Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 98 (December 1999): 59-61.
A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789–1939. By David Vital. Oxford University Press. 944 pp. $45.
Reviewed by William D. Rubinstein
Until very recently, modern Jewish history was a subject beyond the academic pale, one certainly not included in the normal syllabus of university study. During the past thirty years all this has changed. The study of Jewish history has moved from beyond the periphery to the very center and, indeed, being inevitably seen as a tragedy leading to a unique catastrophe, has some claims to being more widely discussed today than almost any other aspect of modern European history. A potent indication of this change is the inclusion of David Vital’s history of the Jews of Europe (excluding Britain) in the prestigious Oxford History of Modern Europe series.
On one level, A People Apart is a fine piece of work, synthesizing a remarkably complex story in an intelligent and well–argued way. To write a comprehensive history of the Jews of modern Europe requires a knowledge of many languages—a scholar must be able to read eight or ten at least—and a familiarity with sources scattered around the world, often in the most obscure places. Vital has done this job of synthesis extremely well. A noted expert on the history of Zionism, he is at his best when discussing the movement of which, it is apparent, he is a partisan. His account, for instance, of the reception of Chaim Bialik’s epochal Hebrew poem "In the City of Slaughter" is gripping and memorable. As he moves away from Zionism, it is not unfair to say that somewhat flagging sympathies produce a less sure–handed text. Nevertheless, on one level this is an impressive study, even a remarkable one.
On another, deeper level, however, everything is wrong. The fundamental historical matrix underlying the view of European Jewish history consistently advanced by Vital might best be described in two terms, Holocaust teleology and Zionist triumphalism. It is not unfair to claim that all of continental European Jewish history is viewed by David Vital as an unfolding tragedy moving inevitably, like some Greek drama, toward genocide, with only Zionism, among the many political movements to find support among the Jews, having the prescience to foresee, however dimly, the catastrophe ahead. Both of these views are in my view seriously mistaken, and are, indeed, profoundly unhistorical. Most importantly, history is not like a Greek tragedy, but much more like the world revealed by chaos theory, in which a small change in one place effects a huge change overall. The outbreak of World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Depression, and, above all, the ascendance of Hitler to power were not preordained, but unpredictable pieces of incredibly bad luck. Hitler was unlike anyone known previously in German politics, either under the Empire or in the Weimar Republic.
Vital seriously overstates the ubiquity and virulence of anti–Semitism throughout continental Europe, as pervasive as it obviously was at many times and in many places. Conversely, he understates the strength of liberalism and philo–Semitism, and underestimates the ability of Jews, despite the most onerous of difficulties, to ameliorate their own condition. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to view European Jewish history from 1789 until 1933 as the opposite of the story conveyed in A People Apart—as a continuing story of advancement and greater tolerance, broken here and there by backward steps, but overwhelmingly one of progress and a movement from beyond the margin to the center. Striking evidence for this can be found all over Europe, even in the most unlikely places, both before and after the First World War.
The Beilis case—remarkably, not mentioned by Vital—was the most famous anti–Semitic "crisis" of the years just before World War I. In 1911 Mendel Beilis, a Kiev Jew, was accused of "ritually murdering" a Russian boy and placed on trial for this absurd charge. A wave of indignation on behalf of Beilis manifested itself around the world. Petitions protesting the trial, signed by hundreds of notable and influential figures, were drawn up in virtually every Western country. The British petition, containing over 350 names, was a virtual "Who’s Who" of the British Establishment, and included the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and most of the leaders of the Conservative party. The German petition was similarly signed by several hundred gentile German notables in every walk of life, including most of Germany’s Nobel Prize winners. A Russian protest was signed by over sixty members of the Duma. Beilis was actually acquitted by a Czarist Russian court. (He then moved to America; his story is the basis of Bernard Malamud’s famous novel The Fixer.)
The first third of the twentieth century saw the unparalleled acceptance of Jews throughout Europe in areas previously barred to them, a fact obfuscated in Vital’s narrative. Italy, for instance, contained the last medieval ghetto in Europe, in Rome, amazingly abolished only in 1870. Italy’s tiny Jewish population of forty–four thousand in 1911 constituted only 0.12 percent of Italy’s total population. Yet Italian Jews were, until Mussolini became an avowed supporter of Hitler’s anti–Semitism in 1938, almost phenomenally overrepresented in Italy’s leadership structure. There were fifteen Jews in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies in 1894. An Italian Jew, Luigi Luzzatti, became Prime Minister in 1909. In 1920, the Italian Senate, consisting of distinguished citizens chosen for life, contained nineteen Jews in a chamber of 350 members. Originally, Mussolini’s Fascist movement was, if anything, philo–Semitic rather than hostile to Jews. Aldo Finzi, widely regarded as Mussolini’s "right–hand man," was a Jew, as was Carlo Foa, editor of the Fascist party’s newspaper. So, too, was Guido Jung, Fascist Italy’s Finance Minister, and three of the fifteen jurists who drew up the Fascist constitution of Italy. Examples as striking as these can be found in almost any European country.
While the First World War was, in one sense, a catastrophe for the Jews, it also witnessed the end of the Czarist Empire with its comprehensive restrictions on Jews, and the establishment nearly everywhere of regimes with a legal commitment to equality for Jews. From the mid–1920s, these guarantees were consistently violated in Eastern Europe, but it seemed inconceivable, even in 1929, that the future was as dark as it was. It was the twin catastrophes of the Great Depression and, above all, the entirely unexpected coming to power of Hitler in 1933 that transformed a situation at worst unsatisfactory into one that was terminal and murderous.
The sudden and almost wholly unexpected deterioration in the status of Jews in Europe was mirrored by their politics. David Vital has made the growth of Zionism the centerpiece of the awakening political consciousness of European Jewry. (Vital, it should be noted, worked for the Israeli government from 1954 to 1965 and held a chair at an Israeli university from 1977 until 1995.) While in one sense this is obviously true, his emphasis on Zionism also obscures the richness of non–Zionist political movements among European Jews. It also significantly exaggerates the strength and, certainly, the centrality of Zionism to European Jewry prior to the Holocaust. In interwar Poland the Zionist movement, itself divided into what were almost literally warring factions, was probably the third strongest political tendency in Polish Jewry, behind Bund Socialism and the strictly Orthodox Agudas Israel. Both of these were almost fanatically anti–Zionist and (as Vital clearly notes) urged the Jews of Europe to stay where they were.
Vital presents the worldwide number of "shekel holders" (paid–up members of the Zionist movement), but fails to comment on the surprising weakness, almost everywhere in Europe, of a Zionist movement "on the edge of destruction." In Hungary, for instance, there were only 1,500 shekel holders in 1930–31 and only 5,763 in 1934–35, less than 2 percent of the Jewish population of 750,000. The Zionist movement failed to share the same sudden and genocidal end as Bund Socialism for one reason alone: Montgomery defeated Rommel at El Alamein. Had the Germans conquered Palestine—almost inevitable if North Africa had fallen—the Jewish population of Palestine would certainly have been exterminated.
Professor Vital’s most inaccurate comments are reserved for the last chapter of the book, the "Denouement" leading up to the Holocaust. The false and misleading statement that "Hitler’s Reich was no more than a paradigm instance of a broader and deeper continent–wide phenomenon" flows from the author’s treatment of the late 1930s as the climax of a Greek tragedy. Even so apparently indubitable a judgment as "For the Jews of Europe on the eve of the Second World War . . . there would be no escape" actually needs heavy qualification. Seventy–two percent of the Jews of Germany did escape before flight became impossible, as did two–thirds of the Jews of Austria, most in the only seventeen months between the March 1938 Anschluss and the outbreak of war at the end of August 1939. For the Jews of Poland, Russia, Hungary, etc., there was no escape, but prior to the war none had been threatened by the Nazis and surprisingly few wished to leave.
Despite its many merits, A People Apart represents a vision of modern Jewish history that serves as an obstacle to our understanding of the subject. History cannot be read backwards in this way. The history of a people does not obey the laws of stagecraft.
William D. Rubinstein is Professor of Modern History at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.