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The Passion of Max von Oppenheim

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Lionel Gossman

III. “The Kaiser’s Spy” under National Socialism; “Leben Im ns-Staat, 1933–1945”

14. Max von Oppenheim′s Last Years

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  • 1 In a letter from one elderly Orientalist to another, dated 14 March 1940, Caskel is said to be ″no (...)
  • 2 Werner Caskel, ″Max Freiherr von Oppenheim″ (Nachruf), Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen (...)

1Oppenheim′s fate until the end of the war was substantially similar to that of most Germans. He suffered material hardship, which he bore stoically, but appears not to have been in any way molested. Though he himself later attributed the relative security he enjoyed to the protection of well-placed old friends from the time of the Kaiserreich, he seems not to have suffered, as many of them did, and as Waldemar and Friedrich Carl, the sons of his cousin Simon Alfred, also did, in the wake of Stauffenberg′s attempt on Hitler′s life in 1944. In the unfinished autobiographical notes he prepared in the last year of his life, he specifically names Canaris, for example, as one of those who looked out for him, but there is no indication that he was in danger after Canaris was arrested and executed as a result of Stauffenberg′s failed coup. It is even possible that he himself was able to provide some protection to his loyal assistant and collaborator, Werner Caskel, who, as a ″half-Jew″ himself, had had to give up his teaching position at the University of Greifswald (though he succeeded in holding on to it until 1938), but was also not otherwise interfered with. Instead, Caskel was consulted, like Oppenheim, on matters in which he was thought to have special expertise.1 One such matter, as we saw, was the preparation of an adequate Arabic translation of Mein Kampf to replace the makeshift versions circulating in the Arabic-speaking world. Concerning Oppenheim′s life during the war Caskel observes in the eulogy he read to the Deutsche Morgenlandische Gesellschaft only that the scholar ″accepted all the deprivations of wartime without complaint″ and was ″satisfied with a very simple room in which to carry on his work.″2

  • 3 But see below, note 4.
  • 4 Cit. Teichmann, Faszination Orient, p. 92. In a letter of June 1946 to his old colleague Ernst Her (...)

2This he did, preparing his book on the Bedouins with considerable help from Caskel and from Erich Bräunlich, an Oriental scholar who had signed the 1933 Bekenntnis der Professoren an den deutschen Universitäten und Hochschulen zu Adolf Hitler [Oath of Allegiance of German University and College Professors to Adolf Hitler], in the offices of the Max von Oppenheim Stiftung, which he had set up in his property on the Savigny Platz. On the night of 23-24 August 1943, however, the property was severely damaged in an R.A.F. bombing raid. ″A considerable portion of the splendid things stored in the building—porcelain, mirrors, metal objects—has been destroyed, many objects have been smashed to pieces in the vitrines or have tumbled down from the walls,″ Oppenheim wrote after surveying the scene. ″Thank God, the beautiful Arab room from Damascus, next to my study on the Knesebeckstrasse, with its boiseries and its walls and ceilings of wood has been spared.3 [...] Unfortunately, on the Savigny-Platz side, the part of the library that had been set up in the office, in the co-workers′ room, and in my study is a complete mess, the shelves have collapsed and many books have been destroyed or rendered unreadable. [.] To my great dismay, this is also the case with my scholarly papers. And so a great part of my life′s work has been wiped out.″4 A couple of weeks later the Tell Halaf Museum itself was slightly damaged in another raid. Then in late November 1943 Oppenheim, who in the meantime (having been bombed out of Berlin) had taken refuge in Dresden, along with his manservant Adolf Sommer, received the devastating news that his Museum had been hit by an incendiary bomb and had burned to the ground and that most of the precious sculptures in it, which he had pleaded in vain with the state museum authorities to have stored in a safe place, had been shattered to smithereens. In February 1945, Dresden was the target of a notoriously destructive air attack. Supposedly, the eighty-four year old scholar escaped the burning city in a wheelbarrow pushed by the faithful Sommer.

Fig. 14.1 Max von Oppenheim (left) and his faithful manservant Sommer, photograph sent by Oppenheim at end of World War II to his former collaborator Ernst Herzfeld, at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Photo © Smithsonian Institution.

  • 5 In his Preface to vol. 3 of Die Beduinen (1952), Werner Caskel regrets having had to work on the v (...)

3He lost all his remaining possessions, including manuscripts of the later volumes of the book on the Bedouins and all his personal memorabilia.5 In March 1945 he was taken in by his youngest sibling, his sister Wanda. Widowed since 1938, Wanda still lived in the handsome late seventeenth-century Schloss Ammerland on the picturesque Starnbergersee about sixteen miles from Munich, which had been the family home of her husband Franz Karl, Graf von Pocci (b. 1870), a son of the prolific mid-nineteenth century artist, cartoonist, writer, and composer Franz Graf von Pocci, and a minor poet and littérateur in his own right. Perhaps it was the extraordinary popular reputation of her father-in-law (after whom streets are named in Munich, Landshut, and Ingolstadt) that enabled Wanda von Pocci to live through the Nazi regime, like her brother, without major incident. She died in Munich in 1954.

  • 6 Or, as he himself claimed in the letter of 21 June 1946 to Herzfeld, because the all too lovely Sc (...)
  • 7 Cit. Teichmann, Faszination Orient, p. 94.

4As Oppenheim was now in need of constant medical attention and had to be in a place with appropriate medical facilities,6 he settled in the Spring of 1946 in Landshut, the capital of Lower Bavaria, about fifty miles north-east of Munich and only four miles from a property belonging to Friedrich Carl von Oppenheim, the youngest son of his cousin Simon Alfred. Friedrich Carl had taken refuge there with his wife Ruth after the Gestapo arrested his brother Waldemar in Cologne, but he too was soon in trouble, as already noted, having been denounced by one of his estate employees for making defeatist comments. Fortunately, a sympathetic or prescient official delayed proceedings against him and he was released from custody by the Americans in late April 1945. Friedrich Carl and Ruth took the old scholar under their wing and also helped him out financially. He was grateful: ″Without you two I could not live or go on working, and if I cannot go on working, I do not want to go on living.″7

  • 8 Published betweeen 1943 and 1962 in four sumptuously illustrated quarto volumes (volumes 2, 3, and (...)
  • 9 Letter to Ernst Herzfeld, 21 June 1946 (see note 4 above). A specialist scholar whom I consulted a (...)

5And work he did. In the short time remaining to him, he wrote up some parts of an autobiography and left notes for others; tried to reconstitute his shattered library and to secure what was left of his famous collection of artefacts; and worked on the second, as well as on the third and, in his own view, ″most important″ volume of the monumental scholarly catalogue and study of Tell Halaf8—the volume devoted to the sculptures at both Tell Halaf and Jebelet el Beda, some forty-five miles to the South-West, where he had excavated in 1929. He also maintained an active correspondence with Caskel and other collaborators. Helmuth Scheel, whom he had designated as General Director and Curator of the Max Freiherr von Oppenheim Stiftung and who edited the second volume of the catalogue (published four years after Oppenheim′s death in 1950), confirms in a Foreword (p. iii) that Oppenheim was working on that volume at the time of his death and that putting it together had been an enormously difficult task due to the loss of many notes and drawings as a result of the War. Only the printer′s galleys and the proofs of the illustrations survived, according to Scheel (p. iv). In a letter of June 1946 to his former collaborator Ernst Herzfeld Oppenheim also claims to have ″written a fairly large book on the history of the Mitanni, whose capital Wassukani, I believe, lies buried in Tell Fakhariya, next to Tell Halaf, in the area of the springs feeding the river Khabur.″ ″The proofs have already been produced,″ he went on, ″but the work has not yet been published. The original manuscript used by the printer no longer exists, but thank God the proofs do.″ While this book (which I have been unable to identify) may well have been written before Oppenheim moved to Bavaria, it seems that in Landshut he was planning to work back from the surviving proofs to his original manuscript.9

6On 6 November 1946, a few months after describing his many activities, accomplishments, and travails in his letter to Herzfeld, the veteran scholar and diplomat had to be taken to the hospital in Landshut, where nine days later he died. He was eighty-six years old.

Notes

1 In a letter from one elderly Orientalist to another, dated 14 March 1940, Caskel is said to be ″not in receipt of a government pension″ but ″presumably getting some money from Oppenheim.″ Besides that, ″he has duties connected with the war. I have not been able to find out anything specific about them (and I did not want to inquire outright), but they do seem to be bringing in some income″ (cit. Ludmila Hanich, Die Nachfolger der Exegeten, p. 121, no. 427). Caskel went on to have a good career after the war as a professor at the universities of Berlin and Cologne.

2 Werner Caskel, ″Max Freiherr von Oppenheim″ (Nachruf), Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 101 (1951): 3-8 (p. 6).

3 But see below, note 4.

4 Cit. Teichmann, Faszination Orient, p. 92. In a letter of June 1946 to his old colleague Ernst Herzfeld, who, having lost his position at the University of Berlin in 1935, had emigrated to the United States and was living in Princeton, N.J., Oppenheim painted an even bleaker picture of his losses: ″My entire library of around 42,000 volumes went up in flames,″ as a result of bombing raids on Berlin in August 1943, ″from which I was lucky to escape with my life. I had stored part of it, along with other beautiful things from the Stiftung in a castle in Mark Brandenburg but that too burned down and was looted. I had hidden away other valuable objects from the oriental collection in the cellars of the National Museums and in a different castle in Mecklenburg. That castle met the same fate as the first one. There was also much damage to what had been stored in the Museum. About 800 to 900 volumes in all were saved, along with a few items from the collection. The beautiful Arab room from Damascus was also destroyed by fire. The original sculptures from Tell Halaf were blown to pieces, but not entirely destroyed. The pieces were carefully collected, sorted, and stowed away in the deep cellars beneath the Pergamon Museum, so that, God willing, they can be put together again at some later date. After all, that is what we already did once, around 1930, with many Tell Halaf sculptures that had been blown apart by the wicked Tiglatpilestar I, when he set fire, 3,000 years earlier, to the Temple Palace at Tell Halaf. Most of the small orthostats had already been taken to the National Museums and are still, I hope, safe there. In Dresden in the night of terror of 13-14 February 1945 I was bombed out for a second time and lost everything in the way of books and other things that I had managed to gather together again. But once more I survived along with Sommer.″ Among the items lost, he specifies, was his carbon copy of a supplement—on the prehistoric finds—to volume 1 of the great study of Tell Halaf, which had appeared with de Gruyter in Berlin in 1943, along with all supporting papers and documents. The original manuscript of this supplement was in the hands of Professor Ernst Weidner in Graz (an expert on Babylonian astronomy, appointed to the chair at Graz in 1943) but he had heard nothing from him for a year and a half and so could only hope that ″nothing bad had happened to this excellent man and to my manuscript″ (letter dated Landshut, 21 June 1946, Ernst Herzfeld Papers, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, B-16). E. Weidner lived until 1976.

5 In his Preface to vol. 3 of Die Beduinen (1952), Werner Caskel regrets having had to work on the volume without the active assistance of Oppenheim and Bräunlich, both of whom had died. ″How a part of the manuscript was pulled out from beneath a flaming rafter and how the material for the fourth volume was saved from the fate of being burned to bits is a story in itself,″ he writes. ″Even so, much was lost″ (p. v).

6 Or, as he himself claimed in the letter of 21 June 1946 to Herzfeld, because the all too lovely Schloss Ammerland was under threat of Beschlagnahme (of being commandeered or taken over—by the Americans?) and he had therefore once again been forced to move out (Ernst Herzfeld Papers, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, B-16).

7 Cit. Teichmann, Faszination Orient, p. 94.

8 Published betweeen 1943 and 1962 in four sumptuously illustrated quarto volumes (volumes 2, 3, and 4 after Oppenheim′s death) by de Gruyter of Berlin with a supplementary fifth volume, in 2010, dedicated chiefly to the reconstitution of the artefacts shattered as a result of the November 1943 air raid on Berlin. Oppenheim describes the planned third volume as ″the most important″ in his letter to Ernst Herzfeld of 21 June 1946.

9 Letter to Ernst Herzfeld, 21 June 1946 (see note 4 above). A specialist scholar whom I consulted about this work was unable to identify it. There can be no question of its having been volume 2 of the Tell Halaf Catalogue, even though both are described as having suffered the same fate (loss of original notes and manuscripts, with only the galleys surviving). Oppenheim describes the two works quite distinctly in his letter to Herzfeld.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 14.1 Max von Oppenheim (left) and his faithful manservant Sommer, photograph sent by Oppenheim at end of World War II to his former collaborator Ernst Herzfeld, at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Photo © Smithsonian Institution.
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