A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789-1939
by David Vital
Oxford. 944 pp. $45.00
This massive, densely argued book starkly recounts the successive political crises that engulfed the Jews of Europe from the French Revolution until the Holocaust. David Vital, a distinguished Israeli scholar and historian of Zionism, is by no means the first to attempt this daunting task. But he brings to it many of the qualities that marked his earlier works, including a certain gravitas, sound judgment, and a solid documentary foundation in all the salient languages. And he also brings his customary, unabashedly political focus on the events he narrates. For Vital, it is power relations that always provide the ultimate determinants of the Jewish situation in history.
At the center of Vital’s narrative lies, appropriately enough, Russo-Polish Jewry: a community whose sheer numbers (over five million in 1900), cohesion, and compactness made it “much more distinctively and unselfconsciously a people apart than their brethren elsewhere.” The majority of these Jews were Yiddish-speaking, many of them also reading and writing Hebrew. More traditionally observant than their Western co-religionists, and also more obviously “alien,” they could hardly be assimilated into the ruling ethos of imperial Russia—a heavy-handed police state that intransigently proclaimed its autocratic absolutism as well as its Christian Orthodox and ethnic Russian character. After 1881, and especially during the early 20th century, when anti-Jewish mob violence exploded in Russia, the czarist state tended to blame the Jews themselves for the aggressions against them, and tightened the noose still further. Already confined mainly to the Pale of Settlement, they became burdened by no fewer than 650 restrictive laws.
From the late 19th century on, Russian Jews responded to their oppression in an increasingly secular, activist, and militant fashion. Some joined distinctly Jewish revolutionary movements like the Bund, which tried to combine class struggle and devotion to the Yiddish language with demands for cultural-national autonomy. Others sought a solution in Palestine through Zionism, or advocated Jewish nationalism in the Diaspora—subjects that Vital has written about extensively in earlier works. Still others, retaining their allegiance to tradition, organized themselves into separatist religious-political groupings like the Aguda. And, between 1881 and 1914, over two-and-a-half million Jews responded to their dismal economic situation and to anti-Semitic persecution by fleeing Russia and Eastern Europe altogether, the largest number settling in the United States.
If Vital’s major focus is on Russia (and Poland) before the Bolshevik Revolution, he also devotes considerable space to Polish Jewry between the two world wars, as well as to the Jews of Germany from the late 18th century to 1939. In the Polish Republic after 1918, Jews remained a nationally conscious and self-assertive community but also one torn apart by endemic divisions and fractiousness. In the meantime, Polish anti-Semitism—whether Catholic, nationalist, or openly fascist—grew increasingly intense, making the Jewish position by the 1930’s extremely vulnerable. Not only did the powerful National Democratic opposition party agitate for the “evacuation” of Poland’s 3.2 million Jews, but after 1935 the Polish government itself actively encouraged emigration and began to undermine established Jewish rights.
In the case of German Jewry, Vital draws a number of interesting contrasts with Russia and Poland. He emphasizes, for example, the passionate identification of German Jews with their fatherland; their refusal to form Jewish political parties; and their relegation of Jewish identity to the private domain. And yet, even though, by the turn of the century, German Jews had become a prosperous, solidly acculturated, and well-educated urban element, they remained “second-class citizens” when it came to holding positions in the state bureaucracy, the judiciary, the universities, or the armed forces; their existence was clouded, moreover, by the rise of political anti-Semitism in Germany after 1880.
Although he has surprisingly little to say about the Weimar Republic, Vital does point to the differences between German anti-Semitism—in his view, it was decidedly an “artificial and invented matter” both before and after Hitler’s coming to power—and the situation in czarist Russia and interwar Poland, where the “Jewish question” had a partly “objective” core rooted in the ethnic character and size of the Jewish communities. In the end, of course, these differences availed little or nothing at all.
Finally, Vital deals competently with the evolution of French Jews from 1789 to the Dreyfus Affair (thereafter, their story seems to fade from view), and more ephemerally with Anglo-Jewry. But there are only sporadic references in A People Apart to the interesting and significant communities of Austria, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic States, and, in the West, Holland and Italy. This is a pity, since giving them serious consideration would have not only provided a more faithful and varied picture of European Jewry but also brought more clearly into the foreground those elements of (partially) successful social integration and creative achievement which unfortunately make but rare appearances in the narrative.
Vital’s approach to the writing of history has both strengths and drawbacks. The strengths are predominantly on view in his exhaustive analysis of the tensions between the Jews and their Gentile rulers. His early chapters show with particular clarity how, under “enlightened absolutism,” the European states with which he is most concerned sought to make the Jews more productive and useful to their purposes by exercising greater governmental supervision and social control from above—an experiment that everywhere led to disaster. In Germany, both the state and “civil society” found it difficult to accept Jews as equals, while in Russia, where popular forces remained deeply hostile to the Jews, the government could hardly be relied upon to guarantee their safety and indeed became actively complicit in their persecution. The same was true, if in a much milder form, in Poland after World War I, despite the fact that Jews there enjoyed formal equality.
In short, what Vital is able to bring home with force is how, between 1789 and 1939, the European state was gradually transformed from a protector of the Jews (if at times a grudging and unreliable one) into their primary enemy. This was most obvious in Hitler’s Germany after 1933, but to a lesser degree the same held true for Romania, Hungary, Poland, and other parts of Eastern Europe. (In the more liberal societies of the West like France and Great Britain, of course, the process of modernization was achieved with much less friction and much greater efficacy.)
In his closing chapters, Vital vividly conveys what happened when the Jews, having by now thoroughly lost the protection of their own governments, were abandoned to the tender mercies of the “international community.” The Evian Conference of 1938, in which delegates from 32 countries failed even to discuss the causes of European Jewish distress, let alone publicly to criticize Nazi Germany, epitomized the inability or unwillingness of Western governments to do anything concrete to aid Jewish refugees. Although few if any of the details in Vital’s account of this disgrace are new, he does communicate something of the asphyxiating atmosphere that enveloped European Jews by the late 1930’s, and that was exacerbated by the stony refusal of the British Mandatory authorities in Palestine to grant unimpeded entry to the Jewish National Home.
But there are also serious draw-backs to Vital’s narrowly political interpretation of modern Jewish history. In my view, one cannot convincingly analyze the relationship of the European state to the Jewish community without seriously considering the social, economic, cultural, and ideological contexts in which this relationship occurred. Vital himself seems at times to realize as much—when, for instance, he discusses the role of the Jewish religious tradition, the financial services that Jewish notables provided for absolutist rulers, or the demographic evolution of individual Jewish communities. But only sporadically, if at all, does he deal with the story of Jewish economic success, with the issues of social integration and exclusion, or with the stupendous cultural achievements as well as the fractured identities of many assimilated European Jews.
Thus, the reader will seek in vain in these pages for allusions to such shapers of modern culture as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Henri Bergson, Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, Isaac Babel, Gustav Mahler, or Arnold Schoenberg, let alone to intellectual giants of Jewish thought like Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, or Franz Rozenzweig. Nor is there much to be learned here about Jewish participation in the liberal, democratic, socialist, or Communist movements in Europe, despite their relevance to public perceptions of Jewry. Moreover, the near-silence Vital maintains on the subject of Austria-Hungary leads to a neglect of its anti-Semitic movements, including that of Karl Lueger—the notorious mayor of Vienna at the turn of the century and the first anti-Semitic figure to achieve major political success in a democratic election.
Other distortions creep in as well. When it comes to German Jews, Vital exaggerates the elements of passivity and disintegration in this community, ignoring its resilience, intellectual vitality, and courage in the face of unprecedented adversity. And in his own field of unquestioned expertise—the history of Zionism—although he recapitulates Herzl’s political brand of Zionism in detail, he virtually ignores the “cultural Zionism” associated with the name of Ahad Ha-Am. Finally, in a book devoting hundreds of pages to Russia, Vital omits any inquiry into the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or into the myth of “Judeo-Communism” that was to have such a fateful influence in the inter-war period on the destiny of European Jewry.
Such, at any rate, are a few of the flaws and omissions that seem to flow ineluctably from the single-minded emphasis on power relations in describing and interpreting the history of the Jews. And yet it must also be said that, at times, this same lens focuses on reality with particular sharpness. Vital’s final chapter provides an especially compelling picture of a European Jewry emasculated politically and crushed physically by 1939. Virtually abandoned by the states on which they had hung all their hopes for prosperity and progress since the Enlightenment, they had become indeed a “people apart,” tragically superfluous and of no political consequence. A deadly trap was about to descend on them.