- Barricades and Banners: The Revolution of 1905 and the Transformation of Warsaw Jewry by Scott Ury
One major turning point in the long history of Polish–Jewish interrelations occurred around 1900, when support for a common future of both Poles and (assimilated) Jews waned in favor of a more aggressive and exclusionary blend of nationalism. In his impressive book, Scott Ury investigates why and how that shift occurred, tracing it back to a search for order in a notoriously chaotic environment, the city of Warsaw at the time of the first Russian revolution. More precisely, nationalism ultimately turned out to be a better solution to the challenge of participatory politics than its socialist and liberal alternatives. By highlighting structures, discourses, and contingency, Ury seeks to correct a narrative that has been suffering from teleology and an undue emphasis on the voluntarism of individual politicians.
After an introduction to the history of Warsaw and its Polish and Jewish inhabitants (chapter 1), the argument starts with an account of the “inherently disorderly” (P. 46) and discomforting nature of Warsaw around 1900 (chapter 2). Violence, crime, poverty, and prostitution were depicted by the press not only as eminent dangers for Warsaw’s Jews but also as challenges that the traditional Jewish gmina and voluntary associations were apparently not prepared to meet. At the same time, an ever increasing number of young Jews, who had recently entered the city, joined the ranks of various revolutionary parties. They did so not mainly because they were attracted by their programs, but because revolutionary parties provided them with a community and a sense of order. One of the strongest parts of Ury’s book is where he analyzes the peculiar mode of sociability in the revolutionary underground (chapter 3). Conspiratorial meetings, safe-houses, and aliases all served the practical needs of underground work, but they also made the underground appealing as “surrogate communities for many of the young Jews who were simply overwhelmed by their entry into the city” (P. 93), while the precise ideological position of the different cells remained secondary and often rather blurry. The success and attraction of different political parties was often more a reflection of their form than their ideological content.
The revolution of 1905, however, brought forth new modes of political behavior. Once restrictions on the press and public assemblies were lifted, political success rested on [End Page 279] the ability to mobilize the popular masses, a task that the revolutionary cells were not well prepared to meet. Instead, the “Jewish public sphere” began to dominate the field, most notably Jewish theaters and the press (chapter 4). They tried to provide Warsaw’s Jewry with solutions to its pressing concerns, thus producing the now dominant discourses of order. Those would prove decisive when, in 1906 and 1907, approximately 42,000 Jewish men were called to participate in the elections of the first and second State Duma (chapter 5). While most Socialist and Jewish nationalist parties did not take part in the elections, Jewish voters were left with the choice between one of two options: of voting either for a coalition of Polish nationalists or for the Jewish–Polish liberal alliance that had proved rather successful in the Pale of Settlement. The Jewish press was particularly eager to educate its readers with regard to the election process and its significance, and also sought to advertise the liberal Jewish Electoral Committee. To do so, it increasingly sought to construct a direct link between “being Jewish” and “voting Jewish.” Jews voting for the Polish nationalists were depicted as traitors who had “no place among the Jewish people.” Heretofore often mixed or ambiguous concepts of identity were increasingly replaced with clear-cut divisions.
In his last chapter, Ury examines parallel and often intersecting synchronous developments among Warsaw’s Poles. While the “Jewish question” was not absent from the Polish press prior to 1905, up to that point, it had played merely a marginal role. But the revolution, and especially the...