Albert Lindemann is perhaps the only Jewish scholar who, unlike most Jewish pundits, acknowledges the reasons why they’ve been so disliked. No ellipsis added between unquoted paragraphs:
Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Chapter 13: Jews and Revolution (1917-1934)
The horrors of the revolution from 1917 to 1921 were in some areas even more devastating than those of the war; the connections of Jews and socialist revolutionaries were more visible than ever before and the anti-Semitic potential greater. The perception that revolutionaries were predominantly Jewish and that Jews were particularly vicious as revolutionaries spread now from minds like those of Nicholas II—limited, paranoiac, almost pitiful—to those of a different cut, such as Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill. It was no longer only scandal sheets like La Libre Parole or the Bessarebetz that identified radical revolution with Jews; now that identification was made by newspapers like the London Times, the Chicago Tribune, or the Christian Science Monitor, all of which enjoyed a reputation for sobriety on Jewish issues and at least relative fairness.
Many of those who had been inclined to a hesitant or inconsistent anti-Semitism before the war, such as Wilhelm II, now embraced more extreme opinions. Wilhelm’s attitude to “the threat of international Jewry” was influenced by reports like those of Walther von Kaiserlingk, the German admiralty’s chief of operations, who had visited Petrograd in the winter of 1917-18: He described the new government as run by Jews in the interest of Jews; it was “insanity in power,” and it presented a moral threat not only to Germany but to the civilized world. Wilhelm agreed that the Russian people had been “turned over to the vengeance of the Jews, who are connected with all the Jews of the world.”
We have seen how, in western countries where Jews experienced less oppression, an active and highly visible minority of them, especially young, secularized Jewish intellectuals in the generation before the war, were powerfully attracted to socialist ideas. Jews such as Hess, Marx, Lassalle, Bernstein, Otto Bauer, Luxemburg, Martov, Trotsky, and León Blum played a major role in formulating, refining, and propagating those ideas. Non-Jews (Engels, Kautsky, Bebel, Plekhanov, Lenin, Guesde, Jaurès) were also important, in many regards more important than Jews, but considering that the Jewish population of Europe was approximately 2 percent of the total, the Jewish participation in socialism, revolutionary and democratic, was remarkably large.
Both Jewish and non-Jewish socialists in the late nineteenth century saw great merit in the idealism and radicalism of a moral elite of Jews. Just as the non-Jew, Friedrich Engels, had praised Jews for their contribution to the socialist movement, so V.I. Lenin, in a speech in Zurich in 1905, observed that “the Jews furnished a particularly high percentage of leaders of the revolutionary movement. It should be noted to the credit of the Jews, they furnish a relatively high percentage of internationalists.” On another occasion Lenin, in lamenting the low moral and intellectual level of his compatriots, remarked to Maxim Gorky that “an intelligent Russia is almost always a Jew or somewhere with Jewish blood in his veins.” León Blum, who after his participation of the Dreyfus Affair went on to become a prominent figure in the French socialist movement, “glorified in the messianic role of the Jews as social revolutionaries.” Although he was one of the most perceptive critics of Bolshevik theory in the debates within his own party in 1919 and 1920 concerning whether it should join the new Communist International, he had earlier written that “the collective impulse” of the Jews “leads them toward revolution; their critical powers… drive them to destroy every idea, every traditional form which does not agree with the facts or cannot be justified by reason.” Revolutionary socialism, he asserted, was a modern form of “the ancient spirit of the Jewish race.”
Most Russian Jews were pulled unwillingly, even uncomprehendingly into the vortex of revolution and ensuing civil war from 1917 to 1921, observers rather than actors. But others, especially many who had felt blocked in their dreams of a career or who had suffered daily under the irrationality and inefficiency of the tsarist regime, were only too understandably moved by a desire for violent revenge. Some of those revolutionaries, especially when driven into the moral anarchy of civil war, proved themselves capable of breath-taking ruthlessness.
Recognizing that there were fewer Jews in the Bolshevik faction than in the Menshevik, or even that Bolshevism was not a typically Jewish ideology, does not mean that the issue of the role of Jews in Bolshevism is settled, for there were still many Jewish Bolsheviks, especially at the very top of the party. And there were even more in the dreaded Cheka, or secret police, where the Jewish revolutionary became visible in a terrifying form.
Any effort to compose a list of the most important Bolsheviks must be unavoidable subjective, but it seems beyond serious debate that in the first twenty years of the Bolshevik Party the top ten to twenty leaders included close to a majority of Jews.
At a notch down in visibility was Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov. Described as “very Jewish looking,” he became secretary and main organizer of the Bolshevik Party in 1917. There was at any rate no little symbolism in the fact that a Jew was both the head of the state and the secretary of the ruling party. Percentages of Jews in state positions or in the party do not capture that adequately.
In approximately the same second-level category was Moisei Solomonovich Uritsky, notorious as the chief of the Cheka in Petrograd where Red Terror raged with special brutality. For anti-Semites he became the personification of “Jewish terror against the Russian people.” He was certainly less fanatical than Zinoviev [another Jew], whose pervasive cruelty and vindictiveness toward alleged counterrevolutionaries prompted Uritsky at one point to lodge an official complaint.
A list of prominent non-Jews in the party would begin with Lenin, whose name outweighs the others, although in the first year or so of the revolution, Trotsky’s name rivaled his. Yet his status as a non-Jew and “real Russian” is not as clear as subsequent Soviet propaganda tried to make it. His grandfather on his mother side was Jewish, though a convert to Christianity and married to a woman of German origin. On Lenin’s father side were Kalmyk and Swedish forebears. Lenin the non-Jew, in other words, was Jewish enough to have fallen under the shadow of doubt in Nazi Germany or to have been accepted in the state of Israel.
Lenin was of course considered jewified, if not exactly Jewish, by anti-Semites. As noted, he openly and repeatedly praised the role of the Jews in the revolutionary movement; he was one of the most adamant and consistent in the party in his denunciation of pogroms and anti-Semitism more generally. After the revolution, he backed away from his earlier resistance to Jewish nationalism, accepting that under Soviet rule Jewish nationality might be legitimate. On his death bed, Lenin spoke fondly of the Jewish Menshevik Julius Martov, for whom he had always retained a special personal affection in spite of their fierce ideological differences.
An even more remarkable case was Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Cheka, a “non-Jewish Jew” in a different sense. (The destruction of his statue in front of the KBG building in Moscow in August 1991, after the ill-fated putsch by party conservatives, was widely seen as symbolic of the destruction of a hated past of secret police domination.) In origin a member of the Polish gentry, he had learned Yiddish as a young man in Vienna and had established close friendships with many Jews in the revolutionary circles of the town. He had several romances with Jews and finally married one.
The backgrounds and personal contacts of non-Jews such as Lenin, Kalinin, and Dzerzhinsky help explain how it was that so many observers believed the Bolsheviks were mostly Jews or were in some way under Jewish tutelage. The various refinements of Jewishness—traditional Jew, reform Jew, cultural Jew, half-Jew, non-Jewish Jew, self-hating Jew, Karaite, jewified Gentile—did not have much meaning to most of those who were in a life-and-death struggle with the Bolsheviks and who of course were not used to seeing Jews in any position of authority in Russia; to see them in such numbers spoke for some radical undermining of a previously accepted order. The leaders of the anti-Bolshevik White armies were convinced that they were fighting Jews and other foreigners (Georgians, Armenians, Lithuanians, Poles)—but most importantly Jews—who had somehow seized control of Mother Russia. To most of the Whites the differences between the various revolutionary factions were of little importance; they all appeared alien, foreign in inspiration, jewified, and destructive. Indeed, for many on the right even the liberal Kadets were viewed as westernized and jewified.
Such exaggeration was hardly limited to the White armies. One book published in the West, The Causes of World Unrest, presented a list of fifty members of the Bolshevik government and declared that 95 percent of them were Jews, a common conclusion, as was the notion that the Bolsheviks were murderously destructive.
Destruction of the Jews by the Nazis was from this perspective to be considered a preventive measure, ultimately one of self-defense. As early as 1917, Belloc’s friend and intellectual colleague, C.K. Chesterton, had sternly warned the Jews in Great Britain who were sympathetic to the revolution that “if they continue to incite people against the soldiers and their wives and widows, they will learn for the first time what anti-Semitism really means.”
Anti-Semitism, well entrenched on the right, revived in the rest of the political spectrum, undermining what had been achieved through the patriotic unity of August 1914. The older charges that Jews were unpatriotic or part of the capitalist conspiracy now refocused on the Jew as a social subversive, “taking orders from Moscow.”
A revolutionary unrest spread to central Europe in late 1918 and 1919. The party’s first two leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and, after her murder in January 1919 at the hands of a right-wing paramilitary organization, Paul Levi, were of Jewish origin. Even in France and Italy, with their small and overwhelmingly bourgeois populations, the emerging Communist parties counted a number of Jews in hardship positions. “Foreign Jews, taking orders from Moscow” became an issue.
A Communist coup was attempted in Berlin in January 1919 (the Spartacus Uprising, when Rosa Luxemburg was killed), and in the course of that tumultuous year in Germany pro-Bolshevik revolutionaries took over, however briefly and confusedly, in Munich. In France a general strike was launched in the spring of 1920, and in the autumn of that year there were massive factory occupations in the industrial north of Italy. Perhaps most worrisome to the western powers, the Red Army, headed by Trotsky, launched an offensive against Poland in the summer of 1920 that was touted as the beginning of a triumphant advance of the Red Army into western Europe.
Russian Jews in Revolution: From March to November
One of the first measures taken by the Provisional Government was a decree conferring complete civil equality upon Russia’s Jews. That action was hailed as long overdue by the Russian press; even Novoe Vremia, which, as a semiofficial organ before 1917, had often published anti-Semitic material, applauded the move.
Many of Russia’s Jews were jubilant at the news. In some Jewish homes, Passover was celebrated that year with the reading of the decree instead of the traditional Haggada. Plans were quickly made by Jewish activists for an all-Russian Jewish congress. The excited appeal that went out for it proclaimed that whereas elsewhere Jews had received civil equality, only now in revolutionary Russia were they also going to receive recognition of their separate nationality within another nation. Nothing finally came of this congress, since the Bolshevik Revolution, and then civil war, got in the way.
In Russia, perhaps even more than elsewhere, civil equality for Jews, to say nothing of an official recognition of Jewish nationality, opened up Pandora’s box.
Jews who had faced pervasive discrimination and persecution suddenly found government positions opened to them while closed to the older privileged classes, who were overwhelmingly of Great Russian background.
Still, after 1917, especially after November 1917, there was in Europe a most remarkable change in the status quo: Large numbers of individual Jews assumed, for the first time in modern history, a major role in the government of non-Jewish peoples. Such was the case not only in Russia but in other areas, most notably Hungary and Germany.
The Red Terror—a Jewish terror?
In some areas, for example, the Ukraine, the Cheka leadership was overwhelmingly Jewish. By early 1919 Cheka organizations in Kiev were 75 percent Jewish, in a city where less than a decade earlier Jews had been officially forbidden to reside, except under special dispensation, and constituted about 1 percent of the total population.
The pattern of employing non-Slavic ethnic minorities in the Cheka was duplicated in many other areas of Russia. George Leggett, the most recent and authoritative historian of the Russian secret police, speculates that the use of outsiders may have been a conscious policy, since such “detached elements could be better trusted not to sympathize with the repressed local population.”
It is instructive that the high percentage of Jews in the secret police continued well in the 1930s, when the population of Jews gradually diminished in most other areas of the Soviet and party cadres. The extent to which both Cheka and Gestapo leaders prided themselves in being an elite corps, characterized by unyielding toughness—unmoved by sympathy for their often innocent victims and willing to carry out the most stomach-turning atrocities in the name of an ideal—is striking.
The number of Jews involved in the terror and counterterror of this period is striking. These many Jewish terrorists helped to nurture, even when they killed Jewish Chekists, the belief that Jews, especially once they had broken from the confines of their traditional faith, turned naturally to fanaticism and anarchistic destructiveness.
An even more important institution than the Cheka in defending the revolution was the Red Army, and, again, Jews played a key role in its leadership.
Trotsky fascinated a broad public inside and outside Russia. In Hungary, a Jewish observer who was in fact hostile to the Bolsheviks nonetheless wrote: “The evolutionary flame which has burned beneath the surface of world history is now blazing up for the first time in a Jewish genius: Leo Trotsky!” According to Paul Johnson,
It was Trotsky who personally organized and led the armed uprising which actually overthrew the Provisional Government and placed the Bolsheviks in power. It was Trotsky who created the Red Army, and who ensured the physical survival of the new Communist regime during the Civil War.
Trotsky’s paramount role in the revolution cannot be denied; Johnson’s views even if exaggerated, underline how powerful and durable has been the mystique around Trotsky’s name. He was second to Lenin, but a strong second. There was no Jew in modern times, at least until the creation of the state of Israel, to rival him.
It has been claimed that the actual proportion of Jews in top party and state positions in the 1930s did not notably drop from the 1920s. However, “visible” Jewish leaders, comparable to Trotsky, Zinoviev, or Uritsky, diminished in numbers and would continue to do so in subsequent years, so that by the mid-twentieth century there were almost no Jews among the highest officials in the Soviet Union.
To state the obvious, Jews were never purged explicitly as Jews in the Soviet Union, and millions survived the worst years of Stalin’s terror.
Excerpted from a longer entry that eventually will contain most of the book’s chapters.