Skip to content

Response to Review of Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust

We are grateful to Jan Burzlaff for his cogent reading of Intimate Violence, and especially for the value he places, as an historian, on engagement with political science. One of the reasons we undertook our study is the hope that modern social science methods might help us resolve the contentious debate among historians about the roots and reasons for the pogroms that took place in the aftermath of the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union. In so doing we want to improve our understanding of both the Holocaust and the broader roots of mass violence.

In his thoughtful and thorough review, Burzlaff makes a number of important observations that deserve comment. We respond to two of the most important. 

First, Burzlaff raises a very good question about the book’s title, in particular the text after the colon where we characterize the pogroms as having occurred ‘on the eve’ of the Holocaust. Is this title misleading or in some way wrong? Burzlaff maintains the pogroms should be considered part of the Holocaust rather something separate from it or as a prelude to it, as the wording of the book’s title implies. This is an important question of conceptualization and periodization. Historians disagree on what, exactly, the Holocaust was, and therefore when it began. Did the Germans have to be involved? Did it include the many non-Jewish victims who perished? We give no explicit answer, in retrospect an oversight on our part. We welcome the opportunity to elaborate a little here.

We adopt the largely conventional understanding of the Holocaust (with capitalized H) as the largely successful execution of the plan to exterminate European Jewry. The question is whether the 1941 pogroms were a part of this plan. The evidence suggests not. As we note in the book, not all Jews who could have been targeted for violence were actually targeted. Indeed, the relative rarity of pogroms means that most Poles and Ukrainians in the eastern Polish borderlands were not pogrom perpetrators, and most Jews were not pogrom victims. If local populations did have a plan to kill all the Jews, they didn’t come close to succeeding.

But did the locals even have a plan? In other words, were the pogroms simply a failed attempt to eliminate the Jews? There are two reasons to doubt this. First, in summer 1941 even the Germans, arguably, did not have a plan. The details would not be set in motion until the Wannsee conference in January 1942. Although it is true that in summer 1941 the Germans were encouraging local populations to engage in ‘self-cleansing’ actions, they were by no means forcing the issue, and they met with only mixed success.

Second, if the pogroms were a part of the Holocaust we would expect to observe attempted pogroms across most if not all of the nearly 2,000 communities in our sample in which Jews dwelled with non-Jews. But we don’t see that. Only certain communities were targeted. These featured Jewish communities that had been mobilized into their own nation-building project, primarily by way of Zionism, prior to the outbreak of war. For ethnic Poles and Ukrainians these places represented nodes of resistance to their aspirations for nation-states in which their respective languages and cultures would be hegemonic. This emboldened the perpetrators and made it less likely that those Poles and Ukrainians not directly involved in the violence would offer the Jews a refuge.

Was there genocidal intent at least in those places where pogroms did occur? In other words, were the other pogroms similar to Gross’s (2001) account of what happened in Jedwabne, where those Jews who did not succeed in escaping were murdered? The evidence for answering this question is sparse, primarily because the overwhelming majority of Jews who managed to avoid a pogrom ended up being killed by other means. The book shows that Jedwabne was an unusual community in that Poles who sympathized with the National Democrats faced off against nationalist Jews, without the presence of other national groups. As for the other pogroms, we cannot say whether those who survived did so because they managed to escape an otherwise genocidal episode, or whether there was no genocidal intent to begin with. We do know that pogroms like Jedwabne were not the norm.

In short, the 1941 pogroms are better seen as one of the last instances of ‘traditional’ anti-Jewish violence, albeit in a more brutal version, than an early salvo in what we would later term the Holocaust.

Burzlaff asks another crucial and related question: ‘why were women and children killed when the most politicized inhabitants targeted first and foremost those Jewish citizens they believed would soon wield power over them? One would need to dwell far more on the actual process of the disintegration of the social tissue’.

We agree with Burzlaff’s tentative answer to the question he poses, and touch upon it in the book. Social disintegration in the territories under study occurred primarily during the two years of Soviet occupation prior to the outbreak of war, when Moscow imposed its control and sought to root out any potential opposition. Civil society was crushed and there were deportations. No ethnic group was spared. Society was brutalized, lowering the threshold for ‘acceptable’ violence once the Soviet regime melted away after the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

How this led to the targeting of women and children involves another factor: the dynamics of individual pogroms. As we argue, pogroms occurred where Jews were already perceived as outside the circle of solidarity. The ritual humiliations that accompanied pogroms made matters worse. These humiliations featured anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, and anti-Zionist (‘Jewish nationalist’) elements, which inflamed both perpetrators and onlookers. Violence is most likely to spin out of control where perpetrators feel impunity and victims are helpless and seen as unworthy of sparing.

We do have a quibble with Burzlaff’s characterization of our argument. We do not claim that nationalist Jews would ‘wield power’ over the non-Jewish citizenry. Jews comprised only around ten percent of the population at the national level, and were a minority in most of the localities where pogroms occurred. As briefly noted above, non-Jewish locals saw Jews who insisted that their national rights be respected as a challenge to their goal of creating nationally homogeneous nation-states.  

Burzlaff suspects that historians will be confused by the absence of Nazis in the analysis. But we intentionally focused on violence in which Germans did not play a starring role. For the Nazis Eastern European Jews were an undifferentiated mass to be eliminated. Local variations only mattered insofar as they posed temporary obstacles to the ultimate goal. But the same cannot be said for the 1941 pogroms. Each of those places had its own backstory and that backstory determined how the events unfolded. We suspect this is true not only for the 1941 pogroms but perhaps also for certain aspects of the Holocaust and other cases of mass violence.