Elissa Bemporad on Paul Hanebrink
Well-known scholars of Soviet history have failed to understand Jewish experience under communism in the early twentieth century. I was genuinely startled when a few years ago I read the comments included in the conclusive paragraph of an otherwise mildly positive review of my first book, a study of the Jewish experience under communism in a Soviet city during the 1920s and 1930s. Not only did the author of the review reproach me for missing the ostensible nexus between the Nazi obsession with extermination and the Bolshevik minority policies in the annihilation of the Jews. But he also blamed the Jews I had studied for supporting the communist regime, inferring that by doing so they had become complicit in their own death at the hands of the Germans in the summer of 1941, a death that supposedly grew out of their political choice. This comment by a well-known scholar of Soviet history, which disputes several historical facts, is disturbingly reminiscent of the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, or the belief that communism was a Jewish plot to destroy western civilization. The perceived hyper-loyalty of Jews to Bolshevism and the presumed exceeding involvement of Jews with communism were-and still are-used to justify the annihilation of European Jews during World War II.
Paul Hanebrink’s book is a masterful attempt to dissect the origins and the development of the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism in different cultural and political settings across twentieth-century Europe, and to explain why and how this canard came to shape the intentions of the leaders of so many parties and organizations, and dominate the minds of intellectuals as well as of average players in the Age of Extremes. Hanebrink chronicles the ways in which the belief that Jews crafted communism, were its most devoted advocates, and carried out crimes in its name came to form the heart of counterrevolutionary, anti-democratic, and racist ideologies during the twentieth century, even becoming a crucial motive and explanation in the origins of the genocide of European Jewry.
One of the great merits of this study lies in the nuanced contextualization. The book never fails to root Judeo-Bolshevism into local nationalist politics recreating the flavor and the specific meaning it took on at different times and places. It also never fails to capture the transnational dimensions of Judeo-Bolshevism, which intermittently swelled in synergy with different political organizations and actors who mobilized it during World War I, during the interwar period at the height of fascism and Nazism, in the midst of the Holocaust, in ravished postwar Eastern Europe, and after 1989 in the wake of the collapse of communism.
From the first pages of the book, Hanebrink reminds the reader that Judeo-Bolshevism builds onto a long history of anti-Jewish stereotypes, including the association of Jews with heresy, with international conspiracies, and barbarian religious rituals. Drawing from this well-established repository of antisemitism, and in response to World War I and the Russian Revolution, different political and cultural leaders who saw only Jews at the center of action even when it was not the case, forged the idea of an all-powerful Jewish Bolshevik-usually male-who could take on the mask of a rootless migrant, a refugee who spread the revolutionary destruction, or the member of an invading horde eager to destroy civilization. During the Russian Civil War in particular-a violent conflict that erupted in 1917, following the revolution, and lasted until 1921, when the Red Army defeated its enemies and gained a complete victory-anti-Bolshevik forces which included the Whites, the Ukrainian troops and the Polish army used the myth of Judeo-Communism to attack and murder the members of hundreds of Jewish communities. The pogroms were described and remembered as an expression of self-defense to save fragile national bodies from the hazard of Bolshevism. The fantasy of Jewish sniper fire, a leitmotif in the recollections of the events, was heavily kindled by the existence of Leon Trotsky, a real Jew by birth but certainly not by choice, who lead the Bolshevik army. And although the overwhelming majority of Jews did not support Trotsky, Bolshevism or for that matter socialism, identifying Jews with communism became a successful strategy to restrain Bolshevism, but also uproot it from the local context and to other it.
Hanebrink follows the transmigration of the myth from Eastern to Western Europe, where many exiled leaders of the White and Ukrainian movements settled and helped construct the memory of the civil war through the lenses of Judeo-Bolshevism. Reinforced by the clout of rumors and anxieties, and forged in a language of violence, which echoed in novels and journalistic accounts, as well as in the speeches of politicians and religious leaders, the myth was forged into a global threat through the streets of Budapest, Berlin, Paris and Rome. In its fear of Bolshevism the west was willing to condone anti-Jewish violence as a legitimate form of self-defense.
But as Hanebrink reminds us it was the leader of Nazi Germany who most benefited from Judeo-Bolshevism. For Hitler the belief that Bolshevism was a Jewish plot served as the ultimate proof that his ideas about a dangerous Jewish enemy, which had taken shape some time before his rise to power, were nothing but true. And if the USSR and its Judeo-Bolshevik system became a racial and ideological enemy, then Hitler’s Germany would take on the mission to redeem the world by launching an international crusade against the threat. Never before had Jewish power appeared so illegitimate as it did now. Hanebrink’s close study of the way in which Nazism refashioned Judeo-Bolshevism is magisterial in the detailed assessment of how different European countries and organizations responded to Germany’s acclaimed mission to lead Europe against the common enemy. To be sure, not all nations and organizations were eager to sacrifice their national interests and give all power to Nazi Germany, even if this meant to rescue the social order and morality from the destructive force of Judeo-Bolshevik Sovietism. Beset by their fear of Bolshevism, Poland and Hungary struggled to retain some autonomy in their relationship with the Nazi regime, as did some leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches who developed their own form of anti-communism, which not always had Jews at its heart.
In the summer of 1941, with Operation Barbarossa, words morphed into deeds and the Nazis launched their attack against their cruel racial-political enemy in the USSR. Nazi propaganda had developed a new field of Soviet studies to show how Jews orchestrated all crimes in the USSR: collectivization, for instance, was a policy employed by Jewish Bolsheviks to bring havoc to the countryside. After all, Soviet leaders were nothing but mere puppets in the hands of the Jews. Hence, the atrocities allegedly carried out by Jewish Bolsheviks were used to justify the systematic murder of Jews: as the biological carriers of Soviet power they were killed by the Einsatzgruppen firing squads by the hundreds of thousands. Their remains lie in the countless mass graves located throughout in Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, Romania, and Russia.
As the tide turned and the Germans began to lose the war the fear of illegitimate Jewish power morphed into anxiety about Jewish revenge. As the Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian borderlands passed from Nazi to Soviet rule, the familiar association of Jews as natural agents sent from Moscow to corrupt the dream of an ethnically pure geopolitical entity resumed, with renewed vigor. In Hungary and Romania, Jews became once again the antinational force that tore at the nation’s fabric through communism. In his careful analysis of the postwar context, Hanebrink shows that the link between Jews and communism was so embedded in the popular imagination that even communist parties manipulated it to their own advantage. Desperate to undo the association between Jews and communists, they identified Jewish communists as the enemies from within, as in the highly spectacular 1952 Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia when Jewish Party members were branded as Zionists. In other words, they were accused of betraying communism because they were Jewish. Similarly, the national courts of justice, which were established in Eastern Europe to try collaborators and perpetrators of war crimes, were often dismissed by being labelled as Jewish; while the outbreaks of violence staged against the few survivors in those same cities in Poland where the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population had been wiped out, were understood as acts of retaliation against Jewish power.
Hanebrink ends his tour de force by exploring the different permutations undergone by Judeo-Bolshevism during and after the Cold War era. First, the term was erased from anticommunist rhetoric: the equation of Nazism and Communism as similar totalitarian threats to humanity transformed the place of Jews in anticommunist discourse and politics. They were no longer mentioned as the archetypal agents of Bolshevism. But this variation was only temporary. By the late 1980s, when the comparison between Nazi and Soviet crimes came to dominate Eastern Europe, alongside the idea that a Red Holocaust was worse than the genocide of European Jews, Judeo-Bolshevism took center stage again, this time of the debates about the encumbered memory of the twentieth century. If Jewish communists perpetrated crimes that were equal or worse than the Holocaust, then the memory of the erasure of Eastern European Jewish life and the national memory of the countries that emerged out of the ruins of communism could only collide, and hardly ever coexist.
What then might be missing from this otherwise definitive history of Judeo-Bolshevism? It seems that Hanebrink overlooked certain lines of continuity that might have provided a furthermore complete picture of this complicated expression of antisemitism-because this is what Judeo-Bolshevism ultimately is. First, it seems that a discussion of the Soviet tendency during the 1920s and 1930s to instrumentalize and downplay antisemitism, identifying it as inherently counterrevolutionary and fascist would have been useful in order to fully grasp the ways in which in the postwar period the countries of the Eastern Bloc used and abused antisemitism as a political tactic. In the Soviet context of the early 1920s, for example, the pogroms of the civil war were politicized and remembered as an expression of the “bourgeois counterrevolution,” and usually removed from antisemitism. The idea that capitalism exploited antisemitism to overshadow socialism was thus not a postwar invention, but found its roots in the Soviet treatment of antisemitism and the skewed memory of anti-Jewish violence. Therefore it is perhaps not that surprising if communist parties in Hungary and Romania rewrote the history of 1919 and the interwar period by removing antisemitism from the narrative they created. Along the same lines, while the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism as nurtured by the Nazis was crucial to the genesis of the Final Solution to the Jewish question, the belief in and frustration over the association of Jews with Soviet power persisted and even flourished throughout the interwar period in Soviet Ukraine and Belorussia, eventually spurring many into collaborating with the Germans. Judeo-Bolshevism remained a powerful source of anxiety within the USSR itself, one that the state strove to tame and control as evident in the hundreds of Soviet secret police reports from the 1920s.
Not unlike the study of any other form of antisemitism or racism, a book on the Judeo-Bolshevik myth is much more revealing about the organizations and politicians who embrace(d) the myth, than it is about the Jews targeted by it. Yet, unlike most scholarship on antisemitism and racism Hanebrink’s book includes a useful and balanced assessment of the different Jewish responses to Judeo-Bolshevism, reminding us that Jews themselves came to use and abuse the myth. For instance, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann strategically argued that the failure to support Zionism would increase the promotion of socialism and communism among Jews; or Jewish liberals publicly insisted that many Jewish revolutionaries were in fact not really Jewish, like Bela Kun, whose mother was a Calvinist from Transylvania. The attempt to downplay the Jewishness of “non-Jewish” Jews like Bela Kun was akin to the position taken by the American Jewish community in the early Cold War period, the marker of which became contesting the association between Jews and communism. This was certainly the case in 1951, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried and convicted of spying for the USSR. In response, American Jewish organizations distanced themselves from the convicts. Hanebrink is however somewhat selective in his discussion of the Jewish response, which is absent from a number of chapters which would have benefited from its inclusion, even if only in brief form. So for example how did Jewish parties and leaders respond to the Nazi refashioning of Judeo-Bolshevism in the second part of the 1930s in Germany, Hungary, and Poland? How did the Jewish Prime Minister of France, Leon Blum, respond to accusations of Judeo-Bolshevism? Jews are suddenly devoid of agency. A discussion of the Jewish response might be missing here as a foreshadowing of the events to come.
Finally, while the actual scope of Jewish participation in communist organizations and leadership is not the focus of the book, Hanebrink does provide some data to help us disentangle the relationship between facts and myth. But again he does it selectively. So for instance, he mentions that in newly independent Poland of the 1920s Jews were no more communists than Catholic Poles; or he refers to the Jewish origin of certain leading communists in postwar Poland, like Jakub Berman who ran the secret police in the country, who were and are used as proof of Jewish-Communist rule. But because the abuse of the “avenge thesis” to minimize collaboration during the Holocaust is so resilient in Eastern Europe today, it would have been worthwhile to remind the reader of the actual statistics of NKVD officials from 1938 onward, when the number of Jews dropped dramatically. This critique is made especially in light of the anticipation to see the book published in many languages and countries of Eastern Europe.
References to the Judeo-Bolshevik myth and plot can easily crop up not only in book reviews, and scholarly debates but in contemporary politics as well. And while this occurrence is more surprising when expressed in the realm of scholarship, it certainly becomes more dangerous when articulated in the political one. Embraced by right-wing parties both in Europe and in North America, the myth builds on an imagined all-powerful agent that threatens the fantasy essence of the authentic national culture or community. If in the past this all-powerful agent morphed into Judeo-Communism, today it might take on the shape of globalism, liberalism or of a dangerous mass of refugees, who allegedly pose a deadly threat to the traditional religion and morality of the nation and its sovereignty. And if Jews led the anti-national conspiracy through communism during the twentieth century, they can still lead the alleged plots to destroy the nation today. Echoes of this belief emerge in the debates about history and memory in contemporary Poland and Hungary. But they also come out in Trumpian America, in the calls against Jewish power that reverberated in the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017, or in the massacre that occurred in the Pittsburgh synagogue in the fall of 2018, against Jews accused of helping to resettle refugees in America.
Elissa Bemporad is the Jerry and William Ungar Professor of East European Jewish History and the Holocaust at Queens College, and Associate Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of the award-winning Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk (National Jewish Book Award and Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History, and finalist of the Jordan Schnitzer Prize in Modern Jewish History). Her new book, entitled Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets, will be published with Oxford University Press in November 2019. Elissa is also the co-editor of two volumes: Women and Genocide: Survivors, Victims, Perpetrators (Indiana University Press, 2018, with Joyce Warren); and Pogroms: A Documentary History of Anti-Jewish Violence(forthcoming with Oxford University Press, with Gene Avrutin).