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Europeans and Jews in the Aftermath of the Great War

Written by Howard M. SacharAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Howard M. Sachar


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42567-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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By the end of World War I, in November 1918, Europe’s old authoritarian empires had fallen, and new and seemingly democratic governments were rising from the debris. As successor states found their place on the map, many hoped that a more liberal Europe would emerge. But this post-war idealism all too quickly collapsed under the political and economic pressures of the 1920s and '30s. Howard M. Sachar chronicles this visionary and tempestuous era by examining the fortunes of Europe’s Jewish minority, a group whose precarious status made them particularly sensitive to changes in the social order. Writing with characteristic lucidity and verve, Sachar spotlights an array of charismatic leaders–from Hungarian Communist Bela Kun to Germany’s Rosa Luxemburg, France’s Socialist Prime Minister Léon Blum and Austria’s Sigmund Freud–whose collective experience foretold significant democratic failures long before the Nazi rise to power. In the richness of its human tapestry and the acuity of its social insights, Dreamland masterfully expands our understanding of a watershed era in modern history.


A Prosecution Begins

At 10:00 a.m. on October 18, 1927, the gates swung open to the Assize Court of the Seine, the fourth of five courtrooms in the Palace of Justice's stately complex. Some fifteen hundred persons, who had clogged the entryway since early morning, pressed forward to a chamber whose wood-paneled galleries accommodated barely four hundred spectators. Nearly half of them were journalists, many from other countries. They had come to witness a murder trial. Although both the victim, Simon Petliura, and the accused, Sholem Schwarzbard, were natives of the former tsarist empire, the crime had been committed in Paris a year and a half earlier.

Upon taking his seat on the dais, Presiding Judge Georges Flory informed the twelve jurors that French law permitted simultaneous criminal and civil actions. Accordingly, the victim's widow, Olga Petliura, and his brother, Oskar Petliura, were sharing in the prosecution. Judge Flory then turned to the prisoner in the dock. Sholem Schwarzbard, thirty-nine, was a pale and diminutive man, yet with the muscular physique of a bantamweight boxer. He listened impassively while the judge defined the various charges of premeditated homicide, as listed in Articles 294–298 and Article 301 of France's Criminal Code. Flory explained that all carried the death penalty. How did the defendant plead? To each charge, Schwarzbard responded with an emphatic "not guilty." Hereupon the judge invited Public Prosecutor Chrétien Reynaud to present the case for the state. The ensuing trial would continue for eight days.

The basic facts of the defendant's life by then had been extensively described in the world press. Schwarzbard's hometown was Balta, a predominantly Jewish community in the former tsarist province of Podolia, where his parents owned a tiny grocery store. Balta's Jews intermittently were victimized by pogroms. In one of these, Schwarzbard's pregnant mother was killed. The surviving four children endured lives of acute hardship. Sholem Schwarzbard as an adolescent was apprenticed to a watchmaker in a neighboring village. During Russia's "Octobrist" Revolution of 1905, the seventeen-year-old youth was imprisoned for participating in an antigovernment demonstration. Upon his release three months later, he and his younger brother Meir fled Russia, working and often begging their way through Europe, before finally settling in Paris in 1910. There they opened a watchmaker's shop.

Although the brothers soon married and assumed family responsibilities, their reaction to the outbreak of war in 1914 was characteristically uncompromising. Both immediately enlisted for military service, and both were assigned to the French Foreign Legion. Afterward, both suffered wounds in the Somme campaign, and both were awarded the Croix de Guerre. It was during his convalescence in a military hospital in February 1916 that Sholem Schwarzbard first learned of the immense tragedy that had befallen his people in Russia the year before. In December 1914, as the German army launched its offensive on the eastern front, Russia's supreme military commander, Grand Duke Sergei, classified the dense Jewish population in the tsarist borderlands as a potentially subversive element. These people, he decreed, should forthwith be transferred away from the principal battle zones. Thus began, in March 1915, a systematic expulsion of Jews from Russian Poland, Lithuania, and Courland. Ultimately, some half-million men, women, and children were uprooted and driven into the Russian interior. Wherever transportation was provided, the exiles were packed into freight cars and dispatched to inland villages on a waybill. But scores of thousands of others were indiscriminately herded eastward without a fixed destination. Often they subsisted in wagons, boxcars, even in open fields. At least sixty thousand Jews died of starvation and exposure during the vast expulsion. Hundreds of thousands of others suffered economic ruin.

In March 1917, even before receiving his medical discharge from the army, Schwarzbard learned of yet another upheaval in Russia. This one was political. The nation had undergone revolution, the tsar had abdicated, a liberal new regime had been installed. Thrilled by the news, Schwarzbard immediately sought permission from the French government to return to his homeland and seek out his family. His request was granted. Thus, in August 1917, accompanied by his wife, Schwarzbard departed by ship for Russia, and in September he rejoined his father, brothers, sisters, and stepmother in Balta. In Balta, too, he resumed his vocation as a watchmaker.

Yet Schwarzbard's civilian career endured less than a year and a half. Following a second, Bolshevik, Revolution, Russia fell into the throes of civil war. In January 1919, Schwarzbard was conscripted into the Red Army and thrown into battle against the "White" counterrevolutionary forces. After participating in the Bolsheviks defense of Odessa, he was transferred in late spring to the struggle for Russia's Ukrainian provinces. Here the battle was waged first against the rebel Ukrainian Republican army, then against General Anton Denikin's "White"–counterrevolutionary–army. Another year would pass before Schwarzbard was released from military service. Exhausted by eighteen months of war and privation, he returned then with his wife to France.

A Nation Is Reborn

These were the essentials of Schwarzbard's life, as recounted in the trial by his defense attorney. Normally, the little watchmaker's sacrifices on behalf of his adopted motherland would have warmed the heart of even the iciest French cynic. But Madame Olga Petliura's civil attorney, César Campinchi, offered another picture of the defendant. Schwarzbard was a professional revolutionary, Campinchi insisted, who had worked in league with Russia's Bolshevik regime. Here Campinchi cited Schwarzbard's youthful activities as a radical, his imprisonment during the 1905 Revolution, his arrest as a thief for stealing food while passing through Vienna in 1909. For the Ukrainian émigré groups that funded Campinchi's prosecution, meanwhile, the trial offered more than simply the opportunity to convict a murderer. There was a national record to put straight. Schwarzbard and his partisans were "desecrating" the facts of the Ukrainian people's struggle for freedom.

That struggle had continued intermittently throughout modern history. During the seventeenth century, it took the form of an uprising against the ruling Polish Commonwealth. In later years, following the eighteenth-century partitions of Poland, the Ukrainians had staged periodic revolts against both the governing tsarist empire and the Polish landowning aristocracy. By 1914, the Ukrainians numbered some 25 million, and if they remained a peasant and largely illiterate population, their nationalists, like those of Poland, still awaited their window of opportunity. It opened with the Russian Revolution of March 1917. The Russian provisional government, under the prime ministry of Prince Georgi Lvov, expressed sympathy for a certain limited Ukrainian autonomy within a Russian-dominated federation.

The Ukrainian nationalists were unimpressed. Rejecting the autonomist formula as vague and pallid, they encouraged Ukrainian conscripts to desert the Russian army en masse and form their own military units. Subsequently, in November 1917, exploiting the chaos engendered by Russia's second, Bolshevik revolution, the Ukrainians formally proclaimed their own autonomous republic. Establishing a central Rada–a parliament–in the Ukraine's historic capital city of Kiev, they appointed Mikhail Hrushevsky as the nation's first president and Simon Petliura as its minister of defense. Over the ensuing weeks, the Ukrainian Rada issued "Second and Third Universal Declarations," successively enlarging its ambit of governmental jurisdiction.

In Petrograd, meanwhile, the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was alarmed. Deeming the Ukraine's vast agricultural bread basket, and its naval ports and army bases, to be of critical economic and strategic importance to beleaguered Russia, Lenin insisted on a more limited version of Ukrainian autonomy. He was rebuffed. The rift between the two governments soon became irreconcilable. Indeed, in January 1918, the Ukrainian Rada and its Executive proclaimed the republic's full independence. For Lenin, therefore, the provocation demanded a frontal response. Two weeks later, detachments of Red Army troops occupied Kiev. Yet, even then, the Ukrainians were not without recourse. That same January, Major General Otto von Hoffman, Germany's plenipotentiary at the (ongoing) Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations, signed a separate treaty of "recognition and peace" with the Ukrainian separatists. Soon afterward, in early February of 1918, the German army pushed forward into the Ukraine, sending the Russians fleeing, and restoring the Ukrainian Rada to office in Kiev.

The "restoration" was a sham. The Rada functioned entirely by sufferance of the German army. Worse yet, the treaty the Ukrainians had signed at Brest-Litovsk committed them to deliver a million tons of grain and livestock to the Central Powers. The burden soon proved insupportable. In the summer of 1918, as Ukrainian resistance to these shipments stiffened, the Germans lost patience with their client regime. Dispersing the Rada and its Executive, they installed a puppet hetman–military commander–of their own, a functionary who set about fulfilling the delivery quotas with obsequious zeal.

For the Jews, the Ukrainian nationalist struggle proved a trauma of agonizing dimensions. It always had. A Jewish presence in the Ukraine traced back at least to the fourteenth century, when tens of thousands of Jews, fleeing massacres in German-speaking Europe, began pouring as refugees into the Ukrainian and Lithuanian territories of the Kingdom of Poland. Henceforth, under Polish royal protection, the Jews served the landowning aristocracy as estate managers and as rent collectors from the Ukrainian peasantry. The Ukrainians bitterly resented this double servitude. In their folklore, the Jews were not merely Antichrists. They were economic allies of the Poles. In the mid-seventeenth century, therefore, when the Ukrainian Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki led his people in an explosive revolt against Polish oppression, his campaign was directed against Jews and Poles alike. Before the slaughter ended, in 1654, as many as fifty thousand Jews may have perished. In ensuing centuries, the Ukraine's periodic anti-Polish and anti-Jewish outbursts consumed possibly another fifty thousand Jewish lives.

Nevertheless, whether under Polish or–subsequently–tsarist rule, a Jewish nucleus in the Ukraine over the centuries managed to survive intermittent persecution and even to achieve a rather formidable demographic base. By the Russian census of 1897, Jews living in the Ukrainian regions numbered 1,927,000–almost 10 percent of the total population, and the largest concentration of Jews in the tsarist empire altogether. Most were town-dwellers. "Infidel," urban, commercial, this was an alien minority all but preordained to suffer majority xenophobia. In turn, with their long exposure to that hostility, the Jews reacted to the wartime separatist movement with profound trepidation. In the spring and summer of 1918, to be sure, under the brief, de facto rule of "civilized" Germany, they appeared to be at least physically safe. But when the German presence in Eastern Europe deteriorated in the autumn of 1918, Ukrainian nationalist forces moved to seize effective control of their ancient homeland. In preparing for independence, the Ukrainian Rada established a new administration, an executive Directorate of five men. The Directorate's president was Simon Petliura.

Born in Poltava in 1879 to an impoverished cab driver, Simon Vassilievich Petliura was precocious enough as a youth to be admitted to a Russian theological seminary, and tenacious enough to maintain his Ukrainian cultural identity during ten years of educational Russification. In common with most of his countrymen, the young man revered as his heroes Bogdan Chmielnicki, the seventeenth-century "Ukrainian Cromwell," and Taras Shevchhenko, the great nineteenth-century Ukrainian poet. Yet Petliura had become more than a passionate nationalist. For him, a free Ukraine would become a land of social justice and equality for all nationalities, spared the hateful tsarist incubus of anti-Polish or even anti-Jewish bigotry. In pursuit of that dream, the young man eventually left the seminary (without graduating), and returned home to become active in the underground Ukrainian Social Democratic party.

When the World War began, Petliura avoided direct military service in the tsarist army by enlisting in a Red Cross medical unit assigned to Ukrainian detachments. Three years later, immediately following Russia's Bolshevik Revolution, he set about mobilizing a Ukrainian brigade to protect his people's newly proclaimed autonomy. In March 1918, the Ukrainian Rada confirmed Petliura as its minister of defense. The timing was less than propitious. By then the Germans were in effective occupation of the Ukraine. They chose to keep Petliura under house arrest in East Prussia.

Yet it was the Central Powers' last gasp in Slavic Europe. By early autumn of 1918 their contingents in the Ukraine were in retreat. Petliura was released. In November 1918, when the Ukrainian Executive was revived as a five-member Directorate, the thirty-nine-year-old Petliura was selected as the nation's ataman, its president. Thereafter it was Petliura–a slight man of less than middle height, given to wearing a flamboyant yellow cockade and a richly bemedaled blue uniform–who would direct the Ukrainian national struggle. Then, too, the Jews would come to know him well.

From the Hardcover edition.
Howard M. Sachar|Author Desktop

About Howard M. Sachar

Howard M. Sachar - Dreamland

Photo © George Washington University

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell España, and Israel and Europe. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University, is a consultant and lecturer on Middle Eastern affairs for numerous governmental bodies, and lectures widely in the United States and abroad. He lives in Kensington, Maryland.

Author Q&A

Howard Sachar's desktop includes an essay by the author on postwar Europe.



“A portrait of a lost generation of idealists . . . densely packed with characters, ideological clashes and political narratives.” –The Washington Post

“The sheer number of actors in this Jewish drama that stride across Sachar’s stage . . . is breathtaking. . . . An excellent book for those who wish to gain insight into the way we were.” —The Jerusalem Post

“Dizzying in its complexity and breadth. . . . Sachar has a keen eye for historical detail, and a fine sense of narrative.” –Publishers Weekly

  • Dreamland by Howard Sachar
  • March 11, 2003
  • History - Middle East; History
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9780375708299

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