This Day in Jewish History

1895: A Jew Who Would Thanklessly Head Germany's Communist Party Is Born

For his patriotic pains, Werner Scholem was one of the first people the Nazis arrested after they took power.

Karl-Liebknecht-Haus, the KPD's headquarters from 1926 to 1933. The KPD leaders were arrested by the Gestapo in this building in January 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor. The plaques on either side of the door recall the building's history. Today it is the Berlin headquarters of the Left Party.
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December 29, 1895, is the birthdate of Werner Scholem, the German-Jewish political figure who, during the period of the Weimar Republic, served in the Reichstag and headed the country’s Communist Party.

The older brother of Gershom Scholem, who as a Zionist immigrated to pre-state Palestine, where he became one of the country’s best-known intellectuals, Werner Scholem was one of the first people arrested after the Nazis took power in 1933.

Werner Scholem was born in Berlin, the third of four sons of Arthur Scholem and the former Betty Hirsch. Arthur owned a printing company that was responsible for issuing a large portion of the country’s record labels.

A Jewish assimilationist and German nationalist, the father often came into conflict with his politicized sons, particularly the revolutionary Werner and the Zionist Gerhard (later Gershom).

After a youthful dalliance with Zionism, as a member of the "Jung Juda," in the years before World War I, Werner moved on to the Social Democratic Workers’ Youth. (His correspondence with Gershom shows that the brothers debated ideology throughout Werner’s life, and that Gershom never stopped trying to convince him to study Hebrew and return to Zionism.)

"Stolperstein" (stumbling block) of Werner Scholem in Berlin-Hansaviertel, Germany.
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Heckled in parliament

A pacifist, Werner Scholem tried to avoid service in the kaiser’s army during World War I. He was drafted, however, in 1915, and the following year was wounded in the foot while serving at the Serbian front.

In 1917, he was arrested while attending an anti-war demonstration while in uniform, on Kaiser Wilhelm’s birthday, and was briefly jailed.

Scholem moved on to the Independent Social Democratic Party and then the Communist, and began working as a journalist, first for the Halle’sches Volksblatt and later as editor of the Communists’ Red Flag newspaper.

In 1917, he married Emmy Wiechelt, who was about as different from him as could be: non-Jewish, illegitimate and from a working-class family. The two shared the same political values, however, and their relationship endured many tests.

Having joined the Communists in 1920, Scholem was elected the following year to the Prussian Landtag (parliament), its youngest member ever. Yet, whenever he spoke in the body, he was greeted with anti-Semitic heckling.

Even so, in 1924, he ascended to the national leadership of the party, and was elected to the Weimar Republic’s national parliament, the Reichstag. Hence, according to historians Miriam Zadoff and Noam Zadoff, that, “For about a year he was one of the most powerful figures in Europe’s largest Communist party outside the Soviet Union.”

But with the ascent of Stalin to power in Moscow, the suppression of the Trotskyite camp (and Jews in general), and the ideological change from internationalism to support for “socialism in a single country,” Scholem lost his anchor in the party.

Moscow is peeved

In December 1926, he was summoned to Moscow to justify his ideological positions, and returned to Berlin having been purged from the party leadership. Scholem moved into the so-called “ultra-left” of Germany’s Communist Party, but soon entered law school, with the intention of taking up a new career.

He had nearly finished his studies at the time the Nazis came to power, in February 1933. On the same day the Reichstag was set on fire, he was arrested, and held on bizarre charges. Even after the charges were dropped, however, Scholem remained in custody, first in Lichtenburg camp, followed by Torgau, Dachau, and finally Buchenwald.

During his imprisonment, Scholem acted as a jailhouse lawyer for many of his fellow prisoners. There is evidence that his murder, on July 17, 1940, though carried out by an SS guard, who shot him, ostensibly, while he was “trying to escape,” was really undertaken at the urging of Stalinist inmates at Buchenwald, who still viewed Scholem as an ideological enemy.    

Emmy Wiechelt, who had escaped with the couple’s two daughters to London in 1934, from where she spent the next seven years working in vain for her husband’s release, moved back to West Germany in 1949. There, she worked at a Jewish old-age home in Hanover, where, in 1968, she converted to Judaism and officially changed her name to Miriam Scholem. She died on June 14, 1970.