Imagining evil

How a century of depicting a Jewish-Bolshevik threat caused hatred and genocide in Europe

VLADIMIR LENIN and a group of Bolshevik commanders arrive in the Red Square in May 1919. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
VLADIMIR LENIN and a group of Bolshevik commanders arrive in the Red Square in May 1919.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jews are once again in the spotlight in Western countries. Antisemitism has returned, accusing Jews of a myriad of supposed crimes, whether it is the Rothschilds controlling the weather or gentrification or even involvement in slavery in US history. Jews are also accused of being “globalists,” transcending national boundaries and working to undermine countries.
In his monumental study A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, Paul Hanebrink reminds us that this is not a new phenomenon.
“Nationalists in many different countries across Europe imagined the Jewish Bolshevik as a malevolent agent who worked tirelessly to subordinate the nation,” he wrote. Fears of an imagined Jewish Bolshevik conspiracy underpinned antisemitism in the 20th century and still reverberates today.
Hanebrink, an associate professor of history at Rutgers, has previously written on the history of Hungary in the first half of the 20th century, and brings a wealth of information to his new study. It begins in 1919 after the Great War, when central Europe was in chaos as empires collapsed and nation states were born. Jews played an important role in this era, many of them in left-wing causes. Some were drawn to communist revolutionary causes in Germany, Hungary and further east, particularly in Russia.
“Some Jews embraced Bolshevism in particular places at particular times for particular reasons,” he noted. Many other Jews chose Zionism, Jewish socialist causes or other ideologies. But for right-wing antisemites the image of a Jewish conspiracy emanating from Moscow was an easier stereotype to push nationalist sentiments to fear, as opposed to fearing their own Christian neighbors.
Of particular interest, Jews played a role in these discussions.
“Jewish liberals from Britain to Hungary also insisted that Jewish revolutionaries were not really Jews.” They wanted to show that Jews were nationalists too. Zionist leaders also saw this trend as a threat.
The fear of Jewish extremists with revolutionary ideas was brought to the West by authors. Here Hanebrink is at his best, showing how intellectual and journalist circles spread news of the rise of Communism in Russia and other countries with lurid tales of alleged Jewish crimes. For instance, Robert Wilton, a journalist for The Times of London, claimed that Bolshevism in Russia had no real Russian roots. It was the result of “Jewish pauperdom,” the Jewish working class poor latching on to the teaching of Karl Marx, who was of course Jewish also. French writers told of a “new Jerusalem” arising in Hungary, pushed on with the “mind of Karl Marx and built by Jewish hands.”
The way in which these depictions played into antisemitism was by positing that these Jewish forces were non-European, and were seeking to destroy the purity of Christian European civilization. While in western Europe this image percolated, in eastern Europe it became the scene of bloody pogroms. In Ukraine there were more than 2,000 pogroms from 1918 to 1921.
“They were a political tool that helped different warring parties to unify their disparate forces and whip up popular support for their causes,” wrote Hanebrink.
This had long term consequences. Hitler forged his antisemitism in a milieu of anti-revolutionary fervor in southern Germany that opposed the revolution that had swept Bavaria in 1919. He was partly influenced, Hanebrink argues, by German émigrés from the Baltics who brought tales of Bolshevism. When Hitler’s armies were unleashed against the Soviet Union in 1941, they brought with them a zeal of hatred not just for Jews or Communism, but this specific blend of Jewish Bolshevism. For instance, joined by Romanian soldiers who aided the Nazis, they took Bessarabia, Bukovina and then Odessa, slaughtering tens of thousands of Jews immediately. In Odessa, where my great grandparents had booked ship for America in the early years of the 20th century, 25,000 were murdered.
Even when Nazism had been defeated and Communists had seized control in eastern Europe, antisemitism didn’t go away, it merely morphed into a new form. A Communist party paper in Hungary claimed that Jews were trying to monopolize their victim status to gain “privileges” and it claimed that “Jews were exploiting their victim status in order to live, like parasites, off the honest work of the Hungarian people.” Of particular interest, Hanebrink also sheds light on the develop of a “Judeo-Christian” ideology that sought to position Jews in the US alongside “a set of values bound to Christianity in their common opposition to materialism, secularism and neo-paganism.”
Today this specter still haunts. Hanebrink argues that it haunts partially in terms of how Europe now fears migrants from abroad. But it haunts in another way as well. Jews are always talked about, defined, and shoehorned into identities to be used by others. Whether it is arguing that Jews are “Judeo-Christian” patriots or falsely claiming victim status, or embracing communism, they are never allowed to just be a diverse group, the way others are. Jews are always the object of obsession in Europe. Even when they are a tiny minority. This is because it is always easier to blame Jews for society’s problems, than oneself or one’s non-Jewish neighbors.
“Jewish Bolshevism,” not “my Bolshevism” or “Jewish capitalism,” not “my capitalism.”
A Specter Haunting Europe
By Paul Hanebrink
Harvard University Press
368 pages; $21.95