H-Net Review [H-Judaic]: Zavadivker on Kopstein and Wittenberg, 'Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust'

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Subject: H-Net Review [H-Judaic]:  Zavadivker on Kopstein and  Wittenberg, 'Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust'
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Jeffrey S. Kopstein, Jason Wittenberg.  Intimate Violence:
Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust.  Ithaca  Cornell
University Press, 2018.  Maps, graphs. 192 pp.  $29.95 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed by Polly Zavadivker (University of Delaware)
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2020)
Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz

When it was published in 2001, Jan Gross's _Neighbors_ cast a glaring
spotlight on the town of Jedwabne, where on July 10, 1941, Polish
residents massacred several hundreds of their Jewish neighbors. The
book launched a flurry of scholarship and heated debates both in
Poland and abroad. And yet even before its appearance, it was widely
known that Poles and Ukrainians had carried out hundreds of other
anti-Jewish pogroms throughout eastern Poland at roughly the same

The political scientists Jeffrey Kopstein and Jason Wittenberg make
two major contributions in this concise volume: first, they are the
first English-speaking scholars to attempt to locate the Jedwabne
pogrom in its temporal and regional context. Their subject is the
wave of "intimate violence" from June to August 1941, when Polish and
Ukrainian residents killed their Jewish neighbors in the streets,
homes, and buildings of the towns they shared, using readily handy
kitchen and gardening tools as weapons. The book leaves no room for
doubt that what happened in Jedwabne happened in hundreds of other
places, or that the hundreds of Jewish victims there numbered among
tens of thousands elsewhere in eastern Poland.

Second, the book offers an initial attempt to not only describe what
happened during the pogroms but to explain why it happened. As
political scientists they attempt to model the process of ethnic
violence: they measure the relative significance of preexisting
conditions as well as immediate triggers and identify the factor that
they believe decisively predicted the outcome of pogroms. The study
is not without significant flaws, of which more below, but these two
contributions alone represent important strides for both the social
sciences and Holocaust studies.

In chapter 1 we are introduced to the study's key question,
theoretical framework, data, and findings. Pogroms occurred in some
227 cities throughout six voivodships (administrative regions) of
eastern Poland, over roughly six weeks from late June to early August
1941. That number seems enormous in absolute terms, but actually
represents only 9 percent of cities with sizeable Jewish communities
for the region as a whole. The overwhelming majority of places where
Jews lived alongside Poles and Ukrainians did not experience a
pogrom. Why did pogroms break out in those places where they did, and
not in others?

Kopstein and Wittenberg handily put aside previous explanations,
pointing first to what they think _did not_ cause the violence. Poles
were _not_ following German orders, as some argued, but rather, acted
with total agency. The timing was all-important: the Soviet
occupation of eastern Poland had already collapsed and German forces
had entered, but not yet established a state regime. The presence
alone of the SS provided an opportune moment for Poles to freely act
on their desires without fear of punishment or retribution. The
authors also address previously posited motives of revenge,
antisemitism, and greed. Yes, they argue, desire to avenge the Jews'
alleged collaboration with Soviet occupiers played some part in
fueling the violence and helped to "set the stage" for
neighbor-on-neighbor violence, but was not its driving cause (p. 42).
Similarly, Poles' greed for Jewish property, with theft widely
documented during and after the pogroms, should be read as a symptom
and not cause of the pogrom. Finally, they reject the "antisemitism
hypothesis," arguing that if timeless, or "ubiquitous hatred" for
Jews had existed among Poles from time immemorial, then one would
expect far more pogroms than actually occurred (p. 10).

Having cleared the way of what factors did _not_ cause the pogroms,
the authors explain: "Poles that turned against their Jewish
neighbors were motivated less by hatred, revenge, or avarice than by
a perception of a threat to their political dominance" (p. 58).
Wherever Poles felt that sense of threat, they "were more likely to
give into the temptation to commit violence, more tolerant of others
committing violence, and less likely to come to the aid of the
victims" (p. 71).

They draw here on "power threat theory," developed by the sociologist
Hubert M. Blalock to analyze the dynamics of race relations in
postbellum United States.[1] Blalock argued that wherever southern
whites perceived acute threat from blacks to their continued racial
dominance (the presence of large black populations combined with
strong influence of racially inclusive political parties), they
carried out "vigilante justice" with intent to preserve the racial
status quo: from supporting electoral disenfranchisement and Jim Crow
laws to the perpetration of widespread lynching, the counterpart of
which Kopstein and Wittenberg find in the pogroms.

Chapters 2 and 3 provide a historical and demographic overview of the
region. In order to measure the "perception of threat" to which Poles
reacted with violence in 1941, the authors attempt to quantify three
factors, all rooted in the prewar period: first, voting patterns,
records of which exist for parliamentary elections of 1922 and 1928.
In cities where pogroms took place, they found that Jews voted in
high numbers for Jewish nationalist parties, and specifically the
General Zionists, who as part of the Minorities Bloc issued
aggressive and unequivocal demands for Jewish political autonomy and
full equality. Conversely, in cities that saw violence, majorities of
Poles supported the right-wing nationalist party (the National
Democrats, or "Endecja"), which advocated a platform of fanatical
patriotism, religiosity, opposition to full equality for non-Polish
minorities; in a telling detail, we are told that some of its members
viewed the Zionist leader Yitzhak Grunbaum as "fundamentally
anti-Polish" in outlook (p. 63). Second, pogroms were likelier in
cities with large Jewish populations (Jews were 10 percent of the
total population in eastern Poland but about half of all urban
dwellers), suggesting that Poles turned on their neighbors in places
where they felt outnumbered. Finally, the authors factor in the
existence of Jewish Free Loan Societies in cities where pogroms
occurred, hypothesizing that Poles would have perceived credit aid to
Jewish businesses as posing an unfair, and hence threatening

Chapter 4, "Beyond Jedwabne," is the literal and conceptual center of
the book, where the statistical method is explained and applied to
local histories. With forceful clarity we see that in locations where
Zionists dominated Jewish politics and the Endejca had
majority-Polish support, violence erupted in 1941. In Radzilow, the
site of one of the most deadly and brutal pogroms in the region,
"virtually every eligible Jewish voter voted for Jewish parties in
1928 and 42 percent of the Polish electorate supported the Endecja in
the same election" (p. 78). Conversely in Bia_ł_ystok, there was no
pogrom, for despite a sizeable Jewish population and history of
Christian antisemitism, Jews had voted in large numbers for
minority-friendly Polish parties in 1928.

The most important point Kopstein and Wittenberg make in this central
chapter, I believe, is to suggest that political behavior spills over
into subjective experience. How one votes has consequences insofar as
it suggests a mentality and worldview, in this case regarding the
role of the state, economic redistribution, and the limits of
minority rights. They do not suggest that Polish pogrom perpetrators
had a "precise electoral calculation in mind," but rather that that
the social distance between Poles and Jews had grown so great over
the previous two decades that "even the bare minimum of solidarity
between the two communities was absent" (p. 78). While political
integration did not necessarily equate with the "thick solidarity of
a nation," it may have provided at the local level "just enough
communal cohesion, the bare minimum, to prevent the worst sort of
depredations when all other factors pointed in that direction" (p.
78). What the gradual process of political polarization produced,
most fatefully, in their view, was _indifference_ among a majority of
Poles toward the lives and fates of their Jewish neighbors once the
pogrom began. The survivor narratives they cite confirm this with
chilling effect.

Initially the authors' use of data struck me as implausible. Could an
ethnic group's voting patterns in 1928 really be used to predict
whether they would brutalize (or conversely, fall victim to) their
neighbors thirteen years later, under the "right" set of
circumstances? This is one question that animated a book forum
discussion among a group of historians and political scientists in
the _Journal of Genocide Research_ earlier this year.[2] In the
interest of drawing on that important exchange, I will transition
here from review to meta-review.

If a consensus might be gleaned from among the forum's scholars, it
is that the Kopstein and Wittenberg asked the right questions but
were unable to adequately answer them with the existing data. The
historian Kamil Kijek of the University of Wroclaw took the strongest
exception to their use of data. He found especially problematic the
authors' definition of antisemitism, which they understand as a
practice rooted in political behavior, ignoring the long history and
psycho-cultural dimensions of Polish-Jewish relations to which
historians more generally attend. Kijek was morally troubled, too, by
the argument that the Jews' turn to nationalism in the 20s and 30s
played a causative role in the violence they suffered in 1941. By
making this claim, "the authors attribute the main causes of violence
to the Jews themselves."[3] While I agree that the discussion of
antisemitism is thin in this study, the latter charge is not entirely
fair. The authors explicitly rebuke the notion that any blame for
political polarization lies with Jews; rather, they claim it
represents "the failure of the Polish state to integrate its Jewish
citizens" (p. 83).

Yet while they do not fault Jews for choosing nationalist politics in
interwar Poland, the authors do suggest in a concluding chapter that
minorities can do their part to avert "intimate violence" by
practicing political integration and communal cohesion--specifically
by tempering their demands of the state and working toward shared,
common interests with majority populations. As a counterpoint to this
suggestion, Evgeny Finkel suggests that the prospect of political
integration for Jews depended on geography. While in the northern
part of the region (e.g., Białystok province) Jews could "achieve a
degree of local acceptance by moderating their claims and supporting
the Polish state-building project," in the south, where the brutal
Radivilov pogrom occurred, and where Jews lived among Poles and
Ukrainians, Jews simply could not make friends without simultaneously
making enemies. Jewish support for either Poles or Ukrainians
"inevitably alienated the other; neutrality was seen by both as
treason," and thus, "Jewish communities were placed between the
Polish rock and the Ukrainian hard place and suffered as a

As a final and perhaps minor point I would add that the style and
tone of this book can be alienating at times. To cite just one
grievous example: early in the book the authors explain that they
chose to study the 1941 pogroms because they offered examples of true
unbridled popular violence, at a time when political conditions
allowed for Polish civilians to attack Jews in the absence of
restraint. These pogroms, they write, are thus "_ideal circumstances_
under which to examine the structural characteristics of localities
where pogroms occur" (p. 17, emphasis added). This begs to be
rephrased with attention to the insensitive choice of adjective.

It has been pointed out that Raul Hilberg, a pioneering Holocaust
researcher in the 1950s, was a political scientist; one could add
that his contemporary Hannah Arendt approached this history as a
political thinker. As it were, Kopstein and Wittenberg have helped to
launch a second and now burgeoning wave of social scientific studies
of the Holocaust. It is hoped that future scholars who build on their
pioneering work will more sensitively attend to the "thick" culture
and history of Slavic-Jewish relations, and without sacrificing
feeling for rigor.

Citation: Polly Zavadivker. Review of Kopstein, Jeffrey S.;
Wittenberg, Jason, _Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve
of the Holocaust_. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54544

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States