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Walter Laqueur: The Myth of German Jewish Guilt

This is an excerpt of an abridged version of an essay to appear in Optimism in Politics: Reflections on Contemporary History by Walter Laqueur (Transaction 2014). The full abridged version appears in Tablet magazine.

If Max von Oppenheim is remembered today, it is as an unlikely (if also unsuccessful) proponent of jihad. The grandson and namesake of the founder of the famous German Jewish banking family, Oppenheim was fascinated by North Africa and the Arab world and eventually settled in Cairo, where he became a prominent fixture in the city’s social life in the years before and after WWI. His great ambition was to enter the diplomatic service, but his application was turned down time and again—the main reason appearing from the files was that someone of Jewish (or even part-Jewish) origin was undesirable. After many futile attempts Oppenheim became an attaché, not a permanent, regular member of the diplomatic service.

After visiting Tell Halaf, a place some 200 kilometers from Cairo, Oppenheim became a passionate archaeologist and resigned from the diplomatic service a year after the excavations at the site began in earnest in 1909. He was in touch with fellow archaeologists such as T.E. Lawrence (who thought him stupid and disliked him), published on his findings, and participated in professional conferences, despite the fact that he had not trained as an archaeologist and some of his interpretations were disputed by leading figures in the field. He also had a great interest in the customs and manners of the Bedouin tribes and published and edited widely on this subject.

Soon after the outbreak of WWI, Oppenheim submitted a now-famous jihad memorandum (Denkschrift) in which he argued for enlisting pan-Islamism in the struggle against Britain (and also Russia). Pan-Islamism had been discussed (and preached) for a number of years before the outbreak of the war. In 1940, he submitted his second Denkschrift to the German government of the day, suggesting that use should be made of pan-Islamism and jihad as a major weapon in the war against Germany’s enemies.

Oppenheim’s second memorandum—dated July 1940, after the defeat of France—complained about the lack of German support (“cautious hesitation”) for the anti-British forces in the Middle East such as the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Rashid Ali in Iraq, and the Lebanese politician Shaqib Arslan, who was  a personal friend of Oppenheim. In his memorandum Oppenheim mentioned his lifelong involvement in Middle Eastern affairs and his close personal relationship with (anti-British) Muslim politicians. He specifically mentioned Palestine, where the struggle against the British and the Jews was to be taken up “as energetically as possible.” Oppenheim suggested that the Jews living in Palestine in 1914 should be permitted to stay, but all others should be removed. Some Nazi support was given to the Arab politicians mentioned by Oppenheim at the time. But on the whole, the German foreign ministry was far more skeptical with regard to the help expected on the part of the Muslims and particularly the Arabs. This view was also shared by Hitler; Italian interests had to be taken into account, and there was the hope that an agreement with Britain could somehow be reached. After 1941 Germany suffered military setbacks in North Africa, and Nazi planning for the future of the Middle East was considered premature to say the least. Oppenheim’s memorandum was shelved.

In later years, the second Oppenheim Denkschrift became of interest for very different reasons: How to explain the extreme views of a person of part-Jewish extraction who had suffered discrimination in Wilhelmian Germany and a fortiori in the Nazi Reich where he was considered a Mischling, hence a person of inferior racial background. Indeed, Oppenheim’s story, as told in a recent full-scale biography by Lionel Gossman, The Passion of Max Von Oppenheim, and in a recent study by Sean McMeekin, The Berlin Baghdad Express, sheds an odd and fascinating light not only on the recent history of the Middle East, but on the small but not insignificant cohort of Germans of Jewish descent who in one way or another are portrayed by latter-day historians as having served Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime....

Read entire article at Tablet Magazine