Nazism inflicted history’s most horrendous crimes against Jews. But Germany has by no means been history’s top purveyor of global antisemitism.
That distinction goes to Russia, which spread antisemitism more widely and durably.
German and Russian strands cannot, of course, be tidily separated. Nazi rhetoric of Jewish financial and political control and of Jewish bloodlust had roots throughout Europe. It received a mighty boost, however, through the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery attributed to the Tsarist secret police.
We cannot compare Russian and German patterns of antisemitism in quantitative terms without first noting their qualitative differences. For Nazism, Europe needed an ontological cleansing: not a single Jew was to remain. Russia, too, has known that kind of “pureblood”, nationalist antisemitism. But it never shaped official policy.
Russia’s state-directed antisemitism has historically taken more targeted, strategic forms — less frenzied nationalism than old-style imperialism. It has easily coexisted with Russian Jews holding positions of political or cultural prominence. And it has gone through phases: Soviets condemned Tsarist pogroms before turning antisemitism into a tool of their own.
The two types of antisemitism also differ over time. The Nazis achieved unparalleled depth with shocking speed. The Kremlin’s more calculated manoeuvres, by contrast, have spanned far greater geographical breadth, and over a longer period.
After the war, West Germany steadily acknowledged Nazi atrocities by promoting public education and independent enquiry.
Seeds of open scrutiny had sprouted in the East as well. By the early 1950s, however, the new Israeli state, first seen as a potential Kremlin ally, suddenly posed problems. Jews would want to leave Soviet-ruled lands in which they had faced historical discrimination. Any such mass emigration, however, would confirm Soviet rule as repressive. It also risked inciting breakaway movements among over 100 other ethnicities living under the dictatorship. The last thing the Soviets needed was sympathy for Jews.
The Holocaust was certainly never denied. What was crushed was any discussion of it as antisemitism — or indeed any open examination of historical antisemitism. A compulsory silence about antisemitism, encompassing hundreds of millions of people over a stunning landmass, persisted over decades. Few in the east, outside liberal elites, had ever confronted their nations’ antisemitic pasts, let alone their governments’ and compatriots’ often zealous cooperation with Nazi occupiers.
Racism never consists of isolated acts. It is a glass wall that cracks only when it is publicly named. The so-called “internationalist” Soviet “anti-racism” strategy, however, was to proclaim discrimination a Western phenomenon. One “couldn’t find it” under socialism — not least, of course, because of the mandatory silences surrounding it.
Several states liberated from Soviet rule continue to witness frightening antisemitism. Poland or Hungary certainly maintain commemorative sites unthinkable under Soviet rule. Beyond those tourist outposts, however, the ghost of enforced ignorance looms large.
Even tiptoeing around the theme risks the label of national traitor: “Why are you smearing us? Why talk only about Jews? We’ve suffered too!” That “we” entrenches the age-old suspicion that Polish Jews were never “real” Poles, Hungarian Jews never “real” Hungarians, Russian Jews never “real” Russians.
The former Romanian Securitate official Ion Pacepa documents how the KGB spotted Muslims’ anti-Israel animus as a golden opportunity. The Kremlin viewed Muslims as ignorant and malleable — a spectacular Orientalising, which the most ardent of our self-appointed anti-Orientalists today studiously ignore.
The Secret Police chief and later Secretary General Yuri Andropov undertook a programme of spreading antisemitic propaganda throughout Muslim populations. Suddenly the Protocols were newly minted in Arabic (its terms translated verbatim into the 1988 Hamas Charter), and later displayed for sale as far away as the main airport in Malaysia.
In Andropov’s view: We needed to instil a Nazi-style hatred for the Jews throughout the Islamic world, and to turn this weapon of the emotions into a terrorist bloodbath against Israel.
The Protocols still widely circulate in Muslim countries with no concerted objections from supposed anti-racists who assure us they care about antisemitism. (Critics who shout about Zionist “imperialism” and “cultural genocide” rarely speak of the far more massive destruction, throughout centuries, of prior cultures wrought by the spread of Russian power and of Islam. Indeed they often praise those.)
Of course, some Nazi contributions kick in there as well. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had eagerly sought anti-Jewish cooperation with Nazis. Once again, however, it was Soviets who subsequently moved in to fuel that hatred within the wider Muslim world.
With public discourse about antisemitism all but extinguished under the Soviet machine, which then tried its hand at Muslim antisemitism, a third, easily receptive target was Western leftist and post-colonial circles in Western Europe, North and Latin America, and parts of Africa, with eager exponents in academia.
After decades, one can still scour scholarship critical of Israel, steeped in thousands of pages of self-proclaimed “critical” consciousness of imperialism, with scarcely a word of it examining the obstacles created by a Russian counterweight that had pumped such venom into the Muslim world.
Not as a matter of scholarly fact but as a matter of political ideology, the only academically discussable imperialism today is Western imperialism.
All others either remain consigned to cloistered circles of specialists, or must carry “the West is just as bad” caveats so weighty as to end up wholly sidelining Russia’s role in aggravating the Israel-Palestine conflict.
To this day, there remains a desire to view antisemitism on the left as, at best, purely incidental or, at worst, a lie engineered by Zionists. Systemic antisemitism overtly promoted by the governments of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, for example, has never met with serious leftist condemnation.
Today, Vladimir Putin’s hot-and-cold approach serves more to carry forward Russia’s old imperial strategising than to alter it.
Plug terms like “racism”, “discrimination”, or “antisemitism” into Russia Today or Sputnik International search engines. As in Soviet times, you will find avid reporting on the West, without a single mention of Russia’s own parlous history.
A global age has bolstered global antisemitism. Russia is by no means its sole broker — its agents are multiple. If we have to rank them, however, the Russian state took a clear lead a long time ago. Until the Russian media and public self-critically examine the state’s role in sowing antisemitism, its effects will carry on.
Eric Heinze is Professor of Law at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent book is ‘Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship’ (Oxford University Press, 2016)