Paul Hanebrink is an Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University specializing in modern East Central Europe, with a particular focus on Hungary, nationalism and antisemitism as modern political ideologies, and the place of religion in the modern nation-state. He’s the author of In Defense of Christian Hungary. His most recent book is A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism published by Harvard University Press.This week’s podcast is a interview with Paul Hanebrink about his new book A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism published by Harvard University Press.
Vladimir Leont’ev, “Polet na del’taplane,” 1983.
Here’s a partial transcript to whet your appetite.
If you like these transcripts and want to read more, then support them by becoming a patron of the SRB Podcast.
This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity.
Your new book, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, is, as far as I know, one of the first historical investigations into the history of Judeo-Bolshevism. What inspired you to write this study?
I think you put your finger on it. There was not such a book that satisfied me. I came to this project already in the late 1990s. I was in Hungary at the time doing work on my dissertation which was about the concept in Hungarian politics of Christian Nationalism, which Viktor Orban has recently brought back.
I was looking at the relationship between nationalism, Christianity and anti-Semitism in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and I saw a couple of links between them that really intrigued me. On the one hand, I was seeing in all of my sources a real preoccupation with the role that Jews had played in the very short but very cataclysmic Bolshevik revolution that Hungary experienced in 1919.
There was a lot of discussion afterwards, both in the immediate aftermath and in the decades following, about how that could have happened, how Jews got this kind of power, what kind of legacy of what was perceived by almost everybody on the national spectrum as an episode of Jewish power, and what that meant for Hungarian history. Then this kept coming back in which people in the 1940s referred to the debates of the 1920s. That was one set of issues.
The second was that, as I was doing my work in the archive and trying to come up with a workable dissertation, I was also paying attention to public conversations that were going on in Hungary at the time. This was after 1989 and there was a lot of discussion in the press among historians, but also in the wider public, about the role that Jews had played in the Communist regime after 1945 and the degree to which this fact ought to be relevant or whether it should be relevant to debates about, for example, the history of the Holocaust in Hungary. More generally, what that meant for a reappraisal Hungarian history from a post-Communist perspective.
There was a lot of grappling with whether the Jewish role was relevant. People on the nationalist right said that it absolutely was, and they wanted to make comparisons with the Holocaust in various ways. People on left were pushing back. I was very interested in that debate. It struck me that there wasn’t a book that really dealt with the fact that the Judeo-Bolshevik myth was a recurring issue from one historical context to the next across the 20th century and that, by the time you get to 1989, there’s empirical work tied up with memory work, and I wanted to see if I could unpack that. I knew that this was not just a Hungarian story and that the book wouldn’t just be about Hungary, but that was my way into it. It was very much from a perspective of being there.
What is Judeo-Bolshevism?
Judeo-Bolshevism is one variation on the age-old notion of a global Jewish conspiracy. There is an international conspiracy among Jews to get global power. Judeo-Bolshevism is the variation that says that Bolshevism, or Communism, was created by Jews as a collective. It’s not about this person was Jewish, or that person was Jewish, it’s about the collectivity of Jews.
Creating Communism was a tool or as an instrument to achieve that kind of world power. According to this myth, communist parties, communist movements, and communist ideology were tools and instruments of Jewish power. Therefore, the crimes that communist regimes committed are the fault of the Jews. The Jews, in fact, are to blame for them.
Of all the different ethnic groups in Central and Eastern Europe, even in Western Europe, why do the Jews take on this image as the leaders or organizers of this vast conspiracy?
I think that has to do with the ways in which certain kinds of anti-Semitic tropes that have a very old history that predates the 20th century get re-purposed and reinvested with a new kind of significance. If you look at the history of communist parties in various places, there’s always concern that one particular ethnic group, or another is exercising more power, more influence, at a particular moment. You can find those kinds of debates about the role of ethnic Hungarians and the remaining communist party, etc.
The issue with Jews really gets at some of these older tropes about Jewish power which you can trace back to the Middle Ages. Jewish power as being a kind of illegitimate power used to illegitimate ends. The idea of Jews in power conjures up an imagination of a dystopia. It’s the world turned upside-down. When people talk about Jews in charge of communist parties, it really allows these fantasies of an inverted world, a world in which order becomes disorder. It really can have free play in a way you don’t get when you have other kinds of ethnic conflicts within communist parties in various places.
Is this what you mean when you write that the Jewish-Bolshevik is a modern-day version of the medieval fables about Jewish devils?
That’s exactly what I mean. There is this very old association of Jewish power with evil, inversion, and dystopia. You see this with conservative or nationalist observers of communism in counter-revolutionary movements, after 1917 and many decades afterwards who write about Jews in Bolshevism.
If you scratch it, not even a lot, just at the surface, you can start to see what they’re really talking about is a broader image of what they think society is or ought to be and how the idea of Jews in power, in charge of communist parties is the opposite of that. Because Jews have exercised this kind of illegitimate power, civilization, or order, or society, or what have you, as they see it, needs to be defended. This real complex set of ideas is what makes the Judeo-Bolshevik myth so powerful in so many places at so many times.
What are the beginnings of this ideology and how did it function in relationship to violence against Jews.
This isn’t only a Nazi story. That’s maybe the most dramatic variation of it because of the importance that the Holocaust plays in our moral imagination, but it was by no means the first one. The Russian Civil War, all the violence in the Ukraine that was directed against, or inspired by, the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism is absolutely crucial. It’s also equally important in the violence against Jews committed during the Polish-Soviet war and in the Hungarian White Terror. The number of people killed is not comparable in any way to the much larger number of people killed in the Russian Civil War in Ukraine, but the function of this idea is the same.
I see it as functioning on two levels. One is that the association of Jews with a very particular ideology that, at that moment, is seen as being absolutely hostile and inimical to a variety of nationalist projects. This allows nationalist counter-revolutionaries of various sorts to make a very easy assumption that all Jews must either be working with the Bolsheviks or sympathetic to them or somehow hostile to their own nation or nation state-building project, whether that’s the Polish state or a Ukrainian state-building that ultimately failed in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. Or the idea of trying to restore a Hungarian state to sovereignty after the collapse of the Austria-Hungarian empire.
So, on the one hand, it’s a targeting. On the other hand, it’s also a way to rationalize the violence, and you can see this in the international debates about the Russian Civil War in the early 1920s. You can also see it, in a way, in the Holocaust debates of our own time. Violence against Jews is presented by nationalist figures as being perhaps regrettable, but certainly understandable because Jews, they say, were so clearly associated with an ideology that was hostile to their state-building project.
The violence against Jews becomes rational. It’s not irrational any more. It’s not a prejudice that’s bubbled up from centuries ago. It’s a very clear, rational risk assessment that communism poses a threat, and the Jews are associated with it, and if the violence became a little bit excessive that’s unfortunate, but these things happen in times of civil war. There’s a kind of political logic to it that can be used to excuse it, which certainly was very convenient and comfortable for many Western diplomats to hear in the aftermath of World War I because it allowed them to say, we understand why this is happening. We can carry on with our plans to contain communism without worrying too much about this.
You can see it working also today in debates about Holocaust memory where you find nationalist historians saying, well, okay, we understand the crimes committed against Jews during the Holocaust but we should also remember the role that Jews played in communism, and that makes the violence committed against Jews perhaps understandable in that context. You see this kind of rationalization also at work there. So I think the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism and violence goes together in both ways. One is a kind of targeting and the other is a kind of rationalization logic.
You note that Judeo-Bolshevism easily fit within a general clash of civilizations where Russia and the East were Europe’s Other, so it melds to some extent together with a certain existing russophobia. Talk about this idea of the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism meshed with this general fear of Asiatic barbarism emanating from Russia.
Again, this is something that you can see perhaps most clearly in Nazi ideology, but it’s not only there. I’ll just give you a few examples. It was very much a standard story in Nazi thinking about the Soviet Union and what the Soviet enemy actually was. That is, the Soviet Union had a top elite of Jewish commissars who had at their command millions of Asiatic subhuman barbarians who made up the rank and file of the Red Army, who were themselves not Jews but who were nonetheless a threat to European civilization. These Jewish commissars were going to lead this hoard of barbarians into Europe if Germany did not win the war. This idea is absolutely fundamental to, for example, all the propaganda that Joseph Goebbels put out during the war, but you can see it even earlier.
There are a number of posters from the years of the Russian Civil War and the Polish-Soviet War that feature some version of a large, red, naked Leon Trotsky perched over or looming over destroyed landscape. Then, if you look at it more closely, you see that there are these soldiers who are meant to be Red Army soldiers, and they’re often depicted with Asiatic features. Those soldiers who are doing all of the dirty work in the poster are not drawn with very stereotypical anti-Semitic caricatures, the nose and so forth. They’re drawn in ways that are to suggest they’re somehow mongoloid, or something like this.
This is a very common idea, that Jews are somehow the conspiratorial ring leaders of a wider flood of anti-European, non-European, and uncivilized elements that are going to destroy Europe as a whole. This is actually one of the elements that you can see coming back in anti-Semitic language today. The figures have changed. It’s no longer Trotsky. It’s now George Soros, who’s obviously not a Communist. Quite the opposite, but one of the things that’s often said about Soros is that he and his cosmopolitan, liberal, anti-nationalist NGO network, and we know what all of those adjectives mean, are somehow inspiring, urging, compelling, helping, caravans of migrants from the East or the South or somewhere outside of Europe, or outside of the West, to come in and flood and replace Western or European culture.
So the idea that there’s Jewish leadership over a larger threat to civilization is a very, very longstanding one. It’s one that can morph very easily and that has morphed, I think, most recently to fit all these larger fears about the replacement of European or white culture with something from outside of the West.
How does the Judeo-Bolshevik myth find its way into Nazi ideology, and how was it articulated?
I think it finds its way into Nazi ideology very early on. I write at the beginning of one chapter that Judeo-Bolshevism made Hitler. What I mean by that is that Hitler had his own anti-Semitic views well before the Russian Revolution, but the general anxiety about Jews and communism, especially in Munich where he was located, allowed him to come to political prominence very early on. He was able to use that issue and those general anxieties to create a party and movement.
It’s a central element—not the only element—of Nazi thinking about the world and Nazi thinking about Jews. In that early period, I don’t know if there was very much in Judeo-Bolshevism that distinguished it from the ways that association and that stereotype worked in other places. So I don’t know if there was anything particularly German or Nazi about it in its origins. But what does become crucial for thinking about the 1940s is that it gets grafted onto Nazi thinking about hegemony in Europe and about creating an empire. This distinguishes Nazi Judeo-Bolshevism from a place like Hungary or Romania that never had this sort of ambition to control all of Europe.
When Hitler is making a bid in the 1930s to be the leading anti-communist power, which he announces in various addresses in the Nuremberg party rallies in 1935 and 1936 and in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism is presented as a threat that Nazi Germany can help the rest of Europe defend itself against. So when Nazi Germany goes to war against the Soviet Union in 1941, right-wing nationalists, who have been using this language on their own to address very specific concerns of their own, figure out how to link their own vision of Jews and Bolshevism to Nazi ideology.
Regardless of whether they were going to be completely on the same page or whether there was going to be any sort of slippage between the two, there’s this linkage in which they all get caught up in this Nazi drive to dominate the continent. So that’s how I see the transformation. It’s a Europeanization of it.
The second part of your book is about the fate of Judeo-Bolshevism after World War II. On the one hand, you have the discrediting of Nazism, the revelations about Holocaust, and, because of the Cold War, an increase of anti-Communism. As a result, there’s this interesting discursive shift in that anti-Communism is stripped of its anti-Semitism to some extent, and then reconfigured as a defense of Judeo-Christian civilization. What is this shift from Judeo-Bolshevism to Judeo-Christian civilization in post-war anti-Communism?
I’m glad that you brought it up because it was something that I was finding as I was reading about it, and I spent a lot of time trying to think whether it belonged in the book or not. I decided it did because it was so closely related to this notion of Judeo-Bolshevism. It’s an idea that I think comes most prominently from the United States and from thinking in the 1930s about opposing racism in a way that could bring Catholics and Jews and Protestants together in an alliance against destructive secular forces that might undermine liberal democracy. Those secular forces were seen as different kinds of totalitarianism, whether Nazism or Communism.
In the aftermath of World War II, the notion of Judeo-Christian civilization became the new way to talk about defending Europe against communism, and there’s this very interesting migration of the adjective or the prefix “Judeo” because it’s no longer Judeo-Bolshevism. It’s Judeo-Christian civilization. It can be inclusive of Jews. That’s certainly something you see at the height of McCarthyism. Jewish organizations and many Jews in the United States are quite happily endorsing it as a way of saying that they’re not associated with communists or the Reds but are good liberal democratic Americans just like anyone else. You can see that happening within American politics.
In Europe, where Nazi Germany had just been so recently defeated, there’s this really interesting way in which Judeo-Christian civilization and Christian civilization exist side-by-side in this uneasy relationship. That slippage allows many former Nazis to say that they are in fact not Nazis but good anti-communists, and they want to defend civilization alongside the United States against the communist threat. It becomes this very interesting way in which former right-wing nationalists can be integrated into the West after the destruction of Nazism and of Nazi Germany.
On the one hand, it’s an inclusive idea. From the point of view of what it means for Jewish communities, it’s absolutely a transformative notion. On the other hand, this association with anti-communism allows people who had, not that long ago, been committed to something very different. To put on different clothes, recast themselves, and change their colors.