Rehearsal for Genocide

Dennis Brasky

Three recent books conclude that the anti-Jewish pogroms following World War 1 help to explain what would take place a generation later.


Approaching the history of World War I and its aftermath from three different vantage points, Bemporad, Granick, and Veidlinger each conclude that the shocking anti-Jewish assaults of 1918–1921 help to explain what would take place a generation later. The “unprecedented” scale of destruction and “the performativity of violence against Jews” can now be seen, Granick argues, as a “bridge” to the Holocaust. According to Veidlinger, the pogroms and what they stood for became “an acceptable response to the excesses of Bolshevism,” leaving a heritage of social tolerance for killing Jews. In 1941, therefore, when the Nazis invaded the territories of what is today Ukraine, they were able to mobilize the local population to do their dirty work, since it “had become inured,” he says, “to bloodshed and primed to target Jews in ethnic violence.” Furthermore, the connection between Bolshevism and Jews, as well as the nexus of anti-Semitism and opposition to Soviet rule discussed by Bemporad, made the atrocities of World War II less shocking.


Veidlinger suggests that the pogroms were forgotten because of the overwhelming “horrors of the Holocaust.” But this answer is unsatisfying. Other instances of pre-Holocaust anti-Jewish violence in that region have been remembered, commemorated, and studied—the Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648, the 1881 pogroms, the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, or the abuses of the 1905 revolution—even though none of them reached the scale of devastation of what took place in 1918–1921.

Far more convincing are explanations offered by Bemporad and Granick. Bemporad’s book, approaching the topic from within Soviet history, demonstrates that this amnesia is the result of the complex Soviet relationship with anti-Semitism—the early pogroms “made Jews Soviet” as the early pogroms forged a bond between Jews and the Soviet regime. But that bond frayed by the 1930s. After World War II, anti-Semitic attacks did not disappear. What did vanish were the decisive measures taken by the Soviet authorities against them. The memory of anti-Jewish violence became “universalized” not as motivated by anti-Semitism but as attacks against the Soviet state. The state itself began to target Jews, embracing the political power of anti-Semitism.


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