[Belknap Press; 2020]
Part of the confusion of contemporary antisemitism is in the role of “ideation” in the bigotry: conscious ideologies are an important part of how it functions. Antisemitism requires accusation and conspiracy, and “alternative facts” must be believed to reinforce its emotional value. Like any form of bigotry and oppression, antisemitism has its own particularities, so much so that it is often discussed not as just a form of racism but something else entirely. The stereotype of the Jew, an emotional archetype totally separate from actual Jews and Judaism, is of a conniving cabalistic cretin, one poised to poison the otherwise good Aryan people. How does he trick them into betraying their own naturalistic impulses for survival? With communism, of course.
The idea that communism is a Jewish plot for control, or a thoroughly Judaized ideology, is such a deep part of 20th and 21st Century antisemitism that it feels almost redundant to discuss it. It is a persistent feature of the far-right to locate Jews at the center of both Marxism and its supposed analogue (“mass immigration,” social liberalism, internationalism, etc.). This allegation has little to say about actual Jews, both contemporarily and historically, because, as Paul Hanebrick studies in A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo Bolshevism, the Jews were no more present than other ethnicities in the rise of Bolshevism, and where there was a certain amount of Jewish presence, it is one of the most easily explained historical phenomenon.
While Hanebrick’s book appears to trace the entire history of the Judeo-Bolshevik concept, one that accuses Jews as being the responsible parties for the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the “Red Menace” everywhere else, it actually is regionally and temporally specific. This book is not about the Jewish-Communist myth as such, but specifically how it played out in Central and Eastern Europe before and after the Second World War. This does seem like a missed opportunity since the way that Judeo-Bolshevism continued to play out in post-war far-right parties in Western Europe, in white nationalism and the Alt Right in the U.S., and how it has mutated into “Cultural Marxism” in much of the Western world’s right-wing press is relevant. But it’s not Hanebrick’s corner. Instead, as his previous work shows, he is much more professionally positioned to write about Jews in countries like Hungary and Romania. Still, the lessons here have profound implications, both for understanding how antisemitism works and simply how ideas form and shift in a populace, both right and left.
Hanebrick starts out immediately dismissing the concept of Judeo-Bolshevism because it “reduces the complicated intellectual, emotional, and existential attachments that Communism inspired in so many — Jews and non-Jews alike — to a simplistic question of ‘belief.’ It focuses disproportionate attention on one political choice that some Jews made, ignoring the much richer diversity of Jewish politics in the twentieth century.” What the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism achieves, though, is creating a “cultural code” by which Jews are linked up with the “negative” features of modernity, such as the alienation of urban life that occurred in the modernization of these countries away from agrarian post-feudal life. The term “antisemitism” itself was created by Wilhelm Marr as a forward thinking description of his supposed opposition to Jewish behavior, who he believed to be the agents of this wave of modernity that perverted the lifestyles and thinking of Gentiles. This ideation of oppression, whether or not the bigotry or the ideology came first, has led to complex theoretical constructs for how Jews work. The idea of Judeo-Bolshevism is an extension of this, a tool to explain how Jews manipulate and change the otherwise pure societies they enter into as unaligned rootless cosmopolitans.
In line with the antisemitism of the era in Eastern Europe, the 1917 revolution was believed by many to be led by Jews, and horror stories of Jewish victimizers spread rapidly without evidence. Jewish leaders in these countries were put on their heels to explain away the supposed Jewish Communism or denounce it even more vigorously than their opponents, but all of this neglected what Hanebrick called the small “kernel of truth.” There was some Jewish participation in socialist movements, particularly in Russia, and the explanation was simple: they were an oppressed people and communism was a way out. Just as socialist movements have attracted large constituencies in other marginalized ethnic or social groups, Jews participated in these parties in areas where they had been victims of state or pogrommatic violence, and wanted “to slip the bonds of traditional communities, to embrace social and cultural opportunities that modernity offered, or to feel themselves part of the sweep of history.”
That said, the numbers still weren’t profoundly significant in most cases, and the Jews that participated were largely secular, not strictly identified with Judaism or Zionism. Hanebrick spends most of his time discussing the ideas, not just refuting them, but he does quickly show that the demographic figures do not even remotely match the antisemitic characterizations, which is to say there was just about as many Jews as there were any other ethnic or religious group participating in revolutionary politics.
The belief in Judeo-Bolshevism, however, had a massive currency in moving right-wing politics along. It bled together with other Christian antisemitic stereotypes and blood libels, which is where its narrative core originated, and could “refashion old fears of Jewish conspiracy or Jewish fanaticism” and hold a “rich symbolic power.” Much of the reason that antisemitism is held onto today is its emotionally explanatory power to create a satisfying story to explain suffering and alienation. This does not have to be factually true — the Jews of these myths are mere stand ins for complicated social forces — but the symbolic value can be so profound that people will ignore facts and reason to focus their animus.
Hanebrick traces significant historical events through this lens: World War I, the Hungarian Revolution of Bela Kuhn, the Weimar period, and all of the events in Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Poland leading into World War II. While Germany gets special attention, and its use of Judeo-Bolshevism is the most obvious and striking, we learn the least from it. More powerful are analyses of antisemitism in the surrounding countries where it was not the state’s central mission to demonize Jews and communism, but instead a deeply believed narrative that created shifting impulses. In Germany, the idea that Jewish interlopers from Russia were brutalizing people helped to move the populace and military along a spectrum to eventually support, and participate in, atrocities. Judeo-Bolshevism created a complex system of thought, where Jews were agents of not just national destruction, but unmistakable and legendary cruelties against the innocent. Here the “concept of Judeo-Bolshevism provided a shared language for a broader set of beliefs about national culture and the kind of Europe in which it might flourish.” The violence of the opponent is not enough to create buy-in, their existence has to truly undermine all that is possible in yourself. The nationalism of these countries is the counter-narrative that the Jews allegedly could snuff out a peaceful identitarian land that will lead to all promised utopias. Just as contemporary antisemitic figures like Kevin MacDonald, who believes Judaism is a “group evolutionary strategy” to confuse the Goyim, many of the Nazis argued that Marxism was a “complex system that enabled them to rule and exploit enormous masses of people,” that Russia had been overthrown by the Jews using this false ideology, and that they were using it now as the cover for what was a Jewish procession across the globe. Later authors, particularly far-right ones, have tried to blame the violence of Nazi Germany simply on their anticommunism, but the Nazis actually centered their hatred of Jews as the core ideological component, following through on annihilation even when it meant they would lose the war. Even when used cynically by state officials to drum up support, the emotional weight of antisemitism was so motivated that it became an end in itself, the myth so powerful in its ability to inspire violence.
Hanebrick traces a profound shift that happened as all of these countries, to some degree, were then occupied by the Soviet Union, and their rabid antisemitism and anticommunism had to go somewhere. This happened as Jews became visible in public life again, a brutal Soviet occupation began, and power was now being used by the previously denounced Eastern European communist parties. Antisemitism became an anchor in the ideological shift that the countries took. First Jews were associated with communism, but eventually they also came to symbolize the abstractions of capitalism as well. This became a common, if more subtle, feature of Soviet propaganda and the way that antisemitism was used as a political motivator. Jews could be discussed “as a people indistinguishable from capitalism, whose economic interests automatically made them the agents of speculation, exploitation, and reaction.” While today Judeo-Bolshevism is a part of the antisemitic libel, it is not the only piece. Instead, Jews are tied to both capitalism and communism since the far-right is opposed to both manifestations. White nationalists will argue that both systems are “materialist” and “internationalist,” and capable of destroying the national identity of a people. Therefore, Jews must be the agents behind both since they are the motivating force behind this degenerate modernity.
Hanebrick also traces the development of a second idea: Judeo-Christianity. Switching the enemy from fascism to communism, many in the West began to say that this was all the same enemy: totalitarianism. Jews were a part of the shared history with Christianity, and thus members of an assumed alliance in the fight against the Reds. This had a political utility, but it also eventually marked the millennialism of the coming evangelical power structure in the U.S., and its committed support of Israel through Christian Zionism.
The final chapter of the book, while enjoyable, feels ill placed. It covers mostly the literature published in later years and how it deals with the Holocaust as well as some choice incidents of antisemitic behavior in the surveyed countries. This feels less than comprehensive and out of pace with the rest of the book, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the discussions about authors like Ernst Nolte and Arno Mayer. What it clearly shows is a continued lack of consensus for how antisemitism is to be understood and the significance of the Shoah. We talk about the Holocaust with such a unified voice, but it is actually relatively recently that the Jewish genocide is discussed with the prominence it is, and many people still seek to dethrone it from its central importance.
A Specter Haunting Europe is well written and useful, but incredibly limited in scope. You can only expect a scholar to have so much of an academic reach, and it is probably better that Hanebrick stayed in his lane when producing this book. It does feel as though we need a second (or a third or a fourth) book to really flesh out the concept. Almost nothing is said about the contemporary role of antisemitism, though it does close with profound insights about how the history of antisemitic conspiracy theories can help us understand, and thwart, the rise of similar Islamophobic ideas today. This is, itself, an interesting turn for the author, since it helps to universalize antisemitism in a way that was also criticized in the chapter surveying contemporary literature. I agree with Hanebrick, we need to utilize our understanding of antisemitism to fight Islamophobia and treat them as a shared struggle. So that is a fine way to close it. Still, some insights for how contemporary white nationalism has maintained a similar antisemitic historiography would be useful as well.
I couldn’t help but think about Enzo Traverso’s The Jewish Question while reading this, which traces how Marxists, particularly Jewish Marxists, historically dealt with how to end antisemitism. He spends a particular amount of time discussing literally “Judeo-Marxism,” which is less about a Jewish Marxism than how Marxism was experienced by Jews. As the antisemitic narrative shifts, its accusations of ideology shift as well, so in a way the story here is less about any supposed connections between Judaism and Marxism. Instead it is about the placing of Jews at the center of whatever the destructive force of the day is, all of them somehow bound to the destruction of Gentile society. As far-right politics rise around Europe and the U.S., understanding this process only becomes more pressing, and a shared struggle against both Islamophobia and antisemitism seem like the only way forward.
When I was preparing to write this review I thought I would look up earlier reviews of the book. The first that came up in a Google search was one published at the Occidental Observer, a white nationalist periodical known for its unending obsession with Jews. They piled through the pages of the book, challenging points of history and offering alternative interpretations. The simple fact that this kind of review is so easily accessible, so impossibly disguised under the image of pseudo-scholarship, shows that Hanebrick’s history is not so distant after all.
Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End
It (AK Press, 2017). His work has appeared in Jacobin, Salon, Truthout, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence, ThinkProgress, Political Research Associates, Alternet, and Roar Magazine.