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Europe’s Twin Specters of Fear

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When studying the past, it is tempting to explore what men and women aspired to: what sorts of societies they envisioned, and what sorts of measures they undertook to make them real. This is a hopeful approach, but often the wrong one. As Thomas Hobbes pointed out long ago, and as current events affirm once again, fear is often a more effective motivator than idealism. The more important questions, therefore, can be the more dismal ones: What are people’s fears? And what crimes are they willing to countenance in their name?

Paul Hanebrink’s magisterial new book, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, applies this insight to the history of 20th-century Europe. Not long ago, studies of that ill-starred time and place tended toward cautious optimism. They often focused on the rise and fall of the communist dream. That story of utopian hopes and bloody realities, confined to the past by the end of the Cold War, was well suited to a new Europe that styled itself as a beacon of freedom and human rights. Hanebrink’s book offers us a history more appropriate for our moment. It asks what the story of modern Europe looks like if we take the racist fearmongering of the present as our end point, rather than the heady proclamations of justice and dignity streaming from Brussels.

Hanebrink’s strategy is to shift our attention away from the specter of communism and toward its rival, anticommunism. This will seem like an odd choice only if we think that anticommunism was a banal and content-free politics defined by what it opposed. On the contrary, anticommunism was itself a significant ideology, animating a vast array of social, political, and military experiments across the globe that sought to justify aggressive warfare, racialized policing, and, occasionally, even social reform. In a dialectic that even Marx could not foresee, it became just as powerful as the specter of communism it was designed to confront.

How is this to be explained? How did anticommunism garner such mass and elite appeal? The traditional answer would be that communism is a flawed and violent system, rendering large-scale resistance to it that’s easy to explain. But Hanebrink makes a different argument. By showing how anticommunism was tightly entwined with questions of race and nationalism, he explains how it ended up conjoined with another politics of fear that was remaking Europe in the early 20th century: anti-Semitism. This explosive combination came to be known as “Judeo-Bolshevism”: the idea that there was something “Jewish” about communism, and thus that individual Jews were dangerous because they were committed to violent revolution. The linkage of long-marginalized Jewish communities with the genuinely powerful communist movement was, while mythical, astonishingly successful—and astonishingly lethal. The myth of Judeo-Bolshevism helps account, in Hanebrink’s view, for the ferocity of anticommunism in 20th-century Europe. And yet, for all its influence and power, the history of this myth has not yet been told.

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Thanks !

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