Jews and Communism: in the 1980's, this is a pairing with diminishing resonance, yet one that does continue to quicken…
Jews and Communism: in the 1980’s, this is a pairing with diminishing resonance, yet one that does continue to quicken images, however disparate, in the collective memory. Two decades ago, New Leftists in search of exemplars set about reviving the reputations of some who had embraced the revolutionary Communist ideal before it became saddled with the odium of post-revolutionary Communist reality. In doing so they turned primarily to intellectuals who had participated in the great wave of revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe in the years from 1917 to 1919—not a few of them Jews.
Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and even more exotic revolutionaries such as the Hungarian Leninist aesthetician Georg Lukács were accorded a place of honor in the pantheon of the New Left. The involvement of some American Jews with the Communist party was reinterpreted, in the idiom of the 60’s, as “a powerful human experience.” “It was the party,” Vivian Gornick wrote in The Romance of American Communism, “that brought to astonishing life the kind of comradeship that makes swell in men and women the deepest sense of their own humanness, allowing them to love themselves through the act of loving each other.”
Few American Jews today would subscribe to so benign a view of the Communist movement. The handful who give much thought to the issue are more likely to regard the involvement of Jews with American Communism as a minor detour from the highway of integration into American democracy: a dead end perhaps, but in any case not an avenue of great consequence in the history of the United States or of American Jewry. And indeed it was not, for the party never came to power in the United States, not in a single state, not even in a single city. The image of the Jew in the mind of America was never that of a “Judeo-Bolshevik,” even during the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, when the Communist movement tried to play upon Jewish fears by portraying anti-Communism as a form of anti-Semitism. In the collective memory of American Jewry, the entanglement of Jews and Communism merits hardly a footnote.
In Eastern and Central Europe, by contrast, the link between Jews and Communism loomed large for much of the 20th century. There Jewish experience was played out against a background of deeply ingrained anti-Semitic sentiment. In the Russian empire and in Rumania, that sentiment was expressed on the official level by the denial of citizenship rights, by restrictions on residency, and by limited access to educational institutions, and on the popular level by pogroms. In the relatively more liberal empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary, anti-Semitism was more subtle and less onerous. But in both Eastern and Central Europe the nature of anti-Semitism—its intensity, focus, and vigor—was soon to be influenced and sometimes transformed by Jewish revolutionaries, whose actions would be interpreted through a filter of existing anti-Semitic prejudice and taken as representative of Jewry as a whole.
The myth of the Jew as Bolshevik emerged from the wave of revolutions at the close of World War I. The notion became central to the Nazi program of ideological anti-Semitism, and helped inspire the collaboration of non-Germans throughout Eastern Europe in that program’s murderous execution during World War II. After the war, the dialectic of anti-Semitism and Jewish involvement in Communism continued to influence the history of Eastern Europe, as the conspicuous role played by men and women of Jewish origin in the Sovietization of Eastern Europe once again transformed anti-Semitism, this time into an adjunct of popular opposition to Stalinism. And then, in a final twist, the Soviets and the Communists of Eastern Europe endeavored to use this new anti-Semitism for their own ends.
The pernicious interaction of right-wing anti-Semitism and Jewish support for revolutionary Communism has not gone unnoticed, but few have appreciated its significance for the history of modern Europe. My purpose here is to sketch the contours of the tale, focusing not, as most scholars have done, on questions of motivation, but on consequences, intended and unintended.
Any such exploration faces the dilemma of defining who is to be considered a Jew. Is the historian to include those (such as Karl Marx, converted by his apostate parents to Lutheranism at the age of four) who deliberately and explicitly dissociated themselves from Judaism and Jewry? To regard such people as Jewish might appear to accept the racist categories imposed upon Jews by their enemies. Were one to accept solely the definitions of anti-Semites, one might end up counting even those with no historical link to Jewry, such as Joseph Stalin, whose real surname of Dzhugashvili, according to an expatriate Ukrainian anti-Semite, is Georgian for “son of a Jew.” In considering the historical relationship of Jews, Communism, and anti-Semitism, it would seem most useful to regard as Jews those who were so regarded by others and who were actually of Jewish origin.
An article in the London Illustrated Sunday Herald from February 1920, entitled “Zionism versus Bolshevism—A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People,” describes Bolshevism as “the schemes of International Jews. . . . Now at last this band of extraordinary personalities from the underworld of the great cities of Europe and America have gripped the Russian people by the hair of their heads, and have become practically the undisputed masters of that enormous empire.”
The author of this article, Winston Churchill, was expressing a view shared by many opponents of Bolshevism in Russia and abroad, to whom the prominence of men of Jewish origin in the Bolshevik leadership was unmistakable. Leon Trotsky, commissar for foreign affairs in Lenin’s first cabinet, had organized the coup within the Petrograd Soviet in 1917 which set off the October Revolution and overthrew the liberal government of Alexander Kerensky. Other prominent Bolsheviks of Jewish origin included the president of the Supreme Soviet, Yakov Sverdlov; the deputy chairman of the Council of Peoples’ Commissars and chairman of the Moscow Soviet, Lev Kamenev (born Rosenfeld); the president of the Petrograd Soviet and leader of the Communist International, Grigori Zinoviev (born Radomyslski); the head of the Petrograd Cheka (secret police), Moisei Uritsky; and Karl Radek (born Sobelsohn), who was a leading figure in the Russian and German Communist parties.
With so many Bolsheviks of Jewish origin in positions of leadership, it was easy to consider Bolshevism a “Jewish” phenomenon. And if Winston Churchill, who was personally remote from anti-Semitism, could regard Bolshevism as a disease of the Jewish body politic, those who had long conceived of Jews as the enemies of Christian civilization quickly concluded that Bolshevism was little more than a transmutation of the essence of the Jewish soul.
By almost any logic, however, the identification of Bolshevism with the Jews was mistaken. To be sure, most Russian Jews welcomed the fall of the czarist regime, which had abetted anti-Semitism, confined most Jews to the “Pale of Settlement,” and radically restricted their access to higher education. Within living memory, the czarist government had expelled the Jews from Moscow (1891); tolerated and even encouraged pogroms against hundreds of Jewish settlements in the wake of the revolutions of 1905; tried and convicted Mendel Beilis in 1911 on the charge of murdering a Gentile boy to use his blood for Jewish ritual purposes; and, after blaming the defeats of the Russian army in 1914 on the Jews, deported hundreds of thousands of them to inner Russia.
But after the revolution of February 1917, Jewish legal disabilities were ended by the Kerensky government. Moreover, governmental anti-Semitism, despite its severity, had not driven most Jews to the radical Left. In czarist Russia, most politically active Jews were not socialists. In the first Russian Duma of 1906, there were twelve Jews, nine of whom were associated with the liberal Constitutional Democrats. Of those who were socialists, most identified with the Yiddishist Bund, a smaller number with the Zionist Poalei Zion, a smaller number yet with the Mensheviks, and the tiniest minority with the Bolsheviks.
The reason most Russian Jews did not support Bolshevism in 1917 was that its atheism contradicted Jewish religious belief, and its economic policy threatened the many Jewish merchants, traders, and shopkeepers. In 1918 the rabbis of Odessa anathematized the Jewish Bolsheviks. The chief rabbi of Moscow told Trotsky (born Bronstein), “The Trotskys make the revolutions, and the Bronsteins pay the bills.” This was a theme voiced time and again as the official Jewish community beheld with apprehension the prominence of Jews in the revolutionary wave.
Only once the civil war was under way did Jews begin to swing toward the Bolsheviks, and then not out of intrinsic attraction to the Reds but rather out of an instinct of self-preservation against the massive pogroms which accompanied the fighting. In 1919, the Red Army, with Trotsky at its head, moved into the Ukraine; the Ukrainian nationalist commander Hryhoriiv, in his appeal for help against the Bolsheviks, claimed that “the people who crucified Christ rule the Ukraine,” while other partisan bands adopted the slogan “Death to Jews! For the Orthodox faith!”
In fact, in the confused circumstances in Byelorussia and the Ukraine, murderous attacks on Jews were a matter less of high policy than of popular peasant sentiment. The directory of the Ukrainian National Republic and the White leader Denikin tried in vain to control local commanders for whom the breakdown of order afforded an opportunity to plunder and murder. As the battle turned, some of these commanders switched sides, and continued their pogroms under Bolshevik auspices. Some 70,000 Jews were murdered in the Ukraine, and another 50,000 by the Whites of Denikin’s Russian Volunteer Army. The effect was to drive Jews into the arms of the Reds; they had concluded that for better or worse, their very lives now depended on the defeat of the counterrevolution.
In the years following, the pattern of Jewish engagement with Bolshevism became dangerously skewed. Jews were somewhat overrepresented in the Bolshevik party, as were other ethnic groups which had suffered from discrimination. But since Jews were more highly urbanized and more highly educated than the other groups, they were more likely to be activists, and once within the party were more likely to rise. From 1917 to 1922, between one-sixth and one-fifth of the delegates to the Bolshevik party congresses were of Jewish origin. In the 1920’s Jews comprised about 5 percent of the membership of the Communist party of the USSR, or about twice their proportion in the population.
Since most of the prerevolutionary civil service and intelligentsia refused to collaborate with the Bolsheviks or remained suspect in Bolshevik eyes, educated Jews moved into important and especially sensitive positions in the bureaucracy and administration of the new regime. As a result, for many Russians, their first encounter with the new regime was likely to be with a commissar, tax officer, or secret-police official of Jewish origin. To these people, the sociology of the Communist movement was a matter of little interest. Their anti-Semitism confirmed, they now conflated the Jew-as-commissar with their age-old image of the Jew-as-deicide.
In Central Europe, and especially in Germany, the story differed somewhat. By 1918, most German Jews had already moved into the middle and even upper classes, and so there was no goad of poverty driving them toward socialism. On the contrary, in their voting and in their political activism, German Jews, largely reflecting their social and economic status as members of the middle class, identified as far to the Right as the political spectrum allowed. That, however, was not very far. As in most of Europe, the doors to the political Right were slammed in Jewish faces by parties which regarded Christianity as integral to national identity. (In Italy, where the Right was least prone to anti-Semitism, bourgeois Jews joined the Fascist party and some rose to positions of prominence.)
And so most German Jews voted for the liberals in the decades before World War I. On the other hand, most German Jewish political activists were to be found in the ranks of the socialists. Some of them were led to the socialist camp by their quest for greater political and social equality. For while German Jews had already been guaranteed their civil and political rights, as they moved up the social and educational ladder they often found their path to governmental posts blocked and their opportunities for academic advance limited not by law but by prejudice. But other Jews were drawn to a more apocalyptic conception of socialist revolution.
The high culture of the educated classes of Western and Central Europe in the decade before 1914 was marked by a disaffection from liberal, bourgeois “society” and a search for new sources of “community.” In time, this disaffection would lead many young intellectuals to the radical Right, to a new nationalism which promised a sense of collective purpose based on a purportedly shared past. For those Jewish intellectuals steeped in the anti-liberal ethos but by definition excluded from movements seeking a return to Germanic roots, the alternatives were a turn to Zionism (which only a few embraced before 1918) or toward a visionary socialism which promised to replace the supposedly atomizing civilization of liberal capitalism with a new culture of shared purpose that would unite all men regardless of origin.
With the collapse of the German monarchy in November 1918, Jews moved into positions of government responsibility and saliency for the first time. Like their non-Jewish counterparts, most Jewish socialists in Germany welcomed the breakthrough to full parliamentary democracy produced by the mass demonstrations of the working class at the close of the war. Real power was temporarily shared between a provisional government made up of parliamentary representatives of the socialist and liberal parties on the one hand and the councils of workers and soldiers on the other. The Left thus confronted a political choice. The Social Democrats favored parliamentary sovereignty, to be decided by democratic elections among the entire populace. To their Left were the Spartacists, who formed the new Communist party, devoted to the sovereignty of the councils (the German equivalent of the Soviets). Between them were the Independent Socialists, who vacillated on the question of parliamentary versus council control.
In the fateful months after 1918, the parliamentary democratic aspirations of the Social Democrats were challenged by a series of revolutions in Berlin and Munich. Ultimately the Social Democratic leaders chose to call upon elements of the old imperial army and the newly formed Free Corps to combat the threat from the radical Left. The decision was ominous, for young veterans of the counterrevolutionary corps later became the backbone of National Socialism. That the leaders of the suppressed revolutions were so often Jews was a crucial factor in the recrudescence of political anti-Semitism in Germany.
The involvement of Jews in the new Communist party of Germany displayed the same inverted pyramid pattern found elsewhere. Among the Jewish population as a whole, support for the Communists was insignificant. Jews were somewhat overrepresented, however, among party activists, comprising about 7 percent of the participants at the party’s founding convention. As for the eleven-person central committee, it included four Communists of Jewish origin: Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, and August Thalheimer, all of them university-educated.
Born in Poland and long active as a theorist and agitator in the Polish and German socialist movements, Rosa Luxemburg had spurned parliamentary democracy as a “petty-bourgeois illusion” and referred to the German Social Democrats as the “Schabbesgoyim” (Gentiles engaged to perform work not permitted to religious Jews on the Sabbath) of the German capitalists. The theorist of “revolutionary spontaneity,” Luxemburg had long spurred the German proletariat to revolutionary action. In her editorials for the party newspaper, The Red Flag, she wrote in December 1918, “In this, the ultimate class struggle of world history and for the sake of the highest goals of humanity, the slogan in regard to our enemies must be ‘Thumbs in their eyes, knees to their chest.’” So when the leadership of the Communists called for an armed rising in January 1919, Luxemburg felt duty-bound to support it, even though it enjoyed little popular backing. She was brutally murdered by soldiers of the Free Corps whom the Social Democratic government had called in to suppress the revolt.
In Bavaria, the apex of the revolutionary turmoil was occupied by a coterie of Jewish intellectuals almost totally lacking in political experience. The revolution in Bavaria was planned and headed by Kurt Eisner of the Independent Socialists, who on November 7, 1918 declared the end of the monarchy and the rise of a Bavarian republic. The Munich working classes were swept by a wave of revulsion against the monarchy, which had led the country into the war. It was this disgust with the old regime which allowed Eisner, a bearded, bohemian Jewish theater critic, to come to power in conservative, Catholic, rural, anti-Semitic Bavaria. When the Jewish citizens of Munich wrote begging Eisner to resign in favor of a non-Jew, he responded that the question of origins belonged to “an age that has now been overcome,” and remained at the helm.
Massive unemployment and food shortages soon became the order of the day in the new Bavarian Republic, which faced staggering problems of demobilization and the threat of government insolvency due to unrealistic new social-welfare policies. Eisner was a man of high ideals but poor judgment, whose rhetorical radicalism and tactical inconsistency managed to alienate almost all political factions. In January 1919 his party received 2.5 percent of the vote; while on his way to tender his resignation, he was assassinated by a young aristocrat.
After a confused transitional period, a new government, made up in good part of leftist intellectuals of Jewish origin, came to power in Munich on April 7, and declared a Soviet republic. The short-lived regime included the anarchist Gustav Landauer; the playwright Ernst Toller, who announced that the coming of socialism would mean “the liberation of man from all capitalist and spiritual oppression”; the radical orator Erich Mühsam, whose politics were characterized by a friend as the constant attempt to stand to the Left of himself; and Otto Neurath, a socialist theorist who became commissar for socialization. His plans for socialization of almost everything did not get beyond the stage of proclamations, but he was in office long enough to terrify the Bavarian middle and upper classes.
After a week, the first Bavarian Socialist Republic was replaced by a more radical group affiliated with the Communist International, which proclaimed the Second Bavarian Soviet Republic. It was headed by Eugen Leviné-Nissen, a Russian-born follower of Rosa Luxemburg who had been dispatched to Munich by the Communist party. The Social Democrats, the largest party in the elected Bavarian parliament, looked to Berlin for help in repressing the Communists. Troops were duly dispatched by the central government and joined by Free Corps from northern Bavaria. They marched into Munich in May, overturning the Bavarian Soviet Republic in a wave of terror.
Among those who lived through the trauma of the soviet republics was the recently demobilized Adolf Hitler. His anti-Semitism predated the trauma, but it was in its aftermath that he hit upon one of his most seductive themes: the “Jewish-Marxist world conspiracy.”
Most German Jews felt no enthusiasm for the events of November 1918, which they, like many of their fellow Germans, regarded as a national disaster. Moreover, Jewish newspapers in Munich and elsewhere warned that the prominence of revolutionary Jews would lead to increased anti-Semitism. In this, they were correct. When Kurt Eisner was murdered in February 1919, the Kreuzzeitung, the venerable organ of Prussian conservatism, opined that he “was among the most evil representatives of the Jews, who in recent months have played so marked a role in German history. In the most prominent way, he combined two characteristics of his race, its historical internationalism—for Eisner too is a foreigner by birth [sic]—and its racially based idle fancy, in contrast to German realism.” Here, then, was another element in the emerging dialectic of disaster: the new image of the Jew implanted in the mind of the German public was derived from the activities of those Jews who were most removed from Judaism or a concern with the fate of Jewry.
The anti-Semites of the German Right did not, of course, restrict their hatred to the Jewish advocates of a Soviet Germany. Their antipathy extended to social democrats and liberal democrats as well. But it was the chance to associate social democrats and liberals with Jewish Communists that made the image of the Jewish Communist revolutionary so useful to the German Right. A Nationalist party poster of 1919 listed, under the heading “Varieties of Cohens,” the Communist, social democratic, independent socialist, and democratic parties alongside portraits of leading Jewish politicians in each party.
If Jews were highly visible in the revolutions in Russia and Germany, in Hungary they seemed omnipresent.
Virtually forgotten today but widely resonant in its time was the Hungarian Soviet Republic. It began with the collapse of the liberal government in March 1919 and lasted for 133 days until, weakened by inner disintegration, it succumbed to foreign troops. Of the government’s 49 commissars, 31 were of Jewish origin.
Among the key members of the Hungarian Soviet Republic were Béla Kun, the foreign secretary and actual head of the regime; Tibor Szamuely, the deputy commissar for war, charged with suppressing the counterrevolution; and Otto Korvin (Klein), the chief of the secret police. Others included Georg Lukács, the aesthetic philosopher turned Bolshevik, and Mátyás Rákosi (Roth), who three decades later was to become dictator of Hungary. As chairman of the revolutionary governing council they elected Sándor Garbai, a Gentile. Rákosi later joked that Garbai was chosen for his post in order “to have someone who could sign the death sentences on Saturday.”
The prominence of Jews in the Hungarian Soviet Republic is all the more striking when one considers that the Jews of Hungary were richer than their co-religionists in Eastern Europe and remarkably successful in attaining positions of status. In the 19th century, Jews had been the major agents of capitalist development in a traditional, rural society comprised of aristocrats, gentry, and peasantry. In the latter part of the century, the children of these Jewish entrepreneurs often entered the universities and moved into professions. Though only 5 percent of the population, on the eve of World War I Jews made up almost half the doctors, lawyers, and journalists in Hungary.
Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, the Magyar upper classes welcomed Jewish assimilation into Hungarian culture, since this added weight to claims of Magyar hegemony in the ethnic balance within the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Accomplished Jews intermarried with the nobility, were themselves ennobled, and attained positions of high prestige. On the eve of the war the government of Hungary included six or eight ministers of Jewish origin.
The term “of Jewish origin” is especially important in the case of Hungary. For peculiar historical reasons, access to the higher ranks of society and government was largely conditional upon conversion to Christianity. Thus the agnostic, secularized, educated children of the Jewish bourgeoisie were confronted with the bizarre fact that their entry into the rather liberal, even anticlerical Hungarian establishment required that they undergo the ritual of baptism. Some declined the offer as a hypocritical farce. Others decided that Budapest was worth a mass, only to find themselves confronted by an acute crisis of identity.
In either case, the secularized Jewish intelligentsia of Hungary was naturally attracted to the ideology of radical internationalist socialism, which promised a political community based on universalism rather than on religious or national particularism. The literature of prerevolutionary Hungarian radicalism is rife with attacks on Judaism and the Jews—attacks often penned by intellectuals of Jewish origin.
When they seized power in 1919 the revolutionaries acted in accordance with their principles. Statues of Hungarian kings and national heroes were torn down, the national anthem was banned, and the display of the national colors was made a punishable offense. Nor did the revolutionaries forget their antipathy to Jewish particularism: traditionalist Jews became the targets of their campaigns of terror.
Radical agitators were dispatched to the countryside, where they ridiculed the institution of the family and threatened to turn churches into movie theaters. More thoroughgoing than Lenin, the Hungarian revolutionaries socialized all estates over one hundred acres in size, rather than distributing land to the peasants. Nationalized too were business establishments with over ten employees, all apartments, all furniture “superfluous for everyday life,” gold, jewelry, coin and stamp collections. The principles of egalitarianism were strenuously applied. All wages were made uniform. All graves in Budapest were to be identical, and the sale of double plots forbidden. Much of the bourgeois press was first censored, then closed down.
The regime’s policies soon alienated most Hungarians. Uniform wages combined with a government guarantee of employment led to a radical decline of productivity. The regime attempted to set all prices, with little regard to production costs. Goods were soon scarce and prices on the black market were highly inflated. Peasants chose to withhold agricultural goods, rather than exchange them for currency with which they could buy little.
Antipathy soon enough focused on Jews. Young revolutionary intellectuals of Jewish origin had been sent to the countryside to administer the newly collectivized agricultural estates; their radicalism was exceeded only by their incompetence, reinforcing peasant anti-Semitism. The Jesuits, for their part, interpreted the revolution as Jewish and anti-Christian in essence, though the regime’s anti-religious campaign was in fact headed by a defrocked priest. Rumors abounded that the revolutionaries were everywhere desecrating the host. In Budapest as in the countryside, opposition to the regime, defense of the Church, and anti-Semitism went hand in hand.
The Kun regime fell in 1919, overwhelmed by political and economic difficulties and ultimately crushed by Rumanian troops acting with the encouragement of Hungarian opponents of the regime. When the Rumanians withdrew from Budapest, they turned over power to Admiral Horthy and the Magyar ruling class. After the Red terror—some 600 executions in 133 days in a country of eight million—came the White terror of the counterrevolution, aimed not only at officials and sympathizers of the fallen Red regime but at the Jewish community as such.
The Magyar ruling class, which before the war would not have tolerated such behavior, accepted the excesses as a necessary reaction to the terror which had preceded it. Though the situation of the Jews improved in the 1920’s under the rather liberal regime of Count Bethlen, the Hungarian ruling class came under ever greater pressure from the radical Right which had been forged in the counterrevolution and had made political anti-Semitism the core of its program.
Political anti-Semitism was itself a recent development on the European scene. Until the 19th century, European anti-Semitism had been predominantly religious in nature, grounded in the antipathy of the Christian churches to those who willingly spurned the ideas of the gospels. But with the development of industrial capitalism in the 19th century, the focus changed: it was now the Jew as capitalist who was attacked as the destroyer and despoiler of traditional society. For the new political anti-Semites, the Rothschilds and Bleichroeders were “rois de l’époque,” the kings of the age.
In Western and Central Europe, anti-Semitism of this stripe reached its height in the last decades of the 19th century, and seemed on the wane by 1914. But the conspicuous role of Jews in the revolutions of 1917-19 gave anti-Semitism a new impetus. Now the Jew as revolutionary took his place alongside the Jew as deicide and the Jew as capitalist; the image of Trotsky, Luxemburg, and Kun was superimposed upon those of Rothschild and Ahasverus, the wandering Jew of medieval Christian myth, rootless and eternally cursed for having spurned Christ.
Among the books which spread the image of the Jew as Communist revolutionary was Quand Israël est roi (“When Israel Is King”), an eyewitness account of the Hungarian Soviet Republic published in 1921 by Jean and Jérôme Tharaud. The authors, long identified with the French radical Right, were former winners of the Prix Goncourt and well known for a series of travel books merging reportage with poetic evocation. Their new book portrayed the Hungarian revolution as a Jewish conspiracy, with some non-Jews thrown in as figureheads. “After the dynasty of the Arpád, after St. Stephen and his sons, after the Anjous and the Hunyadis and the Hapsburgs, there was a King of Israel in Hungary today,” the brothers reported, and went on to describe in lurid and somewhat fanciful detail the terror of the “Lenin Boys” (the Red Guard) and the torture employed by the political-investigation department under Ottó Korvin. Interspersed with accounts of the confiscation of wealth by the revolutionaries and the replacement of Christian professors by young Jewish intellectuals were reflections such as this: “A New Jerusalem was growing up on the banks of the Danube. It emanated from Karl Marx’s Jewish brain, and was built by Jews upon a foundation of very ancient ideas.” The book sold 55,000 copies in France, went through scores of editions, and was translated into other languages, including English and German. (In 1933 the Tharauds would entitle their book on the new Nazi regime Quand Israël n’est plus roi—“When Israel Is No Longer King.”)
The image of Jew as Bolshevik became the center of the new mythos of the Right. In its most radical and racist form, this mythos was read backward into history, as in the title of a pamphlet published in 1923 by Hitler’s intellectual mentor, Dietrich Eckart, Bolshevism from Moses to Lenin: A Dialogue Between Adolf Hitler and Myself.
A clear-eyed analyst would have concluded that few Jews were, in fact, Communists, and that most Communists were not Jews. But Jewish Communists were viewed through a lens colored by previous anti-Semitic stereotypes. To conclude that the Jewish revolutionary and the Jewish capitalist were actually partners working both sides of the street on their road to the conquest of Christian civilization may have required a skewed vision, but this in fact was how the interwar Right viewed the Jewish question.
As for the depth, extent, and nature of anti-Semitism in the various European countries, that depended in large measure upon the social, political, and cultural roles of the Jews in general, and in particular upon the relative significance of the Jewish Communists. Where there had been no attempted revolutions, or where Jews played no conspicuous role in them, the myth of Judeo-Communism did not become predominant on the Right. This was the case in Western Europe, which was spared both the revolutionary wave and the threat of Soviet conquest. (Although Italy did experience revolutionary seizures of land and industrial property in 1920 and 1921, few of the leaders of the radical Left had been Jews. In Italy, where the nationalist Right had long been open to those of Jewish origin, Jews were more likely to be found among the supporters of the Fascists than among the revolutionaries of the Left.)
By contrast, the identification of Jews with Communism was especially potent in those areas which had encountered Jewish revolutionaries at first hand in the postwar era: in Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Ukraine, and later Lithuania.
We have already looked at the cases of Germany and Hungary. In Poland, the image of the Jew as Bolshevik was exacerbated by the fact that during the Soviet attack on the country in 1919, the Russians had set up a four-man Provisional Revolutionary Committee, two members of which were Jewish. In Rumania, the Communist party was headed by a rabbi’s daughter, Ana Pauker, and many posts in its upper echelons were filled by Jews. Finally, when Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, the Soviets, following a pattern which they were to repeat throughout Eastern Europe, looked to the small and disproportionately Jewish band of Lithuanian Communists to assist them in establishing Soviet hegemony.
In no nation of Eastern Europe did the Communist party have a broad popular base. (Czechoslovakia, where at its peak the party obtained 13 percent of the vote, was a partial exception.) This meant that even if a tiny proportion of Jews was attracted to Communism, the party would appear “Jewish.” From among the 3.3 million Jews in interwar Poland, the Communist party garnered 5,000 members, but since the party’s membership totaled only 20,000, this minuscule number of Jews made up a quarter of its membership. In Lithuania, one-third of the Communist party was made up of Jews in 1940—but there were only 2,000 Lithuanian Communists in all. Out of a Jewish population of 150,000, fewer than 700 were Communists, but in such cases it did not take very many Jewish Communists to make the party appear “Jewish” to outsiders.
To be sure, in much of Eastern Europe anti-Semitism long antedated the Bolshevik Revolution, and would have been a substantial factor in interwar politics even without the prominence of Jews in the Communist movement. In the new nations which emerged from the disintegration of the old Romanov and Hapsburg empires, Jews were suspect for having identified with German, Russian, or Hungarian culture, rather than that of the new nationalities. In Hungary, Poland, and Rumania, where Jews had long formed the bulk of the commercial and professional middle classes, their role was now challenged by the newly emerging middle classes, whose opportunities for advancing were limited by the relatively constricted economy of the region. For these new aspiring middle classes, it was economically rewarding to regard the Jews as “outsiders.” At the same time, Jews active in the commercialization of the rural economy were often resented by the peasantry, who blamed the Jews for their economic woes. The hatred of the Jew as Communist was thus just one more ingredient in the anti-Semitic stew, flavoring it to various degrees of intensity from nation to nation.
In Germany, where political anti-Semitism had been on the wane before 1914, the role of Jews in the postwar revolutions was the key element in the revival of anti-Semitism on the Right. With Hitler’s consolidation of his control over Germany, a coterie of ideologically radical anti-Semites stood at the head of the most powerful nation in Europe. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, this new anti-Semitism, fused with the pseudo-scientific ideology of racism, guided the actions of Hitler’s army and the SS. It soon developed into a campaign of extermination, a campaign in which the Germans were aided by indigenous accomplices throughout Eastern Europe.
The Nazis and their collaborators managed within a few years to murder six out of every seven Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. Yet in the years after Hitler’s defeat, Jews appeared once again on the stage of East European politics. With the conquest of much of Eastern and Central Europe by the Red Army in 1944 and 1945, the dialectic of disaster took a new turn.
At the close of the war there were some 700,000 Jews in Eastern Europe. Some had managed to hide, others to survive the concentration camps. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the region of Poland occupied by the Germans in 1939 had fled to the Soviet zone, whence they were deported by the Russians deep into the Soviet Union. Later, they were joined by Jewish refugees from Eastern Poland, conquered by the Germans in 1941.
Those who survived the years in Siberia or the kolkhozes of Central Asia returned to Poland after the war. Their firsthand experience of Communism in the USSR made them among the most eager to leave Soviet-occupied Poland for Palestine or the West. For the rest of the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe, however, the march of the Red Army literally saved their lives, and many welcomed the Russians with open arms.
When they returned to their homes, the survivors often found them occupied by strangers. Their businesses, furniture, and even clothing had been claimed by others, who were appalled to witness the unanticipated return of these Jewish survivors, and engaged in threats and violence to keep them from reclaiming their property. This new confiscatory middle class had its own reasons for wanting to see the Jews vanish again, and played a role in the wave of pogroms that swept over Eastern Europe in 1945 and 1946, the best known of which took place in Kielce in July 1946 at a cost of 41 Jewish lives.
Yet these outbursts had another cause as well. Among the leading agents of Soviet control in Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and Czechoslovakia were a handful of veteran Communists who had spent years in the Soviet Union while their parties had been outlawed and their homelands suffered under German occupation. Some of those who had returned with the Red Army were survivors of the Great Purge; their survival was itself evidence of their loyalty to Stalin.
Many of the returning Communists—subsequently known as “Muscovites”—were Jews. In Hungary, as we shall see in greater detail below, the top leaders of the Communist party were Jewish Muscovites. In Czechoslovakia, the general secretary of the Communist party, Rudolf Slansky, was a Jew. Among the Muscovite Jewish leaders of postwar Poland were Jakub Berman, who headed the secret police; Hilary Minc, who was in charge of the economy; Roman Zambrowski (born Rubin Nussbaum), the secretary of the party’s central committee; and Jacek Rozanski (born Goldberg), the NKVD-trained head of the investigative department of the ministry of public security, a psychopath known for torturing his victims. In Rumania, the real head of the regime was Ana Pauker, secretary of the party central committee, first deputy prime minister, and foreign minister. (Pauker is said to have denounced her husband Marcel, a leading Comintern official, as a Trotskyite. He was arrested in Russia in 1936, and liquidated in 1937.) Other pillars of the Rumanian regime included Iosif Chisinevski, Leonte Rautu, and Mihail Roller—all Jewish Muscovites.
There were few Jewish Muscovites in the leadership of the East German regime, but this was because many of the German Jewish Communist exiles in the USSR who had managed to survive the Great Purge were handed over to the Gestapo in 1939 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. One exception was Markus Wolf, the son of a Jewish Communist doctor from Stuttgart, who had spent his adolescence and young adulthood in Moscow and returned to Germany as an officer of the Red Army. Active at first in the propaganda apparatus of the regime, Wolf later built the East German military espionage service, which he headed until 1987.
In addition to Wolf, there was also a small but significant trickle of Communist-oriented intellectuals of Jewish origin who had spent the war years in the West, and now returned to help create a Communist regime in Germany which would do away with what they regarded as the capitalist roots of National Socialism. Most conspicuous was Gerhard Eisler, a veteran functionary of the Comintern who vanished from the United States after he was subpoenaed by the House Commitee on Un-American Activities in 1949. Eisler emerged in East Germany as the head of the new Office of Information, the propaganda ministry of the new regime. His brother Hanns Eisler left the United States under “voluntary deportation” in 1948, moved to East Germany, and wrote the music for the national anthem of the new German Democratic Republic.
The utilization of Jews in prominent positions in the Soviet-sponsored regimes was, to use an apposite phrase, “no accident.” In the newly conquered nations of Eastern and Central Europe, the Soviets had few reliable supporters. Suspicion of Russian imperialism was old and well-founded, and anti-Communism almost a national religion. The tiny native Communist parties had been decimated during the war. The Muscovite Jews, tried and tested in the Stalinist crucible, were among the very few natives whom the Soviets could trust to carry out their plans.
These veteran Communists were joined by younger Jews, disillusioned with the failed bourgeois assimilationism of their parents, having little knowledge of the Soviet Union, and attracted to an ideology which promised to do away with ethnic hatreds once and for all. Because they were familiar with local conditions and fanatically anti-fascist, Jews were often chosen for the security police. Because of their high level of education, they were particularly active in the fields of propaganda and education. Those who spoke foreign languages staffed the ministries of foreign affairs and departments of foreign trade.
Thus, members of a people who had recently been deported or murdered amid the general indifference or active complicity of their neighbors now appeared as high officials of the government and the police. They did so under the auspices of the Red Army, and as the executors of the will of the Soviet Union. To much of the population of Poland, Rumania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, these Jewish Communists appeared as aliens, imposing an alien system in the service of an alien power.
The upshot was a renewal of anti-Semitism. The local populace took no notice of the fact that the new Soviet-backed regimes subverted and then liquidated Jewish communal and religious institutions, or of the fact that most local Jews, far from supporting the Communists, voted with their feet by emigrating westward. Hostility was focused on the collaborators of Jewish descent, rather than on the many non-Jews who staffed the new regime.
The Jews who tossed in their lot with the new regime quickly recognized that they had to rely entirely on the Soviets not only for their positions but for their very lives. Whether out of necessity or design, Stalin had created a class of people wholly dependent on him, hence extraordinarily pliable. It was partly for this reason that, while Stalin launched an anti-Semitic campaign inside the Soviet Union in 1948, in Eastern Europe he maintained his support for his Jewish pawns, at least for a few years. His motives for doing so were linked to the specter of Titoism which gripped the Kremlin in the late 1940’s: the Communists of Jewish origin seemed the least likely to form an alliance with the local populace against the hegemony of the Soviets.
In the early 1950’s, however, the Titoist scare passed, and the Soviets were in a position to sacrifice their Eastern European Jewish pawns. In an attempt to broaden their own popular support, even some local Communist leaders of Jewish origin tried to use the Soviet-generated renewal of anti-Semitism for their own purposes. Ultimately, it was far more potent as a weapon when turned against them.
The pattern common to Eastern Europe manifested itself with particular force in Hungary. Nowhere were Jews more prominent in the Sovietization of the nation. At the core of the process was the handful of Muscovites who had spent years and even decades in the Soviet Union. During the interwar period the Hungarian Communist party had been banned and unpopular; its membership was tiny; and its leadership was disproportionately Jewish. In postwar Hungary, the key post of general secretary was once again occupied by a Jew, Mátyás Rákosi.
A veteran Communist who, as we have seen, had been active in the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, Rákosi was subsequently betrayed by a fellow Communist and imprisoned for years by the Horthy regime. Traded to the Soviet Union in 1940, Rákosi spent the war years in Moscow and learned the requisite skills for survival in Stalinist Russia. He billed himself as “Stalin’s best pupil,” and was at the side of the “sun of the peoples” during the celebrations marking the dictator’s seventieth birthday in 1949. It was this pupil of Stalin who coined the term “salami tactics” to describe the way in which the Communists with the backing of the Red Army sliced away all competing parties on their path to exclusive control.
The next three major slots in the Communist hierarchy were also filled by men of Jewish birth. Ernö Gerö (Singer), a Muscovite and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, became minister of state; Mihály Farkas (Wolf), another Muscovite, became minister of defense; and József Révai was the party’s chief ideologist and minister of culture. The chief of the Hungarian economy was Zoltán Vas (Weinberger), also of Jewish origin and a Muscovite.
As was the case in every other country, only a minority of Hungarian Jews were Communists. Obviously, those who valued their Jewishness the most were the least inclined toward the party, and many Hungarian Jews feared that it was they who would pay for the popular hatred of the regime.
Yet the core of Muscovites was also joined by a larger number of Hungarian Jews. Some, who had returned from concentration camps or who survived the war in Budapest, owed to the Soviets their escape from death at the hands of the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators of the Arrow Cross. For them, at least, the Soviets were “liberators,” even if few of their countrymen regarded them as such, and the Red Army remained the only real guarantor of their safety.
Alongside this motive of physical preservation there was among some young Jews a burning desire for vengeance against the Hungarians who had murdered their families or aided the Germans in doing so. These young men and women joined the new Soviet-dominated security apparatus, for which they were suited by their knowledge of Hungarian conditions and their allegiance to the Soviet cause. It is estimated that 30 percent or more of higher police officials in the postwar years were of Jewish origin, and many departments of the security apparatus were headed by Jews. At the pinnacle of the Hungarian political police, the AVO, was a Jew, Major General Gábor Péter (born Benö Auspitz). By moving into the army, the police, and the security apparatus, these young Jewish survivors put themselves in a position to settle accounts with the men of the Arrow Cross.
The attractions of Marxist ideology also drew some of the more idealistic young Jewish survivors. The universalism of Marxism, its promise to end all distinctions based upon ethnic or religious origin, was almost irresistible to some young Jews who could recall only the irredentist nationalism of the interwar era, the growth of Hungarian fascism and official anti-Semitism, the deadly “labor battalions” into which the Horthy regime had consigned all Jewish males from sixteen to sixty-five, and finally the systematic murder of the Jews under German auspices but with Hungarian collaboration.
Other Jews who decided to remain in Hungary reconciled themselves to the inevitability of Soviet domination and hoped to make the best of it. Though the socialization measures of the Communist regime destroyed the remnants of the Jewish commercial middle class, some Jews continued to play an important economic role in Hungarian life as heads of newly nationalized industries. And though university admissions were now to favor the offspring of workers and peasants, young Jews active in the Communist party were permitted to enroll.
Hungary was a small country with a small educated elite. Because in Soviet eyes most educated non-Jews were tainted by their ties to the former regime, Jews were catapulted into positions of authority. For a brief moment after the war, Jews seemed to become a privileged class in Hungary. Suddenly, reality seemed to bear out the old stereotype identifying Jews as such with Communism. As a contemporary joke had it, if a factory employed three Jews, one was the manager, a second the accountant, and the third the secretary of the party cell. For those so inclined, it was easier than ever to believe that all Jews were Communists, and since Jews were apparently in prominent positions everywhere, it was even possible to give credence to the anti-Semitic claim that more Jews had returned from the concentration camps than had been deported in 1944. The recrudescence of anti-Semitism erupted in two anti-Jewish riots during the summer of 1946. The fact that the rioters included some Communists was covered up by the local Communist commander, who was himself Jewish.
The Communists’ favorable attitude toward the offspring of Jewish victims of fascism began to change in late 1947, when Rákosi decided to end the admission of Jews to official posts. After the elimination of all competing parties in 1948, there followed an era of increasing anti-Jewish repression, initiated and headed by men who were themselves of Jewish origin. In 1949 the representative of the American Jewish Joint Relief Organization in Budapest was arrested and expelled. A ban was placed on Zionist activity, and Hungarian Zionist leaders were imprisoned and forced to appear in show trials. The security services set up a division to deal with Zionism; it was headed by Major János Komlós, who at one time had been a student in the Budapest rabbinical seminary.
Like their counterparts throughout Eastern Europe, the leaders of the Hungarian Communist party set out to emulate the purported successes of the Soviet path of economic development and began a program of rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture. As in the Soviet case, the growth of heavy industry was to occur at the expense of the agricultural and consumer sectors—that is, through the increased exploitation of the workers and peasants. The result was a decline of living standards for most Hungarians, coupled with increased governmental repression to prevent protest and revolt. Soon the prisons were filled, and forced-labor camps sprang up around the country, especially near mining and industrial centers. From 1952 through 1955 the police opened files on over a million Hungarians, 45 percent of whom were penalized. In four years, 7 percent of Hungarians over the age of eighteen were convicted and punished.
Together with increased repression went the purge of the party. Most of the members of the erstwhile Communist underground who had remained in Hungary during the war were purged as potential “Titoists,” including László Rajk, who was tried and executed on trumped-up charges in 1949. In a few years, the Communist regime of Rákosi killed more Communists than had the anti-Communist regime of Admiral Horthy.
Jews were very salient in the apparatus of repression, including Mihaly Farkas, the minister of defense and chief of internal security, and Gábor Péter of the AVO. Many of Péter’s immediate deputies were also Jews who had been trained by the Soviets at the Dzerzhinsky Institute in the USSR. As this apparatus of repression expanded, it recruited those with the most experience at brutal methods of interrogation, namely, former Horthyites and members of the Arrow Cross. Thus, former Jewish victims of fascism and former fascists worked side by side in the creation of a Communist Hungary.
The next act in the drama of Hungarian Jewry was more absurd still. Late in 1952, “Stalin’s brightest pupil” learned of the plans for the upcoming “Doctors’ Trial” in the homeland of socialism, in which seven of the nine defendants were to be Jews, and in which anti-Semitic themes were to be more blatant than ever. Fearing for their own necks, Rákosi and the Hungarian leadership initiated their own anti-Semitic crusade. The head of the Jewish community, Lajos Stöckier, was arrested. So was the chief of the former Jewish Hospital, László Benedek (though he was a loyal Communist), and a number of Jewish doctors. Like their counterparts in Moscow, the Hungarian Jewish physicians were to be charged with medical crimes.
The leaders of the Jewish central committee of social affairs, the brothers Szücs, were driven to suicide in this campaign, while the Jewish Muscovites rewrote their biographies and recast their style of life to appear more Magyar than the Magyars. Rákosi’s official biography now claimed he was descended from the lower Magyar gentry; at the same time, Rákosi spread the false rumor that his leading rival within the party leadership, Imre Nagy, was a Jew.
There now began a clear policy of eliminating Jews from positions of leadership and from the lower cadres of the party. Vas, the chairman of central planning, was purged. Jews were eliminated as officers of the police and the AVO; in January 1953, Gábor Péter himself was imprisoned. Plans were made for an anti-cosmopolitan, anti-Zionist show trial, at which Péter would be a star defendant. Only the death of Stalin prevented the anti-Semitic trial, which would have been presided over by Jewish Communists.
The end of the Titoist specter and the revolt of the East Berliners against Soviet domination in June 1953 gave Stalin’s successors second thoughts about Soviet policy in Eastern Europe. Rákosi was summoned to Moscow and chastised before the Presidium—though he had merely carried out faithfully the policy of his Russian model, including the cult of personality. Beria addressed Rákosi in words which echoed the Tharauds’ Quand Israël est roi of three decades before: “We know that there have been in Hungary, apart from its own rulers, Turkish sultans, Austrian emperors, Tartar khans, and Polish princes. But, as far as we know, Hungary has never had a Jewish king. Apparently this is what you have become. Well, you can be sure we won’t allow it.”
Rákosi was replaced as premier by the non-Jewish Imre Nagy. But the Soviets, who considered Rákosi and Gerö the most slavishly reliable of the Hungarian Communists, soon put Rákosi back in the saddle (in April 1955). Rákosi then had Nagy expelled from the party. On both sides of the struggle between the Stalinists and the more reformist Communists around Nagy, Jews were well-represented.
As the threat of popular revolution grew in Hungary, the Soviet leadership reluctantly decided to sacrifice the Jewish Muscovites. In July 1956, Rákosi was removed from office by the Soviets and spirited away to Moscow in disgrace. His successor, Gerö, proved no more popular but less crafty; in October, with revolution under way in the streets of Budapest, it was his turn for the flight to Moscow, as the Russians offered their support to Nagy.
When the spontaneous revolution threatened the overthrow of the Communist regime, even non-Communist Hungarian Jews (especially outside the capital) came to fear for their lives, on the grounds that Jews as such were identified with Communism in the public mind. During the “Hungarian October” and its aftermath, over 20,000 of the 120,000 Jews remaining in Hungary departed for the West. In November, Nagy’s bold attempt to form a multiparty government and withdraw from the Warsaw Pact led to Soviet intervention and the brutal repression of the Hungarian revolution.
János Kádáar, a Communist who had himself been tortured by the secret police during the Rákosi era, was installed by the Soviets as their new man in Budapest. Desperate for public support, some members of the Kádár regime tried to “play the national card.” One of Kádár’s ministers, György Márosan—whose wife was of Jewish origin—emphasized in his speeches that the new leadership was not made up of Jews. Many of the Jews who remained in Hungary, afraid that popular loathing of the former Muscovite leadership would result in an outbreak of overt anti-Semitism, rallied to Kádár nevertheless. While he was in power, Jews were not excluded from positions of prestige and responsibility. With the transfer of leadership to Károly Grósz in May of this year, their future in Hungary remains an open question.
Events elsewhere in the postwar Soviet bloc followed a similar pattern, often with more disastrous results for the Jews. The consolidation of Communist hegemony under Muscovite leadership was regularly followed by the subversion of the organized Jewish community, with Zionists singled out for especially harsh treatment. As the masses increasingly showed themselves ready to engage in open revolt against the hated system imposed by the USSR, the Soviets everywhere tried to sacrifice the Jewish Muscovites and replace them with less unpopular “native” Communist leaders. These in turn often found it convenient to divert anti-Communist sentiment into the channels of anti-Semitism.
In Czechoslovakia, where the Communists established their dictatorship in 1948, the general secretary of the party was Rudolf Slansky, a veteran Communist of Jewish origin, and a Muscovite. With Communist hegemony secure, a purge aimed at non-Moscow Communists was set in motion in 1950. Jews were conspicuous objects of a second wave of purges in 1951, which included among its victims the deputy general secretary of the party, Josef Frank, and Jewish deputy ministers of foreign affairs, foreign trade, and finance. Finally, in November 1951, Slansky—who less than two years earlier had offered the official tribute to Stalin on the occasion of the latter’s seventieth birthday—was arrested.
Slansky became the focus of the most infamous show trial of the postwar era, organized with the close cooperation of agents of the Soviet ministry of state security. Of the fourteen leading party members placed on trial for crimes against the state in 1952, twelve were Jews. In the official indictment, their names were followed by the words “of Jewish origin.” The charges against them included “Zionism,” “Titoism,” “Trotskyism,” and collaboration with “Western imperialist espionage.” All of the defendants were convicted, and eleven were sentenced to death.
All this happened in a country where most Jews had reacted to the coming of Communism by getting up and going. By 1950, three-quarters of the Jews of Czechoslovakia had emigrated, leaving fewer than 20,000, or one-fifteenth of 1 percent of the population. Just as this did not prevent Slansky and the others from being tried and convicted as Jews, it did not prevent the Czech government from launching a vehement anti-Zionist campaign in 1968.
In Rumania, the old Muscovite leadership in which minorities in general and Jews in particular loomed so large was replaced in a deliberate policy of “Rumanianization.” The process began with the purge of Ana Pauker in 1952, and continued under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. Under Pauker an intensive anti-Zionist campaign had been launched in 1949. The arrest and imprisonment of Zionists continued through the 1950’s. (In Rumania, too, Jews did their best to depart. Of the 385,000 Jews in the country at war’s end, 256,000 remained in 1949; by 1955, there were fewer than 200,000.)
In East Germany, where there were few Jews and almost no Jewish Muscovites, the process occurred in miniature and with variations. Early in 1953, Gerhard Eisler was dropped from the Office of Information. Paul Merker, a former member of the Politburo known for his philo-Semitism, was arrested and plans were made to put him on trial for his contacts with “agents of Western imperialism.” Jews were arrested by the security police and imprisoned. After the announcement of the “Doctors’ Plot” in Pravda on January 13, 1953, the leaders of the Jewish communities of East Berlin, Dresden, Erfurt, and Leipzig escaped to the West. In the weeks that followed they were joined by hundreds of other East German Jews. Stalin’s death brought an end to the threat against the few Jews remaining in East Germany.
In Poland the pattern was the same, but the results more dramatic. There the regime was headed by a Communist of Catholic origin, Boles-law Bierut, but as we have seen, the head of the security service, Jakub Berman, the chief of the economic planning commission, Hilary Minc, and one of the party’s leading ideologists, Roman Werfel, were all of Jewish origin. Minc presided over the raising of work norms and shrinkage of the standard of living entailed by the Soviet Union’s demands upon the Polish economy, while Werfel toed the stultifying Zhdanovist line in the cultural realm. The pattern of Jewish over-representation in the party and especially in the security services made the highly unpopular regime less popular still.
In 1954, on orders from the Soviet embassy, leading Jewish members of the Polish regime were demoted. After popular revolt against Stalinism reached its peak in October 1956, the Muscovite leadership was replaced by the “nativist” Wladyslaw Gomulka, and Berman and the other Jewish Muscovites were blamed for the “errors” of the past. Those few Jews who elected to remain in Poland—Jewish institutions had been liquidated in 1949-50, and by 1953 fewer than 40,000 Jews were left in the country—were largely purged in the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968. The last remnants of the Communist Jewish intelligentsia were dropped, to the satisfaction of the younger generation of cadres born and raised in the new Poland.
The history of Jews and Communism in Central and Eastern Europe deserves a fuller chronicle and more detailed analysis. Historians who have focused on the utopian ideals espoused by revolutionary Jews have diverted attention from the fact that these Communists of Jewish origin, no less than their non-Jewish counterparts, were led by their ideals to take part in heinous crimes—against Jews and non-Jews alike. Moreover, the conspicuous role played by Jews in the Communist movement, though rarely the primary cause of anti-Jewish sentiment, nevertheless fanned the flames of anti-Semitism. The prediction of the chief rabbi of Moscow proved tragically prophetic: “The Trotskys make the revolutions, and the Bronsteins pay the bills.”
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Communism, Anti-Semitism & the Jews
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The president's blind spot.
You could sense a disturbance in the force on Tuesday, as center-left identitarian social-justice activists awoke to the news that former President Barack Obama had set fire to the exclusionary identity politics at the heart of what it means to be “woke.”
“This is hard,” Obama told the audience at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in South Africa. For participatory republican democracy to work, the president added, pluralism was a non-negotiable prerequisite. Toxic identity politics that segregate based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other demographic signifier is the enemy of that kind of pluralism. “You can’t do this if you just out-of-hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start,” he said. “You can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you because they’re white or because they’re male, that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”
Now, Obama was speaking about the context of political life in South Africa, where ethnic whites make up less than 10 percent of the population. South Africa’s complicated history, persistent racial disparities, and the associated violence render the problem Obama was addressing an urgent one, and it is not directly applicable to civic life in the United States. And yet, stripped of its regional context, you could be forgiven for thinking that Obama was taking a swipe at his compatriots.
Washington State’s Evergreen State College exploded last year when biology professor Bret Weinstein objected to a student-led initiative called the “day of absence,” in which white students were asked to voluntarily leave campus. Weinstein called it a form of racial segregation. In turn, he was called a racist by students, whose ensuing protests managed to close down the school for three days. Weinstein and his wife resigned and later cost the school a half-million dollars in a settlement over their treatment.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni observed, people like Mark Lilla, a Democrat and opponent of identity politics, come under attack from progressive activists who take issue, not with their ideas, but with their race and gender. “White men: stop telling me about my experiences!” read the graffiti that Bruni recalled seeing deface an advertisement for a campus talk Lilla was prepared to deliver in 2017.
It only seems to become difficult for liberals to find evidence of the left’s efforts to silence those with perceived majoritarian traits when they are called to account for this separatism. It is not hard to substantiate the accusation that liberals have made a habit of demanding that straights, whites, males, or any combination thereof, stifle themselves in favor of women and minorities. The impulse to define individuals by their accidents of birth is by definition exclusionary, and it is one that any pluralist society cannot abide. Obama’s admonishment was as welcome as it was universally applicable. It’s a shame that his commitment to it is entirely cosmetic.
Hours had not passed before Obama was again paying homage to the diktats of liberal identity politics. “Women in particular, by the way, I want you to get more involved,” the former president told an audience in Johannesburg. “Because men have been getting on my nerves lately.” He added that men have been “violent,” “bullying,” and “just not handling our business.” Again, the context of these remarks was supposedly limited to affairs in sub-Saharan Africa, but they are hard to divorce from the abuses uncovered by a handful of men almost exclusively occupying positions of power and status in the United States uncovered as a result of the #MeToo movement.
This contradictory behavior is standard fare for America’s 44th president. He has at times eloquently attacked the “crude” identity politics that pits Americans against one another, but these flashes of brilliance were few and far between. Barack Obama was a politician catering to a constituency, and that constituency took to divisive identitarianism like fish in water.
It was Barack Obama who pledged to “punish” the “enemies” of America’s Latino population, and it was his vice president who insisted that Mitt Romney, of all people, wanted to reinstate black slavery. When the president only called on women at a 2014 press conference, his White House made sure to call around to reporters after the fact to make sure they noticed. It was the Obama administration who spent years promoting the pernicious idea that American employers systematically discriminated against women even though his own Bureau of Labor Statistics insisted that the 77 cents myth was almost entirely the product of individual choices. It was Barack Obama’s attorney general who implied that Republican opposition to Obama (and himself) was a product of their racial animus.
“The Obama family’s tenure in the White House has overlapped a revolution in the way Americans deal with identity,” read an NPR retrospective on the Obama years. “From race to religion, from gender to sexual orientation and beyond, marginalized groups that historically worked and waited for ‘a seat at the table’ increasingly demanded their share of cultural power.” What’s more, demographics that were once the locus of American cultural power “were called on to defend their ideas and ‘check their privilege.’”
Latent hostility toward African Americans even among outwardly non-discriminatory Americans deserves as much blame for this phenomenon as any acts of agitation by Obama and his fellow Democrats. The racial provocateurs and hucksters on the right who leveraged white anxiety to their financial benefits played as much of a role in establishing the sorry state of affairs that typifies our present. But a fair reading of Obama’s time in office must concede that the president liked to condemn the theory of identity politics more than he eschewed it in practice. The aspirations that led a whopping 70 percent to say in 2009 that Obama’s presidency would improve race relations had all but evaporated by 2014, well before Donald Trump descended down the escalator.
Divisive identity politics is now how both political parties approach the electorate. As a tool, it has proven too effective for any competent political operation to abjure. Barack Obama appears to recognize that this is a tragedy, but he is not yet willing to take responsibility for the role he played in our lamentable condition.
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Trumpism is a disposition, not an ideology.
Since Donald Trump took the oath of office, he has vacillated between extremes. One day, he’s running a laudably conventional Republican administration. The next, he’s taking a sledgehammer to the conventions that define America’s national identity. Conservatives who opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 can expect to be regularly berated by their right-of-center compatriots—justifiably on occasion—who cannot understand why they maintain their suspicion of this conventional Republican administration. But those Trump skeptics only have to wait for the inevitable heel-turn, when Donald Trump again acts like Donald Trump and the wisdom of their skepticism is confirmed. The Trump skeptic’s purgatorial torment is without end.
The only real question is whether this dynamic will outlast Donald Trump’s days in the Oval Office. Will Republican voters gravitate toward the Trumpian version of Donald Trump or to his more ordinary persona? Some, like The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis, claim the question answers itself. The erudite and morally discerning party of Ronald Reagan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and William F. Buckley is no more. It’s a cult of personality now, and that personality is uniquely unsavory and corrupting. While it is easy to succumb to despair in moments like these, I think Lewis may be wrong, in part, because he’s asking the wrong question.
In praising her moral authority, Lewis cites Kirkpatrick’s antipathy toward her former comrades in the Democratic Party who “blame America first,” an unattractive trait that the Trumpain GOP has adopted. But the 1979 COMMENTARY essay and subsequent book that propelled Kirkpatrick to the helm of the American Mission to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, “Dictators and Double Standards,” was a case against a rigidly ideological foreign policy. It was an argument in favor of a realist approach to foreign affairs based on a grand strategic commitment to principle and was, therefore, duplicable. Donald Trump, by contrast, has no ideology and his style has proven harder for his disciples to mimic.
Trump’s press conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin stood out not just because he defended Russian attacks on U.S. interests and disparaged his own Cabinet officials—it also reflected his deep obsessions. Perhaps the most notable line from that event occurred when Trump dwelled inexplicably on Hillary Clinton’s email server. “What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails?” he asked. “33,000 emails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily.” Implied in these comments is the assumption that an authoritarian nation like Russia would not allow unmonitored channels of communication in the first place.
These comments aren’t pro-Putin so much as they are pro-autocrat. What’s more, they are akin to comments Trump recently made about the increasingly autocratic president of Turkey. According to Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer, Trump expressed frustration over the political process that prevented democratic NATO member states from hiking their defense budgets by decree. “‘Except for [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan over here,” Bremmer recalled Trump saying of the Turkish leader. “He does things the right way.” It’s hardly the first time Trump has heaped praise on Erdoğan even amid his regular crackdowns on Turkish dissenters, and no one has alleged that Trump has any particular affinity for Ankara. Nor has anyone established “collusion” between the Trump campaign and North Korea, but that didn’t stop Trump from praising Kim Jong-un as an “honorable” and adept leader.
What these comments reveal is an affection for illiberalism because it is pragmatic; he does not have an attachment to Putinism per se. That’s important. There is a substantial faction on the right that has convinced itself of the blinkered belief that Putin stands for all that they hold dear. They believe—erroneously, as it happens—the propagandist line that Putin is a savior of Christianity. They see him as a bulwark in defense of Western civilization, primarily or in part because of his government’s hostility toward the LGBTQ community and championing the rights of ethnic Russians.
This Buchananite wing of the GOP really believes all this earnestly, but does Trump? He’s given no indication that he has any ideological opposition to gay rights or religious freedoms. His hostility toward immigrant groups is, ultimately, a problematic proposition for Republicans interested in the long-term electoral health of the party. Authoritarianism, like extremism, is a tool to achieve certain circumspect ends, not an end in itself. The ends of Trumpism remain relatively undefined. If Trump’s primary attachment to Putin isn’t ideological but rooted solely in his affection for undemocratic systems, it is going to be hard for conventional Republicans to mirror what is essentially a disposition, not a doctrine.
And that leads us to the most compelling evidence that Trumpism’s hold over the GOP may end up being ephemeral. The secret of Donald Trump’s presidency is that it receives its highest marks when the president moves in directions preferred by establishmentarian Republicans and traditional conservatives—when Trump sticks to reading from the script, nominating Bush-era judges to the Supreme Court, or aggressively containing Russian revanchism. But when Trump reverts to a form he perfected on the campaign trail—when he’s calling equatorial nations “s***holes,” apologizing for white supremacists, attacking his critics’ physical appearance on Twitter, or blaming America for Russian attacks on U.S. interests—the bottom falls out. Republican lawmakers break ranks to criticize him and, on occasion, force Trump to walk his incitements back. Trump-skeptical Republicans continue to exercise a level of influence over the GOP disproportionate to their relative numbers. That might help explain why this routed, rump caucus of malcontents without a broad constituency haunts the imaginations of so many committed Trump Republicans.
Ultimately, all bets are off if the president wins a second term in office. Two-term presidents have a habit of remaking their parties, regardless of the odor about them when they lift off from the White House lawn in Marine One. And even if Trump’s legacy is limited to one term, it’s possible that his hostility toward free trade and comprehensive solutions to America’s illegal immigrant population may persist as the dominating views in his party. But the evidence today that the GOP has been thoroughly remade in Trump’s image is remarkably superficial. Republican lawmakers talk a game just good enough to boost the president’s ego and flatter his phalanx of defenders in the conservative press, but talk is cheap. And the wall is still unbuilt.
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The man knows his constituency.
President Trump’s joint news conference Monday with Vladimir Putin was a catastrophe. On that, all but the most servile of his apologists agree. Not even latter-day consul Publius Decius Mus, aka Michael Anton, could rouse himself to defend the president on CNN. Here was the putative leader of the free world giving voice to sophomoric nonsense better suited to a Noam Chomsky seminar.
Even before the event itself got underway, Trump went full Chomsky with a pre-conference tweet blaming Washington for the state of U.S.-Russian relations: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity. . . .”
That sent the right’s Trump-whisperers scrambling. They insisted that the “foolishness” Trump had in mind was Obama’s weak posture. But given Trump’s refusal at various points to condemn Russian meddling in elections across the West and illegal annexation of Crimea—not to mention his persistent reluctance to criticize Putin directly—the rest of us can’t be blamed for thinking that by “foolishness” Trump meant “American hawkishness.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s pithy response to Trump’s tweet cleared up any remaining doubt: “We agree.”
Chomsky should be proud. He has won legions of fans over the decades, mainly among the simple and the half-erudite who imagine the MIT professor’s jeremiads offer secret knowledge of the way the world really works. And the key to that secret knowledge is that the U.S. is just as bad, if not worse than, its most vicious adversaries among rogue and revanchist regimes.
Trump has long had a Chomskyite streak, of course. Recall his flirtations with 9/11 trutherism amid the GOP primary campaign; his claim that President Obama quite literally founded ISIS (“ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He is the founder of ISIS, okay? He is the founder”); and the moral parallel he drew between the U.S. and Russia’s thugocracy in an interview with Bill O’Reilly soon after he took office.
But all that paled next to the spectacle of Trump humiliating America’s security apparatus, elevating the Kremlin’s global prestige, and crediting Putin’s incredible denials of election interference—all while standing next to the Russian strongman, who grinned Cheshire-like with a look of ironical amusement in his eyes.
Trump’s comments and the whole Helsinki affair look even worse against the backdrop of his rhetorical assaults on America’s European allies during the earlier NATO summit in Brussels. Not all of his criticisms were wide of the mark. As I wrote last week, the president was right to take Germany to task for a pipeline deal that would enhance Moscow’s energy dominance in Europe. But to describe the EU as a “foe,” as Trump did, and then to follow that comment with the grotesque moral equivalences of Helsinki marked a dismal moment in the history of the American presidency.
The best that can be said for Trump’s performance is that it doesn’t reflect his administration’s policies. The president might babble, but his babble is just that—for now. While he chums it up with Putin, Trump is arming Ukraine, blowing up Russian operatives in Syria, squeezing Moscow’s Iranian clients, and so forth. All this is an improvement over Trump’s predecessor, whose deference and pusillanimity toward the Kremlin took policy form.
But the policy defense only goes so far. For starters, we are already witnessing a rollback on the policy front. Jimmy Quinn notes at National Review that Trump may be rethinking his opposition to the Nord Stream II pipeline. Following his gabfest with Putin, Trump appeared to have changed his mind about the project, telling reporters that he now understands “where they’re all coming from,” and adding: “So I’ll just wish them luck.”
Foreign policy isn’t just about the policies a nation pursues. Statements and symbolism and personal signals matter enormously. As my colleague Noah Rothman has repeatedly argued in these pages, the danger in all this obsequy toward Moscow is that it might cause Putin to miscalculate Trump’s own parameters and trigger American tripwires, which in turn could lead to a rapid military escalation for which neither great power is prepared.
And what are the likes of Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic States, which live under the shadow of Putinist aggression, to make of all this? Whatever their qualms with the European Union and its mandarins, the citizens and leaders of these nations know the difference between the free air of the West and the stultifying, corrupt air that pervades the Kremlin sphere. They can’t afford for the American president to channel Noam Chomsky.
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When the silly get serious.
Maybe geographic “sorting,” in which like-minded people tend to herd themselves into politically homogeneous communities, is to blame. Maybe social media and the caustic, stubborn posturing it rewards is at fault. Maybe it’s always been this way. Whatever the cause, it has become an undeniable fact that getting ahead in public life demands some deference to unmitigated stupidity.
Take, for example, a couple of recent pronouncements by the Democratic Party’s newest celebrity: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her victory over her county’s Democratic Party chairman and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives in last month’s primary was no small feat, but that accomplishment has led some political observers to assign to her a level of political competence that she has not yet earned.
The 28-year-old who in all likelihood will soon serve as the representative from New York’s 14th Congressional district was recently asked by “Firing Line” host Margaret Hoover to discuss her frustrations with the state of Israel. Ocasio-Cortez described Israel’s response to violent provocations on its border with Gaza as a “massacre,” and explained that the “occupation” of Palestinian lands represents an “increasing crisis of humanitarian condition.” But where other members of the media might have moved on or finished Ocasio-Cortez’s half-baked thought for her, Hoover admirably asked the future congresswoman to elaborate.
“I think what I meant is, like, the settlements that are increasing in these areas, where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes,”Ocasio-Cortez said. Hoover asked again for more elaboration, at which point Ocasio-Cortez gave up the game. “I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue,” she said with a chuckle. These are only talking points, you see. She didn’t really know what she was talking about.
Gaza is, of course, not occupied. Indeed, the land was ethnically cleansed of Jews over a decade ago. Most of the West Bank’s civilian settlements, a footprint that takes up approximately 2 percent of the land in the region, will be apportioned to Israel in any viable peace deal (as had been the case in past deals). To think critically on the matter for a few minutes would leave any rational observer to wonder why the violence in unoccupied Gaza erupted with a ferocity that was not reproduced in the supposedly occupied West Bank. But no one is doing much thinking here. These were statements of fealty to a cause, not a principle.
This isn’t the first time Ocasio-Cortez should have disappointed her indefatigable boosters. Shortly after her election victory, she appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” where she was asked if tax increases could pay for her preferred agenda items: Medicare-for-all, free post-graduate education at state institutions, expanded Social Security, and a federal employment guarantee. “Not only that,” she replied, “but also to understand that the federal government does have the ability in the similar way that we had in the New Deal to spearhead this agenda and some of that financing as well.” Pardon?
To a certain segment of the left, this non-answer is a perfectly justified dodge because the honest response to this question is politically untenable. You see, to some on the new left, we don’t have to pay for anything. The United States mints its own currency, sets its value, and can finance through loans whatever it wants—even including what experts estimate could be the $32 trillion price tag on a single-payer healthcare program. Ocasio-Cortez’s incomprehensible dissimulation was an evasive maneuver, but a necessary one. After all, according to Senator Bernie Sanders, such a program would require the country to spend “such an astronomical sum of money that, you know, we would bankrupt the nation.” But the self-described socialist from Vermont said that in 1987, back when moving up in Democratic politics meant paying obeisance to other stupid ideas.
Medicare-for-all is one of many politically and arithmetically untenable ideas so obviously unfeasible that only intelligent people could erect logical constructs elaborate enough to convince themselves of their viability. For political superstars like Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez, a little tactical stupidity is a valuable asset. After all, there is a big marketplace available to those who are willing to tell you what you already believe.
If conservatives are inclined to take heart in the fact that these liberal slogans are unlikely to manifest in policy when Democrats regain political power, a brief survey of the GOP’s attempts to realize its own stupid ideas should disabuse them of that hope. Foremost among those has to be the Trumpified Republican Party’s hostility toward the kind of global free-trade regimes the party had spent the better part of the prior twenty years establishing.
On balance, barrier-free trade creates more winners than losers, raises standards of living, reduces poverty across the board, and limits the potential for armed conflict between nations. Republicans know this implicitly, if only because they have spent so much energy in the Trump era lamenting the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in all but name. The Trump administration’s rapidly expanding trade war with China, a project that is cheered on by even his erstwhile GOP critics, would have been advanced by that 11-nation agreement that excluded the People’s Republic. Hardly a week goes by that the Trump administration doesn’t lament unfair barriers to accessing Southeast Asian markets, Japanese protectionism, Australian competition, or Canadian dairy subsidization. All of this and more would have been resolved in America’s favor in a post-TPP world.
The president’s heedless antagonism toward both America’s allies and its strategic competitors are not without cost. If fully implemented, the increased prices of consumer goods and reduced access to foreign markets could shave as much as .3 to .4 percent off quarterly GDP growth. The economy can absorb these unnecessary blows, but there is otherwise no logic buttressing this policy. Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail to deliver a policy that would disproportionately harm all American consumers to preserve only a few thousand inefficient jobs, and he delivered. There’s a lesson there. No one should put their faith in arithmetic to save them from the socialist utopia Democrats promise today.