Salo W Baron, arguably the greatest Jewish historian of the 20th century, is famous for inveighing against the ‘lachrymose theory’ of Jewish history, which reduced all of the Jewish past to an unending series of persecutions. Baron’s resistance to a lachrymose, or tearful, framing of Jewish history was largely focused on the Middle Ages. In his 1928 essay ‘Ghetto and Emancipation’, he sought to correct earlier views by insisting that the status of Jews in medieval Europe ‘was by no means an inferior one’ relative to other groups.
Many have assumed that Baron’s memorable phrase was intended to apply to all periods of Jewish history. But Baron’s forceful resistance to a lachrymose approach did not hold for the modern period. In ‘Ghetto and Emancipation’, he observed that the modern age imposed new burdens on Jews (for example, obligatory military service), and also that ‘the Emancipation era did not relieve the Jew of pogroms’. In fact, Baron maintained, the modern period was marked by a degree of violence and destruction visited on Jews that had been unimaginable previously.
Opinions are sharply divided on the trajectory of modernity. A long line of boosters, epitomised by the psychologist Steven Pinker (in Enlightenment Now), have asserted the progressive thrust of history from the time of the Enlightenment. Baron belonged to a cohort of mid-20th-century (largely) Jewish intellectuals – a group that also included Hannah Arendt, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Jacob Talmon and Zygmunt Bauman – who cast doubt on the beneficence of the Enlightenment and the notion of historical progression.
Jeffrey Veidlinger’s new book, In the Midst of Civilized Europe, provides substantial historical validation for the arguments of Baron and his colleagues. It is a manifestly lachrymose book, detailing the explosion of murderous violence in the 20th century through massive research and with exactitude. Its principal geographic focus is Ukraine, which forms a key part of the ‘Bloodlands’ that the historian Timothy Snyder identified more than ten years ago in his book of that name. Its purview covers both state and non-state actors in a period when the boundary between them was often flimsy. And it meticulously chronicles, city by city, town by town, the ravages of group violence, when one round of orgiastic slaughter and rape invited yet another.
This is an all too familiar story to us. And yet the subject of Veidlinger’s book is not the Holocaust. It is a series of devastating outbursts of violence, known by the Russian term ‘pogrom’, unleashed in the waning months of the First World War and extending to 1921. During that three-year period, and especially in 1919, more than a hundred thousand Jews were murdered in eastern Europe, thousands of Jewish women were raped and entire Jewish communities were destroyed. Shockingly, this grotesque spectacle of violence followed immediately the monumental conflagration that was the First World War – as if human beings had not exhausted their capacity for violence. When observing this wave of pogroms in eastern Europe, the renowned French writer Anatole France expressed disbelief that crimes such as this, which ‘outrage human reason and conscience’, could occur ‘in the very midst of civilized Europe’.
Well before the Holocaust – or even the advent of Nazism – the pogroms called into question the enlightenment of European civilisation. Moreover, as Veidlinger notes, they offered an eerie premonition, fostering ‘the idea that the Jews as a whole could one day be annihilated’. Veidlinger does a superb job of reconstructing the conditions of chaos and lawlessness in eastern Europe at the end of the Great War, as once-mighty empires crumbled, giving way to fierce and deadly competition among eastern European national and ethnic groups intent on achieving the holy grail of sovereignty. Cast in the middle of this violent contest involving Ukrainians, Poles and Russians were Jews, perceived by all sides as disloyal and beholden only to themselves – or, worse, to the new and reviled idol of Bolshevism.
In recent years, a number of important historical works that engage with this era and its excesses have been published, including Paul Hanebrink’s A Specter Haunting Europe, a study of the ubiquitous and lethal association between Jews and Bolshevism, and Elissa Bemporad’s Legacy of Blood and Pogroms: A Documentary History (the last co-edited with Eugene Avrutin). Veidlinger’s book stands out for the depth of its detail. In nearly four hundred pages of tight and gripping prose, he reconstructs the point at which the convergence of rumour, anarchy and ideology triggered convulsions of violence. Across Ukraine, in Ovruch, Zhytomyr, Proskuriv and scores of other locales, Jews were betrayed, plundered, mocked and murdered both by marauders from outside and by their own neighbours. In the pogrom in Tetiiv, a small Ukrainian town, in December 1919, one witness recalled that ‘the most noble men just like the simplest soldiers took part in the wildest robberies and atrocities – many people were injured, many people were tortured and humiliated; they even violated women, young and old alike (from the oldest, a 60-year-old, to the youngest 14- and 15-year old girls)’. The depths of cruelty, along with the scale of destruction, defy imagination. In a second wave of the violence in Tetiiv three months later, estimates are that between three thousand and five thousand Jews were murdered over a ten-day period, including 1,127 who were burned alive in a synagogue. One must remind oneself while reading that this was not Jedwabne, the Polish town in which the Christian residents turned against their long-standing Jewish neighbours in 1941, accusing them of ‘Judeo-communism’ before
locking three hundred of them in a barn and burning them to death.
We know about events in Jedwabne because of the pioneering work of the Polish-American sociologist and historian Jan T Gross, who compellingly described the 1941 massacre in Neighbors (2001). And we now know much more about the pogroms of 1918–21 because of Veidlinger’s painstaking research, based on a vast trove of archival materials and reliance on at least nine languages. He has succeeded in shining a bright scholarly light on a much less well-known attempt to exterminate European Jews two decades before the Holocaust. In its thoroughness and controlled passion, In the Midst of Civilized Europe is descriptive history at its best.
For all its many virtues as a work of history, there is something missing in it as a work of historiography. The book leaves largely untouched key methodological and scholarly questions that have animated the field of Holocaust studies for decades. Although it opens with the thesis that 1919 was an adumbration of 1939, it is only in the book’s last few pages that Veidlinger presents the case that the Nazi assault re-enacted ‘a script written a generation before’. A fuller engagement with the connections between the two would have necessarily occasioned a reflection on the perils of ‘backshadowing’, as Michael André Bernstein labelled the tendency to read earlier 20th-century history through the lens of the Holocaust. Also, it would have been helpful to have Veidlinger connect his fastidious reconstruction of the Ukrainian pogroms more directly to Snyder’s ‘Bloodlands’ thesis and Hanebrink’s analysis of the obsession with ‘Judeo-communism’. Indeed, the issues of scholarly voice, genocide geography and perpetrator motives remain largely unaddressed.
But there is a limit to what a book can do, even a big one. Jeffrey Veidlinger has done so much in In the Midst of Civilized Europe that it seems unfair to demand more of him. In fact, it is precisely its understated quality – born of a rare mix of erudition and epistemological modesty – that lends it its uncommon power. This is an exemplary account of a decidedly lachrymose moment in modern history.