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Berlin Ghetto: Herbert Baum and the Anti-Fascist Resistance by Eric Brothers (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 6, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 106-109 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The saga of Claus von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators, whose attempt to kill Hitler in July 1944 resulted in their grisly executions, is well known in Germany and elsewhere. Their sacrifice merits attention and honor; some of us, though, grew weary long ago of books purporting to tell the story of the German resistance while focusing exclusively on the conservative military conspiracy. There were many other Germans who did not wait until Hitler was losing the war to take action, but who bravely combatted the regime from the first day.

Herbert Baum, a young communist activist, organized a network of groups that included several dozen members, a large majority of whom were Jewish. They engaged in creative, bold forms of dissidence and outright resistance, from leafleting and distributing illegal publications to cultural forms of resistance and, finally, an attack on a Nazi exhibition, which led to the group's demise. Their history has been difficult to reconstruct, owing to the dearth of sources and the fact that they did not fit neatly into postwar narratives on either side of the "Iron Curtain"—or, for that matter, within Israel. Unsurprisingly, they received greater attention in East Germany, where they were posthumously pressed into service to buttress the state mythology regarding communist resistance. With a small number of exceptions, such as Ber Mark (a 1967 article), Lucien Steinberg (a chapter in his 1974 book Not as a Lamb), and Wolfgang Wippermann (a 1981 pamphlet), scholars on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain neglected Baum and his comrades. Some, such as Walter Laqueur (a few pages in Generation Exodus, his 2001 book on young German-Jewish refugees), disdained their politics and snidely deemed the group foolhardy and unworthy of serious attention.

Eric Brothers, an independent historian, has helped to expand and correct the record in previous articles. He has now published a well-written, compelling, deeply researched account of the Baum Group, which is essential reading for anyone interested in Jewish or left-wing resistance during the Third Reich. Like almost anyone who would invest so much time in this type of research, Brothers sympathizes with his subjects but he scrupulously avoids hagiography. Baum emerges as a multi-dimensional and complex person: a charismatic and thoughtful young man and a skilled organizer, but also a doctrinaire communist who was capable of dogmatism and haughtiness. Brothers vividly captures the social and political atmosphere of the milieu from which Baum recruited, composed of left-wing groups and German-Jewish youth groups (often with the emphasis on "German") of various sorts. Berlin Ghetto shows that while some members were pulled (or pushed) closer to a Jewish identity, the group itself was becoming estranged and isolated from the Jewish community. These contradictions were sometimes present within a single individual. Lothar Salinger, for example, told his friends in 1941, "Hitler made me a Jew...and I will remain one as long as antisemitism exists" but that the "Jewish god has been thumbing his nose at us. What does it mean to be the 'chosen people'"? (139)

Berlin Ghetto describes why Marxism or communism would appeal to disaffected, rebellious, intellectually curious Jewish youths. Brothers dissects the malignant influence of Soviet Stalinism, as translated by the German Communist Party (KPD), which was unusually slavish in its subservience to Moscow—as was its successor, the post-war SED—and whose activities in the early 1930s were marked by appalling ineptitude and sectarianism. (39-47) (Brothers could have delved deeper into "Third Period" Stalinism to help the reader understand the evolution of Soviet "socialism.") As Brothers observes, the Baum Group, contrary to the image conveyed in other accounts both East and West, was not politically homogeneous. One Baum-associated group, organized by Ellen Compart (Baum's groups included a large proportion of women, often in leading roles) studied Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed (97), which was certainly not on the KPD's "recommended reading" list. (Baum himself, while a teenager, read parts of Trotsky's autobiography, My Life, Brothers also reports.) (15)

Brothers intriguingly details the group's actions, some of which were extraordinarily daring. Baum fashioned "leaflet bombs" out of large, hollowed-out vegetable cans by placing...



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