One of the great merits of Paul Hanebrink’s A Specter Haunting Europe is its demonstration of how Europe’s most pervasive and powerful twentieth-century manifestation of anti-Semitic thought—the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism—emerged before the rise of National Socialism and has continued to have a curious life long after the Holocaust and the defeat of Nazi Germany. Hanebrink’s approach is not to repeat what he considers an error of the interwar era—the futile attempt to refute a myth on the basis of historical facts and statistical data. A small kernel of truth underpinned the stereotype of the Jewish Bolshevik: a number of well-known early Bolshevik leaders (Béla Kun, Leon Trotsky, Karl Radek, and others) were of Jewish origin. That Stalin killed almost all of them, that overall a very small percentage of Jews were Bolsheviks, and that many prominent non-Jewish revolutionaries (Lenin and Karl Liebknecht, for example) were mistakenly identified as Jewish had no countervailing impact, because, Hanebrink writes, the Jew as “the face of the revolution” was a “culturally constructed” perception.
Trying to discredit powerful political myths with mere facts, as we know all too well today, is a frustrating endeavor. Thus Hanebrink seeks instead to understand the historical background and the “cultural logic” of the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism—how it functioned and morphed through different phases. Ultimately Judeo-Bolshevism embodied, in the form of “Asiatic barbarism,” an imagined threat to national sovereignty, ethnic homogeneity, and Western civilization conceived as traditional European Christian hegemony. It fused, in short, political, racial, and cultural threats into a single “specter haunting Europe.”
Hanebrink notes that amid the exhaustion, defeat, and political dissolution of many European countries at the end of World War I, the threat of the spread of Bolshevik revolution from Russia into Europe caused not only widespread fear and loathing but fear and loathing that identified Jews as the real cause of Bolshevism. He is correct, I think, to point out that this pervasive identification required more than the prominence of Jewish revolutionary leaders, and that Judeo-Bolshevism was constructed from the “raw materials” of earlier anti-Semitism. For Hanebrink the “three venerable pillars” of anti-Jewish thought were the attributions to the Jews of social disharmony, conspiracy, and fanaticism, which made Judeo-Bolshevism both a coherent idea and a ubiquitous, self-evident assumption.
Here I think that Hanebrink could have been more concrete; in particular he could have shown how easily the negative stereotype of the Jew that had originated in the Middle Ages could be updated for the twentieth century. Even before the crisis of 1918–1919, which combined the experiences of defeat and revolution for many Europeans, Jews were invariably disproportionately represented in liberal…
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