Radical Assimilation in the Face of the Holocaust

Otto Heller (1897–1945)

By Tom Navon

Subjects: Jewish Studies, Holocaust Studies, European History, World War Ii
Series: SUNY series in Contemporary Jewish Thought
Hardcover : 9781438495910, 312 pages, January 2024
Paperback : 9781438495927, 312 pages, July 2024

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Table of contents

Foreword and Acknowledgments
Prologue: A Jewish Question on the Death March

1. Origins of a Jewish Question (1897–1932)

2. The Decline of Judaism (1931)

3. In Flight from Two Dictators (1933–1939)

4. “The Jew Is to Be Burned” (1939)

5. In Fight (1940–1945)

Epilogue: The Road Not Taken

An intellectual-political biography of Otto Heller, the most prominent and prolific communist theoretician of the Jewish question.


This book explores the confrontation of radically assimilated Jews with the violent collapse of their envisioned integration into a cosmopolitan European society, which culminated during the Holocaust. This confrontation is examined through the biography of the German-speaking intellectual and prominent communist theoretician of the Jewish question Otto Heller (1897–1945), focusing on the tension between his Jewish origins and his universalistic political convictions. Radical Assimilation in the Face of the Holocaust traces the development of Hellerʼs position on the Jewish question in three phases: how he grew up to become a typical Central European "non-Jewish Jew" (1897–1931); how he became exceptional in that category by focusing his intellectual work on the Jewish question (1931–1939); and how he reacted to the persecution and murder of European Jewry as a member of the Resistance in occupied France and in Auschwitz (1939–1945). Breaking with the common portrayal of Heller as a self-hating Jew, Tom Navon argues instead that Heller came to lay the foundations for the groundbreaking recognition by communists of worldwide Jewish national solidarity.

Tom Navon is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow. He is the author of Marxist Interpretations of Jewish History (Hebrew).


"This book challenges the all-too-easily accepted narrative that Heller was a self-hating Jew who was refuted by being murdered in the camps. It thus contributes to the rethinking and 're-possibilizing' of Jewish views about assimilation, emancipation, and the fight against fascism in the first half of the twentieth century. The use of manuscripts, letters, accounts, and critiques by Heller's associates makes this a prime example of intellectual history done well." — Jeffrey A. Bernstein, author of Leo Strauss on the Borders of Judaism, Philosophy, and History