at the 10th anniversary of his death - 30. 9. 1953
in: I. H. Bilski (Ed.), Means and Ways towards a Realm of Justice. A Collection of Articles dedicated to the Memory of Professor Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943), Tel Aviv 1958, pp. 66-70.
[p. 66] Professor Franz Oppenheimer who died ten years ago at Los Angeles in the eightieth year of his life, was one of the prominent figures of German Jewry in its golden age, about 1900.
He was born in Berlin in 1864, as the eldest son of Dr. Julius Oppenheimer who was a reform rabbi. Prepared for academic studies in the excellent Friedrichs-Gymnasium, he was inscribed as a student of medicine at the University of Berlin, when he was hardly 17. At the beginning of the antisemitic movement in the early eighties of the past century, he became known as one of the outstanding fencers of his university. Graduating already at 21, as doctor of medicine, he practised medicine till 1897, first as a general practitioner, and later on as a laryngologist. In his free hours, however, he found time to compose poems and articles. He even joined a poetical circle whose members were the lyrical poet Richard Dehmel (who became Oppenheimers brother-in-law), August Strindberg, Detlev von Liliencron (who became famous after Oppenheimer wrote a booklet on his songs), Carl Ludwig Schleich (physician, poet and painter who invented local anaesthesia), Carl Boelsche, Gerhart Hauptmann and others.
[p. 67] Deeply impressed by the social misery which he met as a physician - earlier in the province of Poznan and later on in the slums of Berlin -, he gave up his medical profession, at 33, changing it for social studies and the reform of human society. In the transitional period, he earned his bread as a political writer: he was chief editor of the weekly "Welt am Montag". Later on, he criticized the imperial regime in his satirical poems published in the daily "Der Tag", under the pseudonym of the uncivil Gottlieb, a popular figure of German stories.
As a social reformer, he taught that large land property was the root of all social evil, and that this remnant of feudal conquest and occupation of the soil - denying the rural population its free use - was comparable to a cancer on the body of human society which must be eradicated. To this end, he recommended the transformation of the large manor estates into cooperative farms owned by the farm labourers and additional settlers to be recruited from the urban proletariat. Hereby, he promised, the, unemployed "reserve army" accumulated in the urban centres could be brought back to the rural districts, thus putting an end to the exploitation of labour in industry. He deemed that in this simple way of social therapy, the social problem could be solved, without any necessity of extreme revolutionary measures, as abolition of private property and the mechanical equalization of income considered as necessary by the communist theory.
Oppenheimer considered the activity of the individual, working for his own benefit, as an indispensable asset and motor of human society liberated from monopolies. Hereby, he became the founder of liberal socialism advocated by him as an alternative [p. 68] to both capitalism and communism. He felt sure that this synthetic social and economic system corresponded to the claims of social justice, without clashing with the healthy instincts of the individual aiming at economic improvement of his condition.
As a sociologist, he claimed that the state owes its existence not, as it is often assumed, to the voluntary union of equal individuals, but to conquest and subjection of a majority by a minority, imposing its will on the former for its own benefit. History shows that the social groups owning the land and dominating the rural districts, - not those exerting power in the cities, - are in control of the states. Moreover, a free, prospering peasantry in the "hinterland" of cities is considered as the indispensable basis of their prosperity, whereas they degenerate and are abandoned by their inhabitants in regions where the feudal latifundia system predominates. Without a prospering and free rural population, he saw no hope for social progress, and, therefore, internal colonization appeared to him as the indispensable tool for the prevention of recurring economic crises and the establishment of permanent peace. In the last volumes of his momentous work. "System der Soziologie", he was able to show convincingly that the prevalence of prosperity in the rural districts has always and everywhere been the fundamental prerequisite of rise and wellbeing of historical states, societies and cultures, whilst their downfall is a consequence of exploitation or slavery of the rural. populations.
Admitted to the University of Berlin in 1909 as a free lecturer, he had a splendid success as an academical teacher. In 1919, [p. 69] he got a chair as professor of sociology at the newly established university at Frankfort-on-Main, where he lectured until 1929.
Oppenheimer's theories aroused the interest of Dr. Theodor Herzl who introduced him to the Zionist movement at the sixth congress in 1903. In 1910, Merhaviah, the first Jewish settlement in the Esdrelon valley, was established as a co-operative farm, managed according to Oppenheimer's ideas. However, the workers of the second alliyah (immigration period) found it difficult to accustom themselves to the system of an authoritative administration by an appointed agronomist, considered as indispensable by Oppenheimer for the initial stage. Neither did they agree to the principle of payment according to productive achievement. Thus, the development of agricultural colonization in the Kibbutzim and Kvutzot of Israel proceeded according to collectivistic theories. However, the "smallholder settlements" (Moshavei Ovdim) with their numerous marketing and other local cooperative institutions - as well as the fully cooperative farm with separate households (Moshav Shitufi) - agree much better with Oppenheimer's intentions both from the standpoint of economy and social psychology.
In World War I, Oppenheimer organized, in co-operation with Bodenheimer and Friedeman, a "Committee for the East" which worked for the benefit of East European Jewry under German occupation. However, he could not agree with the unrestricted identification of Zionism with Jewish nationalism. He considered modern nationalism as a calamity, hoping that the Zionist dream could be realized in the spirit of brother-hood and by agreement with the Arab neighbours. This attitude alienated him, since 1920, from the Zionist movement. It also [p. 70] explains why he turned towards the United States, instead of Eretz-Israel, when he was compelled, by the Nazi regime, to emigrate, at the age of 74. In Palestine, where he came as a visitor, he felt as a solitary prophet, whose voice remained unheard. The Nazi secret police has destroyed his books, and his pupils were dispersed everywhere by the disaster of European Jewry. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer's ideas have remained quite up-to-date, and we are under the impression that the State of Israel would be well advised, if it would return to Oppenheimer's principles just now when it becomes more necessary than ever to find a synthesis between socialist ideals and the principle of keeping intact the incentives of a free economy.