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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Circles of Resistance: Jewish, Leftist, and Youth Dissidence in Nazi Germany, by John M. Cox.  New York: Peter Lang, 2009.  200 pp. $72.95.


On 18 May 1942, Nazi Berlin saw a rare act of violent resistance: “Soviet Paradise,” an exhibition staged in Berlin’s central Lustgarten square, was firebombed, causing minor damage to some of the exhibits. More surprising, though, was the identity of those responsible: young Jewish leftists, led by Herbert Baum. In a curious twist to the case, a few days earlier, Baum and two associates, masquerading as members of the criminal police (Kripo), had robbed an elderly, wealthy Jewish couple in Charlottenburg to finance their attack. Although the actions of Baum and his co-conspirators are well documented in the literature of Nazi resistance, John Cox argues that their motivations and workings are not. While Baum chose to bomb “Soviet Paradise” primarily because it portrayed the Soviet Union in a very negative light, some of his co-conspirators were motivated by the exhibition’s antisemitic content: it explicitly linked Bolshevism with Judaism (p. 126).

              Cox uses the attack as a window into the diffuse leftist Jewish resistance milieu in wartime Berlin. But the very subtitle of the book, Jewish, Leftist, and Youth Dissidence in Nazi Germany, captures the conceptual difficulties of his endeavor. The Baum groups—and Cox insists that they were groups, not a single group as earlier literature has suggested—were part of a dissidence milieu that was fluid in makeup, anti-doctrinaire in outlook, and only sometimes Jewish in identity. These groups never coalesced into a movement, much less a unified organization. Instead, over the course of the Nazi regime, many young Jews came to forge loose groupings linked together by personal contacts. Although generally ambivalent about their Judaism, they nonetheless created a resistance milieu with some distinctly Jewish features. As Cox argues, their focus on reading, discussion, and other cultural activities betrayed their roots in the Weimar-era Jewish youth movements that many experienced as children or adolescents. 

              As Cox documents, young, leftist Germans of Jewish origin faced a difficult dilemma in Weimar and Nazi Germany. The German Communist Party (KPD), and its youth organization (KJVD), were generally indifferent to Jewish concerns, and at times even downright antisemitic. Many youthful leftist Jews found the official communist movement inflexible and doctrinaire; often restless intellects, they were eager to question orthodox communism. At the same time, most did not primarily identify themselves as Jews; as a result, existing Jewish youth and other organizations did not speak to their needs. As the Nazi regime pursued ever harsher antisemitic policies, many felt out of place in mainstream leftist resistance groups that did not acknowledge Nazi antisemitism. With time, Cox asserts, the increasing persecution of Jews and the social death that accompanied it led some youthful resisters to become more self-conscious of their Judaism.

              After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Baum and his groups were emboldened. Eager to defend the Soviet Union and optimistic about German military defeat (after Soviet forces halted the Wehrmacht before Moscow), the groups quite recklessly produced and distributed leftist newspapers and leaflets. Yet this was also just when the deportations of Jews eastwards were underway; the first group of Berlin Jews was deported to Lodz in October 1941. The Baum groups, Cox suggests, may well have acted out of desperation. By then Baum and many of his co-conspirators were forced laborers, and had seen their family members’ deportation. Perhaps they sensed the impending fate of Jews trapped in the Third Reich.

              Cox is at his best when describing the dilemmas faced by young leftist individuals of Jewish origin in Nazi Germany. His narrative, though, is not without shortcomings. While his description of the development of the KPD in the course of the 1920s and 1930s is useful for context, the analysis is pedestrian. His argument that young Jewish leftists were partially motivated by Nazi antisemitism is intuitively convincing, but little evidence is presented to prove the point. Cox’s discussion of the memory of Baum and his groups, especially in postwar East Germany, rehashes well-trodden ground. To the East German communist regime, Baum and his groups provided an unwelcome example of autonomous communist action. In the context of the Cold War, West Germans, too, had little interest in documenting the past resistance exploits of communist, albeit Jewish youth.

              Was the firebombing of the exhibit worth the terrible repercussions that Baum and his associates suffered? Just a few days after the attack, the Gestapo had arrested, tortured, and murdered Baum and a number of his co-conspirators. All told, in the next 18 months some thirty-two individuals lost their lives due to their involvement in Baum’s circles (p. 132). In late May 1942, Leo Baeck and other prominent Jews were rounded up and informed that 250 Jews had been shot in reprisal for the Baum groups’ actions. In addition, another 250 Jewish Berliners were arrested soon thereafter, taken to Sachsenhausen, and killed in short order (p. 135). The Baum groups’ attack was thus used as a pretext to murder further Jews—who almost certainly would have been killed anyhow. As Cox sensitively argues, while the Baum groups’ actions may seem futile or even damaging to the Jewish community, they achieved something crucially important. In his words, they “thwarted the Nazi ambition to dehumanize and crush its victims” and “prevented the dictatorship from its goal of corrupting its victims morally and spiritually” (p. 184). Indeed, by taking a stand, these courageous Jews died in dignity and, in so doing, effectively challenged the Nazi regime.

Catherine Epstein

Amherst College