Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany
Reichstag building in Berlin, GermanyFlash 90

The anniversary of a person’s death offers an opportunity to reflect on his life and the lessons thereof. Last Shabbat was the 85th anniversary of the death of Max Naumann, a German Jew who died of cancer on 18th May 1939.

Born in Berlin in 1875 to a secular, assimilated Jewish family, the young Max excelled in school, and went on become a lawyer, having graduated from the University of Berlin with a law degree.

With the outbreak of the World War in 1914, Naumann enlisted in the Bavarian Army, earning an Iron Cross (both First and Second Class).

Germany’s defeat in 1918 provoked Naumann into extreme German nationalism, and in 1921 he founded the Verband Nationaldeutscher Juden (Association of National-German Jews). Membership in the Association was open to “Germans of Jewish descent who, while openly acknowledging their descent, nevertheless feel so totally rooted in German culture and essence that they can only think and feel as Germans”.

(However the word “essence” is an inadequate translation of the German Wesen, which connotes a fundamental identity, a complete state of being, complete identification with an ideology. There is no English word that covers it.)

Being secular assimilationists, Naumann and his Association were utterly opposed to Zionism and to the Ostjuden (“Eastern Jews”), the mainly religious Jews from Poland who had immigrated to Germany, who still for the most part spoke Yiddish and instantly recognisable as Jews by their dress-code and their long peyot (side-locks).

This can, perhaps, best understood by comparing it with American Jewry today: all-too-many secular and assimilated American Jews today regard the Hassidim and Haredim, with their distinctively Jewish appearance, their predilection for speaking Yiddish rather than English, and their refusal to compromise on their Judaism, as an embarrassment.

Naumann and the Association of National-German Jews viewed the Zionists as a bulwark against assimilation, as traitors to the countries in which they lived, and as serving British imperialism; and they viewed the Ostjuden as racially and spiritually inferior. Indeed one of the purposes of the Association was to deal with the Ostjudenfrage (“Eastern Jews Question” – the unresolved issue of how to “solve” the “problem” of these unwanted Jews in Germany).

These terms directly (and deliberately) echoed the Nazi term Judenfrage (“Jewish question); the standard Nazi euphemism for the Holocaust was Endlösung der Judenfrage, the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

Naumann and his Association were ardent supporters of Hitler and the Nazis, and they openly welcomed the Nazi accession to power in January 1933; Naumann was delighted with the nationales Erwachen (“National Awakening”) of 1933.

The Association officially stated that “We always held the well-being of the German volk and the Fatherland, to which we feel inextricably linked, above our own well-being. We therefore greeted the results of January 1933 [Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany], even though it brought hardship for us personally”.

Naumann’s and the Association’s loyalty to Germany, even under Nazi rule, was such that did all they could to fight against the international boycott of Nazi Germany.

Their detractors ironically said of them that the Association would conclude its meetings with the straight-arm Nazi salute, and the rousing slogan, Hitler hat Recht, runter mit uns! (“Hitler is right, down with us!”).

They even established their own youth movement, the Schwarzes Fähnlein (“Black Flags”), which they had hoped would become integrated as a Jewish chapter of the Hitler Youth.

Alas, Naumann and his associates eventually discovered that their love for the Fatherland was strictly one-way. Like so many Jews before and after them, they discovered that Jew-haters mean what they say: “Death to the Jews” means “death to the Jews”, “Jews out!” means “Jews out!”

On 18th November 1935 the Nazis outlawed the Association of National-German Jews, for being – ironically – a Jewish organisation and – even more ironically – for having “attitudes hostile to the State”. The same day the Gestapo arrested Naumann and incarcerated him in the Columbia House Concentration Camp in Berlin, where he was held for a few months before being quietly released.

It is one of the horrible and disturbing ironies of history that Naumann and his few hundred fellow-members of the Association of National-German Jews attempted to avoid the Nazis’ Jew-Hate by eschewing their Jewish identity; yet for the Nazis, they were and remained Jews – which they only discovered too late.

It is intriguing to speculate on why Max Naumann, a Jew from Berlin, would have enlisted in the Bavarian Army in 1914 rather than the regular German Army, and why he later became so enamoured of German nationalism that he supported the Nazi Party.

Until 1871, there was no country called Germany: there were 26 kingdoms, duchies, principalities, and city-states, of which Prussia, with Berlin as its capital, was the most dominant. Otto von Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia, had unified these into a single unified Germany in 1871, with himself as Chancellor of the newly-unified Germany; and King Wilhelm of Prussia became Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm of Germany.

Within this united Germany, the Second Reich, Bavaria retained the most distinctive national identity (indeed until today, its official name is Freistaat Bayern, or Free State of Bavaria).

When Naumann was born, Germany had been unified for only four years. Born and raised in what had until recently been Prussia, he seems to have yearned for a more nationalist identity than the plastic corporate Germany that he knew.

Bavaria, with its fervid nationalist identity, suited Naumann’s temperament. And so when war came, this avowedly secularist Prussian-Jewish lawyer, rejecting his Jewish heritage and robbed his Prussian identity, found his yearned-for sense of belonging by becoming an officer in the Infantry of the Bavarian Army.

And when Germany was defeated, and he no longer had even his Bavarian camaraderie, he retreated into intense German nationalism.

This is the consequence of a Jew who rejects his identification with the Jewish nation: needing to belong somewhere, he will make common cause even with the most vicious Jew-haters.

Again, this can perhaps be best understood by comparing German Jewry of the 1920s and 1930s with American Jewry of today:

They had enjoyed an unprecedented golden age, a culture of tolerance, that inculcated them with such intense devotion to their country, that they couldn’t perceive of “their” people turning against them. Nevertheless, few Jews want to test the limits of that tolerance and acceptance. Therefore too many American Jews over the last three-quarters of a century, having eschewed their Jewish identity and connexion with other Jews, have attempted to win favour (primarily with the Democrat Party) by throwing Israel under the bus – only to discover that Jews remain Jews, and that even the most minimal support for Israel condemns them as “Zionists”.

Naumann died of cancer, alone and unrecognised, in the Germany he loved and fought for, and which betrayed him so violently, on 18th May 1939. He did not live to see the full horrors of the Holocaust, so we can never know if he would have modified his ideology.

However, there was another closely-related German-Jewish organisation, Der deutsche Vortrupp (“The German Vanguard”), established by the German-Jewish Professor of History of Religion Hans-Joachim Schöps (also from Berlin) in February 1933 (just days after Hitler became Chancellor), and survived until the Nazis banned it in December 1935.

Like Naumann, Schöps rejected both the Zionists and the Ostjuden as being alien to German society. Like Naumann, Schöps hoped for German Jews to become thoroughly assimilated into the Nazi Reich and German society. Like Naumann, Schöps was an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis.

But unlike Naumann, Schöps fled Germany in 1938 for Sweden, where his sons were born. His parents were deported to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in June 1942, and both perished.

This somewhat modified Schöps’ attitude towards Nazism – but only very slightly. He returned to West Germany after the Second World War, and remained an ardent German nationalist till his death in 1980. He never eschewed Nazism (even though he did express regret for his parents’ deaths), and even in the 1970s continued to believe that Nazism had been essential to protect the world from Bolshevism.

Would Naumann have reacted any differently than Schöps? – We will never know. But look at Jewish professors, Jewish students, Jewish intellectuals throughout the world who supported Hamas and excoriated Israel before October 7th, and see how many of them have woken up to the untrammelled anti-Jewish hate that surrounds them.

One final irony of Max Naumann’s life and death:

He is almost completely forgotten by history. He is buried in the Stahndsdorf Cemetery, a Protestant cemetery on the outskirts of Berlin.

300 km (185 miles) to the west, he is commemorated by the street named after him, the Max-Naumann-Straße. This not-very-important street is in the town of Achim – which in the Hebrew that Naumann so thoroughly rejected, means “brothers”.

Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar. He is active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.