Paul Klee, “Flowers of Sorrow” (1917), pen and ink on paper, mounted, 26 x 18 cm (previously collection Karl Julius Anselmino)
When I was invited to write this review essay, I thought this might be one last opportunity to get my critique of the current course of scholarship on antisemitism in under the radar. Given that it has now become the norm for my reviews to be turned down for being too polemical—and, in the case of review essays, for being both too long and not covering enough ground—it has not come as a big surprise to me, however, that I have been asked to tone this piece too down and cut it by half while extending its remit. I have not changed my mind about the importance of book reviewing but, given that I am no longer paid for my work as a scholar and have to work very hard to make the money with which I can occasionally buy myself some time for scholarship, I cannot afford to go on turning out reviews that will not be published.
Paul Hanebrink, A Specter Haunting Europe. The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism. 353 pp. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018. ISBN-13-978-0674047686. $29.95.
Jeffrey Koerber, Borderland Generation. Soviet and Polish Jews under Hitler. xiv + 422 pp. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2020. ISBN-13-978-0815636199. $80.00.
Irina Marin, Peasant Violence and Antisemitism in Early Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe. xvii + 304 pp. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. ISBN-13-978-3319760681.
The four volumes under review presumably landed on my desk because one might be forgiven for thinking that their authors would have benefited from bringing a robust and consistent concept of antisemitism—something about which I happen to know a thing or two—to their respective topics, and it is on this issue that I will primarily focus in this piece. In addition (and these two issues are to some extent closely related), I will focus on the way in which the authors’ framing of their respective topics reflects conceptual trends and fads that have recently gained the ascendancy in the academy.
I will begin with Irina Marin’s Peasant Violence and Antisemitism in Early Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe because it is in many ways the odd one out among the four volumes under review. Not that it draws on any consistent concept of antisemitism, but it is ultimately quite an appealingly old-fashioned book. Marin’s monograph is in fact neither about peasant violence nor about antisemitism and it looks only at one particular corner of south eastern Europe. (I am guessing that this is just another case of a publisher cajoling an author into adopting a hyperbolic and misleading title for marketing reasons.) Marin’s book is specifically about the causes of, and various national and international responses to, the peasant violence that swept through most of Romania in 1907 and, for some time, seemed to pose a serious threat to that young country’s political order. Marin primarily seeks to explain why this uprising occurred at this point in Romania while the peasants in the neighbouring regions, despite having ample grounds for dissatisfaction, did not resort to similar measures. Consequently, her book is in large part not about peasant violence but about its absence.
Now, I cannot pretend that the situation of peasants in south eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries falls within any of my areas of expertise. I can only say, based on generic criteria, that Marin’s account seems plausible enough. It is probably fair to say, at least as far as the teaching of history at universities is concerned, that many of us tend to pay far too little attention to the situation of the peasantry in the later modern period. The emancipation of peasants in central and eastern Europe is all too often a one-sentence affair with precious little attention paid to the compensation received by the landowners and the various new dependencies and asymmetrical power structures the alternative property regimes imposed on all too many supposedly freed peasants. Marin presents an interesting basic account of how these developments unfolded and were dealt with in a number of differing politics contexts across a relatively small, clearly defined region. In this respect, her book could perhaps be a useful resource in addressing this imbalance in undergraduate teaching.
Marin offers two principal explanations to answer her main research question. On the one hand, although the peasants in the parts of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires bordering on Romania were also having a desperately hard time, the respective regimes were taking measures, however modest, to improve their situation. On the other hand, the authorities in these regions had a firmer grip on power and were thus, for the most part, able to neutralize the destabilizing impact of peasant dissatisfaction before it exploded in the way it did in Romania in 1907—and better equipped to nip any actual revolts in the bud. Marin generally does a good job of presenting the relevant material in an accessible and instructive manner, although I find the technique of first laying out all the material separately before comparing it a tad annoying, given the considerable amount of repetition it produces. For my liking, she rather overdoes it with long quotations from various primary sources that are sometimes insufficiently contextualized or do not genuinely add anything to the information already provided. Then again, those who do have a specialist interest in these issues may find precisely these extensive quotations particularly intriguing.
The antisemitism, such as it is, comes into the story because Jews featured prominently among the lease holders running large agricultural estates in the region where the peasant uprising began and were therefore its immediate butt—or at least its intended immediate butt. In fact, as Marin points out, “because the leaseholders were protected … the wrath of the peasantry was vented on ordinary, local Jews living in market towns” (62–63). Yet this does not seem to perturb Marin who uses the term scapegoat liberally (without ever explaining how she understands it and how exactly she thinks it functioned in this specific context). Scapegoating seems to amount to little more than beating up whomever one can lay one’s hands on when the people one would really like to beat up cannot be reached. Now, I can just about see the logic of displacing one’s anger about the absentee landowners onto the leaseholders actually implementing the exploitative system on the ground. But how does one get from there to lashing out at “ordinary, local Jews”? The peasants were supposedly “not interested in what religion the leaseholders belonged to, but rather were out to get those who exploited them and stood between them and the much coveted land” (74). Yet in the event, they harassed, robbed, roughed up and murdered people who did not stand “between them and the much coveted land” and had in common with those who did only their religion. Much as Marin’s book is predominantly about the absence of peasant violence it is also, if we follow her assessment, for the most part about the absence of antisemitism. Not that the Jews were the only “scapegoats”. In Romanian political culture, she explains, it was the Russians who were the “pet scapegoats” (269), even though “Romanian scapegoating of the Russians was not a justified fear” (271), whatever that may mean.
The closest we get to Marin offering us a concept of antisemitism is the following contention: “Just like everywhere else in Europe, in the nineteenth century anti-Judaism (religious antagonism) gradually mutated into antisemitism (racially and economically motivated animosity). In the Romanian context it was less the racial arguments that predominated as the economic ones” (57). This is actually a very interesting statement. The distinction between religiously motivated anti-Judaism and racially motivated antisemitism enjoyed several decades as an uncontested, seemingly self-evident truism. Most serious scholars of antisemitism now roll their eyes when it is repeated. While a similarly consensual concept to replace this truism is still up in the air and may well never emerge, it is now widely acknowledged that it grossly oversimplifies the development of animosity towards Jews. In part, this is due simply to the progress of time. The notion that antisemitism is essentially a form of anti-Jewish racism emerged in the age of what we might call classical racism, i.e., a time in which modern and modernizing societies were obsessed with the notion that ethnic groups and so-called “races” transmitted immutable group-specific characteristics biologically to their offspring—which, in turn, generated the assumption that characteristics deemed undesirable could be eliminated by either preventing those groups whose preserve the characteristics in question supposedly were from procreating or by eliminating the group in question altogether. Insofar as no other crime in human history took this line of reasoning to its ultimate consequence with a degree of resolution even remotely approximating the ruthlessness of the perpetrators and facilitators of the Shoah, the notion that antisemitism was the ultimate form of racism seemed irresistible and irrefutable. Since then, two crucial changes have taken place. Firstly, it is all too often forgotten that classical racism operated on the basis of a scientific consensus that misunderstood how and to what extent specific features are passed on biologically and, thus, at the very least facilitated an inflationary sense of the sorts of characteristics that might conceivably be handed down in this way. Not least for this reason, secondly, among all but the most inveterate remaining proponents of classical racism, notions of “racial” difference now tend to be predicated almost entirely not on biological but on cultural factors (as the widely used sociological concept of “cultural racism” clearly demonstrates). Against this backdrop, what scholars and pundits once thought of as the one form of modern antisemitism in the sense of: antisemitism as it exists in our modern world, is now increasingly recognizable as one form of modern antisemitism among others that was characteristic of a particular age that now lies in the past, namely one genuinely obsessed with biological difference qua biological difference. Conversely, on closer inspection it transpires that the antisemitism of that age too, if we focus not just on the extreme case but also on its various more low-key manifestations, by no means hinged exclusively on biological notions of difference but also incorporated a range of perceptions of cultural and—far from least—religious difference.
More remarkable, however, is Marin’s contention that antisemitism shifted the focus from religious not only to racial but also to economic considerations. One possible interpretation of this contention would be that Marin understands modern antisemitism as a response to capitalism (i.e., capitalism as a specific modern form of wealth production as opposed to various other forms the generic phenomenon of human economic activity has taken). One might think of the late Moishe Postone’s path-breaking concept of antisemitism that has been invaluable in facilitating the evolution of conceptualizations of antisemitism in the tradition of Frankfurt School Critical Theory. Postone interpreted antisemitism as a projection reflecting the desire to treat two fundamental aspects of capitalism that are in fact inextricably connected as though they were radically distinct and one could have one without the other: the massively increased ability to create concrete and useful objects that benefit society as a whole by an honest day’s work, on the one hand, and the massively increased ability to create abstract and exploitative value that benefits only the few by essentially parasitical means, on the other. Needless to say, in this scheme of things, non-Jews love nothing more than an honest day’s work, while Jews have never developed the ability to be anything other than parasitical. In the light of recent scholarship on the medieval and early modern period the question arises, however, how characteristic this function of antisemitism actually is specifically of the modern, capitalist age. It transpires that European societies needed neither modernity nor capitalism to develop the skill of distinguishing between what they considered the honourable and dishonourable aspects of whatever was the commercial innovation of the day and identifying themselves with the former while distancing themselves from the latter by identifying it as the Jewish way of doing business. This has a further important consequence: modern non-Jews did not blame Jews for the downsides of capitalism because the Jews actually did play a detrimental economic role in the past. They blamed the Jews for the downsides of capitalism because their forebears had always blamed the Jews for the downsides of any and every form of economic practice, regardless of, and often in marked contrast to, Jews’ actual economic roles. Hence, it would have seemed patently absurd not to blame the Jews again this time. What really makes Marin’s contention so remarkable, however, is that generations of Eastern Europeanists of various stripes have tried to convince us that Eastern European antisemitism, certainly prior to the First World War, was never really antisemitism in the conventional sense of the word because it was “only” economic antisemitism, i.e., animosity flowing from genuine economic conflict between Jews and non-Jews. In an important sense, then, Marin is both right and wrong. She is right in that antisemitism is no less antisemitic for focusing on economic issues. She is pretty much entirely wrong in every other respect.
Marin also reheats the perplexing but relatively widespread assumption that antisemitism, as soon as it serves any purpose above and beyond the pure celebration of hatred for its own sake, is no longer really proper antisemitism. Commenting on a Romanian-language paper published in Bukovina, for example, she enlists that hoary chestnut of “an electoral kind of antisemitism”, the suggestion being that the relevant “anti-Jewish discourse” is “more a function of electoral competition than a clearly formulated ideological stance” (239). There are at least four problems with this line of reasoning. Firstly, it is the exception rather than the rule for antisemitism to manifest in the form of a “clearly formulated ideological stance”. To be sure, antisemitism both presupposes and rests on, as well as reflects, a range of underlying ideological assumptions, but not least its ability to unite people across a range of political divides illustrates that antisemites tend to pick and mix from a range of explicit and implicit ideological assumptions and frame their antisemitism within a range of ideological contexts. Secondly, the fact that antisemitism is utilized specifically, say, for electoral purposes does not, in and of itself, demonstrate that the antisemitism in question is opportunistic in the sense of its proponents lacking conviction. One would need to prove on a case-by-case basis that this is so. Thirdly, this, in turn, would presuppose a society in which antisemitism of varying degrees of intensity is not in any case the norm because otherwise the assumption that activists who did not themselves harbour antisemitic notions pretended to do so for opportunistic reasons is inconceivable. Finally, for it to make sense to pretend to be antisemitic for opportunistic reasons, antisemitism obviously needs to be sufficiently anchored in society already, at which point the whole concept leads itself ad absurdum. Ironically, only two pages later, Marin goes on to stress “the typicality of the antisemitism practiced by” (241) that same paper whose “anti-Jewish discourse” she has only just told us was “more a function of electoral competition” (239). This “typicality”, she explains, “becomes more apparent when juxtaposed with the eerily similar ideas purveyed in humoristic fashion by the Viennese Kikeriki: Jews ruining whole countries and peoples with their nefarious activities, or Jews grossly exaggerating the violence of the Romanian peasantry while the latter bore the brunt of repression” (241–242). Now, this surely means either that the antisemitism articulated in the Kikeriki—a publication that consistently churned out fiercely antisemitic content from the 1880s onwards and was banned prior to the Anschluss because of its support for the Austrian Nazi movement—was “more a function of electoral competition” too, or that the Bukovinian paper’s antisemitism was indeed typical. In another instance, we are told that one Hungarian paper insisted that the violence in Romania was not a pogrom, yet the proof text from the paper, reproduced on the same page, actually states that it was “not only a pogrom” (212, emphasis added)—which is surely not the same thing.
All these blind spots notwithstanding, there are at least two aspects of Marin’s narrative that will be of genuine interest to serious scholars of antisemitism. The first concerns the way in which the regime at first totally underestimated the threat of the peasant uprising precisely because it assumed that the violence really was “just” another pogrom (74). How frequently it was suggested that Jews had invented or exaggerated the accounts of violence directed against them in the context of the peasant uprising to pressurize non-Jews into granting them special privileges—an eerily familiar claim—also stands out. Yet again, the suggestion that Jews habitually “exploit” claims of violence directed against them turns out to be (at least) as old as the actual violence itself.
Yet again, the suggestion that Jews habitually “exploit” claims of violence directed against them turns out to be (at least) as old as the actual violence itself.
In the course of the book, Marin’s focus shifts increasingly from the causes of the unrest and the role communication strategies played in its unfolding to a focus on communication in its own right, and she eventually tells us that this is what the book was really supposed to be about all along. This is not the only sense in which the conclusion is rather incongruous. Having previously explained why the Romanian peasant uprising was not really motivated by antisemitism at all, she now refers to its “great violence that combined antisemitism with rural unrest” (275) and explains that “the uprising was fuelled by genuine peasant grievances and rampant antisemitism” (276). Occasional bouts of clunky jargonese—my favourite being a big dance about the advantages of focusing on the interstitial which facilitates important discoveries such as the startling insight that village pubs are important sites of information exchange—hardly do the book any favours. It would in any case be hard to overstate how much it would have benefited from proper copy editing. I obviously do not know whether palgrave Macmillan have simply given up on copy editing, or Marin belongs to the steadily growing cohort of young scholars who have decided that copy editing is a repressive technique designed to erase the author’s individuality. Either way, the result is eye-watering. Marin likes her language flowery but, alas, has an astonishing penchant for always picking just the wrong synonym out of the thesaurus or dictionary. This predilection for varied forms of expression at more or less any price stands in marked contrast to her ubiquitous use of the word contamination. In many cases she seems to mean contagion when she uses the term, but she essentially applies it to anything and everything to do with gestation, intensification, proliferation etc. She tells us, for instance, that one Viennese paper characterized the Romanian uprising as “a pogrom of Russian contamination” (229).
Marin’s book is also the odd one out insofar as only it has footnotes. The likes of Hitler and Pol Pot apart, there are few people for whom I reserve remotely as much contempt as I do for the person or persons who invented endnotes, and it is unclear to me why any self-respecting author would agree to them. They reflect a culture that treats the need for scholarship to be transparent as though it were a burdensome chore and source criticism as though it were some ethereal obsession rather than the bread and butter of serious scholarship. They encourage readers to make themselves more stupid than they need be. They are, in short, an assault on the enlightenment notion that insights can only be fully understood in the context of the thought processes that have generated them, they are in every respect an instrument of academic barbarism.
As far as the status of Jews in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Eastern Europe more generally is concerned, we still seem to be largely stuck at a point where specialist academic, non-specialist academic and non-academic discourse on the pogroms that occurred in Imperial Russia and Eastern Europe more widely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries exist in more or less separate universes. In specialist academic discourse, it is now well-nigh universally accepted that the pogroms were primarily a bottom-up rather than a top-down phenomenon (not least because even leaders with a profound loathing for Jews are not all too keen on a sustained breakdown of public order in areas under their control); that pogroms may well have been an unintended consequence of antisemitic policies but were not an instrument intentionally deployed by the powers that be; and that the overwhelming majority of Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe did so for economic reasons. Outright anti-Jewish violence obviously did little to make Jews believe that they had a bright future in Eastern Europe, but only a minority of East European Jews were literally hounded out by rioting peasants or Cossacks. As tends to be the case, these fundamental insights have not yet transformed all non-specialist academic discourse touching on relevant contexts and they still seem to have made very few inroads, if any, into non-academic discourse.
Our late, sorely missed colleague John Klier often illustrated the Sisyphean task of dispelling at least some of the relevant myths with the following observation. Pretty much whenever he gave a lecture to a non-specialist audience somewhere in the UK or US explaining that pogroms were not an everyday occurrence in tsarist Russia and that they were one, but certainly not the principal reason for Jewish mass migration from Eastern Europe, members of the audience would queue up afterwards to thank him for his marvellous lecture, concede that it was entirely possible that what he said was true, but then go on to insist that their own forebears definitely had fled a specific pogrom. He would ask them where exactly this particular pogrom had supposedly taken place and in most cases was able to assure them that no pogrom occurred in that location, yet to no avail. Both Klier and Zipperstein were students of Hans Rogger, who pioneered this arduous demythologization project, and like Klier’s final, posthumously published monograph on the pogroms of 1881/82, Zipperstein’s book about the Kishinev pogrom is dedicated to Rogger.
Zipperstein presents a considerable amount of extremely interesting information on the pogrom itself, reviews various responses to the events and gives short shrift to a number of myths that have been attached to the Kishinev pogrom, foremost among them the notion that Kishinev’s Jews made no effort to defend themselves. Zipperstein also focuses on the systematic mass rape of Jewish women integral to the pogrom which, although recorded at the time, subsequently received only patchy attention. His principal sources are the witness accounts collected immediately after the pogrom by the Irish journalist Michael Davitt—whose attitudes towards Jews were, as Zipperstein rightly points out, “complex” (120)—and by Hayyim Nahman Bialik. The reports Davitt eventually published played a crucial role in familiarizing Western audiences with the events. Bialik, whom Dubnow had sent to Kishinev to create a documentary record, famously produced not a report but an exceptionally influential poem integral to the Zionist/Israeli literary canon, “On the Slaughter”, in which he excoriated Kishinev’s Jewish men for their alleged cowardice.
I had some difficulties deciding by what standard exactly to judge this book, not only because it has not been published by an academic press but also because, as an academic involved in Jewish Studies for some twenty years now, I do not recognize many of Zipperstein’s claims. He is very liberal in his use of superlatives. Never have more wrong lessons been drawn from a more total misreading of the actual facts, never have wrong lessons been more influential, no other event has drawn a similar measure of misinterpretation or attracted a more unjustified amount of attention—and on and on it goes. Evidently, I move in the wrong circles which, in turn, suggests to me that I probably do not belong to the book’s target group. It is, however, entirely possible, likely even, that the myths he seeks to dispel still hold much greater sway over the wider readership for whom he wrote this book. Finally, this may, in part, also be a generational issue and Zipperstein is perhaps dealing with some demons that no longer haunt scholars who have entered the profession more recently to the same extent.
Zipperstein’s take on antisemitism is sufficiently confused to allow for outright self-contradiction.
Zipperstein’s take on antisemitism is sufficiently confused to allow for outright self-contradiction. On the one hand, if we take his claims at face value, Zipperstein is adamant that personal contact with Jews makes people antisemitic. Of Russia’s Interior Minister Plehve we are told that “his loathing of Jews was deep, all the more so since, in contrast to most Russian antisemites, he had had sustained contact with them in the Warsaw courtyards of his youth” (92). This line of argument becomes even more bizarre when Zipperstein turns in more detail to Pavel Krushevan, the notorious demagogue whose “loathing of Jews stood out as his most singularly defining belief”, and on whose machinations Zipperstein blames the pogrom. This loathing, he suggests, was caused, inter alia, by the fact that his stepmother may have been Jewish and was likely intensified by the fact that his sister eloped with a Jew (158). Evidently, Zipperstein has never heard of the phenomenon of antisemitism without Jews.
On the other hand, he argues that Kishinev’s non-Jews lived in well-nigh perfect harmony with the city’s steadily growing Jewish population. If only Krushevan had not turned up and started to make mischief, the pogrom would never have occurred. Zipperstein explains that he found “little evidence beforehand of ferocious local Jewish hatred” (45)—adapting one of the most irritating conventions found in some of the relevant Anglophone literature, where authors refer to “Jewish hatred”, “Jewish pogroms”, “Jewish genocide” etc. as though the Jews, rather than being at the receiving end of the violence, were its perpetrators. “There is no evidence”, he notes, “that Jews exploited the innocence or laziness of Bessarabia’s peasants more than others did and without the propaganda disseminated by Krushevan and those close to him in his newspaper in the months before the pogrom’s outbreak, it is unlikely that Jews would have been the target for local frustration” (47). Then again, not everyone might be quite as charmed by the harmonious relations between Jews and non-Jews in Kishinev as Zipperstein, given that they certainly did not preclude the “well-trodden holiday tradition” of “tossing rocks at the windows of Jewish stores”, a tradition “that was rarely more than annoying” (63).
That Zipperstein’s inconsistency on this issue is not purely coincidental is borne out by the thrust of certain throwaway marks. At one point, for example, he writes that “the great visibility of Jews in Kishinev was not just a figment of their enemies’ imagination” (48), and he stresses the “visibility” especially of Jewish professionals in specific localities on more than one occasion. This is, of course, the battle cry of many East Europeanists who insist that antisemitism may have been based on projection and an obsessive concern with the fact that emancipation was increasingly rendering the Jews invisible in the West, but in the East antisemitism was an expression of genuine, material conflict between clearly identifiable ethnic groups. Yet this battle cry obviously presupposes a simplistic caricature of what those who subscribe to the projection theory of antisemitism would actually argue. The pogrom, after all, may well to some extent have been facilitated, but certainly was not caused by the fact that Kishinev’s Jews were visible. In fact, Zipperstein himself emphasizes more than once that there must have been prior instructions in circulation, given that “rioters found themselves able to readily identify Jews”—perhaps the contorted prose indicates Zipperstein’s discomfort at having to concede this—“including those without distinctively Jewish garb” (70–71). Indeed, even the office of Bessarabets, the paper Krushevan had used to stir up a mood conducive to the pogrom (again in a rather peculiar turn of phrase) “had its windows stoned because a radical student misdirected the mob to it claiming it was the property of Jews” (65–66). To his credit, the irony of this occurrence is not lost on Zipperstein.
Zipperstein’s central concern is the cowardice imputed to Kishinev’s Jews. He sums up his line of argument in the neat formulation that, “ironically, … those hostile to Jews would argue then and later that the pogrom’s outsize violence was the result of Jewish aggression, while far more typical for Jews was an insistence on Kishinev Jewry’s passivity—indeed, its outright cowardice” (89). He notes that for both Davitt and Bialik, this cowardice was the pogrom’s outstanding feature. Yet while Davitt chose not to mention it in his published texts, “Bialik situated it at the heart of his poem” (109). Given that Bialik, as his notes reveal, knew full well that a substantial number of Kishinev’s Jews had in fact tried to defend themselves as best they could, the question arises why Bialik would have spun the issue as he did. At this juncture, Zipperstein (citing the literary scholar Michael Gluzman) makes his first big foray into pop psychology, arguing that Bialik misunderstood reality because he could comprehend it only through the prism of his “awful childhood” and conflated “nationalist aspiration with personal anguish” (114–115). What he recorded in Kishinev re-traumatized him so badly that he was forced to displace his emotions, transforming them into “rage directed at the beaten Jews of Kishinev” (125). In a similar vein, Zipperstein also argues that Bialik, while certainly not underplaying the sexualized violence suffered by Jewish women during the pogrom, was guilty of appropriating it to conflate it with his own anguish (125). At the risk of being suspected of special pleading, it seems to me that the technique of dismissing people’s judgements on the grounds that they had a traumatic childhood should only ever be resorted to as an ultima ratio, i.e., once one has established definitively that there really are absolutely no conceivable contextual factors external to the dynamics of that individual’s psyche that might help explain why others were (or are) not troubled by what, from one’s own perspective, seems to be a blatantly obvious cognitive dissonance.
In the chapter discussing Krushevan in his own right, Zipperstein massively oversells the significance of a collection of papers relating to Krushevan he was recently able acquire for the Hoover Institution. He claims that the chapter in which he discusses Krushevan in greater detail “is based largely” on this material (xviii), indeed that the entire book “would have been far different without this treasure-trove” (211). In fact, of the 68 endnotes pertaining to the chapter in question, exactly six refer to this material, and the inferences drawn from it are among his most speculative. In this chapter, Zipperstein focuses principally on an early version of what would become the Protocols of the Elders of Zion serialized by Krushevan in his St Petersburg-based paper Znamia in August and September 1903. Given that his account is fundamentally a summary—a good and informative summary, but nevertheless a summary—of the recent scholarship of Michael Hagemeister and others, I found Zipperstein’s tendency to present this account as though he were the one finally piecing all the relevant snippets of information together a tad disquieting. Then again, this too may be a matter of the intended target audience. He offers the sort of account one might initially present to students without getting into too much detail about the underlying scholarship (which Zipperstein certainly does reference) and which might therefore be considered appropriate in a book intended primarily for a wider audience rather than for scholarly consumption. Perhaps most interestingly of all, it turns out that Krushevan himself, at this early stage, already resorted to—or perhaps we should say, played with—the defensive claim that it was really neither here nor there whether the text was a forgery because, even if it were not strictly speaking authentic, the sentiments expressed in it certainly were, so the text absolutely could be genuine.
Zipperstein concludes the book by taking the story across the Atlantic to celebrate the reception of the pogrom in the US—focusing foremost on Anna Strunsky and her husband, William English Walling, whose activities helped precipitate the creation of the NAACP—as the birth of the long-standing alliance between Jews and African Americans in the civil rights struggle. It is perfectly clear from Zipperstein’s account—and to his credit that he does not seek to sweep this under the carpet—that one could equally well tell the story he recites in a way that highlights the extent to which, far from solidarity coming “naturally” to both parties, a significant number of those fronting the struggle for African American rights engaged in aggressive whataboutism and promoted the sort of ideological mercantilism that features so prominently in many of today’s debates, taking it for granted that public outrage about pogroms in the Russian Empire could only come at the expense of outrage about the systematic discrimination and violence suffered by African Americans. Such voices, he admits, were “likely representative of a significant swath of black public opinion” (193).
Yet Zipperstein is entirely topical in preferring to focus on the happier side of this story. Perhaps he is one of those historians who like to think that the future can be made better by persuading ourselves that we have always been better than we give ourselves credit for. I would note in passing that the relationship of solidarity established between some Jews and some African Americans at this juncture hinged on the common cause of civil rights, not some ideological notion of antiracism. Zipperstein draws succour from the fact that “comparisons between Kishinev and lynching were commonplace in the black press”. He demonstrates this with a quotation from the Cleveland Gazette that reads as follows. “The terrible massacres of Jews last week in Kishineff … are only what have taken place many times in the south” (194, emphasis added). Does this not resonate more with the aforementioned whataboutism than genuine mutual solidarity? And there is more. As Zipperstein explains, Strunsky, who was Jewish, “bristled at the prospect of any special attention paid to Jewish political concerns” (199), and Walling insisted that the violence directed at African Americans in the US was in fact “worse than any pogrom” (202). Perhaps these are not two stories after all and there is just one—by today’s standards depressingly familiar—story with which Zipperstein is entirely content.
Among the culprits whom Zipperstein reproaches for abusing the legacy of the Kishinev pogrom, Benjamin Netanyahu features no fewer than three times in the first thirty pages of text, and Zipperstein has another go at current Israeli politicians at the end (206). Were one to resort to his own mode of pop psychology, one might wonder whether this book is in fact the product of a rage Zipperstein flew into when Netanyahu retraumatized him by taking recourse to Bialik’s framing of Kishinev in a way reminiscent of self-righteous misinterpretations that had tormented the artist as a young man. Personally, I tend to find inferences of this kind rather facile.
The suggestion that knowing a thing or two about antisemitism might be useful in understanding the Shoah has long been controversial and the ascendancy of postmodern whateverism, in combination with longstanding functionalist assumptions, has further eroded its standing.
The suggestion that knowing a thing or two about antisemitism might be useful in understanding the Shoah has long been controversial and the ascendancy of postmodern whateverism, in combination with longstanding functionalist assumptions, has further eroded its standing. In fact, by the standards now prevailing in the academy, of the four books under review, Koerber’s is arguably in the best position to get away without wasting a single thought on the matter. In his defence, I half suspect that Koerber would in fact have been perfectly happy simply to write about the experiences of the ensemble of murdered and (mainly) surviving Jews on whose experiences during the Shoah his account is based. Alas, the academy tends to require its practitioners to do more than just tell a good story and we are expected to come up with some sort of contextualizing thesis—as a general rule, quite rightly so, although I would argue that, given the measure of destruction it wrought, recounting the experiences of Jews during the Shoah owns an exceptional and important restitutive quality in its own right. I engage in this speculation because it is unclear to me whether some of the, to my mind, bizarre and occasionally downright offensive claims Koerber makes result simply from the fact that he is not that big on “theory” and has merely gone with what is now the flow, or in fact indicate that he is genuinely committed to the agenda they reflect.
In this sense, his book is a work of two parts. At the heart of the book is an account of how Jews lived either side of the pre-war Polish–Soviet border—specifically, in the Polish city of Grodno and the Soviet city of Vitebsk—on the eve of the Shoah and what happened to them once the Germans arrived and the genocide unfolded soon after. To this end, Koerber does a decent enough job of synthesizing more general material with individual biographical accounts. To the extent that he deploys the material he has found to illustrate his basic narrative, there is a lot to like. Yet as soon as he tries to reverse the direction of reasoning and draw generalizing conclusions from the material he introduces he goes seriously awry and rapidly descends into the realm of eye-wateringly mechanical ideological categorizations.
Koerber’s Borderland Generation inhabits an intellectual universe in which othering is an invariable ontological constant that whimsically attaches itself to anything and everything that catches its fancy. Hence, it sometimes attaches itself to Jews too. Surely, this requires no further explanation.
Intentionally or not, Koerber’s Borderland Generation is entirely of our time. Firstly, it inhabits an intellectual universe in which othering is an invariable ontological constant that whimsically attaches itself to anything and everything that catches its fancy. Hence, it sometimes attaches itself to Jews too. Surely, this requires no further explanation. Characterizing the pre-war situation in Vitebsk, Koerber writes that, “despite the crowded living quarters and shortages, witnesses remembered generally good relations between people of different ethnicities” (22). His point of departure, then, is not the question of why conflict would arise, instead, he simply takes it for granted that where “people of different ethnicities” live together, let alone under difficult conditions, there ought, by rights, to be conflict. It is the absence, not the presence of conflict that apparently needs explaining.
Secondly, Koerber’s understanding of the Shoah is ultra-functionalist. We are told, for instance, that “fears of epidemics in the city … provided the primary motivation for murdering the surviving inhabitants” of Vitebsk’s remaining ghetto (164, emphasis added). Literally the first thing I was taught in history at secondary school was that the immediate occasion or trigger of an event or development is only in the rarest of cases its actual cause, but it would seem that this is now an insight of a bygone age. At another juncture, we read that “the military administration’s rationale for targeting so-called half-Jews and even one-quarter Jews appears to have occurred in the haste of rapid segregation, not out of ideological adherence” (159). Koerber then explains this as follows: “The status of Slavs, far below ‘Aryans’ in the Nazis’ constructed hierarchy, shaped the Germans’ racial attitude in the East. Children resulting from the ‘mixed marriage’ of a Jew and a Russian or Belarusian did not deserve the same consideration as the product of a union between a Jew and a German” (159–160). And this consideration is not ideological in nature?
Thirdly, it is now widely accepted that the use of the singular is inherently repressive and any scholar who wants to appear remotely cutting-edge is compelled to perceive of any and every phenomenon in the plural. How profoundly Koerber has evidently internalized this fetish is demonstrated, for example, by the claim that “very different genocides unfolded in these two cities” (147). Apparently, then, one can perpetrate several genocides against one and the same people in one and the same region at one and the same time.
Finally, Koerber seems to share the postmodern proclivity for iconoclasm for its own sake. Take his insistence that “those who survived were no more exceptional than those who did not” (12). A charitable interpretation might suggest that he meant to express the notion that the vagaries of the Shoah were so extreme and incalculable that its impact was entirely arbitrary, and the Jews affected by it all had an equally slim chance of survival. Then again, he in fact repeatedly does point to factors that favoured survival, so if that was what he was trying to say, he apparently did not mean it. Conversely, if that was what he thought he meant, then he ought to have said it. Even if one does not feel the need to read Primo Levi’s essay on “Shame” in The Saved and the Drowned before publishing a book on the Shoah—or does feel the need to disavow Levi’s relevant considerations—the fact remains that roughly 90 per cent of Poland’s Jewish population were murdered. By what conceivable standard does that not make survival very much the exception?
I have not previously come across a scholarly account imputing so much freedom of choice to Jews in occupied Eastern Europe while at the same time erasing any and every actual “choice” and nuance from the record that does not conform to the author’s preconceived identity scheme.
It will be self-evident to anyone at the cutting edge of current academic discourse that the principal issue raised by the Shoah was one of identity in general and the choice of identity in particular. In spelling out this bizarre notion, Koerber’s account perfectly reflects one of the more perplexing paradoxes of postmodern discourse. It tends to support entirely voluntaristic notions of self-identification while at the same time being entirely deterministic in defining identities not on the level of the individual but at group level. I have not previously come across a scholarly account imputing so much freedom of choice to Jews in occupied Eastern Europe while at the same time erasing any and every actual “choice” and nuance from the record that does not conform to the author’s preconceived identity scheme. According to Koerber, Polish Jews emphatically did one thing and Soviet Jews just as emphatically did something totally different. “Their fundamental responses were completely different”, he argues again and again (272). For him, the crux of the matter is this: “Polish Jews, even when they posed as Gentiles, retained significant aspects of their prewar identities and attendant social ties. Soviet Jews, however, submerged into other selves expertly mimicking other nationalities” (226–227). Polish Jews “tried to ‘pass’ as Gentiles only when they had exhausted all other options” (4–5). Towards the end, Koerber’s claims becomes increasingly abstruse even on their own terms. Polish Jews, we are told, “displayed the desire to form or restore social ties … they retained the impulse for human relationships” (256). And Soviet Jews did not?
Leaving all other considerations to one side, Koerber’s overarching thesis rests on absolutely no evidence whatsoever. To be sure, he presents his material in a manner that at first glance may seem to bear out his interpretation. Yet he achieves this only by being highly selective and highlighting distinctions while ignoring patently obvious similarities. To call the empirical sample on which he bases his inferences flimsy would in any case be a crass form of flattery. What is blatantly obvious from his narrative is that both Polish and Soviet Jews “tried to ‘pass’ as Gentiles only when they had exhausted all other options”. The main distinction, such as it is, results from the fact that the Soviet Jews whose course of action he charts ran out of other options more quickly than their Polish counterparts. My amazement at Koerber’s unfounded claims began to turn into irritation when I finally ploughed through the endnotes, only to come across a reference to Bella Chazan, a Polish Jewish woman who “was arrested in April 1942 while transporting two guns back to Warsaw. The Gestapo took her false identity to be genuine, and she was deported as a Gentile first to Pawiak Prison in Warsaw and later to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only after liberation (at the Malchow concentration camp, a subcamp of Ravensbrück, in April 1945) did Chazan discard her false Polish identity” (341, n92). Chazan, in other words, quite literally did exactly what supposedly only Soviet Jews did and, presumably for this reason, has been relegated to an endnote. Koerber also cites Chaika Grossman on a couple of occasions, including her account of Jewish resistance in Białystok, The Underground Army, yet evidently without taking note of its chapter on Rivka Madajka (and this, although Madajka pops up twice in his account, albeit basically just as one among others in a list). In Ingrid Strobl’s German translation (due to Covid-related restrictions I have been unable to get hold of an English translation), this chapter extends to seven-and-a-half pages—seven-and-a-half pages at the end of which, had he taken them into consideration, Koerber would have been compelled to go back to the conceptual drawing board.
Koerber does present some witness accounts that match his contention that Polish Jews generally “wore false identities on the surface”, but how does he know that, or to what extent, Soviet Jews “immersed themselves into other selves” (255)? The two Soviet Jews on whose experiences his stark claims about the radical distinction between Polish and Soviet Jewish responses rest initially “shared … the need as well as the desire for human contact”, he explains, yet “their strategies shifted after falling into German captivity” (257). What does one have to do with the other? How does he know what exactly the need to keep one’s head down in a camp to prevent one’s true identity from being discovered did to a prisoner’s “need” and “desire for human contact”? Even his two pet examples who survived camps thanks to their false identities clearly did have “human contact”—though, for obvious reasons, preferably not with other Jews. Perhaps contact is only human or social when it transpires within the collective of one’s “real” identity? It is conceivable, of course, that the survivors whose video testimony forms Koerber’s principal source base do indeed confirm, explicitly or implicitly, that Polish Jews “maintained the basic outlines of their Jewish identity … in stark contrast to Jews raised in Soviet Vitebsk, who immersed themselves completely in new identities to pass as Gentiles until their liberation” (225). If so, it would have been a good idea actually to present this evidence. That an interpretation is logically possible does not yet make it correct and Koerber’s is, to my mind, not even plausible.
Paul Hanebrink’s A Specter Haunting Europe comes highly recommended, has been well received and is already being cited widely. Consequently, I need not worry about harming its prospects by confessing that I found it disappointing, pretty boring and, ultimately, rather annoying. This results in part from the synthetic nature of the book. Not only is it too wide-ranging to achieve any genuine depth but it draws overwhelmingly on previous secondary literature and primary sources already quoted elsewhere, and Hanebrink’s examples are, for the most part, the obvious ones that readers with prior knowledge of the topic will already have encountered elsewhere.
Now, in the first half of the twentieth century, getting large numbers of Europeans to hate Jews and Bolsheviks was not exactly a major challenge, nor did it take a stroke of genius to come up with the idea of combining the two hatreds and suggesting that there was such a thing as Judeo-Bolshevism. In fact, while Hanebrink approaches the concept as though it needed inventing, it pretty much lay in the air and would have come quite naturally to those who propagated and subscribed to it. At the risk of being accused of that cardinal sin of criticizing a book for not being the one I would have written, I would have thought that the really interesting question in this context is whether—and if so, how—being driven by the fear of Judeo-Bolshevism and invoking the threat it supposedly posed did substantially more or something substantially different for people than simply hating and fearing Jews and Bolsheviks separately. To address this question, one would need to place the specificity of the concept of Judeo-Bolshevism centre stage, yet Hanebrink makes it very clear from the outset that this is not the task he has set himself. He has in fact approached his topic as a substitute for another, contemporary phenomenon.
The intersectional approach positively dictates that one stops approaching one’s object of study as soon as it threatens to stop looking like all others.
As he reiterates periodically, his vantage is shaped by the assumption that the issues supposedly addressed by the concept of Judeo-Bolshevism “now center on anxieties that Muslim migrants and the growing presence of Islam in Europe engender. As this book demonstrates, these fears have a powerful precursor in the history of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth” (9). Which brings us back to the arbitrariness of the postmodern concept of othering and so-called intersectional scholarship which, taken to its logical consequence, stipulates that any form of enmity can supposedly be explained by examining any other form of enmity. This inevitably directs the focus to the generic rather than the specific features of each particular form of othering. It follows from basic epistemological considerations that the closer one gets to any given phenomenon, the more likely it is that it will seem to be entirely unique. The further one stays away from a phenomenon, the more likely it is that it will look like all others. The intersectional approach positively dictates that one stops approaching one’s object of study as soon as it threatens to stop looking like all others. It is this approach that allows Hanebrink to throw long-standing, non-specific assumptions about Jews and radicalism/subversion in general, the specific ideological construct of Judeo-Bolshevism, antisemitism within the Communist movement and post-1989 forms of secondary antisemitism projected onto the toppled Communist regimes into one pot and then interpret the emerging hodgepodge as “a powerful precursor” of current Western perceptions of Islam.
Not that Hanebrink actually manages to explain this approach but he does, as we will see, proceed accordingly. Not so long ago, the scholarly consensus might have held that the most appropriate hook on which to hang the concept of Judeo-Bolshevism would be antisemitism. Hanebrink emphatically disagrees with this outdated assumption. “Treating the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism alongside other kinds of antisemitism”, he insists, “runs the risk of flattening it into just another variation in transhistorical Jew hatred. It blurs the specific meanings that Judeo-Bolshevism had at certain times and places” (6). Then again, twenty pages later, he tells us that “the Judeo-Bolshevik myth was one type of antisemitism among many” (27), which surely means that he is indeed treating it “alongside other kinds of antisemitism”. However, this “does not mean it was the same as any other kind of anti-Jewish hatred” (28). This statement is surely, at best, redundant. I feel a little silly pointing this out, but different types are different types because they are not the same and if they were the same, they would not be different. There is something really rather comical about an author who thinks that treating the construct of Judeo-Bolshevism as an expression of antisemitism would blind him to its specificity but treating it as a substitute for contemporary anti-Muslim racism is an ingenuous epistemological ruse; this irony is clearly lost on Hanebrink.
There is something really rather comical about an author who thinks that treating the construct of Judeo-Bolshevism as an expression of antisemitism would blind him to its specificity but treating it as a substitute for contemporary anti-Muslim racism is an ingenuous epistemological ruse; this irony is clearly lost on Hanebrink.
Hanebrink is further hampered in his efforts by the fact that he seems to be an ultra-functionalist in pretty much every respect. Hence, for him, ideology is not something that people believe in and seek to implement with varying degrees of conviction but something that ideologues construct mechanically and impose on others, usually on those they dominate, to manipulate them; or it is imposed on groups by circumstances. On the first count, he introduces us to ideologues “repurposing wartime suspicions of Jews” (60), fashioning “new material … into a cautionary tale” (106), “tying events … to their broader concerns” (107–108), and to anti-Communism as “a point of consensus that church leaders could use to gain some breathing room” (101). On the second count, he explains that “frustration … bred ethnonationalist activism” (65), that “the realities of Cold War politics … forced” US Jewry to position itself in a particular way (226), that in certain contexts, suspicions “inevitably” fall on Jewish communities (66) etc.
None too surprisingly, the Nazis’ obsession with Judeo-Bolshevism, especially against the backdrop of the German invasion of the Soviet Union beginning in June 1941, features prominently in Hanebrink’s account. He argues that “the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism became the rationale for targeted mass killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet Union in the first phase of the war” (161). Unless I have missed some esoteric nicety, this would mean that it was the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism that unleashed the Shoah. Yet Hanebrink’s own account does not in fact bear this out. He cites an order issued by Heydrich shortly before the invasion in which Heydrich explains that “it goes without saying that cleansing actions primarily apply to Bolsheviks and Jews” (131). The orders issued at this time, Hanebrink explains, did not amount to instructions “to murder all Jews in the Soviet Union, let alone Jews elsewhere in Europe. But they were clear signs that German security forces had already identified Jews as key carriers of Bolshevik power and a core enemy group that embodied the ‘biological substance of the Soviet system.’ In the coming war of worldviews, it was common wisdom within the SS that Jews would resolutely line up with the enemy. That belief would play a crucial role in the origins of the Final Solution” (131). Yet Hanebrink seems to overlook the blindingly obvious: that Heydrich expressly referred to “Bolsheviks and Jews”, i.e., that he considered them distinct groups, whatever he may have assumed the degree of overlap between them to be. Hanebrink never really succeeds in explaining (nor even seriously explores) how exactly Jews, Bolshevism and Judeo-Bolshevism were interrelated in the Nazi mind. As the Commissar Order clearly indicates, the Nazi leadership knew full well that not all Jews were Bolsheviks and not all Bolsheviks Jews.
So let us take a closer look at the way in which Hanebrink ties himself in knots trying to maintain his line of argument. He begins by pointing to a massacre perpetrated by the Germans against non-Jews soon after the invasion of the Soviet Ukraine, to illustrate “how arbitrarily the concept of Judeo-Bolshevism was wielded against predetermined racial enemy groups, and how cynically the idea of ‘revenge’ against Communist crimes was manipulated to ideological ends” (135, emphasis added). This obviously fits well with the functionalist contention that the Nazis were never all that serious about their antisemitism and that the genocide perpetrated against European Jewry was a matter not of ideology but of expediency. But if all this is right then it obviously raises the question of how significant the Judeo-Bolshevik canard was in the first place. “Episodes like this one, from the very first days of the invasion, established a murderous dynamic that soon escalated into genocide”, he goes on to suggest. This is undoubtedly true but cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, explain why, a few weeks down the line, the Einsatzgruppen in particular would begin to focus single-mindedly on the systematic annihilation of all the members of just one particular “predetermined racial enemy group”.
Then comes the following remarkable formulation: “Yet the Nazis’ Final Solution cannot be reduced to a massive antipartisan operation against Jewish Bolsheviks. Security fears alone did not drive the Holocaust.” Yet? Whom or what is this yet supposed to contradict? Who, other than an array of deranged National Socialists (old and new), has ever made this claim? Hanebrink certainly has not, at least not explicitly. If I might engage in a spot of pop psychology myself at this point, it seems as though the ultimate logical consequence of his line of argument suddenly caught up with him for a split second. But then he continues unperturbed with his functionalist account of the Shoah as an act of expediency. “There was a straight line connecting the earliest massacres at places like Dobromyl to the horrific slaughter of tens of thousands at Babi Yar a few months later. Security fears about Jewish Bolsheviks and Jewish-Communist partisans played a critical role in the escalation of genocidal violence against Jews in 1941. The idea of Judeo-Bolshevism was crucial to the genesis of the Final Solution” (136). Evidently, then, for Hanebrink, the switch from mass killings of civilians from a range of ethnic groups in the context of a criminally aggressive military campaign to the systematic annihilation of all the members of just one group does not mark a qualitative leap. Far from least, this has the distinct advantage that no leap needs no explanation, and antisemitism is out of the picture by default.
In his discussion of the post-war context, Hanebrink contends that “there was broad agreement that the motives behind” the Slánský trial, the notorious antisemitic show trial against a number of prominent Jewish KPČ officials that took place in Prague in 1952, “were racist”. I would like to see him present a single contemporaneous source referring to this trial as “racist”. In connection with another project I recently undertook numerous keyword searches, focusing on the digitized runs of major dailies including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Times of London, and the (Manchester) Guardian covering the period since the 1920s. The results suggest that the term “racism/racist” was only very gradually coming into circulation in the 1950s. Indeed, most references to the term that do turn up in searches for this early period do not refer to the actual use of the term but result from the fact that those responsible for the relevant databases have linked references to “race” issues using a different terminology to the term “racism/racist”. What there was, was “broad agreement” that the Slánský trial was an antisemitic show trial. Indeed, as Hanebrink goes on to explain, “the Anti-Defamation League described the Slánský trial similarly, as the ‘most vicious anti-Semitic attack by a major power since Nazi Germany.’” However, in this instance Hanebrink has not just followed the logic according to which antisemitism is just another form of racism anyway, so what’s in a word? His line of reasoning is both ingenuous and revealing. “Because Jewish Communists like Slánský had abandoned Judaism,” he argues, “the campaign against them could only be understood as a blatant form of racialized scapegoating, similar to Nazi propaganda against the Jews” (233). If I understand this correctly, his point is that this is a matter of racism because it was not really concerned with Judaism. But then the implication would be either that we can only speak of antisemitism when Judaism really is the issue—i.e., never, given that antisemitism is never concerned with Judaism in a real rather than an imagined form—or that the Slánský trial would have been neither antisemitic nor racist, had Slánský and his fellow defendants not abandoned Judaism. (Just as an aside: modern antisemitism is in any case much more obsessed with imagined Jewishness than with imagined Judaism, but then, given that Judeo-Bolshevism is, after all, a form of antisemitism so unique that one should really avoid understanding it as a form of antisemitism at all, it would be churlish to expect too much of the poor author.) This fits well with Hanebrink’s ultra-functionalist approach to the Shoah, of course. Given that the Nazis indiscriminately annihilated Jews regardless of whether they had “abandoned Judaism”, the Shoah was all about racism and antisemitism hardly comes into it. That the decision to try and garner local support by sacrificing Jewish comrades on the altar of the indigenous majority’s “racism” in the Central and East European countries that came under Soviet domination following the Second World War amounted to the continued propagation of the Judeo-Bolshevik canard is in any case a bizarre contention. To be sure, just as one can find similarities between all the various forms antisemitic projections have taken and continue to take, it is almost inevitable that there are similarities between the various forms the persecution of Jewish Communists for being Jewish can take. The failure ever to explain what exactly the specificity of the Judeo-Bolshevik canard was in the first place obviously make it all the easier—or perhaps I should say: all the more inevitable—for the ostensible similarities with other related and unrelated phenomena to take centre stage.
Hanebrink’s account is essentially predicated on the assumption that the default setting for ethnic groups is that of petulance.
In his account of developments since 1989, Hanebrink (not unlike Koerber, who is taken aback when ethnic groups coexist peacefully) simply takes it for granted that multiple memories must be immersed in vicious competition for a fixed, limited amount of recognition. For the most part, this is indeed how it has turned out, but that does mean that there was anything inevitable about this development. Hanebrink’s account is essentially predicated on the assumption that the default setting for ethnic groups is that of petulance. What is so self-explanatory about the inability of significant forces in several Central and East European states who have been freed of Soviet tutelage to find any other way of reassuring themselves of their new-found status than by celebrating historical figures who collaborated with the Nazis and/or relativizing, distorting or denying the Shoah? I happen to think that Central and East Europeans are just as capable of making reasoned decisions and that they should be taken seriously and held responsible for their choices in just the same way as anyone else. Secondary antisemitism reinforced by the contention that taking the Shoah seriously is a “Western” imposition—a notion that, ironically, unites East European admirers of fascist mass murderers of various stripes with the postcolonial elites, academic or otherwise, the world over—is still secondary antisemitism. In my experience, the willingness to excuse it elsewhere on the grounds that those engaging in it are, due to their circumstances, incapable of understanding the world in as refined a manner as one does oneself has rather more to do with the demons of those doing the understanding than either the other people in question or their circumstances.
None too surprisingly, Hanebrink also subscribes to the now widespread conviction that “the moral clarity inherent” in Hilberg’s well established taxonomy juxtaposing perpetrators, victims and bystanders has “flattened the complex reality of life in wartime Europe, especially in Eastern Europe” (240), as though people could not at one and the same time be perpetrators in one context and victims in another or the latter would somehow cancel out the former. I wonder whether he is just as troubled by the “moral clarity” of those who would roundly condemn anti-Muslim violence and equally determined to do justice to the “complex” motives of those who perpetrate, support and defend it.