Review of Paul Hanebrink, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 3 (September 2019)

Review of Paul Hanebrink, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018). 284 Pp. ISBN: 9780674047686.

By Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Pacific Lutheran University

The Jobbik Party of Hungary. Greece’s Golden Dawn. The Neo-Confederate movement in the United States and countless other nationalist extremist movements. What unites all of them on a certain level is their adoption of the rhetoric chiefly associated in many people’s minds with Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich: that of a worldwide Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy out to destroy traditional Christian morality and age-old civilizations. Paul Hanebrink’s examination into the origins and power of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth offers readers the opportunity to think – not about how true the Judeo-Bolshevik myth is, but rather, “to understand why it has been and remains so powerful” (5).

Hanebrink’s work has been influenced by the approach taken by Israeli historian Shulamit Volkov whose work on nineteenth-century Germany explained the rise of antisemitic language as part of a response to the many unsettling experiences caused by the late unification of Germany. No matter how quickly economic modernization, rapid urbanization, and cultural changes were dislocating people in Germany, Volkov argued that the use of antisemitic rhetoric and tropes about Jews were part of a “cultural code.” By addressing the “Jewish Question” an individual could then respond with solutions to the so-called problem. This often allowed many people to believe that the problems they were experiencing in their daily lives could be explained by one, all-powerful disruptor: the Jew. Hanebrink explores the use of the “Judeo-Bolshevik myth” over the course of different time periods and across various countries in Europe and the United States, allowing the reader to track how this destructive myth about Jews varied over the course of the twentieth century and to ponder why the myth continues to persist so powerfully into the twenty-first.

Following the unsettling and devastating impact of the First World War and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, much of Europe seemed to be in a state of revolutionary flux. Much like the work of Robert Gerwarth,[1] Hanebrink opens his work with the reality that, for so many Europeans, the First World War did not really end in November 1918. War and revolution continued on in many places, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, so that the experience of many people was not one of peace and stability but simply a continuation of the violence of 1914-1918. With so many revolutions breaking out in such a time of instability and dislocation, the search was on for the root cause of such upheavals. The answer that presented itself to so many people was a simple one: Jews were the face of revolution and revolutions seemed to be breaking out everywhere. From Munich, Germany, to Hungary, Romania, Poland, Russia, left-wing attempts to take over governments and countries led to an atmosphere of the total upheaval of societal norms. The one element that so many could agree upon was the role that Jews played in leftist activity. Hanebrink does not deny the involvement of some Jews in each of these movements, but he works hard to refute the notion that Jews created Bolshevism, supported the radical movement, and therefore all Jews were to be held responsible for the crimes of Bolshevism (14). The idea of the “Judeo-Bolshevik myth” was linked to the centuries-old language of hatred directed towards and about Jews: the figure of the Jew was linked to being the creator of disorder, disruption, and fanaticism, and there were just enough men and women who could be identified as being Jewish in each revolutionary movement that the myth seemed to embody a core kernel of truth.

How did this myth impact actual Jewish lives? Hanebrink exams the pogroms that repeatedly broke out in various parts of Central and Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, for example, Symon Petliura argued that by fighting against the “Judeo-Bolsheviks,” Ukrainians would be able to unify into a National Republic. Others in Ukraine attacked Jews, not to form a new Republic, but to restore an older state. In either case, Jews suffered directly because of the belief that they were behind the forces of disorder and chaos in Ukraine. Judeo-Bolshevism as an international threat played a prominent role in the political calculations of various faction leaders not only in Ukraine but also in Poland, Hungary, and Romania in the interwar years. Adding to this fear was the imagined idea that all Jews were by nature conspiratorial and therefore untrustworthy as potential allies. Works by Timothy Snyder and Omer Bartov[2] underscore Hanebrink’s analysis: some Jews in the borderland regions were caught in a crossfire of competing armies. The one element that each army could agree on was that the Jews were a true obstacle to achieving their objectives. As a result, more and more Jews lost their property if not their very lives. In such a tumultuous atmosphere, Jews were perceived my many as posing both an internal as well as an external threat to a country’s gentile population. The fears that Jews could potentially contribute to revolution, threatening the national security of a newly-formed nation fueled and rationalized the violence perpetrated against local Jewish populations.

While violence and pogroms continued in Eastern European territories, the Judeo-Bolshevik myth took on its perhaps most destructive power under the influence of Hitler and the Nazi regime. Hanebrink rightly points out that it is perhaps no coincidence that the early Nazi party had its beginnings in Munich – a city that had been rocked by left-wing revolution in 1919. Hitler took the pre-existing imagery of the Judeo-Bolshevik and used it to animate his followers. He told them they were fighting to defend traditional German Christian society which Jewish-Bolsheviks threatened to overturn. In Hitler’s mind, fighting the power of a Jewish-Bolsheviks was a matter of life or death for Germans. In this way, the Judeo-Bolshevik myth took on it perhaps most lethal form yet. If Germans were to live, then Jewish-Bolshevik supporters had to die.[3] Lending support to the “reality” of a Judeo-Bolshevik plot to destroy all of Christian Europe was the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Here Hitler saw an opportunity to elevate the existential threat that Jews posed to Germans – now he could point to Catholic Spain and argue that all of Europe would succumb to Judeo-Bolshevism unless there was a mighty crusade (led by him) to destroy it.[4] Once again, the mere presence of some Jews in the Spanish Civil War lent an air of truth to the idea of a vast “Judeo-Bolshevik” conspiracy. From the 1930s onward, the fight against Jewish Bolshevism would be tied to Nazi Germany, reaching its most destructive peak with the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

It was in that event that Nazi propagandists could unleash the full force of their anti-Jewish-Bolshevik imagery. Layered upon Judeo-Bolshevik images was the portrait of Russia as an Asiatic, barbaric, foreign place that had been perverted by Jewish domination for decades. Jews were set in the role of saboteurs, conspirators, partisans, and the supreme proponents of Communism. Therefore, they were seen as the ultimate security threat. This helped the Nazis and many of their Eastern European allies participate in mass violence against Jewish populations, ultimately labeled as the Holocaust. Hanebrink also tracks the evolution that occurs – from the period of Nazi victories inside of the Soviet Union to the periods of Nazi defeat – and he provides examples of how Nazi propaganda would leave a long-lasting mark, particularly as the Soviet Red Army advanced further westward. The successful blending of images of Red Army soldiers as representative of Jewish vengeance, along with the notion that the Red Army was composed of “Asiatic barbarians” come to overturn all of European Christian civilization would have a long-lasting impact on areas that found themselves living in a post-WWII Communist-dominated territory.

In places such as Poland, Romania, and Hungary, the success of the Red Army meant one, ultimate thing: “Soviet occupation had brought Jews to power” (168). Jews who had survived the Holocaust emerged from hiding and many who had believed that Jews had been eradicated in the war now feared Jews would seek revenge for their suffering. This was coupled with the belief that Communist systems were led by Jews. There was even a tendency among post-war countries such as in the case of Poland, where leaders argued that Jews had supported Communism and they, therefore, had no one but themselves to blame for any hatred directed against them by the public. This line of argumentation was particularly useful when, in 1946, a charge of blood libel was made against Jews which resulted in the murder of at least 42 Jewish people. In yet another cruel twist of irony, local Communists also exploited anti-Jewish sentiments, particularly in Hungary where the economy was floundering and accusations of war profiteering were utilized to stir up crowds against “capitalist exploiters” whose images looked suspiciously like stereotypes of Jews. In these types of cases, Jews were associated with capitalism, exploitation, speculation, and the like. In the post-war environment, Communist leaders sought to shake free of the association of Jewishness with Communism.

For the post-WWII Western nations, the question that emerged was how to continue to fight against the growing spread of Communism without associating the fight with Nazism? Hanebrink explores the shifting of terminology in the West, going from fighting against “Judeo-Bolshevism” to embracing “Judeo-Christian civilization.” Now, instead of Hitler leading the crusade against Communism, the United States would be the lead fighter for Western Civilization. Intellectuals could still maintain that the Soviets and Communism, in general, represented “Asiatic barbarity” but they de-coupled the language of “Judeo-Bolshevism” from this fight. In the aftermath of the devastation of the war, many Christians in Europe and in the U.S. argued that Christianity could lead Europe out of the darkness it had fallen into under Nazi domination. Now the fight could be reframed as a battle against “atheistic Communism” with Christians and Jews working together, sharing a common biblical tradition that provided the seedbed for moral renewal. The concept of Judeo-Christianity was one that allowed Jews to align themselves in the battle of the Cold War against the forces of atheism. In this new way of thinking, Jews could become Cold Warriors. The idea of shared moral values between Christians and Jews connected with the idea of creating a more liberal, more tolerant society. This also impacted the way in which the memory of the Holocaust was addressed in public discourse.

In some instances, voices emerged in post-Communist societies that argued that the crimes committed under Communist regimes were ignored, while undo attention was given to specifically Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. In countries such as Poland, heated debates rose to the surface, asking why so much attention was given to Jewish victimhood at the hands of the Nazis while the victimization of gentile Poles at the hands of the Communist leaders was downplayed or ignored altogether? This line of argumentation brought back the specter that has haunted Europe for much of the twentieth and now part of the twenty-first centuries: that of the Judeo-Bolshevik. Right-wing and populist leaders demand an acknowledgement that Jews supported Communism, that Communism created categories of its own victims, and in this way, Hanebrink argues, “The Judeo-Bolshevik myth was reborn in post-Communist Europe as a tool for challenging the premises on which transnational memory of the Holocaust rested- and with those premises, the liberal civic ideals of multicultural toleration, human rights, and European integration that Holocaust memory culture had come to symbolize so powerfully” (273).

Hanebrink’s book is a valuable contribution to the intellectual history of the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism. The book could benefit from the addition of several items including maps of the areas he is discussing, some pictures of propaganda imagery, and, most importantly, the book needs a comprehensive bibliography. The work would be useful in classes of graduate students who have studied some of the history of antisemitism, intellectual history, and histories of the twentieth century.

[1] Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished. Why the First World War Failed to End (NY, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).

[2] See Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (NY, NY: Basic Books, 2010) and Omer Bartov, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (NY, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2018).

[3] See especially the work of Michael Wildt, Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft and the Dynamics of Racial Exclusion. Violence Against Jews in Provinicial Germany, 1919-1939 (NY, NY: Berghahn Books, 2012) and also Thomas Kühne, Belonging and Genocide Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010). These works explore the dynamic of “us vs. them” in Nazi ideology.

[4] See, for example, Beth A. Griech-Polelle, “The Impact of the Spanish Civil War upon Roman Catholic Clergy in Nazi Germany,” in Kevin P. Spicer, ed., Antisemitism, Chrisitian Ambivalence, and the Holocaust (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 121-135 and Beth A. Griech-Polelle, “Crusade. The Impact of the Spanish Civil War and the Invasion of the Soviet Union on the Roman Catholic Church under the Nazi Regime,” in Glaube- Freiheit-Diktatur in Europa und den USA. Festschrift für Gerhard Besier zum 60. Geburtstag, eds. Katarzyna Stoklosa and Andrea Strübund (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 715-726.