How the forgotten 1919-21 pogroms established the systematic murders that led to the Holocaust

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Waking up from the nightmare of the Great War, many clung to the hope that it would mark a turning point in human history. A terrible lesson had been learnt, mankind would come to its senses, and the light of reason and tolerance would henceforth shine over Europe. This dream soon evaporated. As the peacemakers sat down in Paris to craft a world without war, in the East the killing went on. The victims were caught in the chaos of collapsing empires and colliding ideologies. All were defenceless and most of them were Jewish.

Many of the perpetrators of the relentless pogroms and massacres that splattered the map from the Baltic to the Black Sea from 1918 to 1921 were brutalised veterans of the conflict. The war had not sated their appetite for killing. It had sharpened it, resulting, as Jeffrey Veidlinger convincingly argues, in the establishment of a tradition of systematic murder that would pave the way to the Holocaust.

Pogroms were a recurring peril for the five million Jews in the Tsarist “Pale of Settlement”, an expanse of territory falling in modern Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and Moldova, where Jews were – in theory – legally allowed to live. The pogroms were generally improvised and short-lived, often flaring around Easter as vodka-sodden peasants fired up by anti-Semitic priests turned on their neighbours.

The postwar massacres saw a change. The anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army led by the White Russian general Anton Denikin was officered by gentlemen, and they killed just as enthusiastically as their social inferiors. As the folklorist Shmuel Rubinshteyn put it, “Jews had already lived through pogroms, but pogrom-mongers with university diplomas in their hands, with noble titles, with French words on their tongues – this was new to them.” The “cultured” mass murderer had made his entrance and 20 years later there would be no shortage of doctors of philosophy administering the Final Solution.

Veidlinger estimates that more than 100,000 Jews were murdered in the violence that erupted in the debris of the Russian Empire. The scale reflected a widespread identification of Jews with Bolshevism and all the chaos, dispossession and destruction that followed the Revolution.

But anti-Semitism was not a conservative, nationalist preserve: the Jews were the one enemy everyone could agree on. The Whites killed them because they were revolutionary spies and saboteurs, the Reds because they were bourgeois capitalists. The soldiers were helped by local villagers and townspeople who participated and looted in almost every case. The atrocities attracted worldwide protests and were denounced at the highest level in the West. However, political anti-Semitism was nonetheless respectable in many corners of Europe.

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