Christoph Moß. Jakob Altmaier: Ein jüdischer Sozialdemokrat in Deutschland (1889-1963). Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 2003. 310 S. EUR 29.90 (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-412-02103-0.
Reviewed by William Smaldone (Department of History, Willamette University)
Published on H-German (September, 2005)
The Party Soldier
In his introduction, Christoph Moß rightly notes that in recent years biography has made a comeback among historians and this shift in scholarly interest is certainly true in the field of Weimar Social Democracy. While few Weimar Social Democratic leaders have a place in the popular historical memory in Germany or anywhere else, scholarly biographies of such top echelon figures as Otto Braun, Rudolf Hilferding, Carl Severing, and others have become more common as historians have come to recognize that readers often are attracted to individuals' stories and that this genre forms a "natural corollary to the structural and social-historical studies that dominated scholarly research interests in the 1960s and 1970s" (p. 1).
Like many biographers, Moß intends to examine the reciprocal interaction of society and the individual. He aims to break new ground, however, by shifting the focus of his study from the terrain of Social Democracy's top leadership to that of its middle level functionaries, the so-called "party soldiers," who transmitted and implemented the leadership's decisions on the ground. These people played a key role in expanding and stabilizing Social Democracy as a mass movement in the decades preceding the First World War and during the Weimar Republic. As a "representative individual" of this group, Moss selected the Jewish Social Democratic journalist and activist Jakob Altmaier, who he asserts "exemplified that generation of Social Democrats who received their political and intellectual schooling under the Empire" and formed what historians have generally called a "community of solidarity" or Solidaritätsgemeinschaft (p. 3). Moß sets out to answer three main questions: First, to what degree was Altmaier a traditional Social Democrat who maintained his basic ideological principles from the era of the Kaiserreich to that of the Federal Republic? Second, how should one judge the relationship between his Social Democratic beliefs and his Judaism? And finally, how can one evaluate the impact of Altmaier's long political and journalistic career within and for Germany?
Moß faced a number of obstacles in carrying out his project. It is relatively easy to trace the unfolding of Altmaier's public intellectual and political life because he left behind a rich collection of articles in a variety of German, European, and American newspapers. However, the lack of private papers (in part caused by his flight into exile in 1933) and the loss of many party documents make it much more difficult to examine his private views on key political matters or to get a thorough sense of his character and relationships with others. Moß does a good job taking advantage of the private and public sources that do exist, but reliance on the latter skews the picture of Altmaier in some ways. One wishes to know more about his lifestyle, about what he did for fun, about what kind of women--if any--interested him, and so on. These matters are not essential to Moß's story, but would have deepened the reader's understanding of Altmaier as a person.
Altmaier grew up in Flörsheim am Main, a small town of about 4,000 residents at the turn of the twentieth century. His father, Josef, owned a bakery and provided his family with a modest living. He was also a leader in the tiny and steadily declining local Jewish community. Though the family was active in the synagogue, Moß notes that there is little evidence that Altmaier was religious in his youth. He attended public schools in which most of his schoolmates were Catholic, and he grew up steeped in their culture. Life in Flörsheim was certainly not bucolic. Many of the town's men worked in new factories established nearby and some of them were attracted to the growing Social Democratic labor movement. This did not go down well in a conservative Catholic area dominated by the Catholic Center Party and as a teenager Altmaier observed the ways in which the "reds" experienced hostility and discrimination from the majority of his fellow villagers. From the start his sympathies were with the socialist workers, but in 1906 his commitment to the movement grew stronger after a local visit by the SPD's charismatic leader, August Bebel. After completing the Realschule and, in 1912, his mandatory military service, the young salesman moved to Frankfurt am Main where he joined the SPD and began to write for the party's local paper, Die Volksstimme. He soon turned to journalism as a career.
Building on the theoretical work of Dieter Groh and Hans-Josef Steinberg, Moß argues that the ideological principles that Altmaier developed in his youth reflected beliefs widely held among Social Democrats. A "vulgar Marxist" view of class struggle stood at the center of this outlook, as did the inevitability of the socialist revolution to which capitalist economic development was inexorably leading. Firmly convinced that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, most Social Democrats saw building the party, not actively making revolution, as the primary task at hand. Altmaier, like many others, tenaciously held onto this view until the end of his life. Not a theorist himself, he worked for the next five decades to describe and analyze the world as a journalist and politician. The fundamental ideological principles that he developed as a young man would always underpin this work.
Moß examines the development of Altmaier's intellectual and political views by following his trail as a newspaperman. Wounded several times in the First World War, Altmaier was discharged in 1917 and returned to Frankfurt. Despite his criticism of the SPD's wartime policies, the shortage of staff and his loyalty to the party following its split with the anti-war opposition earned the inexperienced young journalist the appointment as chief editor at Die Volksstimme. From that post he witnessed the onset of the German revolution and the founding of the Weimar Republic.
Throughout his career, Altmaier consistently advocated for the radical democratization of Germany's political and social order. He supported the party's efforts to create a parliamentary rather than a Soviet-type political system, but he also believed it was necessary to break the power of the bourgeoisie and the Junkers by carrying out sweeping economic reforms. These views placed him on the left wing of the SPD under Weimar, where he would remain until the end of his career. In the context of the German revolution, commitment to the unity of the workers' movement was his highest priority and he opposed those who broke away to form the Independent Social Democratic Party and later the Communist Party. Although loyal, he was not, however, a blind follower of the party, and he even quit in 1924 when he concluded it had betrayed its principles by adopting a program and tactics that made too many ideological and practical concessions to the bourgeoisie. Only after the SPD reaffirmed its Marxist principles in the Heidelberg Program of 1925 and after it became clear to him that there were no other viable alternatives, did he return to the party in 1926.
After going to Paris to cover the signing of the Versailles Treaty for Die Volksstimme, Altmaier left the paper to move to Berlin where he wrote for the SPD's flagship newspaper, Vorwärts, as well as for various non-party papers including the Manchester Guardian. By the late twenties he was working as a correspondent for the SPD's press service. Altmaier was among those SPD journalists who recognized that the party needed to adjust its propaganda and electoral work to take advantage of new developments in media. Moß would have done well here to examine other critical voices of the "front generation," such as that of Carlo Mierendorff, on that issue, which ultimately was of critical importance in the party's failed struggle against Nazism.
Altmaier wrote on a wide range of subjects ranging from domestic and foreign policy to social and cultural matters. After 1926 he often lived abroad and spent much time in London, Paris, and Belgrade where he developed many professional and political contacts that would help him survive his years in exile during the Third Reich. He became particularly interested in conditions in the Balkans where he was fascinated by local culture and politics. In 1932 he returned to Berlin where he was deeply involved as a journalist and speaker in the party's constant electoral campaigns, but he played no significant role in developing party strategy or tactics.
In April, 1933, Altmaier went into exile and spent the next few years in Paris and Belgrade, where he worked as a free-lance reporter. He reported from Spain during the Spanish Civil War and after the outbreak of the Second World War he worked for British intelligence in Yugoslavia, Greece, and Egypt. Moß skillfully describes Altmaier's complex movements during the exile period and stresses his work promoting a Popular Front of all forces opposed to the Nazis with the exclusion of the Communists. While early on in the effort to promote unity he had been open to the idea of discussions with the KPD, he soon backed away from this position for reasons that remain obscure. Meanwhile his relations with the SPD leadership, which opposed the popular front strategy, also grew more distant. As Europe slipped into war and Altmaier's work took him to the eastern Mediterranean, he had little contact with the SPD.
Victory over Nazism, however, eventually brought him back to Germany and to the SPD. At the same time, knowledge of the Holocaust, in which he had lost many family members, brought him closer to his Jewish heritage. After winning a seat in the Bundestag in 1949, Altmaier remained in office until his death, fourteen years later. During this time he was a hard working "back bencher" who became increasingly disillusioned as his party lost one election after another and proved unable to change German society fundamentally. A frequent contributor to the U.S. weekly, The Nation, his writings during these years reveal his having jettisoned the "popular front" strategy of the exile period for a return to the class struggle politics of Weimar. Though outwardly loyal to the SPD, he grew increasingly dismayed with his party's ideological and practical shift to the right, culminating in the passage of the Godesberg Program of 1959.
One of the most important changes in Altmaier's life after 1945 was his increased consciousness of his Jewish heritage. He was convinced that postwar Germany needed to take responsibility for its Nazi past, to combat anti-Semitism, and to improve the situation of Jews and others displaced by the war. His consciousness of himself as a Jew developed parallel to his socialist consciousness and did not displace it. Altmaier's greatest achievement in his effort to win justice for Jews was his successful prodding of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to open negotiations that ultimately resulted in the payment of restitution to Israel, an action of which he was especially proud. Moß also stresses his activity in the Advisory Assembly of the Council of Europe, in which he worked energetically on the promotion of people-to-people exchange as a means of promoting peace.
The portrait that Moß paints is a clear if very sober one. By the end of his life most of Altmaier's family was dead and he had few close friends. He died in his office, alone, the party soldier to the end. At the time of his death, he continued to adhere to the ideological principles that he had adopted as a young man enmeshed in a growing socialist movement to which he dedicated his life. By the end of the fifties that movement was undergoing fundamental changes and leaving his generation behind. Few of Altmaier's hopes for radical change had come to pass and many had been permanently dashed, but as Moß rightly notes, it is important to recognize his substantial contributions to the creation of a more democratic and humane Germany.
. Hagen Schulze, Otto Braun oder Preußens demokratische Sendung (Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1977); Peter Wagner, Rudolf Hilferding (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1999); William Smaldone, Rudolf Hilferding: The Tragedy of a German Social Democrat (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998); Thomas Alexander, Carl Severing--ein Demokrat und Sozialist in Weimar, 2 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1996).
. Dan White, Lost Comrades: Socialists of the Front Generation, 1918-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1992); Donna Harsh, German Social Democracy and the Rise of Nazism (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), pp. 177-179, 182-183.
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William Smaldone. Review of Moß, Christoph, Jakob Altmaier: Ein jüdischer Sozialdemokrat in Deutschland (1889-1963).
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