In December 2018, Inside Higher Ed, a news service that monitors events at colleges and universities, reported seven recent anti-Semitic incidents on campuses from New York to California. Unlike the murder of eleven Jewish men and women at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, no one was injured in these acts of vandalism, but they remind us that anti-Semitism has an extraordinary capacity to survive. “The Longest Hatred,” part of the title of a Public Television series and a companion volume by Robert S. Wistrich, accurately describes both the deep historical roots and remarkable longevity of animosity toward Jews.
This animosity appeared in the ancient world and was institutionalized in medieval Europe when Jews were an isolated minority, physically separated from their neighbors by ghetto walls and restrained by a web of laws and customs that barred them from many occupations and activities. For centuries, Jews lived with the possibility that they would be blamed for some misfortune—an outbreak of plague, a missing child, a dry well—which might trigger one of those violent attacks on their persons and property that punctuated the long, unhappy history of Christian-Jewish relations. In extreme situations, entire Jewish communities could be expelled, as happened in Spain in 1492. Such major catastrophes may have been rare, but they left a sense of vulnerability that shadowed Jewish life throughout the old regime and beyond.
In the eighteenth century, some Europeans believed that hatred of Jews, like other irrational prejudices, would gradually give way to the forces of progress and enlightenment. Jews, like serfs, slaves, and women, were supposed to be among the beneficiaries of emancipation, the great modern project that promised to liberate oppressed groups from the burdens of the past. In fact, many European states did dismantle the physical and legal barriers that had inhibited Jews from living where they wished and participating in social and economic life. There were good reasons to view the nineteenth century as a great success story for Jews, who began to play a prominent role in cultural and political life, as well as in many professions, especially banking, law, and medicine. Despite—or perhaps because of—these accomplishments, hostility to Jews, like some highly opportunistic virus, adapted to fit the modern world. Anti-Semites now regarded race rather than religion as a source of Jewish identity. They organized political parties to limit Jewish influence, and began to associate Jews with everything they feared and hated about modernity: big cities, international finance, progressive politics. To their enemies, emancipation made Jews all the more dangerous; now they could pursue their sinister goals with clandestine manipulations and underground conspiracies. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fabricated in Russia in 1903, became a central text for such conspiratorial fantasies. Once required reading in Nazi Germany, actively promoted by anti-Semites like Henry Ford, The Protocols describes a Jewish plot to take over the world. It was translated into many languages and is still in print.
As with so many other aspects of European life, the First World War marked a watershed in the complex history of European Jews. Throughout the continent, from the Atlantic to the Urals, ethnic and religious conflicts were ignited by the war and its devastating impact on society. Among these conflicts, anti-Semitism played an increasingly important part, particularly in Eastern Europe where hundreds of thousands of Jews were displaced and tens of thousands were killed by a lethal mix of state-sponsored and communal violence. The Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 and its violent aftermath engendered a new and toxic version of anti-Semitism in which Jews were regarded as the vanguard of Bolshevism’s assault on property, religion, and political order.
As Paul Hanebrink shows in this thoughtful and informative book, the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism was created during the turbulent years between 1917 and 1923, when Europe was the scene of entangled international, social, and ethnic conflicts. By linking Bolshevism to familiar images of Jewish conspiracies, counterrevolutionaries gave their efforts emotional energy and historical depth. “War and revolution made Judeo-Bolshevism seem an utterly new danger,” Hanebrink points out. “But the fear and loathing it excited derived from a particular set of much older anti-Jewish prejudices.” Projecting from the fact that some of the revolutionary leaders—Leon Trotsky in Russia, Béla Kun in Hungary, Kurt Eisner in Germany—could be identified as Jews, the makers of the myth imagined a vast international enterprise that aspired to take away people’s property, destroy religion, and create a new world order dominated by Jews. Appalled by the Bolsheviks’ vicious attacks on religious institutions, many prominent Catholics, some with ties to the Vatican, accepted a version of the myth that regarded Jews, Communists, and Freemasons as the most recent (and in many ways, the most dangerous) representatives of a centuries-old assault on the church.
“Judeo-Bolshevism,” Hanebrink argues, “made Adolf Hitler.” Hitler entered political life in postwar Munich, where a brief Communist regime had opened the way for prolonged civil violence. This was fertile soil for the idea of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. By 1920, it had become a persistent feature in Hitler’s speeches, a useful way of bringing together the Nazi movement’s hatred of Jews and its opposition to Communism, both at home and abroad. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, attacks on Jews and Communists intensified and took on an international dimension, swiftly merging with Hitler’s efforts to find support for his expansionist foreign policy. Briefly interrupted by the Nazi-Soviet alliance between 1939 and 1941, the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism was revitalized during Germany’s ideologically and racially charged war against Russia. During the war’s final months, as Soviet troops slowly fought their way toward Berlin, Nazi propaganda, in a desperate effort to inspire popular support during the regime’s long and painful death throes, summoned images of Jewish-led Asiatic hordes threatening the European heartland.
Hanebrink recognizes that, although Judeo-Bolshevism found supporters among right-wing parties throughout Europe, the myth was not robust enough to provide an international foundation for Hitler’s foreign political ambitions. Poland, where the myth had found eager advocates, was Germany’s first victim and most obdurate opponent. In Spain, Franco had deployed the myth in his struggle against his left-wing enemies, but had not allowed himself to be drawn into an alliance with Germany. And even those Eastern European regimes that did support the German war effort seemed to have acted more out of conventional national interest than shared ideological conviction. Only when it fused with Germany’s administrative efficiency and military capacity did the myth achieve truly transformative power, helping to motivate and sustain a Europe-wide campaign of mass murder.
In addition to examining the origins and influence of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth in the period from 1917 to 1945, Hanebrink attempts to show that it is still an important element in anti-Semitism, both in Europe and beyond. His book begins with a reference to the radical right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 and ends with the claim that European nationalists’ protests against “the Islamization of the West” recall earlier campaigns against Judeo-Bolshevism. While traces of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth certainly do remain, it seems to me that Hanebrink overstates the case for its contemporary relevance. Germany’s defeat in 1945 removed the myth’s most powerful source of support, while the imposition of Communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe took away much of its political and cultural appeal. Hanebrink’s attempt to link Judeo-Bolshevism with Cold War ideologies in Western Europe is not convincing. His chapter titled “From Judeo-Bolshevism to Judeo-Christian Civilization” makes some interesting points about the efforts of postwar Christian Democracy to find a new foundation for European public life, but in the process he quickly loses sight of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth. Nor am I entirely persuaded that, as Hanebrink suggests, the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism is central to the debates about the historical memory of the Holocaust.
The anti-Semitic virus seems to have mutated once again. Its specter continues to haunt us, but the myths that nourished it in the past have been displaced by other fears and frustrations. Contemporary hostility to Jews emphasizes globalization, not Communism. It is George Soros rather than Leon Trotsky who now best personifies what anti-Semites regard as the Jewish plot to undermine everything they hold dear. But while Judeo-Bolshevism may have lost its resonance, Paul Hanebrink is right to insist that its history still matters, both as a key to understanding the tragic fate of Europe’s Jews in the first half of the twentieth century and as a reminder of how myths can open the way to political and moral catastrophe.
A Specter Haunting Europe
The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 368 pp.