Thursday 20 July 2023


In the Midst of Civilized Europe by Jeffrey Veidlinger: Book Note

This past month (July 2023) I read In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust 

Jeffrey Veidlinger
(HarperCollins 2021). The title is ironic. Historian Jeffrey Veidlinger’s book is about the pogroms of as many as 100,000 Jews in what is now Ukraine, during the many wars for Ukraine’s territory in the period 1918-21. The reference to “civilized Europe” is from an open letter, expressing concern about Ukraine’s Jews. The lead signatory of the letter was the French author Anatole France.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks (Communists) under Vladimir Lenin took power over former imperial Russia. They immediately made peace with Germany. Ukrainian democrats and nationalists saw this as an opportunity to claim their own independence from Russia. Various political actors then engaged in struggle for control of the territory we now call Ukraine over the four years Veidlinger covers. These included Ukrainian democrats, who never had much control over any part of Ukraine, and Ukrainian nationalists supported by the dreaded (by Jews) Cossack horsemen. They also included Polish invaders, German invaders, White (anti-communist) Russian invaders, and Bolsheviks. Finally, they included local warlords. Bolshevik Russia finally subdued or negotiated with all these other actors, and incorporated Ukraine into the Soviet Union.

With the exception of the Ukrainian democrats, who tried to introduce rights for national minorities, including Jews, all these groups were responsible for pogroms against Jews. While Bolshevik officials did not have a policy of persecuting Jews, their underlings occasionally instituted pogroms. The other groups enthusiastically conducted pogroms, often killing every Jew in towns that they controlled, usually after raping the women and girls first. Both those who instituted the pogroms and local townspeople and peasants from surrounding villages cheerfully looted Jewish homes and other properties. Veidlinger’s final estimate is about 100,000 Jews killed.

We know about these pogroms in great detail because Jewish community leaders, both in Ukraine and abroad, encouraged survivors to detail and document what they experienced and witnessed. We also know about them through the records of commissions of inquiry into the various pogroms, including many commissions held by the Bolshevik authorities in the 1920s.  While many records of the pogroms were later lost, enough survived that Veidlinger was able to read them and in some chapters, provide detailed and horrifying descriptions of local pogroms. He appears to read both Russian and Yiddish (the latter the language of many Eastern European Jews, now more or less a dead language).  

The Bolsheviks who instituted commissions of inquiry were the same authorities that instituted their own terror against opponents (real and perceived) via their state institutions, including the Cheka secret police. They were also the authorities who stole food from Ukraine in 1920-21, shipping it to Russia proper while Ukrainians starved (as they did again during the state-induced Holodomor famine in 1932-33, which I discuss in my 2016 book, State Food Crimes, pp. 22-27).

Indeed, Veidlinger explains in his last chapter why so many Ukrainians welcomed Nazi rule during WWII and why so many willingly assisted the Nazis in their program to exterminate the Jews. Many Jewish people had joined the Bolsheviks, including the Cheka, in the 1920s, as the Bolsheviks were the only people who extended a modicum of protection to the Jews from the pogroms instituted by almost all the other actors in the civil wars of 1918-21. Ukrainian peasants whom the Bolsheviks had twice starved saw those Jews who survived the earlier pogroms and did not emigrate as privileged people, simultaneously capitalist and communist. In reality, both before and after 1918, most Jews were small business-people or craftsmen, not rich bourgeois. Many ethnic Ukrainians, moreover, had been persecuted by the Cheka, or had relatives who had been persecuted. The Bolsheviks had also expropriated the property of many Ukrainians. Thus, many blamed “Jewry,” write large, for the actions of some individuals Jews who were Bolsheviks, even when most Bolsheviks were ethnic Russians, not Jews.

This absolutely does not excuse Ukrainians who persecuted Jews in 1918-1921, or who cooperated with Nazism in the 1940s to murder even more Jews. Murderers are murderers and génocidaires are génocidaires. But if we want to eradiate genocide, we need to understand the underlying political, economic, social and ideological factors that cause it. This applies as much to the extermination of the Jews in “civilized” Europe as to any genocide elsewhere.

Ukraine became independent in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union. I remember being a member of a visiting delegation of scholars to the Institute of State and Law at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow in 1990. In discussion, I said that I thought Ukraine would want its independence, especially because of memories of the Holodomor. A member of the Russian side said that she was an ethnic Ukrainian and Ukraine would always remain loyal to Russia. Hah!

Ukraine had no history of being independent in the modern sense of statehood prior to 1991. Before then, the territory now known as Ukraine was divided up at various times among Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and so on. But that does not validate Vladimir Putin’s argument that Ukraine is Russian territory now. Once the international community recognizes as State as independent and sovereign, that’s that. So, Israel has the right to exist as a state, whatever one might think of its policies toward the Palestinians. So does Serbia, forged in blood after committing terrible atrocities against other groups—especially the Bosnians-during the break-up of Yugoslavia. So do South Sudan and Sudan proper, both countries with terrible records of mass atrocities.

The history of Ukraine 1918-2021 put me in mind of politics in Africa today, especially in eastern Congo. There too, for the last 30 years various groups have been competing for control, including both ethnic Hutu and Tutsi. There too, invading forces from foreign nations—Zimbabwe and Rwanda especially—have committed mass atrocities. There too, local warlords have sprung up and committed atrocities. “Civilizations” in both Europe and Africa disintegrate easily, revealing mankind’s worst instincts for torture, death, looting, and revenge.


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