‘America First’ and the Origin of the Modern Jewish Conspiracy

Historian Paul Hanebrink discusses the origin and uses of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth as a grand conspiracy that inspired the Holocaust and how crucial parts of it survived under the umbrella of "Judeo-Christian civilization." 

Among other concerning changes, the Donald Trump era has played host to a rise in white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and increasing incidences of the violence attendant to both. The most striking example occurred in October, when a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood and murdered eleven people. The shooter had been active in anti-Semitic Internet forums, and had declared that he wanted all Jews to die. In doing so, he adopted a conspiratorial mindset with a long and ugly history, much of it traceable through twentieth century Europe. A new book tells that story.

In his new book, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (Belknap/Harvard, 2018), Paul Hanebrink, an Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University, documents the persistent belief that Communism was tantamount to a Jewish plot to destroy Europe—the sort of belief that continues to underwrite much present-day anti-Semitism. RD’s Eric C. Miller spoke with Hanebrink about the project.

Much of your work traces the history of anti-Semitism, and you’re doing that work at a time when anti-Semitism seems to be resurgent once again. How do you situate this political moment within that larger history?

That’s an interesting question. Conspiracy theories flourish in times of political and social turmoil. The Judeo-Bolshevik myth was born amid a general crisis in Europe at the end of World War I that saw revolutions, labor unrest, and in places civil wars. For many people, it seemed a way to explain the breakdown in social and cultural order and the threats that a global ideological force posed to national sovereignty. Of course, the political instability in Europe and here in the United States today is nothing like that earlier crisis in terms of levels of violence.

Nevertheless, the nationalist Right in many countries is again talking about the erosion of traditional cultural norms and the fragility of national sovereignty in the face of global forces. As they do, certain anti-Semitic tropes are returning to public discourse. I first began tracking these questions in post-1989 Eastern Europe, where they expressed dissatisfaction with the way that communism had ended, and with the way that a new liberal democratic order had arisen, which many of them understood as anti-national and global in scope. In recent years, I’ve really been struck by how these issues have become a continent-wide and even an American concern.

You suggest that much of this is traceable to the “Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism” in twentieth century Europe. What do you mean by that?

At one level, the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism is an updating of older myths of worldwide Jewish conspiracy, which you can find in the middle ages or in the nineteenth century. The Judeo-Bolshevik myth adapted these older paranoid fantasies to the ideological climate of the twentieth century. In this form, the Judeo-Bolshevik myth asserts that Jews as a population were uniquely responsible, not just for creating Communism as an ideology, but for perpetrating its crimes. In the twentieth century, the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism became a template for focusing more general fears of Communism, revolutionary unrest, or any dangerous ideas onto Jews as a group. The fact that some Communists were Jews (or came from Jewish families) helped to make this idea plausible for many people.

To what extent did this idea motivate Nazi anti-Semitism? 

It was definitely an important factor. The opportunity to attack Judeo-Bolshevism is very important to Adolf Hitler in his early career, but at the same time, I don’t want to suggest that communism caused his anti-Semitism. It had many different facets. But the association of Jews with communism was very central to Nazism from very early on and remained so until the very last days. And it was also one of the aspects of Nazi anti-Semitism that had the most popular resonance and support. You could find it in Christian circles—both Catholic and Protestant—among people who had other doubts about aspects of the Nazi regime but could believe that this was a threat to Germany and were quite thankful to the Nazis for protecting them from it. And when Nazi Germany went to war against the Soviet Union in 1941, the idea—spread by Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda office—that the invasion was a crusade to defend Germany and all Europe against the Judeo-Bolshevik menace in the East, was widely popular, both in Germany and abroad—at least, as long as the Germans seemed to be winning the war.

After World War II, as Communism spread across Eastern Europe, it carried the widespread fear that Jews were intent, not just on implementing Communism, but on taking revenge against their enemies. To what degree did this fear drive post-war anti-Semitism? 

I think that’s one of the most important driving forces behind the pogroms that you see in Poland in 1946. The other kinds of anti-Semitic violence and persecution that you see in other countries at this time can be linked to the idea that the Jews who had survived the Holocaust were going to come back and use Soviet occupation to take revenge on the societies around them. Scapegoating Jews for Communism was one way to make sense of the very real fears of what Soviet occupation and Communist rule would mean.

It also reflected how astonished many people were that Jews were visible again after the war years, during which they had been stripped of their rights, forced out of the public eye and often into hiding, and deported to camps. Many people connected these two things in their minds as a way of interpreting what was a very turbulent time in the history of the region.

You can see this, for example, in all of the real anger and fear that was directed against the criminal proceedings against fascist collaborators in Eastern Europe. Those courts were largely dismissed in popular media as being “Jewish courts.” You could also see it in the ways that many people across Eastern Europe picked out specific individuals in the communist regimes, noted their Jewish ancestry, and then implicated them in a larger conspiracy perpetrated by all Jews. 

How did the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism help shape the emerging idea of “Judeo-Christian” civilization?

This is one of the most interesting features of the book, and one that surprised me as I was researching it. The idea of the West as a “Judeo-Christian civilization” comes primarily from the United States, although important Christian conservatives from continental Europe also subscribed to it. It was fundamentally an anti-totalitarian idea: both Communism and Nazism were seen as threats to the religious values on which the West was understood to be built. In this way, the idea of Judeo-Christian civilization became an anti-Communist ideology during the Cold War that was very different from Hitler’s vision of a Europe united against Judeo-Bolshevism

The difference was marked by the migration of the prefix “Judeo” from one term to the other. It was important that the notion of Judeo-Christian civilization included Jews in the fight against Communism, above all in this country. And yet at the same time, aspects of the earlier racist idea of Judeo-Bolshevism continued to co-exist with it. After 1945, talking about Judeo-Bolshevism was taboo in Western Europe. But you could certainly still talk about “Asiatic Bolshevism” as a danger to the West, much in the same way that the Nazis had done. The two had always gone together for them.

The co-existence of these very different ways of thinking about Communist power and the threat it posed to the West made it possible for so many former fascists—and in Germany, former Nazis—to recast themselves as good anti-Communists rather than bad ex-fascists. They were able to submerge that part of their past simply by modifying the type of language that they had used earlier in their careers and talking instead about the threats that a barbaric Soviet Union posed to a European civilization. So in a strange way, crucial parts of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth survived after the war, even under the umbrella of Judeo-Christian civilization. 

In light of this complicated history, how should we respond to the anti-Semitism of the twenty-first century? 

I think the first thing is to recognize that this has a real history to it. When people use phrases like America First in the United States, Christian Nation in Hungary, or phrases like “cosmopolitan forces,” they are invoking language that has a long-standing relationship with racism and with anti-Semitism. So the first step is recognizing that.

The second thing is to realize that these ideas have always expressed anxiety about the security of borders, fears about migration, loss of national and cultural sovereignty, and that these anxieties are very much present again today. So while the Jewish-Bolshevik myth is no longer as salient as it was earlier in the twentieth century, the anxieties have remained and you can see them being reshaped and reformed, for example in the ways that George Soros has been demonized in so many places as the face of nameless cosmopolitan and anti-national forces. I also think that there are certain similarities between older European fears of Judeo-Bolshevism and recent European fears of Muslim migrants.