Minorities and Myths: Antisemitism in Europe after 1919

tags: European history, antisemitism

Eileen Kane is a historian of modern Russia and the author of Russian Hajj: Empire and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Cornell University Press, 2015). She teaches modern European history at Connecticut College, where she also directs the program in Global Islamic Studies.

The history of Jewish citizenship in interwar central and eastern Europe, where the vast majority of European Jews lived, is often told as a tale of two worlds. One world was of the new nation-states, made by the victors at Versailles from the lands where empires fell apart during World War I. Jews who ended up within the borders of these new states were marked as “minorities” and protected by special provisions to ensure their civil and political rights as citizens, if not their assimilation. The other world was the Soviet Union, where a federal system was set up that officially granted Jews (and many other ethnic groups) equal citizenship within the world’s first socialist state.

Historians have written a lot about how the Minorities Protections of the new European nation-states failed to do what they were supposed to do: protect the rights of 25 million people in central and eastern Europe who were not lucky enough to get their own nation-states. A humiliation to Poland, Hungary, Romania, and other countries (Germany and Italy were exempted, despite also having internal ethnic minority populations), the Minorities Protections instead fueled popular resentment, persecution, and the political exclusion of those they were supposed to protect.1 In fact, antisemitism was baked into the design of Europe’s new nation-states, historian Mark Mazower points out, since democracy—as designed at Versailles—was about creating “national” communities, where the state existed to serve the interests of the ethnic majority.2

Comparatively, historians have suggested, Jews fared better in the interwar years in the neighboring USSR. Outside the Versailles system, the Soviet state went to great lengths to publicly condemn and criminalize antisemitism, and its Jews were made citizens without any special protections. Instead, the Soviet system promoted Jewish cultural and economic development and political integration. It has long been thought that Jews in this interwar Soviet world were, very briefly, better off and freer from antisemitism than those in the neighboring world.

But in an excellent new book called Legacy of Blood, the historian Elissa Bemporad upsets this simple narrative, first told by the Bolsheviks, and long accepted by historians, of the interwar Soviet Union as a world in which antisemitism ceased to be a social and political problem, and Jews basically enjoyed full citizenship.

In fact, Bemporad shows, sudden Jewish upward mobility under the Soviets fed popular resentment, discrimination, and occasional bursts of antisemitic violence throughout the 1920s and 1930s. And yet the Soviets were often unwilling to punish, or even publicly acknowledge, this antisemitism because of the complicated politics. Widespread popular conflation of Jews with Bolshevism, the Soviets’ ongoing efforts to establish legitimacy and control over a multiethnic realm, and their claim that they were creating a revolutionary egalitarian society—all this made it politically undesirable for the Soviets to fully condemn antisemitism.

This created a dissonant situation for Soviet Jews, who were both empowered to an unprecedented degree and very vulnerable; formally equal citizens and informally disadvantaged. Paradoxically, loud Soviet propaganda about having eradicated the evil antisemitism of the czarist past—a centerpiece of the regime’s anti-imperialist, antiracist, egalitarian self-presentation—made it difficult for Jews in the early years of the USSR to raise the issue of antisemitism when they were targeted, let alone rely on the authorities for protection.

Read entire article at Public Books

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