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  • Hating Soviets—Killing JewsHow Antisemitic Were Local Perpetrators in Southern Ukraine, 1941–42?
  • Vladimir Solonari (bio)

This article intends to contribute to the scholarly debates on the role of popular antisemitism in the annihilation of East European Jewry. It focuses on the situation in a part of southern Ukraine that in 1941–44 was occupied by the Romanians, who during that time were responsible for the death, either by killing or as a result of starvation and disease, of between 104,000 and 120,000 Jews.1

The study of perpetrators of crimes against humanity who were local residents of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe and Eurasia has made substantial progress in the past two decades. Drawing on the conceptual apparatus and [End Page 505] methodology developed by scholars of German perpetrators and benefiting from the availability of previously classified Soviet-era archival documents, scholars have successfully mapped out a new subfield of genocide and Holocaust research as well as of violence in modern Europe in general.2 The fundamental issues in this subfield appear to be similar to those in the study of German perpetrators: how “ordinary” were the perpetrators; how representative were they of the local population; were the determinants of their extraordinary cruelty mostly sociocultural or psychiatric; what drove them to participate in the blood-curdling mass murder of apparently harmless civilians? The palette of responses to this last question includes vengefulness (that is, the desire to avenge those who suffered at the hands of the Soviets), careerism/conformism, attempts to expiate service to the Soviets by exaggerated loyalty to the new masters, ideological antisemitism, sadism, [End Page 506] and “lust for power.”3 Scholars have usually found that “a combination of several of these motivations played a role within each individual.”4

Still, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the most hotly debated question, and probably the most consequential, both methodologically and culturally/politically, is that of antisemitic ideology as a determinant of local perpetrators’ behavior. Although hardly anybody denies that antisemitism was one of the factors conditioning the violence, there exists considerable disagreement among scholars as to what kind of antisemitism it was: was it rooted in the unfathomable recesses of European culture, imbued with crazy medieval visions of satanic Christ-killers bleeding babies to death to cook matzoh on the eve of Passover, or was it a less obviously paranoid belief system, stemming from the more recent experience of communist rule in which many local Jews supposedly participated willingly and in which they purportedly served as key propagandists, policemen, and executioners? While these varieties of antisemitism are not necessarily mutually exclusive, in practice scholars often favor one over the other. Depending on their choice, they may arrive at vastly different conclusions. Perhaps most famously, Jan Gross dismissed references to the traumatic experience of Soviet occupation and the Jews’ purported role in the communist apparatus of repression in eastern Poland as lacking solid evidence. Instead, the age-old antisemitic imagination and traditions of sporadic popular violence against Jews legitimated by Romantic nationalism had incomparably greater heuristic value for Gross’s investigation of how Poles turned against their Jewish neighbors in the wake of German occupation.5 In contrast, Bogdan Musial sees the trauma and shock of Soviet occupation-era atrocities, with some Jews serving as the most trusted agents of the authorities, as an impulse for antisemitic pogroms perpetrated by local Christians with the connivance and support of the Wehrmacht in the summer of 1941, even in the absence (at this early stage) of a genocidal order from the German High Command.6 [End Page 507]

On the other hand, one renowned historian has recently suggested in a well-publicized but controversial book that antisemitism was not an issue in this story at all, arguing instead that local helpers of Nazis were motivated by the need for survival and an all too human tendency to conform to superiors’ orders. Their behavior was, as he put it, “just as predictable as obedience to authority”; and, as such, it requires “less (not more) explanation.” Ideology was negligible as a motivational factor.7 Timothy Snyder’s reading thus effectively decontextualizes anti-Jewish violence in Axis...