Historian, journalist, and political activist Simon Dubnov (1860-1941) was one of the founders of historical autonomism, a method of interpreting history in terms of national self-determination.
Simon Dubnov was born in Mstislav, in the district of Mohilov, in Latvia. He received a traditional Jewish education at his grandfather's home, but in his youth he turned away from Jewish tradition. He read widely and was deeply impressed by the writings of Enlightenment authors. In 1874 he started attending a Jewish state school, but soon transferred to a non-Jewish one. After graduation he attempted several times to get admitted to a teachers' seminary, but he failed in the entrance examinations.
In 1880 Dubnov moved to St. Petersburg, where he lived with his older brother. Four years later he returned to his native town, but in 1890 he moved to Odessa and began his research on eastern European Jewry. Between 1903 and 1906 he stayed in Vilnius, where he fought for the establishment of Jewish national schools. After the pogrom of Kishinev in 1903, he demanded that Jewish self-defense be organized. In 1906 he accepted the chair of Jewish history at the Institute of Natural Sciences in St. Petersburg.
Opposing the Soviet regime, in 1922 Dubnov moved to Berlin, where he resided until Hitler's accession to power in 1933. With the Nazi occupation of Riga in 1941, the entire Jewish population was expelled and exterminated. When the sick and feverish Dubnov was being loaded on a bus, a drunk Latvian policeman shot the old man in the neck and killed him. He was buried in the community grave in the old cemetery of the Riga ghetto.
Dubnov devoted his life to Jewish historical research and to the sociological interpretation of Jewish history. He started with an evaluation of Jewish personalities in the periodicals Razsviet, Voskhod, Pardess, and Hashiloakh (1881-1901). In the years 1893-1895 he published a series of documentary studies on the history of eastern European Jewry. His central idea was that Jewish life in the Diaspora was basically the history of centers of Jewry which, with the passage of time, moved from one country to another. His sociological conception of Jewish history found its full expression in his General History of the Jewish People. He saw the Jewish people in the Diaspora as one that had lost some of the factors usually sustaining a nation; the Jewish people had therefore developed a unique social regime and climate which enabled it to survive as a nation in the midst of foreign communities.
Dubnov's Nationalism and History: Essays on Old and New Judaism (1958) has an excellent introductory essay on the author by Koppel S. Pinson, the editor. See also Aron Steinberg, ed., Simon Dubnov, the Man and His Work: A Memorial Volume on the Occasion of the Centenary of His Birth, 1860-1960 (1963).
The life and work of S.M. Dubnov: diaspora nationalism and Jewish history, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. □