By Enzo Traverso
The Aporias of Marxism
In a letter to Walter Benjamin, dated 13 April 1933, Gershom Scholem described the rise of Nazi Germany as ‘a catastrophe of world‑historical proportions’ which permitted him for the first time ‘to comprehend deeply’ the expulsion of the Spanish Jews in 1492: ‘The magnitude of the collapse of the communist and socialist movements,’ he wrote ‘is frightfully obvious, but the defeat of German Jewry certainly does not pale by comparison.’  These words, written in Palestine by a historian of the Cabbala who had left Germany almost ten years before, seem today a good deal more lucid than any of the Marxist analyses of the time.
In 1933, very few intellectuals were aware of the fact that Hitler’s rise to power signified the end of Judaism in Germany. The Jews, as Scholem bitterly observed in this same letter, were powerless and continued desperately to cling to a national identity that had been obstinately constructed over a century of assimilation. The National Socialist laws were soon to abolish at one shot the gains made by emancipation. The great majority of the tens of thousands of Jews who left Germany were intellectuals and left-wing militants, Socialists or Communists, whose Judeity made their position even more hazardous and precarious. The official institutions of the Jewish community, notably the Zentraverein, tried to find a form of coexistence and accommodation with the new regime. 
The workers’ movement was no more ready to deal with the catastrophe. From the end of the twenties, Trotsky had seen the danger of German fascism: his warnings went unheeded. The KPD and SPD were dismantled without offering any real resistance, after having shown themselves incapable of obstructing the rise of National Socialism and of providing an alternative to the dissolution of the Weimar Republic. However, in 1933, nazism unleashed its attack on the workers’ organizations, not on the Jews. Nazi anti‑Semitism developed gradually and inexorably, passing through several stages: first discrimination and the questioning of emancipation again (1933‑35); then economic depredations and the adoption of a policy of persecution (1938‑41); finally extermination (1941‑45). The destruction of the workers’ movement was not a gradual process: it was, in fact, one of the conditions for the consolidation of the Nazi regime. Paradoxically, while the parties, the press, and the left‑wing militants were outlawed and persecuted, Hitler was establishing and encouraging the development of Jewish institutions. His object was to drive a wedge between the ‘Aryans’ and the Jews and to eradicate any sentiment of belonging to the German nation that the latter might still entertain. The result was that the anti-Semitism seemed superficial and transitory by comparison with the absolute opposition of National Socialism to the workers’ movement. In other words, nazism was perceived as a regime that was far more antiworker than anti-Semitic.