Europe’s Most Anti-Semitic Great Power, 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 134-136:

Like flame following a gunpowder trail, violence blazed toward Przemyśl. Cossack cavalry were especially dangerous and fiercely anti-Semitic. They had a long history of murderous conduct—or, as they glorified it, of righteous slaughter of infidels. In Russia, they were the Tsar’s enforcers, and they had been instrumental a decade earlier in harshly suppressing revolution. In Galicia, they lived up to their reputation as wild and merciless. Everywhere, Jews were mugged and shops looted. In some places, worse crimes were perpetrated. Men were beaten or murdered, women raped. Christians were also sometimes attacked, but from the start it was clear that their Jewish neighbors were the invaders’ main targets. That the violence might pass them by, many displayed icons of Mary the Mother of God, Jesus, or Saint Nicholas in their windows or on the roofs of their dwellings. Jews, trying to save their property, copied that example. Many fled. By some estimates, nearly half of Galicia’s Jewish population, up to 400,000 people, ran for the Austrian interior. Witnesses described an “interminable file of refugees… poor wretches who had left everything behind them except a few belongings on their backs.” These frightened, fatigued, fleeing Jews “presented a picture of truly piteous misery.”

The worst atrocity befell Lwów. There, on September 27, after nearly a month of tense but peaceful occupation, a pogrom flared. News of this pogrom reached Przemyśl in January 1915 through a spy who had been sent out to reconnoiter the zone of occupation. In his account, it was a ploy “in real Russian style” by Tsarist troops to circumvent a ban on plundering. A soldier had fired off a shot from a house on a street in the Jewish quarter, and a cry had then immediately gone up that the Jews were attacking the military. The soldiers were ordered to punish the Jews and given permission to plunder their shops. In its outline, the spy’s account was correct. Who fired the shot which sparked the pogrom was never firmly established. The occupation authorities insisted, of course, that it was a Jew. Not in contention, however, was the brutality of the Russian reaction. Cossacks stormed through the streets beating and shooting helpless Jewish civilians. They butchered 47 Jews and arrested 300 Jewish bystanders.

Neither Grand Duke Nikolai nor his subordinate commanders organized or officially sanctioned this ill-disciplined violence. However, the atmosphere of anti-Semitic hatred at Stavka, the Russian High Command, and the toleration of atrocities against Jews at all levels of the army’s command structure made it possible. The Russian Empire was Europe’s most anti-Semitic Great Power. Religious, economic, and, by the First World War, especially political prejudice, increasingly influenced by the modern ideology of race, stamped the Russian ruling elite’s and military’s hostility toward Jews.

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Filed under Austria, migration, military, nationalism, Poland, religion, Russia, Ukraine, war

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