Category Archives: Europe

Will pogroms make their return in Ukraine?

Here’s a new post I wrote for the World Policy blog:

Could Europe witness its first pogrom against Jews since the 1940s? As Ukraine inches closer to civil war, the country’s Jewish population is growing anxious. Late last month, a Kiev rabbi made headlines when he urged his co-religionists to leave the country. A Ukrainian-born member of the U.S. Jewish advocacy group UJA Federation recently told me that his organization is monitoring the situation in Ukraine with great concern.
Cause for the anxiety is the rise of the Right Sector, a nationalist militant group crucial to President Viktor Yanukovych’s overthrow that now appears to hold great sway over the fragile Ukrainian government. Some members of the Right Sector are overt anti-Semites. Isolated beatings of Jews around Kiev’s independence square have already been reported. This weekend, the Right Sector called for its members to mobilize against a Russian intervention. The prospect of an armed, anti-Semitic mob in a largely lawless country should give everyone cause for alarm.

To Westerners, fighting for freedom and attacking Jews seem like an anachronism. But anti-Semitism has always existed alongside the Ukrainian independence movement. Throughout the 20th century, every uprising or civil war in Ukraine was accompanied by mass murder of Jews. The parallels to today are disturbing.

The first violent struggle for Ukrainian independence took place during the Russian civil war between 1918 and 1920. Following the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, Ukrainian nationalists declared an independent Ukraine, and tried to defend it against the Red Army and White troops. Anti-Semitism was widespread at the time, and all warring parties on the territory of today’s Ukraine committed pogroms. But the nationalists of the Ukrainian Directorate were especially brutal.

Nationalist troops murdered thousands of Jews – at least partially because they associated all Jews with the hated Bolsheviks. Jews were strongly represented in the Bolshevik leadership (the commander of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, was a Jew), and nationalists often spoke of the “Jew-Bolshevik” as their enemy. Killing Jewish people was justified as a means of fighting against Bolshevik collaborators. In fact only very few Ukrainian Jews had ties to the Bolsheviks, but that did little to dispel the myth of their collaboration.

During World War II, certain Ukrainian nationalists once again targeted Jews as alleged agents of Bolshevik rule. Following the Nazi invasion in 1941, Ukrainians killed a large number of Jews in pogroms with the help and at the instigation of the Germans. The pogroms would never have happened without German encouragement, and they pale in comparison to the subsequent mass murder at the hands of SS and Wehrmacht. But they are nevertheless continuation of Ukrainian nationalist anti-Semitism.

As historian Timothy Snyder writes in his book “Bloodlands”, the Nazis were able to recruit Ukrainians en-masse because they played on the popular belief that Jews were responsible for the hated Soviet power, which had killed millions of Ukrainians through famine and terror in the 1930s.

Today’s militant Ukrainian nationalists trace their roots back to the nationalists who fought Bolshevik power during the civil war and in the 1940s. They also employ a very similar brand of anti-Semitism as some of their predecessors.

In 2004 Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda party and one of the three signatories of last month’s interim peace deal with Yanukovych (along with Vitali Klichko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk), alleged that a “Jewish-Muscovite Mafia” is ruling Ukraine. By replacing the term “Jew-Bolshevik” with “Jew-Muscovite,” Tyahnybok continued the tradition of blaming Jews for supposed Russian aggression. That Jews were attacked during the protests against Yanukovych seems to indicate that others think like him.

In 1919, 1941 and today, the suggestion that Ukraine’s Jews are somehow collaborating with Moscow is ludicrous. Moreover, then as now only a small minority of Ukrainian nationalists is anti-Semitic. But Ukraine’s history shows that a radical minority can cause devastating violence and discredit an entire freedom movement.

In many ways, the situation of Ukraine’s Jews is much more secure today than in 1919 or 1941. It is still far from clear if a civil war will break out. And even if the country succumbs to violence, Jews are less likely to suffer. Ukrainian nationalists today are far more dependent on public opinion and support from the West, and would hopefully be loath to jeopardize this by attacking Jews.

But anti-Semitism is never entirely rational, and the West needs to brace for the possibility that a few radical Ukrainian nationalists could attack Jews even if it runs counter to their own interests. To prevent this, the U.S., the E.U., and the Ukrainian government need to make it clear to Svoboda and the Right Sector that any violence against Jews will turn them into pariahs and cause them to lose any potential support. This is not only in the interest of Ukrainian Jews, but of all Ukrainians who hope for closer ties to the E.U. After all, anti-Semitic violence could discredit the Maidan revolution and do more damage to the Ukrainian struggle for independence from Moscow than Putin ever could.

Putin’s invasion of Crimea has already thrown Eastern Europe back into the dark days of 20th century imperialism. Now it is up to Western leaders to make sure anti-Semitic violence doesn’t also make its comeback.

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Nuclear war was imminent in 1983. Who knew?

Recently declassified documents show a NATO military exercise in 1983 came close to provoking a war with the Soviet Union. Moscow misinterpreted the exercise, called “Able Archer”, as actual preparation for war and responded immediately, The Guardian writes:

“As Able Archer commenced, the Kremlin gave instructions for a dozen aircraft in East Germany and Poland to be fitted with nuclear weapons. In addition, around 70 SS-20 missiles were placed on heightened alert, while Soviet submarines carrying nuclear ballistic missiles were sent under the Arctic ice so that they could avoid detection.”

“The cabinet secretary at the time, Sir Robert Armstrong, briefed Thatcher that the Soviets’ response did not appear to be an exercise because it “took place over a major Soviet holiday, it had the form of actual military activity and alerts, not just war-gaming, and it was limited geographically to the area, central Europe, covered by the Nato exercise which the Soviet Union was monitoring”.”

The episode shows two things. First, Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric against the USSR in the early 1980s was more dangerous than we thought, as it gave Moscow reason to believe an attack was in the works. Second, it shows that the by far the most likely cause of nuclear war is accident or misunderstanding. There is nor rational reason to start a nuclear war, as long as mutual destruction is assured. But false information over an imminent attack can upend this balance from one moment to another. In the words of Peter Burt, director of the Nuclear Information Service (NIS):

“The Cold War is sometimes described as a stable ‘balance of power’ between east and west, but the Able Archer story shows that it was in fact a shockingly dangerous period when the world came to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe on more than one occasion.”

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A Historic Election Result in Germany

The result of today’s parliamentary election in Germany marks a significant political shift, and not just because the liberal/libertarian party FDP failed to gain seats for the first time in its history. The chart in the link below shows the results of Germany’s parliamentary elections since World War II. At every election between 1949 and 1990, generally right-wing parties (CDU, CSU, FDP and others) together won more than 50% of the vote. Then came Germany’s reunification, which spilled in many left-wing voters from formerly socialist East Germany. In each election after 1990, the right failed to reach 50% (although it still managed to form CDU-FDP coalition governments in 1994 and 2009). There was reason to believe that reunification had shifted the composition of the electorate permanently to the left. But in today’s election, right-wing parties  – CDU/CSU, FDP and the newly formed AfD – won around 52% of the votes, according to preliminary results. Only time will tell if this result is an exception, or if it indicates a more permanent shift of the electorate back to the right.


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JFK and the Germans

Here’s an article I wrote on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s speech in Frankfurt:

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Reading Tip

Interesting article by Cambridge historian Brendan Simms, in which he argues that the “German Question” has dominated European politics since the 15th century and is at the heart of the EU’s current crisis. By that he means the fact that Europe’s countries were almost always preoccupied with the fact that Germany was either too strong or too weak. I am not entirely convinced, after all a similar argument could be made that all of European politics has always revolved around the French or Russian question, depending on your perspective. But an interesting read nonetheless.

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Why We Need a More Critical Perspective on Polish Partisans in World War II

I case you missed it (I guess you probably have), a little diplomatic row has been going on between Poland and Germany over the past two weeks or so. Bone of contention is a three-part TV film that recently aired on the German channel ZDF, called “Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” (Our Mothers, Our Fathers). The film follows the lives of five young Germans between the years 1941 and 1945. Two of them become soldiers and end up committing atrocities in the Soviet Union, one of them sleeps with a Gestapo-commander to advance her career, one of them signs up for the red cross, where she denounces a Jew, and the fifth, a Jew, escapes from the train to a death camp, joins Polish partisans and survives the war. The film’s message is simple: War can bring out the worst in people, and in some way or another, it fundamentally changes everyone.

The film has caused a positive stir in Germany because it urges people to critically reconsider the role their own grandparents played in the war. In Poland, however, it led to an angry outcry. The reason is the film’s depiction of the Polish partisans of the AK (Armia Krajowa, Home Army), the largest nationalist partisan group in Poland. In the film, AK fighters go on anti-Semitic rants, claiming to “drown Jews like cats”, decide to let Jews die in a stranded train rather than open the doors and let them out, and kick the newly admitted Viktor out of the group once they realise he is a Jew. The Polish ambassador to Berlin expressed his “shock” over such a “grotesquely one-sided” depiction of Polish resistance, claiming that the movie is trying to blame other nationalities for the destruction of the European Jews, thus somehow lessening German guilt. Multiple TV networks and newspapers have joined in on the criticism, largely echoing the ambassador’s arguments.

A look at the historical facts indicates that the filmmakers have done their research diligently. Numerous official statements by the AK leadership made it unequivocally clear that Jews were not considered to be part of the Polish Nation. On November 10 1942, the AK’s commander-in-chief set out the group’s position vis-à-vis the Jews: Active resistance against Nazi mass murders would only begin once they systematically targeted Poles (i.e. not Jews).  Although some exceptions are known, Jews were generally deemed unreliable and not admitted into the AK, and the group’s leadership similarly refused to absorb Jewish partisan groups. Antony Polonsky, a well-respected historian of Jews in Poland, argues that the leadership “was not sympathetic to the plight of individual Jewish fugitives, seeing them as security risks likely to endanger its own position.” Furthermore, AK-commanders often referred to Jews as “Bandits”, echoing Nazi-terminology. In his survey of over 9000 testimonies of Jewish survivors after 1945, Polonsky finds that a majority of the encounters Jews had with the AK were negative. Several statements claim that AK-fighters searched for Jews and murdered them. A Jewish man called Zelman Baum claimed that he “feared the Poles no less than the Germans”.  Karolina Kremer saw her entire family murdered by Polish partisans, only to face them again a year later, in 1944:

AK  bandits hunted us like wild animals … I came across a wall of AK people. (The leader) asked me to come closer to me and came up behind me with a rifle. “Now you’re a dirty Jewess who has fallen into my hands. From my hands you will surely not escape.” I started to cry horribly pleading with him to spare my life. I knelt down and started kissing his legs hoping he would not kill such a young person. “No one will help you. Your dead body will be lying here”, he said, showing me the place. I started screaming at the top of my lungs, got up and ran into the nearby shrubs. He shot at me several times unsuccessfully.

There were also cases in with AK fighters helped Jews, but they seem to be the minority. In sum, it would have almost been a distortion of history had the film not depicted the AK fighters as anti-Semites.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles risked their lives during the war hiding Jews, and their heroic acts must never be forgotten. However, it is equally clear that anti-Semitism was rampant in Polish society, and nowhere more than within the ranks of the AK. The film does not blame the AK for the Holocaust, not one bit. It simply points out that the AK’s anti-Semitism made the destruction of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis easier to carry out.

The unwillingness of many Poles to accept a negative depiction of the AK is part of a dangerous trend in Eastern Europe: The nationalist hero cult. While Poles are unwilling to see the AK-fighters as anything other than knights in shining armour, Russians have increasingly reverted to the old Stalin cult, ignoring his mass murders and praising him for his role in defeating Nazism. The surprising popularity of proposals to change the name Volgograd back to Stalingrad is just the most recent example. This cult is dangerous because it leads to a propensity to glorify totalitarianism (in the case of Stalin) and racist nationalism (in the case of the AK). Some of the women and men who bravely fought against the Nazis murdered Jews. Accepting this may be painful for some, but refusing to do so only makes things worse in the long run.

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Will the Eurozone Collapse? Lessons from the 19th Century

Not a week went by in 2012 without some much-echoed warning about the Eurozone’s imminent collapse. Every election in some European fringe state, every meeting of the ECB board, every phone call by Angela Merkel was interpreted as an event that would either save or doom the common currency. Behind this panic lay the belief, regularly expressed in The Economist’s briefings, that the Eurozone was so flawed in its construction that it either had to choose the path of radical reform and become some form of fiscal union, or break apart.

Surprisingly, the crisis of the European treasury bond markets appears to be over now, and yet the Eurozone has neither collapsed nor transformed itself into a fiscal union. This development defies the logic of everything we have read over the past year. And yet, a look at the 19th century indicates that a breakup of the Euro was perhaps never as likely as most journalists and economists liked to claim.

The Euro is usually portrayed as a bold experiment without precedent. This view ignores the fact that much of 19th century Europe had something of a common currency for many decades: The Latin Monetary Union. Last summer, I wrote a lengthy feature on the union for Die Welt am Sonntag. Those who can read German can take a look at it here:

The Latin Monetary Union was formed by Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland in 1865 and soon included Greece, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Unlike the Euro, back then the coins of each state could keep their name, but they became mutually exchangeable at a fixed rate of 1:1.

The union soon slid into serious crisis because, guess what, fiscally irresponsible Greece and Italy abused the union’s flawed construction for their own financial gain. I will spare you the economic details (you can read more about it in Luca Einaudi’s “From the franc to the ‘Europe’: the attempted transformation of the Latin Monetary Union into a European Monetary Union, 1865-1873“, in Journal of Economic History, Vol. 53, No.2, 2000), but essentially the coins were based on a bimetallic standard that overvalued silver. Italy and Greece, chronically on the verge of bankruptcy, printed a myriad of silver coins and paper banknotes that soon led to an outflow of coins into the union’s other member states, where they caused inflation.

The states of the south lived above their means, and the fiscally prudent states of the north, in this case Belgium and France, paid the bill. The nature of public opinion in the latter was quite similar to that in Germany today, and Belgium came very close to leaving the union at least once. The union never really worked, and yet it weathered numerous financial crises and stayed intact until World War I. This longevity was due to the fact that a breakup would have cost France and Belgium dearly, since the overvalued silver coins would have immediately lost a lot of value.

Even though the union was dysfunctional and in an almost permanent state of crisis, it lasted for more than 30 years after Belgium first threatened exit and was only destroyed in the wake of the disastrous First World War that took down the old European economic order.

There are many differences between the Latin Monetary Union and the Euro and I do not mean to imply that the Euro will last a long time because its predecessor did. Compared to the Euro, the LMU was a rather loose network that didn’t even apply to banknotes. But what the example of the LMU shows us is that a monetary union can be quite resilient even if it doesn’t really work. As long as the political will is there and the cost of breakup significant enough, we shouldn’t be surprised if it survives without radically reforming itself. It took a World War to break up the Latin Monetary Union, and it may take a lot more than an election victory by Silvio Berlusconi on Sunday to doom the Euro.


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Not the first Pope named Benedict to resign

Given how old and frail pretty much every Pope tends to get at some point, it is surprising how rare it is for  them to step down for reasons of bad health. A couple of Papal resignations are known from the middle ages, but none of them had any apparent connection to health. In 1415, Pope Gregory XII resigned in an attempt to end a schism in the church. In 1294, Pope Celestine stepped down after only six months in office, apparently because he didn’t enjoy his new job.

The most interesting case dates from the 11th century. In 1032, a man with the remarkable name Teophylactus of Tusculum was named Pope Benedict IX at the age of only 20. He became one of the most scandalous Popes ever, supposedly holding orgies in the Papal palace on regular occasions. Some sources suggest that he was openly gay.

In 1045, his godfather John Gratian paid Benedict a large sum of money to get him to resign. Benedict agreed and stepped down. But shortly after he changed his mind, returned to Rome with an army and deposed his successor, none other than John Gratian himself (now Pope Gregory VI). Benedict was deposed by the German king Henry III in 1046 but became Pope once again in 1047 after his successor had died. German troops intervened and kicked him out of the Papal palace in 1048, and he was finally excommunicated a year later.

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