On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Sec­ond World War

Bernard Wasser­stein
  • Review
By – October 18, 2012

Bernard Wasser­stein, a pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, has writ­ten a com­pre­hen­sive and rich­ly tex­tured his­to­ry of Europe’s Jews dur­ing the decades between the end of World War I in 1918 and the out­break of World War II in Sep­tem­ber 1939. Dur­ing this peri­od, Euro­pean Jew­ry faced both an inter­nal as well as exter­nal cri­sis. Wasser­stein’s kalei­do­scop­ic por­trait of how Jews lived from France to the Sovi­et Union dur­ing the inter-war years also describes their frag­men­ta­tion along polit­i­cal, social, cul­tur­al, and reli­gious lines. Although anti-Semi­tes tend­ed to view Jews as a mono­lith­ic enti­ty, the truth was that Jews not only lacked uni­ty but were total­ly divid­ed in the face of the exter­nal cri­sis which they faced on the eve of the Nazi inva­sion of Poland.

The exter­nal cri­sis fac­ing the Jews of Europe was the emer­gence of a vit­ri­olic anti-Semi­tism that threat­ened their exis­tence in the form of eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal dis­crim­i­na­tion, quo­tas, as well as the growth of vio­lent anti-Semit­ic mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tions that were rem­i­nis­cent of the Nazi SA. In light of their pre­car­i­ous posi­tion through­out Europe, Jews were ill-pre­pared to effec­tive­ly counter their ene­mies, to a large extent because of their inabil­i­ty to over­come their divi­sions, such as the bit­ter acri­mo­ny which exist­ed between the Jew­ish Social Bund and the Zion­ists in the Sovi­et Union and Poland, and the hos­tile atti­tudes of West­ern Jew­ry towards the Ostju­den, to name only a few exam­ples that Wasser­stein describes in this thought­ful book.

Wasser­stein refutes the com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that Jews were unaware of the gath­er­ing force of their ene­mies. Rather, states Wasser­stein, there was a grow­ing recog­ni­tion that the promis­es of the Enlight­en­ment, which led to the legal equal­i­ty of Jews in many Euro­pean coun­tries, was now being threat­ened by forces beyond its control.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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