Early 20th century pogroms in Ukraine impacted the Holocaust, history scholar says

March 7, 2023, 12:10 a.m.

Jeffrey Veidlinger — the Joseph Brodsky Collegiate Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan — discussed the pogroms of 1918-1921 that occurred in Ukraine after the 1917 Russian Revolution and their impact on the Holocaust at a Monday lecture. The event, entitled “Ukraine in Civil War and Famine, 1918-1921,” was co-sponsored by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, the Stanford Department of History and the Taube Center for Jewish Studies. 

Pogroms are an organized massacre of a specific ethnic group, but historically refers to violent attacks on a Jewish population by a non-Jewish population. The word “pogrom” is a Russian word that means “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In the pogroms of 1918-1921, Jewish people living in Ukraine were targeted. 

Hoover Institution research fellow and lecturer Bertrand Patenaude said that the event is part of a Hoover Institution series called “Bread + Medicine: Saving Lives in a Time of Famine.” The series is meant to mark the centennial of the Soviet famine of 1921 and the 1921-1923 American relief mission.

Patenaude said that the events in the series “don’t always” directly relate to the famine, but that they have “something to do with it.” He added that the Hoover Institution Library and Archives has set up an online exhibition and a physical exhibit at Hoover Tower.

Herbert Hoover, Class of 1895, namesake of the institution and former president of the U.S., was chairman of the American Relief Administration (ARA), which organized famine-relief efforts in Soviet Russia during the famine of 1921. The Hoover Tower exhibition features photo and paper documentation of the ARA’s efforts during the famine.

Veidlinger covered the basic history of pogroms during his lecture and showed two video interviews with survivors of two of the pogroms that occurred in Ukraine. He went on to detail how his research on Yiddish linguistics helped inspire him to write about the pogroms and tell the story of them in his book, “In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust.”

“[‘In the Midst of Civilized Europe’ is] chiefly about the pogroms that were perpetrated against the Jews in Ukraine between 1918-1921 during the Revolutionary era and the wars in the region,” Veidlinger said. “The book makes an argument that there’s a connection between that violence and the violence that was perpetrated in 1941 against Jews during the Holocaust.”

Ukraine was in a civil war in 1917-1921, with members of the Soviet Red Army and the Russian White Army, Ukrainian nationalists and anarchists, German forces and Second Polish Republic Forces fighting for control. Most of the groups believed that Jewish people were aligning with their enemies, according to Veidlinger.

Antisemitic propaganda efforts took place across Ukraine, many of which were conducted by the White Army. The efforts focused on grouping Jewish people with Bolsheviks — the faction founded by Vladmir Lenin that split with the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party — which led many people to participate in the pogroms as a way to persecute Jewish people, whom they believed were aligned with Bolsheviks because of the propaganda. 

“This was a common technique that the White Army and Ukrainian National Army, as well as the Polish army for that matter, used,” Veidlinger explained. The Bolsheviks had been promising the peasants land, bread and peace and it was enticing to many peasants in 1919-1920. “So the way that the old elites could turn the peasants against the Bolsheviks was by accusing the Bolsheviks of being Jews and saying to the peasants, you know, these aren’t people really fighting for your behalf. They’re actually Jews in disguise and playing on old anti-Jewish stereotypes.”

Veidlinger said that the effects of propaganda like Judeo-Bolshevism — the anticommunist and antisemitic propaganda that claimed that Jewish people were responsible for the Russian Revolution — reached other parts of the world, like the U.S.

“And I think European-wide and in America as well, there was a fear of Bolshevism in 1919-1920 that was so powerful” said Veidlinger. He explained that this fear was really strong among the elites in the property classes around the world, so “in the perception of many Europeans, this Jewish minority people who are the underclass who have suddenly taken power and now, you know, killing Uncle Nicky [Tsar Nicholas II].”

Veidlinger added that in the course of his research, he identified two different extremes of pogroms that existed at the time: one that was conducted by the Ukrainian military, and another that was conducted by neighboring peasants who were typically between the ages of 16 and 18. 

“In total, we have the names of about 40,000 people who were killed and the Soviets who took over in 1921 conducted a statistical analysis and came to the conclusion that these names include about a third of the total victims, which is how we get to the figure 100,000 for the total number of Jewish victims killed during the violence,” Veidlinger said. 

Norman Naimark, the Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of Eastern European Studies at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, praised Veidlinger’s book for its extensive documentation of the pogroms of Ukraine. Naimark said that while he disagreed about the extent to which the pogroms can be viewed in the context of the development of the Holocaust, he still enjoyed the book. 

“I mean, most of the book is really describing the pogroms and what happens during them and he’s got all this incredible testimony and documents that he’s found and that he’s using. It’s really impressive,” Naimark said. 

Veidlinger compared the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian conflict to the events he learned about while researching the pogroms. 

“I think, once again, there is a Ukrainian nation that’s being established with pluralistic and democratic goals that is being threatened by invasion from outside,” Veidlinger said, adding that the 1918 Ukrainian National Republic “had similar ideals but was destroyed because of invasion from the outside.”

He said that Ukraine has experienced multiple revolutions since its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

“All of those revolutions have been in the direction of furthering democracy and furthering pluralism,” Veidlinger said. “So to make a connection, like Putin does, between the current Ukraine and fascist movements is completely disingenuous.”

This article has been updated to include more detailed reporting of the panelists’ words. The Daily regrets this error.

Judy N. Liu '26 is the Academics desk editor for News and staff writer at The Daily.

Login or create an account