The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

Nationalism & Antisemitism in Modern Europe 1815-1945

  • by Shmuel Almog. Translated from the Hebrew by Ralph Mendel. Oxford, New York, et al: Pergamon Press, 1990, 160 pp., illustrated, $56.00; ISBN 0-08-037254-6 Hardcover; ISBN 0-08-037774-2 Paperback.

Reviewed by Frederick Kerr

The addition of “Holocaust Studies” to school curriculum has emerged as a growth industry in American education. Courses are being included for high school and college students, with the objective that no one may pass through the Halls of Ivy without becoming familiar with “the historical record of Jewish victimization.” Courses require textbooks, and Nationalism & Antisemitism in Europe 1815-1945, by Shmuel Almog, is the first in a series prepared for use by college students and high school instructors by the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in cooperation with the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History of the Historical Society of Israel. Editions are simultaneously being made available in the United States, Britain, Canada, Germany, Brazil, Australia, Japan and the People’s Republic of China.

In his preface, Prof. Almog admits that the drive to focus attention on this topic has been prompted as a response to “the revisionist denial that the Holocaust ever occurred, or the attempt to diminish its magnitude.” Revisionism and the new wave of nationalism sweeping through the former satellites of the crumbling Soviet Empire “obligate us to probe the history of Jew-hatred (and) the persistence of this phenomenon.”

The extermination of Jews at Auschwitz and elsewhere is a “given” in this volume. What the author seeks to reveal is the persistence and continuity of anti-Jewish sentiment throughout Europe following the fall of Napoleon. Wherever peoples strove for self-determination, Jews were viewed with distrust by patriotic elements. Consequently, Almog observes, “modern antisemitism is incomprehensible without reverence to nationalism.”

Over some seven chapters, the author argues that mistrust of Jews was widespread and not limited to religious cranks or ignorant peasants. The very process of political evolution from dynastic monarchies to indigenous nation-states often led to the removal of Jews from their former influential positions in these realms.

Almog’s survey draws attention to policies and events that may cause more thoughtful students to pause and ponder just what was transpiring during this period. For example, the Russian monarchy is portrayed as anti-Semitic. Yet, in his chapter “Revolutions and Counter revolutions, “ the author mentions that the Tsarist occupation regime in Poland prohibited anti-Jewish pamphleteering.

It was the murder of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 that sparked off anti-Jewish riots in Russia. Thereafter, government authorities began to re-examine the role played by Jews and their relationship to the majority population. A memorandum prepared for the newly-crowned Tsar Alexander III by the future Interior Minister Nikolai Ignatyev (1832-1908) is excerpted by Almog:

In Petersburg there existsa powerful group of Poles and Yids which holds in its hands direct control of banks, the stock exchange, the bar, a great part of the press, and other areas of public life. Through many legal and illegal ways it exerts and enormous influence over the bureaucracy and the general course of affairs. Parts of their group are implicated in the growing plunder of the exchange and in seditious activity …

German anti-Semitism was marked by theparticipation of prominent intellectuals and artists, such as Richard Wagner. In Germany, Jews came to be viewed in a new light following the failure of the revolutions of 1848. The creation of the German Empire corresponded with a growing suspicion that Jews were “dual loyalists.” The 1892 Tivoli Conference of the Conservative Party issued a platform that openly called for curbing “the ruinous Jewish influence.”

Anti-Jewish sentiment spread throughoutEurope in the aftermath of the First World War, touched off by the Balfour Declaration, and, more immediately, by events in Russia, and Eastern and Central Europe. “The large numbers of Jews in the Communist parties, “ Almog notes, “magnified the historic enmity toward Jews.” Almog lists Jews who played stellar roles in the Communist revolts in Russia, Germany and Hungary. He even points out that many of them assumed aliases, but to no avail, for “soon enough their former names Bronstein, Radomislsky, Rosenfeld, Zederbaum, Sobelsohn were also revealed … The public regarded them as an attempt to deceive the world about the true origin of the revolutionaries, so as to veil the Jewish character of the Revolution.”

Nationalism and Anti-Semitism highlights Polish attitudes toward their own Jewish “problem.” Here, readers learn, quite likely for the first time, that anti-Jewish feelings perhaps ran stronger in Poland than in Nazi Germany. The author cites a 1938 British Foreign Office report on a meeting between the Director of the Central European Desk and the Polish Ambassador:

Poland’s Jewish problemwas much more serious than Germany's. The Jewish population was proportionately much greater. The Germans were persecuting the Jews largely for reasons of doctrine; in Poland the problem was a very pressing economic one … The [Polish Jews] would make good colonists in such a place as Northern Rhodesia, and would be anxious to emigrate at the rate of some 100, 000 per year.

Almog goes on to point out that during the years 1936 through 1938, the Polish government repeatedly asked Great Britain and France to assist them in resettling Jews out of Europe to African colonies or Palestine.

Brief mention is also made of anti-Jewish activities before and during the Second World War in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and France.

Extermination, the author concedes in his summary on “War and Holocaust, “ was not forseen as the “answer” to Europe’s Jewish problems. He goes on to admit that “there is no indication that the 'Final Solution' was planned prior to the outbreak of the war (and perhaps not even before the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941).”

At this point Nationalism & Antisemitism in Modern Europe terminates. Other books in the series will undoubtedly deal with the “mechanics” of the Holocaust. Perhaps against the author’s intentions, what the reader of this book comes to see is that Jews were held suspect by respectable elements throughout Europe. Far from answering students' questions, this book may well raise more questions about the relationship between nationalism and “anti-Semitism, “ and the causes of the latter.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 345-347.