Book review: A Specter Haunting Europe

A book that debunks the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism


A Specter Haunting Europe By Paul Hanebrink

Harvard University Press, £21.95

Readers of the Jewish Chronicle are approaching a significant anniversary. In the spring of 1919, the JC’s long-standing editor, Leopold Greenberg, wrote two articles on the relationship between Jews, Bolshevism and Communism. They provoked a furore. 

The Russian revolution of October 1917, with its extensive Jewish presence in high-profile posts, had been followed by the spread of revolutionary fervour to Germany in 1918 under the leadership of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (both of Jewish descent), and the establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in early 1919 under the control of Béla Kun (born Béla Kohn). 

While Greenberg lamented the havoc Bolshevism was causing in Europe, he recognised that London’s impoverished East End Jews might see an attraction in Bolshevism as a legitimate response to oppression and discrimination. 

And he suggested that the utopian ideals of communism might be experienced by some Jews as “consonant” with the Jewish longing for a transformed, more equal, society. 

This was a red rag both to bullish British conservatives, long suspicious of the potential treachery of Russian Jewish immigrants, and to the great and good of the British Jewish community (Lionel de Rothschild, Sir Israel Gollancz, Claude Montefiore), who publicly dissociated themselves “absolutely and unreservedly from the mischievous and misleading” doctrine of Bolshevism. 

For Paul Hanebrink, the complex, heated relationship that has always existed between Jews and communist ideology and activity necessitates careful analysis. At the heart of his book — a lifetime’s project — lies the crucial historical and psychological distinction between reality and fantasy. 

While it is true that, for 50 years in the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, those with a Jewish background wielding the levers of power were an outsized presence numerically in relation to the Jewish population of these countries, the existence of something called “Jewish Communism” or “Judeo-Bolshevism” is an old fantasy — except in the popular mind. 

And there’s the rub. What Hanebrink calls the “myth” — i.e. what people believe, fear, react against —  is often more powerful than the boring facts. 
In Germany, the paranoia about a transnational Jewish plot to undermine the nations of Europe was part of an older pattern of antisemitic prejudice but it developed its own deadly potency when characterised, in Nazi propaganda, as “Judeo-Bolshevism”. 

After the fall of Communism, the image of the “Jewish Bolshevik” figured prominently in debates among those who had suffered under Communism in Eastern Europe and were looking for someone to blame. The mythic Jew, whether global Jewish Communist or global Jewish capitalist — as is evident in the demonisation of George Soros within Hungarian ethnic nationalism today — fitted the bill. 

And, in Europe and the US, as Hanebrink points out in the epilogue to this lavishly detailed, scholarly survey, the fantasy of a transnational threat to national ways of life has been transposed on to another “outsider” group, Muslim immigrants, Islamic culture having replaced “Judeo-Bolshevism” as the big threat to “our” way of life.

Howard Cooper is a rabbi and psychotherapist

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