From Emancipation to Annihilation —
The illusory successes and forlorn failures of Jews’ integration in midcentury Czechoslovakia and Russia.
From immeasurable ruin brought forth by the First World War on central and east European imperial states arose novel opportunities for Jews to renegotiate the terms of emancipation — to turn from an individual to a collective paradigm. Predicated upon the durability of the new states’ will to guarantee their emancipated condition, Jews’ success would prove inane, and its assumptions fatefully misguided.
Habsburg Jewry divided into three: Bohemian and Moravian, Hungarian, and Carpatho-Ruthinian. Jews negotiated their autonomous national expression with a triumphant ethos of a Slavic supranational fiction into which they subsumed: Czechoslovakia. In the republic’s formation, the Czech Jewish vision had been realized: Bohemian Jews urbanized and bourgeoned; entered Czech schools en masse; established a presence in press; and inhabited prominent positions in government. In Moravia, too, Jews underwent rapid acculturation, albeit oriented toward German, rather than Czech society. Jews were not only acculturating, but were emancipating.
Patterns of acculturation in Bohemia and Moravia began with Habsburg institutional arrangements, then adapted to a multiethnic, nonetheless Czech, nation-state. Notwithstanding questions of affinity for, versus identification with, Czech nationalism, Jews adopted its rhetoric and conformed its narrative to their own. Jews used the state’s implied national hierarchy to suggest their value in diminishing German and Hungarian influence in the new Czech polity’s borderlands. Jews emphasized notions of ethnic, rather than territorial integrity to demonstrate their instrumental implications for Czech legitimacy.
Jews of Upper Hungary, where vestiges of German, communal government remained, found reorienting from Budapest to Prague difficult. Rather than abandon confusedly acculturated shtetls, Slovakian Jews sought to resuscitate their traditional territory’s Jewishness. The Czech state remained wary, fearing Hungarian irredentism amongst a Jewry divided by competing lingual and religious impulses. Carpatho-Ruthinian Jews, whose allegiances were communal rather than Magyar, appeared ripe for integration. This third group, with its untapped numerical weight, became the focus of Prague Zionists’ efforts at refashioning a diaspora Jewish identity. Czech Zionists achieved national recognition absent a lingual requirement, and convinced the state of collective emancipation’s value to Czech nationalism; victory beyond expectation — in the near term.
For a new type of nation-state, Jews articulated a new way of belonging: in exchange for national recognition, Jews assented to Czech hegemony. For all its novelty, failings of Habsburg acculturation remained. Loyalty cultivated to one nation did not extend to the next; a Czechoslovakian identity failed to materialize among Jews. Collective emancipation’s success relied on a precarious accord with a state whose will, tested by German aggression, came up woefully wanting.
As revolution flared, Bolsheviks extricated Russia from the First World War to consolidate socialist victory. Questions of national minorities — divisive constructs anathema to socialist universalism — were cast as vehicles of socialist transformation. Soviet authorities calculated that a territorially dispossessed nation had no future. Tolerating separateness in the interim, the party, through its newfound Jewish Section, pushed integration on Jewish street. Beginning with Lenin’s extension of ownership rights of farmland and establishing the Committee for Rural Placement of Jews, Soviet coordinated agriculture as a means of cultivating socialism among the Jewish nation.
Given their trials of pogrom, war, and revolution, Jews gravitated toward revolutionary socialism, with its messianic undercurrents. Devastated by conflict, Russian Jews were eager to integrate. Jews flocked to cities; intermarriage rates soared; educational opportunities abounded; Soviet and Jewish identities began to converge, often melding into one. In rural communities, by contrast, the New Economic Policy’s failure at alleviate poverty strengthened tradition’s hold; Orthodox led by the Lubavitcher Rebbe mounted efforts to thwart Sovietization.
Stalin’s ascent marked a watershed. Jews’ rapid integration to the conspicuous heights of the Soviet state bred antipathy. Stalin moved to secure hegemony; he replaced Jews in prominent posts with Georgians; he modified policies of agricultural settlement to mass demographic relocation to Birobidzhan to subvert Zionist programs; he dissolved institutions of Yiddish culture and repressed Bundist, Zionist and orthodox religious and political activities — forcibly accelerating assimilation. It was Jews’ success in integrating into the Soviet scheme, and their proximity to power that bred failure. By 1936 Jewish leadership had all but been purged. Integration gave way to forcible assimilation concluding, as in Czechoslovakia, in tragic failure.
With the dissolution of imperial states at the end of the First World War, Jews had with the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of emancipation, to rectify the failings of the individual paradigm with a novel, collective mode. Predicated upon states’ continued willingness to recognize Jews’ collectively emancipated condition, success proved illusory. Will soon yielded to ultra-nationalism, leaving Jews exposed to the inhuman horrors of Nazi designs.