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The Passion of Max von Oppenheim

Lionel Gossman


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  • 1 The terms “Near East” and “Middle East” have become interchangeable. The first official use of the (...)
  • 2 Ernst Jäckh Papers, Yale, MS. group 467, Princeton University Library, Microfilm 11747, folder 47, (...)
  • 3 Hans-Ulrich Seidt, Berlin Kabul Moskau. Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer und Deutschlands Geopolitik ( (...)

1The name of Max, Freiherr von Oppenheim (1860–1946) still rings a bell in two fields of scholarly specialization. Among archaeologists and ethnographers working on ancient Near and Middle Eastern civilizations,1 he is well known as the discoverer of Tell Halaf, a rich treasure trove of artefacts, some dating from prehistoric times, some from around 1,000 B.C., in Northern Syria, and as an attentive and sympathetic observer and analyst of the customs and social structure of the Bedouins. In the work of historians of the First World War and of German-Turkish relations around that time, he is often evoked as a German agent active in the Middle East in the two decades leading up to the War—“the Kaiser’s spy,” as he was then known to the British and is still referred to by British historians—and, after the outbreak of war in 1914, as the chief instigator and organizer of a projected Muslim jihad against the Entente powers (Britain, France, and Russia), the aim of which was to drastically weaken their military effectiveness in the European theatre by forcing them to divert resources to crucial parts of their empires threatened by Muslim uprisings—in the case of the British to Egypt and India, in the case of the French to their North African possessions, and in the case of the Russians to their territories in the Caucasus. What is less well known and not so often discussed is that the same Oppenheim, who according to the Nuremberg laws was half-Jewish, not only was not persecuted by the National Socialist regime in Germany but actively co-operated with it by submitting to the Nazi Auswärtiges Amt, or Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in July 1940, a new plan for German action in the Middle East—suitably revised in light of the defeat of France, the Italian alliance, and the still unbroken non-aggression pact with Russia, to concentrate on Syria and British India. Oppenheim was apparently still committed in 1940 to the goal he had formulated in 1914 in his substantial and detailed Denkschrift betreffend die Revolutionierung der islamischen Gebiete unserer Feinde [Memorandum concerning the fomenting of revolutions in the Islamic territories of our enemies]. The last lines of that memorandum run: “Das Eingreifen des Islam in den gegenwärtigen Krieg ist besonders für England ein furchtbarer Schlag. Tun wir alles, arbeiten wir vereint mit allen Mitteln, damit derselbe ein tödlicher werde!”2 [“For England especially, the intervention of Islam in the present war is a fearful blow. Let us do everything in our power, let us use all possible means to make it a fatal one!”] As one scholar has noted: “What [Oppenheim] had in mind in the 1914 memorandum was not simply a shattering military blow to knock out the enemy’s fighting capabilities but a larger political strategy”3—ultimately, the destruction of the British Empire and the replacement of Britain as a world power by Germany.

2I have divided my study into four main parts: Part I: Family background, diplomatic career, and role in World War I. The “Kaiser’s Spy.” Part II: Tell Halaf. The Archaeologist. Part III: “Leben im NS-Staat.” The “Kaiser’s Spy” under National Socialism. Part IV: Oppenheim’s relation to the NS Regime in context. Responses of some non-Aryan Germans to National Socialism.

3The central placement of Part II between the parts devoted to Oppenheim’s role in Middle East politics in World War I and in World War II was determined not only by chronology—excavation at Tell Halaf was resumed in the period between the two world wars and Oppenheim’s popular writings about Tell Halaf and his worldwide recognition as a scholar also date from that time—but by a desire to acknowledge the place his archaeological and ethnological investigations occupied in the career of a resolute and even ruthless patriot.

  • 4 Both quotations in Bryan Mark Rigg, Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers. The Untold Story of NaziRacial Laws (...)
  • 5 See Part IV of this study.

4In Parts III and IV especially I have tried to find answers to the questions Oppenheim’s strange career has suggested to me—questions about the consistency of National Socialist policies, questions above all, about the sense of identity and the attitudes toward National Socialism of highly assimilated, politically conservative, and nationalist German Jews—Kaiserjuden, as Chaim Weizmann dubbed them—and so-called Mischlinge (“half-Jews,” “quarter-Jews,” etc.), a large class of people who found themselves in an extremely awkward position during the Nazi period but have been surprisingly little studied. Did Oppenheim feel or want to feel so intensely German that he actually sympathized with National Socialist aims and policies, or at least with some of them? Should his behaviour be understood as an unusually striking case of what has come to be referred to as “Jewish self-hatred”? Or was he chiefly motivated by the unwavering nationalism, dating from the Second Reich, that marked his entire career and that may have allowed him to overlook, for a time at least, the persecution of non-Aryans under the Third Reich, or to think that it would be a passing phase? Though he himself had been baptised and raised as a Catholic, the diplomatic career he had hoped to pursue had been stunted because of his father’s Jewish origins. He might have directed his resentment at those whose anti-Semitism was the cause of his having been held back. Did he choose instead to direct it at those whom he associated with an inconvenient heritage and an identity he did not want or recognize? According to one “half-Jew” in the medical corps of the Wehrmacht, “Generally, Mischlinge are very anti-Semitic.” In the words of another, “I had a feeling that most of the Mischlinge felt more German than Jewish and venture to say some, not me, would gladly have joined the SS had they not been tainted by Jewish blood.”4 Or was everyone—the Nazis and Oppenheim alike—chiefly motivated by opportunistic considerations? Were the Jewish organizations mentioned below5 (the Association of Jewish War Veterans, for example) which expressed support for key aspects of National Socialism only trying to protect themselves and ward off persecution? Was the orthodox rabbi who “openly announced” his “allegiance to National Socialism,” and who promised that, were it not for its “anti-Semitic component, National Socialism would find in observant and faithful Jews its most loyal supporters” simply looking out for his coreligionists’ security? Was Oppenheim’s overriding motive self-preservation and the preservation of his legacy as a scholar of the Middle East?

5That latter concern must assuredly have played a role in the adjustment Oppenheim made, after the end of the Second World War, to the persona of the German patriot that he had carefully cultivated and maintained throughout his life. In a letter of several pages sent in June 1946 to Ernst Herzfeld, a former friend and collaborator who had been forced by the Nazi racial laws to resign his chair at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin in 1935 and seek refuge in the United States, he contrived to write exclusively about his scholarly work, to allude only in passing to the War and the Nazi regime, and to keep out of his letter anything that might cast a shadow on the persona he now wanted to project to his Jewish former associate: that of the committed scholar, indifferent to and uncontaminated by the political events that had turned his correspondent’s life upside down. There is virtually no reference in the letter to Germany, either to the people or to the culture. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Oppenheim had ceased to be the German patriot that he had always been. No less than his activity as a Middle East expert on Germany’s behalf in two world wars, his severely damaged treasures and now barely surviving Max Freiherr von Oppenheim Stiftung (Baron Max von Oppenheim Foundation) were in his eyes his gifts to Germany, the expression of his dedication to his country. In trying to secure Herzfeld’s help for the restoration of the treasures and the rebuilding of the Stiftung, there is no reason to believe that he was in any way turning his back on the patriotism by which he had chosen to define himself over the entire course of his life.


1 The terms “Near East” and “Middle East” have become interchangeable. The first official use of the term “Middle East” by the United States government was in the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine, which pertained to the Suez Crisis. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles defined the Middle East as “the area lying between and including Libya on the west and Pakistan on the east, Syria and Iraq on the North and the Arabian Peninsula to the south, plus the Sudan and Ethiopia.” In 1958, the State Department explained that the terms “Near East” and “Middle East” were interchangeable, and defined the region as including Egypt, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. According to the article “Near East”’ in the Associated Press Stylebook (New York, 2000), “there is no longer a substantial distinction between this term [Near East] and Middle East.” Likewise, the article “Middle East” states that “Popular usage once distinguished between the Near East (the westerly nations in the listing) and the Middle East (the easterly nations), but the two terms now overlap, with current practice favoring Middle East for both areas.” The recommendation is to “use Middle East unless Near East is used by a source in a story.” That is the practice that I shall follow here.

2 Ernst Jäckh Papers, Yale, MS. group 467, Princeton University Library, Microfilm 11747, folder 47, p. 92. A full reprint of Oppenheim’s Denkschrift, carefully prepared by Tim Epkenhans and with the original pagination noted, appeared recently in Archivum Ottomanicum, 19 (2001): 120–63. The passage cited appears on p. 135 of the original. Page references to the Denkschrift in the present text will be to the original pagination in Epkenhans’s relatively accessible edition. Epkenhans’s introduction to the Denkschrift is in the same journal (published by Harrassowitz, the company which in 1939 and 1943 put out the first two volumes of Oppenheim’s multi-volume study of the Bedouins), 18 (2000): 247–50, under the title, taken from the Denkschrift, “Geld soll keine Rolle spielen.” A much abbreviated version of Oppenheim’s memorandum, copied into his memoirs by Karl Emil Schabinger, Oppenheim’s colleague at the Orient Intelligence Bureau in Constantinople during the First World War, was published by Wolfgang G. Schwanitz in “Max von Oppenheim und der Heilige Krieg. Zwei Denkschriften zur Revolutionierung islamischer Gebiete 1914 und 1940,” Sozial.Geschichte, 19, Heft 3 (2004): 28–59 (pp. 45–55).

3 Hans-Ulrich Seidt, Berlin Kabul Moskau. Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer und Deutschlands Geopolitik (Munich: Universitas, 2000), p. 47.

4 Both quotations in Bryan Mark Rigg, Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers. The Untold Story of NaziRacial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), pp. 24–25.

5 See Part IV of this study.


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