A Specter Haunting Europe

The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism

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Paul Hanebrink
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , November
     2018.
     368 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780674047686.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Paul Hanebrink’s A Specter Haunting Europe essentially begins with a timely statement, only timelier since the book’s publication in 2018: “Communism is gone, but the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism refuses to go away” (4). With a focus on Europe, particularly central and eastern Europe, the book explores how the Judeo-Bolshevik myth—a supposed “transhistorical global conspiracy by Jews to destroy Western civilization” (4)—emerged, spread, and was transformed. The strength of Hanebrink’s analysis lies in his ability to contextualize the different individuals and political regimes that found (and in some cases still find) the Judeo-Bolshevik myth particularly compelling. The author outlines his approach in the introduction, citing the work of Shulamit Volkov, who, in the context she studied (nineteenth-century Germany), suggested that “antisemitic language offered users a way to interpret multiple dislocations caused by economic modernization, democratization, and cultural pluralism” (6). Paying specific attention to the contexts in which the paranoia of Judeo-Bolshevism reared its head reminds us that “long continuities across centuries shaped the tropes used and reused in anti-Jewish language. But the cultural logic of antisemitism functioned differently from one historical context to another” (7).

The meat of A Specter Haunting Europe quite naturally begins with the Russian Revolution and the social and political unrest sweeping Europe toward the end of World War I and in its wake. During the Russian Civil War, counterrevolutionaries (e.g., the “Whites”) scapegoated Jews by over-exaggerating Jewish involvement in Bolshevism, leading to horrific violence. Other revolutions across the continent further stoked Europeans’ anxieties surrounding fragile national identities, Europeanness, and the dissolution of social, economic, and cultural norms. In constructing the Jewish Bolshevik, politicians, journalists, religious leaders, and others tapped into a longstanding tradition of Christian Jew-hatred and fears of “Asiatic” invaders.

With this backdrop in mind, Hanebrink’s reading of Adolf Hitler’s Judeo-Bolshevik rhetoric presents it as part of the prevailing discourse of the age. Sure, Hanebrink might be overstating the case a bit when he says “Judeo-Bolshevism made Adolf Hitler” (83), but certainly “Judeo-Bolshevism became a symbol of the need to wage a ruthless war of preemptive defense against racialized threats to national security” (92). He astutely notes the complexities in Nazi use of the myth. A case in point, some Nazi ideologues feared the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact) would harm Germany’s standing with its anti-communist allies. Regardless, the presence of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth in Eastern Europe proved an aid to Nazi aims before and after Operation Barbarossa (June 1941). In discussing the situation in Romania, for instance, Hanebrink describes the broader regional environment: “Nazi Germany did not bring the Judeo-Bolshevik paranoia to Romania in 1941, nor did it impose the idea on societies anywhere else in wartime Europe. Instead, Nazi occupiers encountered local variations of the Jewish Bolshevik stereotype that were already fully formed” (138). The Nazis emboldened the venting of anti-Soviet rage against Jews, though “most Jews had never been Communists, and many had also suffered miserably under Soviet Communist rule,” not to mention the fact that “Soviet authorities had found willing helpers among all ethnic groups” (140). At almost every turn, Hanebrink contextualizes the violence that ensued.

Two particularly fascinating chapters tackle “how the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism outlived Hitler’s empire,” which “depended entirely on which army arrived to defeat it” (157). The Red Army counteroffensive and Nazi defeat solidified Soviet influence in Eastern Europe and further entrenched the Judeo-Bolshevik myth in the region’s politics and culture. Under postwar communist regimes, popular opinion in Poland, Hungary, and Romania often associated communism with Jews. As before, Hanebrink brilliantly contextualizes local political landscapes in Eastern Europe to show how the Judeo-Bolshevik myth became a political tool in communist party politics. West Germany (est. 1949), on the other hand, is one of Hanebrink’s key cases of what took place in the sphere dominated by the anti-communist Allies. Denazification and the Cold War pushed anti-communism away from Judeo-Bolshevism and toward a general opposition to “totalitarianism,” which framed fascism and communism as equal opponents of liberal democracy. Critical to this conceptual shift was the language of “Judeo-Christian civilization”—the idea of a shared religious heritage binding Christianity and Judaism in the fight against godless communists. Some leading anti-communists in West Germany, it turns out, were former Nazis who had once embraced the Judeo-Bolshevik myth; they found new life as anti-communist Cold War propagandists.

The final chapter arrives at the heart of the quote with which I started: “Communism is gone, but the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism refuses to go away” (4). I will skip the Western Bloc, which, as Hanebrink notes, had its own twists and turns in confronting the legacy of the Holocaust. The former Eastern Bloc countries, however, emerged in the 1990s as fragile democracies desperate to construct national identities while confronting the communist past and moving toward reintegration with the rest of Europe. In this political climate, “the spread of Holocaust memory to a region newly freed from Communist rule sparked intense competition over what to remember as a nation and a people and who had the authority to decide” (259). Collective memory of Judeo-Bolshevism has functioned as a powerful tool to pushback against “Holocaust memory culture,” which has come to represent far more than the challenge of confronting a genocidal history. It has signaled “the liberal civic ideals of multicultural tolerance, human rights, and European integration” (273). Once again, Hanebrink presents a robust description of the different national contexts where debates over Holocaust memory have taken on distinct tenors.

Hanebrink’s epilogue considers echoes of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth in the way right-wing nationalists have framed a new “threat” to Europe, that of radical Islamic terrorism. There will be some who won’t find the epilogue compelling, but I certainly have. Still, I think Hanebrink would happily rewrite it if he could, as global events in the last couple years has shaped the political landscape even further. For example, while Hanebrink briefly mentions right-wing stigmatization of liberalism more broadly, George Soros conspiracies reeking of antisemitism, and part of public conversation from Hungary to America, never appear in the book. Hanebrink will get a chance to update the epilogue at some point. I think A Specter Haunting Europe will undoubtedly be reprinted. It’s a well-written, well-researched book, and the way Hanebrink rigorously contextualizes the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism over the course of a century should render it a classic in due time. At the very least, Hanebrink has given contemporary and future scholars a model for how to analyze the complex life of an antisemitic canard.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew H. Brittingham is a PhD candidate at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
August 12, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Hanebrink is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. He is the author of In Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism, and Antisemitism, 1890–1944.

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