It’s the bad luck of the Jews, and a persistent shonde, that some of the most notorious Communists were members of the tribe: “Iron Lazar” Kaganovich, Stalin’s brutal henchman; Jakub Berman, head of the Polish secret police; Romania’s Ana Pauker (“Stalin in a skirt”); and of course Exhibit A, Leon Trotsky. Like most of the other Red firebrands, Lev Davidovich Bronstein declared his Jewish identity meaningless. But maybe it wasn’t. For one thing, Communism promised to solve the Jewish question in a way that other movements could not. World revolution, unlike Bundism and Zionism (both more popular options among Eastern European Jews), offered an escape from Jewishness in the name of universal humanity, and at the same time satisfied the classically Jewish prophetic urge.
It shouldn’t be verboten to speak of a certain Jewish aptitude for Communism. The historian Yuri Slezkine busted that taboo in his masterwork The Jewish Century when he suggested that the notorious image of the Jewish commissar was more than just an anti-Semitic smear. Jews combined “relentless rationalism and exuberant messianism” and so made excellent revolutionaries, Slezkine wrote. Slezkine sensibly remarked that “most radicals were not Jews and most Jews were not radicals, but the proportion of radicals among Jews was, on average, much higher than among their non-Jewish neighbors.” Seven out of 10 members of the original leadership of the Polish Communist movement were Jewish, and in the 1930s Jews made up about 65 percent of all Warsaw Communists, 75 percent of the Polish Party’s propaganda apparatus, and 90 percent of MOPR, Poland’s international Communist relief organization. We can keep such facts in mind, Slezkine argued, and still avoid sliding into the anti-Semitic slander that Bolshevism was a Jewish plot.
The revolutionary spirit that seized some Jews and many more non-Jews in the early years of the 20th century has led to all kinds of trouble, not least for the Jews themselves. In the early 20th century, Slezkine wrote, Jews looked like a vanguard people, modernity incarnate. But a trapdoor loomed for the Jews: Modernity now meant nationalism, the new opiate of the people, “states that posed as tribes.” A head-on collision resulted between nationalism and the Jews in which the latter suddenly looked like the enemies of the newly chosen people, the Germans, Poles, Hungarians, and Romanians. Despite the Jews’ strenuous devotion to the national gentile cultures, their love for Goethe, Mickiewicz, Petöfi, they were still suspect, rootless aliens. Jews came to represent the evil, corrosive side of modernity, string-pullers of international capital and media, and worst of all, ready to destroy one’s nation in the name of global Communism.
Enter the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, capably explored by Paul Hanebrink in his new book, A Specter Haunting Europe. For many Europeans in the late 1910s, the face of Communist revolution was Jewish. Short-lived revolutions swept across Eastern and Central Europe in the wake of the Bolshevik coup, and many of the leaders were Jews or half-Jews, like Hungary’s Bela Kun and Bavaria’s Kurt Eisner. Like Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin, Eisner was no Bolshevik, but that didn’t matter. After these revolutions collapsed, Jews were blamed for the chaos and bloodshed.
Granted, Jews were overrepresented in a few Communist regimes. There is still a huge leap between this fact and the anti-Semitic notion, sharply on the rise in today’s Eastern Europe, that “the Jews” were responsible for Communism, and that they should be unmasked as aggressors, not merely innocent victims of the Nazis. Judeo-Bolshevism has become a way not just to blame the Jews, but to minimize Polish, Hungarian, and Romanian responsibility for anti-Jewish crimes.
Romania’s history provides a prime example of Judeo-Bolshevist prejudice and its deadly consequences. In June 1941, Ion Antonescu, the Romanian leader, ordered his military commander to identify “all Yids and Communist agents and sympathizers” in Romanian border areas, a clear signal for a mass killing. Soon after, the Romanian secret service killed 4,000 Jews in the town of Iaşi. When Romanian troops moved eastward that summer into Soviet-controlled Bessarabia, which they had lost to the Russians the previous year, they shot at least 12,000 more Jews, and deported almost 150,000. Antonescu justified the massacres by citing the nonsensical rumor that Jews had handed over Bessarabia to the Soviets.
After they recovered Bessarabia, the Romanian police surveyed the number of Jews who had worked for the Soviets—a remarkably low number, as it turned out. The provincial gendarmerie inspector was enraged: “the data,” he said, “contradict the facts.”
No sooner did Communism fall than Romanian Judeo-Bolshevism reappeared, having lived an underground existence during the Cold War. In 1991 Elie Wiesel went to Romania to speak at the 50-year commemoration of the Iaşi pogrom. While he was speaking, a woman jumped to her feet to call him a liar. The Jews “did not die,” she yelled, and added, “we will not allow ourselves to be insulted by foreigners in our country!” The woman was the daughter of Colonel Dumitru Captaru, a leading perpetrator of the pogrom. Nationalists defended her, arguing that Romanians did not commit the Iaşi pogrom, if it ever happened at all.
In Polish history, like Romanian, Judeo-Bolshevism thrives. After Germany and Russia divided Poland between them in 1939, most of the reports by Polish nationalists under Soviet occupation “lacked any trace of nuance and labeled Jews collectively as traitors,” Hanebrink writes.
In Eastern Poland there were no masses of Jews supporting the Soviet regime, despite many Poles’ claims to the contrary. The few Jews who worked for the Soviets were quickly replaced by Russians. Yet an overwhelming majority of Poles “had an unshakeable conviction that ‘the Jews’ as a collective group had been responsible for Soviet terror,” Hanebrink writes. When the historian Anna Bikont examined Polish testimony, she discovered that though many Poles insisted that the Jews “were” the NKVD, they gave few if any names of Jewish NKVD men—far too few to support the prejudice that Jews stood behind the Soviets.
The Judeo-Bolshevist tradition in Poland revived in the wake of Jan Gross’ shattering history of the Jedwabne pogrom, Neighbors, published in 2000. Right-wing figures like Antoni Macierewicz proclaimed that Jews were a fifth column for the Soviet occupiers, and that they were driven by “a terrible hatred toward Poland” and a wish to take “cruel revenge on Poles.” In present day Poland, casting the Jews as the nation’s persecutors has become dangerously mainstream.
In Hungary, too, anti-Semitism has been in the air. Shortly after Communism fell, one conservative intellectual announced that “Hungarian-Jewish relations were poisoned not by Nazism, but by Bolshevism,” adding that after 1945 Jewish Communists “became just as vile as the fascists and became so accustomed to depredation that they could not stop.” In Hungary Jews are linked not just to the Communist past but to a present day liberalism that, it is said, exaggerates Hungary’s guilt for the murder of its Jews and ignores the sufferings of the Magyar nation. In 2014 the ruling Fidesz party erected a monument to the victims of the German invasion of Hungary in 1944. The massive sculpture in the center of Budapest shows a German eagle clawing at the Archangel Gabriel, Hungary’s traditional patron. The monument left out the more than half a million Hungarian Jews murdered in Auschwitz and, at times, by fellow Hungarian citizens. Fidesz seemed reluctant to admit a basic historical truth: Jews were the main victims of the German occupation.
Calling Communism a Jewish plot was not Hitler’s idea, as Hanebrink points out. He borrowed it from a slew of national anti-Semitic movements that sprung up in the wake of the failed revolutions of the 1910s. Hitler did, however, make the most devastating and cynical use of Judeo-Bolshevism.
The Nazis were often opportunistic in their understanding of Judeo-Bolshevism, relying on the principle that one should take revenge on Jews, any Jews, for crimes committed by the NKVD. Both in Lviv, where the NKVD had killed thousands, and in Drobomyl, the SS carried out retaliatory massacres. Victims were chosen, one Nazi commander wrote, “according to the principle that Jews were the carriers of Bolshevism.” The infectious-disease model provided carte blanche for random killings of Jews, and relieved the SS murderers of the need to show that any particular Jew had been a part of the Communist apparatus. Judeo-Bolshevism became an excuse for genocidal anti-Semitism.
In a fascinating chapter, Hanebrink addresses the Historikerstreit of the 1980s. The German historian Ernst Nolte suggested that Nazi genocide against the Jews stemmed in part from a real fear of Bolshevism. The fact that there were prominent Jewish Bolsheviks in Russia and elsewhere was the “rational core” of Hitler’s genocidal project, Nolte argued. Hitler saw his deeds as part of a “European civil war” between Nazism and Bolshevism, with the Jews on the side of the Bolsheviks. For Nolte, anti-Communism took precedence over anti-Semitism in Hitler’s thinking.
German scholars and thinkers rushed to condemn Nolte because, they said, he had minimized the Nazi evil. For him Nazism was merely a reaction to the Communist threat and an imitation of Communist cruelty. Nolte was trying to lighten German guilt, his critics charged, by downplaying Nazi anti-Semitism.
The German campaign against Nolte’s theories reinforced Germany’s refusal, from the 1970s on, to balance its wartime suffering against that of other peoples, especially the Jews. Whatever Germany had endured during the war was a righteous punishment for its sins, and in no way comparable to the Jewish disaster. The Germans of the Nazi era would always be perpetrators rather than victims, with later generations elaborately aware of their ancestors’ guilt.
In Hungary, Poland, and Romania, as Hanebrink shows, postwar history took an altogether contrasting shape. All too often, right-leaning Eastern Europeans excuse crimes committed against Jews before, during and after the Nazi era. They point out that Jews, in their role as Bolsheviks, inflicted death and suffering on the homeland; the resulting anti-Jewish pogroms were in part the Jews’ own fault.
Hanebrink ends his book with a doubtful argument. He thinks that our current fear of radical Islamic terrorism echoes the earlier paranoia about the Jewish Bolshevik. The Judeo-Bolshevik myth, he claims, is a “fertile source” for “anti-Islamic sentiment.” The truth seems to me quite the opposite: Islamist terror owes a debt to the Judeo-Bolshevik idea. Radical Islam links Jews to colonialism and the evils of modernity. Jews are seen as the foreign oppressor unjustly occupying Muslim lands, like the Jewish Bolsheviks who supposedly crushed Poland or Hungary.
It is politically correct these days to cast Muslims in the role of Jews. This analogy is misleading. Radical Islam is a real entity; Judeo-Bolshevism was not. European wariness about Islamic radicalism finds a real basis in the fact that its adherents murder innocents in the name of religion, as Jews did not. Islamist terrorism is not a paranoid fantasy, like the notion that the Jews are behind Communism. Chaotic waves of mass immigration play a key role in the debate over Islam in the West, as they did not for the promoters of the Judeo-Bolshevist theory. To imply with Hanebrink that Islamism does not threaten Europe or oppress ordinary Muslims encourages a liberal blindness that will result in more prejudice against Muslims, not less. We need to convince Muslim immigrants to the West to reject Islamism, not just to stop terrorist attacks, but to free Muslims who feel trapped in a severely patriarchal culture.
Despite Hanebrink’s concluding misstep, his book comes just at the right time, when nationalism is again on the upsurge, and not just in Europe. A few days ago our callous and crass president excitedly remarked to reporters, “I’m a nationalist! … Use that word!” The urgent task for us today is to see if we can use the word nationalism without being racists and xenophobes. The strange, persistent history of Judeo-Bolshevism shows how often nationalist pride depends on a fantasy of the evil other. But nationalism has often enabled a people to know itself, even to become itself: Look at America, Israel, and, yes, even Poland and Hungary. We can’t just see nationalism as the big bad wolf of politics and overlook its immense contributions. But we must not shrug off the dangers that can come with it, like the phantom menace of Jewish Bolshevism.
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