In the December 27, 2002, issue of the English edition of Forward, self-described Orthodox Jew David Klinghoffer attacks Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for his recent book Two Hundred Years Together. In this historical work, Solzhenitsyn deals with Jews and Russians living side by side from 1775, when Russia came to occupy the heavily Jewish regions of Eastern Poland and Lithuania, until after the fall of communism in 1995. Although the book does not attack collectively all Eastern European Jews and praises the filial pietism and customary life associated with the Orthodox, Klinghoffer accuses Solzhenitsyn of “cast[ing] Jewish socialists in the role of demonic villains, seeking to overturn Russian society in the years before and after the 1917 Revolution.” He notes that Russian historian Richard Pipes (himself Jewish), writing in the New Republic, agrees that Jews played a pivotal role in the Russian Revolution and that Pipes does not impute to Solzhenitsyn any sinister purpose. Klinghoffer, however, remains unconvinced. He accuses the Russian author of “invidious age-old distinctions,” and, though he does not treat him as harshly as he does Jesus (Who abetted Christian antisemitism “by constantly fussing with the rabbinic sages”), he considers Solzhenitsyn a troublemaker. Solzhenitsyn’s “tendency to split us into good and bad Jews is very ancient and typically comes to no good.”
Setting aside his questionable charges against Jesus, Klinghoffer does provoke serious questions. Either Jews were disproportionately represented among communist revolutionaries, including those who oversaw mass murder, or they were not. If they were, then there is surely nothing wrong with Solzhenitsyn or Pipes saying so, any more than there is with someone acknowledging the preponderance of German nationals in the Waffen SS. I can only imagine Klinghoffer’s reaction if a German publicist stated that those who called attention to the crimes committed by other Germans were dividing the German people.
Solzhenitsyn’s assertions may understate the reality—a conclusion to which I am led by reading Johannes Rogalla von Bieberstein’s work Jüdischer Bolschewismus: Mythos und Realität. The author, a meticulous multilingual scholar, investigates a wide range of primary and secondary literature (including works by Jewish communists celebrating their involvement with the Soviets and with Stalin). Bieberstein shows that Jewish membership in Russian and Polish communist organizations was at least eight times as great as Jewish representation in the general populations. Jewish communists dominated the Soviet-controlled international revolutionary Comintern and its publications, and Jews were active in the secret-police apparatus in Russia and elsewhere in the Soviet Empire. Much of the virulent antisemitism that spread through interwar Europe and created a breeding ground for Nazism was based on “fear of Jewish Bolshevism.” Such well-known Jewish Bolsheviks as Hungarian communist Bela Kun and Comintern leader Karl Radek gave substance to this fear by steadily proclaiming their hatred for Christianity.
While Bieberstein demonstrates that anti-Christian revulsion affected Jewish radicalism, he leaves no doubt that Jews in Eastern Europe viewed their social situation as “hopeless.” He quotes a 1904 study, Die Juden der Gegenwart by German Jewish sociologist Arthur Ruppin, who argues that “wealthy Jews fund revolutionary socialism not because of the economic oppression of the proletariat but because of their own frustrations.” Bieberstein remarks that the “particularly strong radicalism” observed among Eastern European Jews, especially the Russian Jewish immigrants who helped set up the French, English, and American Communist Parties, resulted from their exclusion from czarist Russian society. German and Austrian Jews, who enjoyed greater civil rights, were correspondingly less radical, even in their socialism. Those Jews who felt most discriminated against struck back by embracing often destructive revolutionary politics, which, in turn, nurtured even more poisonous antisemitism. Need-less to say, communist leaders, starting with Stalin, were quite happy to sacrifice their Jewish revolutionary shock troops once they were no longer deemed necessary for their purposes.
That the communists in power turned on Jewish revolutionaries—some of whom, such as Trotsky, had incited Bolshevik crimes—does not exonerate the victimizers-turned-victims, however. Nor can we attribute the misdeeds of all communist fanatics to social suffering. Stalin’s Jewish general secretary in the Ukraine, La-zare Kaganovich, who was responsible for the murder of millions of Ukrainian peasants, did not grow up in squalor. Like the parents of Trotsky and those of Rosa Luxemburg, the elder Kaganoviches were affluent landowners. The same was true of Lev Kamenev (Rosenfeld) and of the notorious sybarite Gregor Zinoviev, who, together with Stalin, ruled the Soviet party at the time of Lenin’s death. Hungarian communists Bela Kun, Georg Lukacs, and Tibor Szamuely could not even claim to have suffered social indignity. All of them came of age in a liberal monarchy that had ennobled the fathers or grandfathers of two of them. On a 1926 trip to Soviet Russia, anti-Christian Jewish Marxist Walter Benjamin rejoiced that the communists were wiping out Christian civilization. Benjamin grew up in wealth.
Some of the Jewish bourgeoisie, however, supported the anticommunists. This happened even in Russia, though the sporadic anti-Jewish outbursts of the anti-Bolsheviks made Jewish anticommunist opposition weaker than it might have been. Vera, the esteemed wife of Vladimir Nabokov, came from an assimilated Russian-Jewish family that sided with the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the Russian Civil War. In Eastern Europe, the Jewish bourgeoisie provided the most politically active Jews on both sides. In both the first century and the 20th, as Klinghoffer reminds us, Jews opposed other Jews. And, in the tumultuous events described by Solzhenitsyn, the very bad side won.