A Combustible Compound: On Paul Hanebrink’s “A Specter Haunting Europe” and Elissa Bemporad’s “Legacy of Blood”

By David N. MyersJanuary 20, 2021

A Combustible Compound: On Paul Hanebrink’s “A Specter Haunting Europe” and Elissa Bemporad’s “Legacy of Blood”

A Specter Haunting Europe by Paul Hanebrink
Legacy of Blood by Elissa Bemporad

AS THE COVID-19 pandemic raged over the past year, the darker corners of social media were brimming with assertions of Jewish conspiracy, some of which accused the Jews of perpetrating the hoax of the virus and others of which held them responsible for infecting the world. Claims of Jewish world conspiracy, prodigiously launched by the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the first years of the 20th century, are so persistent that it is almost hard to separate them from everyday political discourse. One need only recall Donald Trump’s closing campaign ad in October 2016, featuring a trio of unnamed but easily identifiable Jews (Janet Yellen, Lloyd Blankfein, and George Soros), who were accused of promoting “global special interests.”

That particular version of the global conspiracy theory into which the Trump campaign tapped was of the ceaselessly avaricious Jewish capitalist, beholden only to his own self-interest. That trope has had a very strong run throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, most readily attaching itself to the Rothschild family. But antisemitism is nothing if not spectacularly malleable. One of the most lethal variants of the trope of Jewish globalism is the seeming opposite of the arch-capitalist type: the rootless Jewish communist, incapable of loyalty to any particular nation or land and intent on uprooting traditions and impoverishing all in his path.

Emerging in the midst of World War I, the idea of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” as it came to be designated, has had an enormously prolific career ever since. It is no surprise that the idea would have enraged and inspired Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazis as they sized up the huge Soviet communist obstacle blocking their path to a pure German Lebensraum. It is far more surprising that it not only survived the collapse of the USSR, but continues to thrive in the teeming global marketplace of hate.


Princeton historian Arno Mayer set out to explain the phenomenon in his book Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? (1988), in which he made the stunning assertion that “anti-Semitism did not play a decisive or even significant role in the growth of the Nazi movement and electorate.” Communism was the singular obsession of Hitler and Nazism, while Jews were a second-order concern. On Mayer’s controversial reading, the act of lumping Jews together with communism in Judeo-Bolshevism was a post-factum rationale for action after the Germans realized that they could not best the Soviet Union.

Two outstanding new books offer a very different explanation of Judeo-Bolshevism and its genealogy: Paul Hanebrink’s A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism and Elissa Bemporad’s Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets. Hanebrink, who teaches modern European history at Rutgers, makes clear that Judeo-Bolshevism was far from an afterthought; it was a — perhaps the — central catalyst in driving forward the Nazi genocidal project. While communism was an undeniably essential part of the equation, Judeo-Bolshevism, in Hanebrink’s account, is “the idea that Jews had created and supported Bolshevism and were therefore responsible for its crimes.” His book offers the most exhaustive account to date of the Nazi obsession with Judeo-Bolshevism, but also of the other sites and eras in Europe in which the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism flourished.

In fact, the book begins in Munich after World War I, but not with Adolf Hitler. Rather, it commences with the papal nuncio in the city in 1919, Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII whose Holocaust-era history remains shrouded in mystery. Back in Munich in the war’s aftermath, Pacelli was unsettled by the political chaos of Bavaria, which he blamed on a revolutionary zeal unmistakably associated with Jews. He was hardly alone among his co-religionists. Hanebrink skillfully charts how Catholics across the continent, from Poland to Spain, Italy to Austria, eagerly identified the main enemy that was threatening the very foundation of Christian Europe: Judeo-Bolshevism.

He also shows that the catholicity of Judeo-Bolshevism extended well beyond Catholic circles. Hitler was not a devoted adherent of the Catholic religion, in which he was baptized, in any meaningful way. But “Judeo-Bolshevism,” Hanebrink asserts, “made Adolf Hitler,” as it did a good number of his contemporaries who were fervent Catholics. The Munich of the early 1920s became “a gathering place for counterrevolutionaries across east-central Europe” because of Hitler’s thundering denunciations of the pervasive threat. Even those conservatives, Protestants and Catholics alike, who still regarded Hitler with skepticism in this decade inveighed against the regnant Kulturbolschewismus of the day. Later, the Nazis went on to establish an Anti-Comintern whose goal, Hitler declared in a rally in 1937, was to assure that “this Bolshevik plague does not spread further over Europe.” Leaving no doubt as to the true nature of the threat, he concluded that “Jewish Bolshevism is an absolute alien body in this community of European culture-nations.”

Judeo-Bolshevism was not empty rhetoric. It was a deadly trigger for murderous pogroms against Jews during World War II, which Hanebrink pinpoints: in Iași, Romania, in late June 1941, where more than 13,000 Jews were murdered; in Babi Yar in Soviet Ukraine three months later, where more than 33,771 Jews were murdered; and in Kielce, Poland, where 42 Jews were killed because of their alleged Bolshevik allegiances. What is striking about the last event is that it took place in July 1946 — after the end of the war, as the Nuremberg Trials were already under way.

Far from collapsing with the demise of Nazism, the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism not only fueled the Kielce massacre, but also survived the 40-year reign of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. In the last chapters of A Specter Haunting Europe, Hanebrink pivots from his discussion of Nazi-fed propaganda and its consequences during World War II to survey the vibrancy of the myth in Poland, Hungary, and Romania today. In all of these countries, recent or current political leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continue to gesture toward one version or another of the base syllogism that holds that Jews are communists, communists are disloyal and dangerous, and therefore Jews are disloyal and dangerous. This syllogism is one of the most potent ingredients in the brew of contested memories from which these countries now draw as they reshape their national pasts. All too often, Judeo-Bolshevism is cast as the antithesis of pro-fascist, anticommunist nationalism for which Jews were and are the chief enemy. In the resulting project of historical revisionism, figures such as Ion Antonescu, the antisemitic leader of wartime Romania who was executed for war crimes, are newly rehabilitated and venerated.


Part of what explains the survival of Judeo-Bolshevism is the combustible compound that results from merging two deep-seated forms of hatred, each with its own provenance and motivation. Another part of the explanation is the extraordinary ability of antisemitism to assume so many diverse forms — to the point that historian David Engel has argued the term should be retired. [1] It is this perpetual form-altering quality that Elissa Bemporad grapples with in Legacy of Blood. Bemporad, who teaches Eastern European Jewish history at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center, adopts a narrower geographic frame than Paul Hanebrink does in A Specter Haunting Europe. Her book focuses exclusively on the Soviet Union. And while Hanebrink opens his story with the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, Bemporad starts with a much older myth, the irrepressible blood libel that asserts that Jews kill Gentiles to use their blood for various nefarious purposes. [2] She follows the passage of this myth into the 20th century, beginning with the famous trial of a Jewish man named Mendel Beilis, who was accused of murdering a Christian child for ritual purposes in Kyiv in 1911.

Much of the drama in Bemporad’s story derives from the collision of the old with the new, which sparked a convulsion of violence that ravaged Jewish communities in 900 locales in the midst of civil war in Ukraine, Belarus, and southern Russia from 1917 to 1921. Antisemitic rioters launched 1,500 discrete pogroms, murdering as many as 150,000 Jews. Sandwiched between the hitherto unprecedented destruction of World War I and the even larger catastrophe of World War II, this orgy of violence is largely forgotten in public, including Jewish, memory.

In Legacy of Blood, Bemporad accomplishes a remarkable, multifaceted feat — and in a breathtakingly concise 150 text pages. First, she pulls the curtain back to reveal the enormous scale and ugliness of the pogroms, which were constantly driven forward by intersecting claims of ritual murder and Judeo-Bolshevism. Bemporad understands the mass violence in this region of Eastern Europe — part of what Timothy Snyder calls the “bloodlands” — as a trial run, in terms of ideologically driven terror and mass murder, for what would later sweep across the same terrain during the Holocaust.

The pogroms were a template in another regard. The events themselves were followed by a pitched battle over control of memory of the violence — in ways parallel to and overlapping with the memory contests that Paul Hanebrink describes in his book. Jews played an active role here, attempting to ensure that the victims of the violence be memorialized through historical scholarship and other forms of public commemoration. But they were not alone in seeking to leave a mnemonic imprint. Bemporad’s second and perhaps most important achievement in Legacy of Blood is to offer a richly sourced reception history of the pogroms, replete with surprising turns. One surprise is that the Soviet state in the 1920s was committed not only to suppressing the charge of Judeo-Bolshevism, for its own obvious reasons, but to rooting out the ritual murder accusation — and condemning antisemitism more generally. It convened commissions of inquiry of Jews and non-Jews to investigate the ritual murder charge (which, because of their mixed compositions, often led to inconclusive results). It permitted Jews to publish and erect memorials to the victims of the pogroms. And it “promoted educational methods to debunk antisemitism,” especially the blood libel, because it regarded such primitive forms of hatred as antithetical to the vision of proletarian liberation.

Nevertheless, Bemporad argues, even in this relatively enlightened period, the Soviet leadership was ambivalent about highlighting the religious, ethnic, and gender identity of the victims of antisemitism. And by the 1930s, the fight against antisemitism had largely yielded to a more predictable Soviet battle against the perfidy of anti-revolutionary bourgeois actors. In part, this had to do with the state’s fear that an overly aggressive campaign in defense of Jews might fortify the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism. And so, it was already in this period that the state commenced “[t]he process of erasing Jews from the memory of violence through historical revisionism” — a tendency that would become far more pronounced in the post–World War II era.

Of course, later in the postwar period, ambivalence and historical amnesia gave way to another stage in the state’s attitude toward Jews: outright antisemitism, which Soviet Jews were forced to confront from the 1950s onward. The problem remains alive today, as the Russian successor state to the USSR attempts to fashion a historical memory suited to its Putinesque proclivities. In one of the latest iterations discussed in Legacy of Blood, the Russian Federation in 2018 reached back into the murky past to reclaim Tsar Nicholas II as a hero (and investigate anew his murder), leading to what Bemporad calls a “perfect symbiosis between the Judeo-Bolshevik myth and the more traditional ritual murder.”


One of the recurring subtexts in Legacy of Blood is that Jews had to adjust constantly to the shifting attitudes of the state toward them, while always demonstrating loyalty to it. Meanwhile, from the bottom up, relations on the ground between Jews and other ethnic and national groups were tense and filled with suspicion and antisemitic sentiments. This was not the invention of the USSR. Over the course of centuries, relations of this nature mandated, as Salo Baron and his student Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi described it, a “vertical alliance” between Jews and state power. Hannah Arendt, for her part, asserted that this close entanglement with state power created a dependence that proved deadly in the Nazi era.

But one can understand why Jews would align with the Soviet state in the post–World War I period. In the face of tribal violence unleashed against them, they chose, as Jews before them had, the path of physical protection. To be sure, many were also excited by the prospect of revolution, since it promised to overthrow deep structures of persecution from which they and their forebears had suffered. This does not mean, as both Bemporad and Hanebrink show with characteristic care, that all Jews were communists or even that there was a uniformly disproportionate Jewish representation in Communist Parties throughout Europe.

The question that lingers is the Jewish alliance with state power. Given the mysterious alchemy of antisemitism, which allows both for its endless reformulation and its perdurance, does the vertical alliance remain a winning strategy for Jews? Not only does it demand compromising professions of loyalty to unsavory political leaders — from Mussolini and Stalin to Orbán and Trump — but it also forecloses alliances with other groups that are victims of deeply ingrained discrimination, but which have never benefited from the embrace of state power. Perhaps the time has come for Jews to consider the alternative path of horizontal alliances with those who are othered in ways that Jews know all too well.

This is not the express message of Paul Hanebrink and Elissa Bemporad in their illuminating books on the power of anti-Jewish myths in the 20th century. What they have done is to discharge masterfully the most important task of the historian: analyzing the past to help us understand how we got where we are today. It is our task as their readers to imagine how to chart a better future.


David N. Myers holds the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History at UCLA, where he directs the Luskin Center for History and Policy. He is the author and editor of many books in Jewish history.


[1] David Engel, “Away from a Definition of Antisemitism,” in Jeremy Cohen and Moshe Rosman, eds., Rethinking European Jewish History (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2009), 30–53.

[2] See the important and comprehensive recent study of Magda Teter, Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2020).

LARB Contributor

David N. Myers is Distinguished Professor and Kahn Chair in Jewish History at UCLA, where he directs the Luskin Center for History and Policy and the UCLA Initiative to Study Hate.


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