With the completion of Suicidal Europe, 1870-1933, Léon Poliakov has brought his history of anti-semitism to the start of the Nazi regime.The whole work has taken him at least fourteen years. Beginning this volume with what looked likely to be the gradually advancing triumph of the enlightened attitudes to Jewry proclaimed by 18th-century philosophy, he has instead had to trace the hostile reactions to Jewish emancipation in the major countries and stands at the end peering forward into the dark abysses of human behaviour in the 1930s. To write as he does without rancour and with a light but biting wit, neatly captured in a good translation, is an intellectual victory in itself. But it is the comprehensive nature of the undertaking, its determination to synthesise all previous work on this complicated subject while also reinterpreting it in the light of the author’s own experience and of what we now know to have been the terrible conclusion, that has made these volumes important. Yet at the end anti-semitism still remains in many ways mysterious.
The ‘heart of the matter’, as Poliakov puts it, is to be found in pre-1914 Russia and it is there that he traces the evolution of a more modern and implacable anti-semitism, from which, he suggests, there is a direct line of continuity to the subsequent massacres in Nazi Germany. The original cause was the very large number of Jews brought under the Tsar’s domination by the annexations of Polish territory. The attempt at an enlightened solution, the gradual Russification of the Jewish population, did not continue after 1870, when Jews, although amounting to only 3 per cent of the population, were already 10 per cent of the high-school population. In view of the fact that Jews, like high schools, were confined by government policy to towns, this proportion was perfectly foreseeable and even seems low. In the south-west, to which most Jews were still confined by law, it was of course much higher. Subsequent attempts to regulate this proportion produced a phase, familiar in Britain in another context, in which local protest riots, stimulated by nationalist, authoritarian groups, attracted sympathy from parts of the state apparatus and led in turn to official discrimination against Jews to appease the protest. ‘A direct line’, Poliakov writes, seems to lead from anti-semitic political literature, ‘through the interaction between police and conspiracy’, to the ‘totalitarian Manichaeanism of the 20th century’.
Once turned into opponents of the Tsarist state, the Jews came to be seen as its official enemies. By 1904, 30 per cent of Russian political prisoners were Jewish. For policemen and officials, maltreatment of Jews became ‘a professional obligation’, not a hazard of personal prejudice. In the pogroms of 1881 and afterwards the state machinery was not neutral, and it was the state secret police who forged ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, which, in the West after 1917, became the basic anti-semitic text of dim intellectuals and paranoiac politicians. The Bolshevik Revolution was automatically interpreted by the Russian Right in exile as an international Jewish conspiracy of the same kind as those which earlier political writers had claimed to have revealed, and Russian refugees, many of them ex-secret policemen, were able to convince the equally ignorant and prejudiced secret police in the West that this was the correct explanation. The police had a certain amount of influence on Western governments so savage in the defence of property as the basis of morality that some would believe any rubbish that suited their purpose and others allow any lie to be told in the same cause. The influence of these Russian refugees was particularly strong, Poliakov argues, on the early Nazi Party. For Hitler himself, who acquired his anti-semitism as an army secret agent in exactly these circles between 1918 and 1921, Bolshevik revolution and international Jewish conspiracy were the same thing. In the German invasion of Russia his orders made no distinction between the massacres of Communist commissars and of Jews.
This argument, backed as it is by much fascinating new detail, gets round a serious objection which historians have often raised to the concept of modern anti-semitism as one continuous phenomenon: that the importance of anti-semitic political parties diminished in Western Europe after 1900. It argues, plausibly, that the tap-root of 20th-century anti-semitism was not the small number of 19th-century parliamentarians in Western Europe who openly opposed the advancement of a small number of Jews, but the problems posed by the advancement of the desperately poor and ‘backward’ three million Jews of south-west Russia. The argument also implies that below the level of respectable, public, political life popular fears and prejudices did not diminish and the stereotypical image of the Jew did not change. Why else would readers of Nazi magazines recognise in grotesque caricatures of penniless Hassidic Jews from the rural Ukraine, people whom they had never seen, the image of millionaire German chain-store owners of Jewish ancestry?
It does not, however, get round two other serious objections. One is that after 1923 the political perception of the Russian Revolution in the Western world became less stupidly ignorant. The other is that the force of anti-semitism in Western political life once more became much weaker as Western Europe recreated a middle-class social order. Indeed, neither in the 19th nor in the 20th century has anti-semitism ever been strong enough to serve as a satisfactory basis for a mass political movement. And as numbers of votes became the crucial determinant of political power this was a fatal weakness. Peter Merkl’s computerised analysis of the autobiographies of 581 members of the Nazi Party shows anti-semitism to have been a much stronger motive for joining before 1923 than afterwards. What is more, it shows, not only that anti-semitism was subordinate to other ideologies for most of them, but that it seems to have had very little importance at all for at least half of them. Other aspects of Nazi ideology – national strength, national recovery, national unity and so on – were much more important.
Poliakov’s own contribution does not therefore resolve the problem. Was there in fact a continuity of anti-semitism in Europe, even if only since the 19th century, leading directly to the massacres? Or have there been different anti-semitisms specifically conditioned by time, place and politics? Here we are face to face with the inherent weakness of the intellectual history of anti-semitism on which Poliakov has to draw to try to explain events in Western Europe. Intellectual history is able to trace a continuity in almost any idea. But in tracing such continuities from one dim-witted anti-semitic intellectual to an even worse one, do we really explain the history of persecution? Most of the flagrantly anti-semitic writers were in fact little read and when they were it was probably by readers whose convictions needed no fixing.
It would be possible to explain much more of Western anti-semitism within the theoretical framework which has been derived from the analysis of contemporary so-called ‘race’ problems. As soon as ‘integration’ became the proposed solution, the Jew – like dozens of other migrant groups – was presented with a stereotype image of what he must strive to become. The chances of success were very small. Firstly, because stereotypes are not realities; secondly, because Jews like other migrant or separate social groups had their own culture and values in no way inferior to those of the host society and often too deeply embedded to be jettisoned; thirdly, because Americans, French, Germans and others were busy at the same time defining their own nationhood and, with it, stereotypes even falser and more exclusive than those to which the migrant had originally supposed he might conform. The goal was thus an ever-receding one, and the tensions generated were such as to make the glib optimism of the Enlightenment appear risible. Furthermore, the occupations into which law, social structure and economic development often channelled Jews, both migrant and resident, made them a scapegoat for the more rabid definers of the national identity in all countries. Irishmen and Poles were seen as rural oafs: for Jews, depicted as the infectious, corrupting bacillus of a capitalism which knew no homeland, the situation was far more dangerous. The sad history of Jewish integration into Tsarist Russia foretells what was to happen to other groups, there and elsewhere, over and over again. We are witnessing it now. To insist that anti-semitism is a unique phenomenon is to make no more than the banal observation that all historical phenomena are unique. Certainly, Poliakov could not be accused of such banality as his eclectic search for an explanation shows.
The contradictory impact of the advancement of Jewish migrants makes such explanation more difficult. The serious consequences for political life in the Habsburg Empire have been described by Peter Pulzer. But in Germany the political parties which opposed Jewish advancement encountered a large measure of boredom from the rest of the political world, because the ‘problem’ there was of virtually no overall political importance. On the other hand, what should we make of France, where the integration and advancement of an even smaller number of Jews, 42,000 only, the population of one small provincial town, produced in the Dreyfus case an injustice still famous throughout the world and a re-ordering of national political opinion? At this point, the phenomenon of anti-semitism again seems mysterious.
A constant theme of anti-semitic literature is the attempt to show that dislike of the Jew by ‘the Aryan’ is an irreversible law of nature. Poliakov himself has elsewhere shown how the myth of the Aryan descent of the ancient élites of Western Europe replaced the Christian myth of the one universal ancestor. Hitler was the supreme example of a believer in the Aryan myth, but he was not so irrational as to suppose that only Jews were excluded from this nobly superior line. His singular ferocity to them had more complicated foundations. Sometimes the continuity of persecution is explained by the long intertwining of the Christian and Jewish myths. Certainly Christian preaching reached a far greater audience than anti-semitic literature. And once the Jews ceased to be for Christian theologians a fossil proof of the truth of Christian scripture, preaching was frequently hostile to them. But what can this explain about the continuity of anti-semitism in an age when Christianity was manifestly losing its didactic hold? The specifically Catholic political party in Germany never took up an openly anti-semitic position. Nineteenth-century anti-semitic literature was strikingly anti-Christian, as were Hitler and many Nazis. Aryanism and anti-semitism in the Nazi Party were in certain respects an attempt to replace the Christian myth as a foundation for political action.
The search for continuity might be better rewarded by studying the formation and evolution of the stereotypical perception of the Jew in popular mentality. That popular culture should follow irrational guides to political behaviour is normal: but the basis of the actions of ruling élites has often been no more rational. The historical techniques which have been developed for reconstructing popular mentalities would now enable us to delve much deeper into the study of anti-semitism and perhaps also to trace the irrational connections between the popular world and that of its governors.
What impact does the arrival of large numbers of immigrants have on the existing stereotype? Why was the stereotype of the Jew more frightening, embodying a suggestion of foreign, radical, even revolutionary politics, after the large-scale migration of Jews into Britain and the United States in the 1880s? Was it a greater degree of foreignness, or fear of an even more mysterious and unassimilable class of poor? Shifts of this kind presumably start at the lower levels of the social scale and only afterwards does the new stereotype pass upwards into anti-semitic literature and political life. After all, it would have taken a remarkably large dose of already existing prejudice to see in Captain Dreyfus anything other than what he actually was: a loyal and entirely conventional French army officer. The influence of the migration of the Jewish poor into Western Europe in the late 19th century can be seen in the fear of their poverty expressed in anti-semitic literature, not a theme of such literature earlier. Wrapped in the lofty verbosity of Maurice Barrès, whom Poliakov, like so many others, is inclined to consider as too noble a French intellect to have been really an anti-semite, is a prejudice so vulgar in its origins that it took all the literary artifice of this unpleasant man to disguise its conventional lower middle-class nature from himself. Even so complex an anti-semite as Hitler reveals these simple, universal traits and in his compulsive descriptions of poor Jews seen in Vienna in his adolescence may be detected the fear of the unrespectable classes felt by those who are immediately threatened by them. Here, too, there is a rational starting-point.
The great barrier to the historical study of irrationality is the initial refusal to accept that rationality should be the starting-point. There are now many people devoted to the cause of making this barrier higher. In June, for example, the London Review of Books and I were crudely and unreservedly accused of anti-semitism by a columnist, Mr Leon Wieseltier (I give his name because he gave his initials only), in the American middle-class weekly the New Republic, which is specifically directed towards people who consider themselves especially rational. The accusation was provoked by an article recounting the facts of the massacre of the Jews in Germany as they have been virtually unanimously agreed between German and Israeli experts on the subject. Two things that particularly incensed him seem to have been the idea that anti-semitism was not the dominant force in the Nazi Party and the idea that the massacre can’t be explained as the outcome of anti-semitism alone – both examples, as he put it, of ‘impatience with Jewish suffering’ and ‘English prejudice’. It is entirely understandable that American Jews should look with anxiety at the sporadic acts of anti-semitic violence in Western Europe. But to reject the results of historical research because they do not conform with the public policy of governments, with conviction or with prejudice will not help them to understand why bombs are thrown at Jewish restaurants in Paris or cemeteries desecrated in Munich. Better, Mr Wieseltier, to leave the denial of historical facts to anti-semites, rather than to use their techniques from the legal safety of the United States to try to prevent public understanding.
The changing history of a thousand years of accumulated fears, resentments and guilt is not beyond recapture, but to recapture it the historian must continually cross the borders between the rational and the irrational, just as those emotions themselves do. The length of time itself presents an enormous difficulty, just as it is one obvious distinction between anti-semitism and other ‘racisms’. The irrationalities seem to accumulate in geometrical proportion to the mere arithmetical passage of time itself, and the history of anti-semitism could almost be described as the history of the world’s worst and longest undissolvable marriage, layer upon layer of recriminatory quarrels interrupted by bouts of spasmodic violence, yet sustained by centuries of bitter knowledge and intense intimacy. What was thought to have been done or said or thought becomes at least as important as deeds. Chained together in centuries of human suffering, persecutors and persecuted alike may none the less expect intervals of quiet understanding. For the historian these are islands from which he may contemplate the terrifying seas around him.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.