A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany

The Life of Werner Scholem (1895 – 1940)


Walter Benjamin derided Werner Scholem as a ‘rogue’ in 1924. Josef Stalin referred him as a ‘splendid man’, but soon backtracked and labeled him an ‘imbecile’, while Ernst Thälmann, chairman of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), warned his followers against the dangers of ‘Scholemism’. For the philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem, however, Werner was first and foremost his older brother. The life of German-Jewish Communist Werner Scholem (1895–1940) had many facets. Werner and Gerhard, later Gershom, rebelled together against their authoritarian father and the atmosphere of national chauvinism engulfing Germany during World War I. After inspiring his younger brother to take up the Zionist cause, Werner himself underwent a long personal journey before deciding to join the Communist struggle. Scholem climbed the party ladder and orchestrated the KPD's ‘Bolshevisation’ campaign, only to be expelled as one of Stalin's opponents in 1926. He was arrested in 1933, and ultimately murdered in the Buchenwald concentration camp seven years later. This first biography of Werner Scholem tells his life story by drawing on a wide range of original sources and archive material long hidden beyond the Iron Curtain of the Cold War era.

First published in German by UVK Verlagsgesellschaft as Werner Scholem - eine politische Biographie (1895-1940), Konstanz, 2014.
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Biographical Note

Ralf Hoffrogge, Dr. phil. (2013), University of Potsdam, is Postdoctoral Researcher at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (Germany) and has published widely on German labour history. His latest publication is Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement (Brill, 2014).

Review Quotes

Reviews from the German press (quotes translated into English):

"The most interesting parts of Hoffrogge's work are perhaps the thick descriptions of the Weimar Republic's communist milieu with its peculiar mixture of dogmatism and careerism, male chauvinism and women's emancipation, puritanism and sexual permissiveness. The interesting figure here is Scholem's wife Emmy, who came from humble background, eager to learn and climb the social ladder, aware of her chances for emancipation and equipped with all the weapons of a woman." - Gerd Koenen, DIE ZEIT, full review here

“… in the field of historical research, it is the more refined work by Ralf Hoffrogge that will make a lasting impression. His reconstruction of events is the only one that allows us to understand Scholem's arrest and trial … ” - Lorenz Jaeger, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, October 4th 2014

“... Two recently published biographies that could not be more different are devoted to the life of this exceptional politician, to whom the historian Miriam Zadoff attributed an "agile temperament", but also depicted him in an apotheosis of suffering, comparing Scholem to the biblical Job. Quite different is the sober reconstruction of the historian Ralf Hoffrogge, invariably oriented towards the facts. Almost entirely without gaps, this political biography reconstructs the twisted lifeline of Scholem in the context of its time. The merit of both biographies consists not least in the fact that here for the first time a personality is portrayed who embodied in his intellectual and political action the intrinsic ambiguity of the period between the two world wars.” - Wolf Scheller in Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung, full review here


The filmmaker Niels Bolbrinker has portrayed Werner Scholem´s life in the short 17-minute documentary "Between Utopia and Counter Revolution". It features an impressive Interview with Scholem´s daugther Renee Goddard (*1923) who talks about the tragic arrest of her parents after the Nazis took power in 1933. The film is based on the recent biography written by Ralf Hoffrogge. Watch the subtitled documentary here .

Table of contents

Acknowledgements List of Illustrations List of Abbreviations Introduction 1 Adolescent Years (1895–1914)The Scholems: A German FamilyFour Distinct BrothersRebellion(s): From Zionism to Socialism 2 World War and Revolution (1914–18)War and Socialism in HanoverA Red in Field Grey: Werner Scholem on the Eastern FrontHospital Reflections, 1916Lèse-majesté: A Soldier’s Day in CourtWerner and Emmy Scholem: A MésallianceAll Quiet on the Western Front: Werner Misses the Revolution 3 A Rebel at the Editing Desk, a Rebel in Parliament (1919–24)Independent Social Democracy and More: Werner Scholem as Agitator in the USPDJournalism and Judiciary: Werner Scholem as Editor of the Rote FahneReform or Revolution? A Parliamentarian in the Prussian LandtagScholem as School ReformerAnti-Semitism and the Ostjuden DebateA Reluctant Republican? Fighting Right-Wing Terror and FascismThe Philosophy of History in the LandtagInflation, Crisis and RadicalisationReform or Revolution: Scholem’s Answer 4 Communism: Utopia and Apparatus (1921–6)The Berlin Opposition (1921–3)National Revolution on the Ruhr? Scholem and Schlageter in the Summer of 1923From the Battle of the Ruhr to the ‘German October’ of 1923: New Conflicts in the KPDReaching for Power: Scholem and His Comrades Take Over the KPDThe Power of the Apparatus: Werner Scholem Organises the KPDThe Apparatus Strikes Back: The Left Opposition on the DefensiveScholem Versus Stalin: A Question of Democracy? 5 A Reluctant Defector: Werner Scholem as Dissident (1926–8)A Left Communist in the ReichstagThe Lenin League: Werner Scholem Founds a Party 6 Back to the Lecture Hall: Family and University Life in Berlin‘At Home with Communists’: Emmy and Werner in PrivateLife as a Lawyer 7 The Triumph of Barbarism (1933–40)The ArrestSeparate Paths: A Family Falls ApartEspionage and Intrigue: Werner Scholem as a Literary FigureThe Hammerstein Case: Fiction and RealityFrom the Supreme Court to the ‘People’s Court’: Scholem’s Last TrialA Stolen Life: Plötzensee, Lichtenburg, DachauMurder in the Quarry 8 Remembering Werner Scholem


1 Chronology of Werner Scholem’s life 2 List of Werner Scholem’s Places of Detention, 1917–40 3 Selected Articles and Publications by Werner Scholem Bibliography Index


All readers interested in the history of the Weimar Republic, especially German-Jewish Relations, the rise of Nazism and the history of the German and International Communist Movement. Likewise, readers interested in the early entanglement of Zionist and Socialist ideas and the development of the thinking of Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin.


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