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A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism.

A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism

By Paul Hanebrink. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press, 2018. 368 pp.

The identification of Jews with revolution stands in a long tradition of anti-Jewish thought and action. The myth of Jewish Communism essentially claims that Jews invented, controlled, and massively supported Communism and should therefore be held responsible for its crimes. It represents antisemitism in its most politicized and violent form. "Judeo-Bolshevism," as the historian Paul Hanebrink chooses to label it, was particularly widespread during the interwar years, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, not only among right-wing extremists, but also among conservative and religious parties and individuals of less radical taste. Most importantly, the myth of Jewish Communism was the core of the German National Socialist Weltanschauung and one of the main driving ideological forces behind the Holocaust. In A Specter Haunting Europe, I Ianebrink (Rutgers University) writes the history of the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism, from World War I to today. He is especially interested in its apparent persistence and longevity. "Communism is gone," he argues, "but the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism refuses to go away" (4). His book is an attempt to understand why.

As powerful as the myth of Jewish Communism was, and as lethal as its consequences were for Jewish communities across Europe, historians have long ignored it. Hanebrink quotes the Israeli historian Jacob Talmon, who once defined the association between Jews and revolution as a "foundling, a waif, an abandoned child" (18-19) that no one was willing to claim, and that many, including Jewish contemporaries, rather wished to ignore. This no longer seems to be the case. Although Hanebrink rightly emphasizes that the specter of Judeo-Bolshevism lives on in the poisonous minds and activities of the Ultra-Right in Europe and the United States, I would argue that the idea of Jewish Communism has lost much of its destructive potency, and therefore its political and moral sensitivity.

Hanebrink focuses on the countries of East-Central Europe, on Poland, Romania, and Hungary, where especially after the two world wars the power and the destructiveness of the Jewish Communist mvth were particularly strong. Real political events mattered. JudeoBolshevism emerged in the political imagination of the Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, and other Europeans at times of revolutionary change, extreme violence, deep political uncertainty, and moral disintegration. Concerning the first few years after the Great War, Hanebrink writes, "[The] confluence of national and international politics in postimperial Eastern Europe would give the Judeo-Bolshevik menace its full meaning" (72). The situation post-World War II only worsened. The myth of Jewish Communism and the violence that it generated had a strong political rationale: It was the deeply misguided explanation of and the perverse response to dramatic political change, to the emergence and the return of Communism in the region.

Hanebrink extensively discusses this contextual feature of JudeoBolshevism. He rightly considers the revolutionary changes in parts of Central and Eastern Europe as a relevant variable to explain why the mvth arose, how it traveled from country to country, and how it transformed across time and place. But there is another, more controversial contextual aspect as well, and that is the actual behavior of Jews in the region. This aspect did more than any other to make the myth of Jewish Communism such a contentious issue, an issue that many, contemporaries as well as historians, have left unmentioned: Was the idea of Jewish Communism not also, or perhaps even primarily, inspired by the prominent role that individuals of Jewish background played in the revolutionary movement?

Hanebrink docs not discuss this issue, and partly tor the wrong reasons. He instead chooses to focus only on the myth, on JudeoBolshevism as another artifact in a long line of antisemitic mythologies, albeit an exceptionally violent one. And he wrote a good book. A Specter Haunting Europe is a well written and carefully researched study of a crucially important chapter in the history of antisemitism. But Hanebrink's analysis is partly based on an argument that I find difficult to accept: that the political activities of "Jewish" communists, whether or not they considered themselves Jews, cannot be considered a relevant factor in the power and longevity of "Jewish Communism": '"[The] myth of Judeo-Bolshevism' as an ideological construct... has no bearing on the complex realities of Jewish encounters with Communism" (5).

Trying to establish the prominent role of people of Jewish origins in the revolutionary movement is not about separating fact from fiction, as Hanebrink mistakenly argues. Research into why at brief, but crucial, moments significant numbers of people of Jewish descent (relative to their numbers in the population) felt attracted to revolutionary thought does not make the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism any less mythical. The idea is not to verify or falsify the notion of Judeo-Bolshevism, as Hanebrink asserts, but to explain it. Ezra Mendelsohn, the great historian of East European Jewry, once defined it as one of the basic questions of Jewish history: Why did such a large proportion of Jews hold radical political views? There may have been few communists among the Jews of interwar Eastern Europe, but there were many Jews among the communists. Why? And why often, albeit briefly, in such prominent positions? These questions are difficult to answer. Data are incomplete, often lacking, and occasionally forged. Moreover, providing answers to these questions forces historians, as Hanebrink rightly argues, to impose rigid ethnic and political categories on individuals whose self-identities were often complex: Can we consider people as Jewish who did not even consider themselves Jewish? But it is not impossible. Over the last few decades, impressive individual and collective "biographies" of communists of Jewish descent have been written, such as Hirsz Abramowicz's Profiles of a Lost World, Rudi van Doorslaer's Kinderen van het getto, Jan Gross's Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auscbwitz, and Robert Levy's Ana Pauker: The Rise and Fall of a Jewisb Communist, among others. And these works not only speak to us about these individuals, their lives, their ambitions, and their fateful choices, but they also tell us more about Communism, about the complexities of modern Eastern and Central European history, and about the destructive power of antisemitism.


Andre W. M. Gerrits is professor of international studies and global politics at the Department of History at Leiden University. Previously, he held the chair in Russian history and politics at Leiden University and the Jean Monnet Chair in European Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
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Author:Gerrits, Andre W.M.
Geographic Code:4E0EE
Date:Dec 22, 2019
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