Jeffrey Veidlinger: In the Midst of Civilized Europe. The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust, London: Macmillan 2021, VIII + 466 S., ISBN 978-1-5098-6744-8, GBP 30,00
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The Proskuriv pogrom, perpetrated in February 1919 by soldiers of the Ukrainian People's Republic, claimed the lives of up to 1,500 Jewish inhabitants of the town. At the time, it was "possibly the single deadliest episode of violence to befall the Jewish people in their long history of oppression" (2), writes Jeffrey Veidlinger in his recent monograph In the Midst of Civilized Europe. Moreover, it was only one (albeit the bloodiest) of over a thousand such anti-Jewish pogroms that shook up Ukraine in the years following the collapse of the Russian Empire, claiming well over 100,000 lives and displacing millions. And yet, the author notes, this history is hardly remembered today - "overwhelmed" as it was "by the horrors of the Holocaust" (2).
Veidlinger has taken it upon himself to set this straight, firstly by writing a comprehensive history of these pogroms, based primarily on contemporary reports and accounts - something that did not yet exist in the English language. And secondly by uncovering the connection between the pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Holocaust, which devolved into its genocidal stage in the very same part of Europe. Whereas he succeeds at the first endeavor convincingly, the latter undertaking raises more questions than it answers.
The structure of the book is largely chronological. In the first part, Veidlinger walks the reader through the historical background, from the rampant antisemitism and pogroms of the late Russian Empire, through the February Revolution, to the Ukrainian attempts at state-building and the first clashes with the Bolsheviks. The following three parts - the core of the book - are devoted to various waves of pogroms, each arising from a stage of the protracted conflict that unfolded between Ukrainian nationalist forces, the Red Army, local warlords, the White Army, and the Polish military (special praise for problematizing the term civil war, which entails a Russo-centric perspective). The fifth and final part of the book follows Jewish refugees to Western Europe and further across the globe, before moving back east to discuss the initial genocidal stage of the Holocaust in 1941.
The biggest asset of Veidlinger's study is the way he masterfully interweaves political developments with what are essentially microhistorical case studies of separate pogroms. While other researchers have tended to focus on local factors to explain pogroms, Veidlinger demonstrates that the interplay of political forces is key to understanding their occurrence. The first large wave was made possible by the permissiveness of the Ukrainian leadership, who were unwilling to intervene decisively when their soldiers started attacking Jews. The next wave resulted from the emergence of renegade warlords in the mid-1919 power vacuum. And an entirely new stage of destruction was reached during the White and Polish incursions into Ukrainian territory in 1919 and 1920 respectively, when the pogroms acquired a novel level of systemization - instigated not by peasant soldiers or local toughs but by uniformed officers "sworn to uphold law and order" (248).
Underlying all of these violent outburst was an explosive mixture of preconceptions, paradoxically depicting the Jews both as capitalist oppressors and Bolshevik agents - fueled by an older brand of Christian antisemitism. By zooming in on a number of pogroms, Veidlinger demonstrates that, pervasive though these factors might be, local circumstances always differed, and every pogrom ran its own distinct course. Thus, the January 1919 Zhytomyr pogrom differed from the simultaneous Ovruch pogrom in that broad sections of the population turned against the Jews when a tipping point was reached: "Eventually, otherwise respectable members of Christian society - the dvorniks and the milkladies - calculated that the costs of staying out surpassed the costs of participating, and they, too, joined in the looting, risking their jobs and their communal status for fear of losing out on the spoils" (131). In the Proskuriv pogrom, one month later, Veidlinger discerns the first signs of "eliminationist intent" (150) - the aim of wiping out the entire Jewish population. This microhistorical approach also allows Veidlinger to show the impact on the Jewish population. Especially in cases where their neighbors and acquaintances were involved, the violence provoked a deep sense of despair and estrangement.
Veidlinger does not fail to mention the pogroms perpetrated by Red Army soldiers during the first Ukrainian-Bolshevik clashes in early 1918 and the Polish campaign in 1920. However, he does sort of gloss over them, confining himself to the observation that "the Red Army was by no means immune to the appeal of plunder and murder during its adventure in Poland" (297). This is somewhat scanty in terms of analysis and suggests that the author neglects this violence because it gets in the way of his bigger argument - that both the 1918-1921 pogroms and the 1941 mass murder of Jews in the occupied Soviet Union were "driven primarily by animosity toward Bolshevism and the perceived prominence of Jews in that movement" (9).
Which brings us to the final part of the book, titled Aftermath: 1921-1941. Here, Veidlinger strides with seven-league boots through the interwar period to bring home his thesis about the pogroms being "the real beginning of the same Holocaust" (2). It is an intricate argument, which starts with Jewish refugees getting branded as carriers of Bolshevism, sparking a worldwide red scare and advancing the rise of Nazism. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, it used the myth of "Judeo-Bolshevism" to implicate the local non-Jewish population in anti-Jewish violence, and the locals joined in " [a]s though reenacting familiar roles from the civil war" (366). Veidlinger even goes so far as to imply - he stops short of saying it, but the suggestion is clearly there - that the Holocaust turned genocidal because the German high command somehow drew inspiration from Ukraine, "where the unimaginable had already become reality" (10).
Surely, this is interesting material: ideas traveling across borders, experiences being passed on from generation to generation. But the way Veidlinger lays down the puzzle, the pieces don't quite fit together. For one thing, the genocidal stage of the Holocaust commenced in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states simultaneously. Ethnic Ukrainians did conduct pogroms in 1941, but mostly in Galicia and Western Volhynia, the territory of interwar Poland, where the annihilation of the Jewish population started one or two years later. In the areas where the Holocaust first turned genocidal, on the other side of the pre-1939 Soviet border, there was far less local anti-Jewish violence. Veidlinger does not attempt to account for this difference. The insinuation, furthermore, that the Holocaust was somehow inspired by a lingering spirit of violence in Ukraine is refuted unequivocally by the fact that the SS arrived in the Soviet Union with clear orders to annihilate the Jewish population. Crucially, witness accounts leave little doubt that locals, whether Jewish or not, were absolutely shocked when the true intent of the Germans became apparent. The unimaginable was still very much unimaginable.
Veidlinger appears to have fallen into the causality trap: enticed by the geographical overlap of the pogroms and the onset of the Holocaust, he was so eager to draw a straight line between both events that he lapsed into oversimplification. The absence of a conclusion suggests that he is either overly confident about his case or perhaps senses himself that the argumentation is shaky.
The contrast between the finale and the rest of the book is striking. In the Midst of Civilized Europe stands out as an impressive history of the 1918-1921 pogroms, offering a meticulously researched overview of these violent outbursts and the political upheavals that produced them. The study excels in width and depth, only to miss its mark in the long haul.