to win majorities at countless party meetings to gain power’. But such mechanisms were still regarded by most members who defended them as ‘little more than a means towards the ultimate goal of revolution’ (p. 385). Scholem was no exception, and could only frame the danger of the Communist movement’s ‘abandoning its democratic character … in terms of “liquidationism” and “opportunism”’. As late as 1926, he still ‘considered Trotsky, not Stalin, to be the “right” threat’, identifying, instead, with an embattled Zinoviev (p. 385).

This was the tragic dialectic behind Scholem’s meteoric trajectory within the KPD; his fixation with a ‘right-wing’ – i.e. reformist – betrayal had led him to put his weight behind the party’s ‘Bolshevisation’. He hence not only misjudged the danger posed by Stalin but was responsible for putting the mechanisms in place that contributed to the unimpeded ascent of his followers. As Hoffrogge stresses, this was not Scholem’s mistake alone. Other KPD-left figures such as Karl Korsch and Arthur Rosenberg still ‘framed their criticism of Stalin’s policy primarily in terms of … reform or revolution’, not of ‘democracy or authoritarianism’ (p. 297).

Hoffrogge sees this critical misjudgement, alongside an ‘abstract-revolutionary course’ that ‘lacked broad appeal’, as the main reasons behind the failure of the Left Opposition. Scholem’s final act was, nonetheless, organising the ‘first critique of Stalin’s absolute rule of any public significance in Germany’ (p. 394), the so-called Declaration of the 700, ‘a petition of oppositionists from various factions designed to exert pressure on the KPD leadership’ (p. 393). This proved the final straw and, after losing its seat in the Central Committee in the fall of 1925, the Left Opposition was ‘expelled from the party entirely in November 1926’ (p. 297).


In conjunctures of political upheaval, such as the Germany of the 1920s, becoming a ‘left oppositionist’ does not necessarily follow from a fundamental change in orientation or stance. It may be that the political spectrum itself has shifted and one has merely stayed put. Two recent examples are, of course, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who became left-wing stalwarts of their respective parties simply by not succumbing to the right-wing cyclone that ended the more hopeful, yet long-gone 1970s that bred them. Analogously to the ‘antediluvian’ socialism of Sanders and Corbyn today, Hoffrogge argues that Scholem’s anti-Stalinism is less the product of a ‘road to Damascus moment’ than of staying the course. Both him and his fellow Left Oppositionists were, namely, still ‘evaluating the situation in light of their experiences with the SPD prior to 1914’ (p. 297). In other words, they saw Stalinism ‘as another variant of Social Democracy’, i.e., as ‘little more than the accommodation of capital and the bourgeois state on the part of the workers’ movement’ (p. 414). Hence the peculiar political credo of the Lenin League (Leninbund), the organisation which many Left Oppositionists converged upon in the spring of 1928. Its goal was to embody ‘Lenin’s legacy as a revolutionary alternative to both the “two Social Democratic parties”’, i.e. the SPD and KPD, as well as to ‘Russian state capitalism’ (p. 425). Its members actually pledged to dissolve it ‘once the KPD ‘return[ed] to being a revolutionary organisation’ (p. 430).

This quickly proved an untenable platform, especially in light of the Comintern’s adoption of the so-called ‘Third-period’ strategy in the summer of 1928, a left-wing swerve which effectively stole the League’s thunder. Born as an organised instrument of opposition to the KPD but claiming to remain loyal to it, the Lenin League began to lose members as soon as the question of participating in the May 1928 Reichstag elections on an independent ticket arose. Amongst the many who chose to leave the newly-founded organisation once it opted to do so was Scholem, who could not bring himself to be publicly at odds with the KPD (and by extension, with the leadership of the Soviet Union). Here was another symptom, Hoffrogge argues, that Scholem had fallen ‘victim to his own belief in the myth of the October Revolution’. His worldview having led to a dead end, Scholem withdrew into private life.

Because such biographical turning points are, especially in Scholem’s case, hard to dissociate from broader historical issues as effective in drawing borders between left-wing camps today as they were in the 1920s, Hoffrogge addresses them at length. The question of who could ‘rightfully’ claim Lenin’s legacy, a key element in Stalin’s effort to legitimate his ascent within the international communist movement, is one example. According to Hoffrogge, precisely because of Scholem’s determination to stay true to what he understood to be the principles of the Russian Revolution, his communist biography

… illustrates better than most the distinction between the mechanisms of Bolshevisation andStalinisation. The former was pioneered by Scholem, superimposing a [centralised] structure onto the KPD intended to heighten the party’s capacity for intervention and agitation. […] The process ofStalinisation, by contrast, transformed the KPD into a vehicle of interchangeable political substance, determined by the requirements of Stalin’s rule, Soviet foreign policy considerations and later even the dictator’s shifting moods. It depended on personal and political capitulation, and broke the will of countless individuals while implementing its often incomprehensible shifts in course. (p. 399.)

Hoffrogge converges here with the later Lukács’s characterisation of Stalinism as a ‘praxis’, namely, as a stressing of tactics and manoeuvring to such an extreme as to reduce theory to their mere justification after the fact. From this vantage point, Lenin’s ‘revolutionary Realpolitik’ degenerates into arbitrariness and autocracy, but does so as ‘method’ not madness. Understanding Stalinism as a peculiar (and historically situated) form of praxis, rather than an emanation of the Soviet leader’s pathological personality, also means it was not necessarily a singular phenomenon and could – and effectively did – outlive him.See Georg Lukács’ 1968 essay ‘Sozialismus und Demokratisierung [Socialism and Democratisation]’, recently republished in Lukács 2021, pp. 601–30.


Hoffrogge terms Scholem’s seven-year period across several Nazi concentration camps, ending with his murder in 1940, ‘a stolen life’. If his withdrawal from politics had left an irreparable void in his sense of self, Scholem’s last years were, in fact, marked by the resistance against his Nazi captors’ systematic efforts to utterly destroy his personality. The reconstruction of this process, based on Scholem’s letters to Emmy and his family, does not attempt to dignify it. Hoffrogge stresses how life in the camps led to ‘increasingly compulsive behaviour’ on Scholem’s part and the return of ‘old cantankerous traits’ (p. 547); on the other hand, it is the ‘denial of his own everyday life’ that Hoffrogge suggests might have ‘kept him alive’ for so long (p. 539).

Yet, even this phase of Scholem’s trajectory bears the weight of attempts to leverage his biography to shore up one historical narrative or another. Scholem was murdered in Buchenwald, that is, ‘the only camp in which a full-fledged Communist underground organization emerged’. The framework for this phenomenon were the so-called ‘Kapo’ positions, ‘administrative tasks so menial … that they could be assigned to inmates’. Hoffrogge stresses how, at tremendous personal cost and sacrifice, Communists in Buchenwald succeeded in using these posts ‘to build a power base’ (p. 567).

I had never heard of these ‘Red Kapos’ until reading this book. While a remarkable phenomenon, the question arises as to why it belongs to those contextual elements that Hoffrogge approaches in detail (pp. 567–76). Scholem had been expelled from the KPD, so he was obviously not one of them. His death in the summer of 1940 did coincide, however, with ‘Hitler and Stalin’s non-aggression pact’ as well as with the ‘consolidation of the “Red Kapos” system’. The notion that Scholem was ‘the victim of two totalitarian systems’ (p. 575) – i.e., that the Red Kapos were somehow involved in his death – was just too inviting for some historians, who attempted to connect these events even in the absence of concrete evidence. Once more, then, Hoffrogge is obliged to remove the encrustations of faulty interpretation, giving us the available facts and what he feels is their most reasonable interpretation – i.e., there is space to disagree with him – before moving on with his narrative. In the case of the ‘Red Kapos’, this means both demystifying and praising their feats. He concludes that ‘[i]t was not the ideological line’, but ‘practical successes in the struggle for survival that allowed the Buchenwald Communists to opt for the balancing act of resistance on the one hand and co-administration of camp terror on the other’ (p. 576).

Hoffrogge’s engagement with the issues surrounding Red Kapos is indicative of the book’s effort to consider adequately broader historical trends as shapers of singular trajectories, while not erasing (or overplaying) the role of individuals’ own agency in them. Regarding Scholem’s murder, likely at the hands of an SS officer, Hoffrogge is aware of the temptation ‘to insinuate rational or personal motives behind an individual’s death’, not least in reaction to inmates’ status as ‘a group excluded from humanity’ whose personalities the camp system ‘systematically denied and erased’ (p. 577). He finds it more likely, however, that the ‘success of the Blitzkrieg strategy in the first months of the war made the SS particularly uninhibited’. In other words, ‘[f]ully convinced that the world would soon be theirs, they celebrated their triumph by inflicting terror on Jewish prisoners. The outcome was the murder wave of summer 1940’ (p. 577).

Hoffrogge’s effort not simply to subsume Scholem or the other historical actors that made up his world to the prevailing historical currents of their time, but rather to constantly recover them in the role of flawed, yet resolute historical subjects, even in utter defeat, is reflected in his reconstruction of the final moments of his subject’s trajectory:

As every day, Scholem had worn the badge of his prisoner group: a combination of yellow and red triangles, overlaid so as to resemble the Star of David. He died as a Jew and a Communist – the National Socialist worldview denied his right to exist. Scholem had fought this barbaric ideology since 1922, and its triumph would be his downfall. (p. 579.)




Hoffrogge, Ralf 2018, A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany: The Life of  Werner Scholem (1895–1940), translated by Loren Balhorn and Jan-Peter Herrmann,Historical Materialism Book Series, Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

Lukács, Georg 2021, Werke. Band 3, Teilband 1, edited by Zsuzsa Bognár, Werner Jung and Antonia Opitz, Bielefeld: Aisthesis Verlag.


[1] See Georg Lukács’ 1968 essay ‘Sozialismus und Demokratisierung [Socialism and Democratisation]’, recently republished in Lukács 2021, pp. 601–30.