The term pogrom is derived from the Russian pogromit (to create a desert) and describes forcible excursions and plunder against a specific ethnic or religious minority. Outbreaks of this kind occasionally occur spontaneously but are initiated by local or national forces. It is common for a significant portion of the majority population to take part in these persecutions; as a rule the authorities do not intervene to halt the violence.
The term is used in the twenty-first century to designate a variety of events, such as the persecution of the Armenians by Sultan Abdulhamid II (1842–1918) in the Ottoman Empire from 1894 to 1896; the attacks on Greeks in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1955; the murder of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia after the fall of President Ahmed Sukarno (1901–1970) in 1965; the harrying of the Ibo people in northern Nigeria in 1967; the agitation against the Sikhs in India following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917–1984); and the excesses against the Armenians in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1990. The word gradually became part of the international vocabulary toward the end of the nineteenth century. Originally it meant only the anti-Semitic excesses of czarist Russia. Hence consideration of the pogroms directed against Jews in central and eastern Europe is key to the following discussion, along with consideration of their political and socioeconomic context and background.
EUROPEAN POGROMS: FROM THE MIDDLE AGES TO THE EARLY MODERN ERA
During the first two Crusades (1096–1102 and 1147–1149), the Jews of central Europe, especially in Germany, fell victim to persecutions and sacrifices. The initial nature of the conflict was religious. The persecutors justified their action with the argument that the liberation of the Holy Land should be preceded by the murder of the “murderers of Christ” in Europe. The actual motives of the perpetrators were more economic, however. The burgeoning religious fanaticism of the time presented a suitably legitimate opportunity to get rid of some economic competitors, because many Jews were involved in credit trades at the time. Yet it would be a mistake to equate the history of the Jews in medieval Europe with persecution and discrimination. There were certainly longer periods of relatively peaceful coexistence with the Christian world. Nonetheless, relations between Christians and Jews were precarious. Famines and epidemics inflamed the Christian majority against religious and social minorities. Thus the great epidemic and plague of the late Middle Ages in the mid-fourteenth century resulted in pogroms against the Jewish population. The Jews were accused of causing the plague by poisoning wells and streams. Hence the initial motive for the persecution was an attempt to explain the sudden appearance of the rapidly spreading illness. At the same time the hatred of the Jews this stirred up played into the hands of Christian debtors and merchants.
Mobilization against the Jews was further spurred by accusations of ritual murder. These assertions claimed that Jews stole Christian children and slaughtered them in order to use their blood for ritual purposes. This accusation, among others, served as a reason for the destruction and plunder of the Prague Ghetto in 1389, which at the time contained the largest and wealthiest Jewish population in Europe.
Because the threat of persecution and expulsion constantly hung over their heads, beginning in the thirteenth century large segments of the Jewish population moved farther to the east. The Polish kings encouraged the settlement of Jews and guaranteed their security and economic privileges. The Jews soon became indispensable for the Polish economy, mediating as traders and brokers between town and country. The Polish nobility came to prefer leaving the administration of their property to Jews, which dragged the latter into conflicts between nobility and peasantry. In 1648 these tensions finally resulted in a pogrom of hitherto unseen magnitude, when Ukrainian peasants joined with Cossacks, Russian cavalry, led by Hetman Bogdan Chmelnicki (1595–1657) and attacked Polish cities. As many as 125, 000 Jews fell victim during these massacres. As a rule the Jews could not count on the support of their Polish neighbors, and it took decades for the Jewish communities to rebuild. One reaction to the catastrophe was the rising popularity of cabalistic doctrine among eastern European Jews and the spread of messianic apocalyptic sects. The eventual outcome of these movements was Hassidism, one of the most significant mystical-religious movements in Judaism.
POGROMS IN RUSSIA UNDER THE CZARS AND DURING THE REVOLUTION
A rise in anti-Semitism in Russia coincided with the shaking off of Mongolian rule and the strengthening of the Orthodox Church in the late Middle Ages. Czar Ivan IV (1530–1584) forced religious conversion on the Jews in the newly conquered territories and severely restricted Jewish trade. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Russia had become a great power in the region and annexed Poland in 1772, lending the “Jewish question,” that is, the question of how to deal with the unpleasant minority, a new urgency. Under pressure from Russian merchants fearful of Jewish competition, Catherine II (1729–1796), who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, issued a decree forbidding Jews from living in the Russian interior. Their territory was restricted to the so-called Pale of Settlement—the former territory of Poland and the area north of the Black Sea.
The nineteenth century saw a profound socioeconomic transformation of Russian society that also affected the life and economic activity of Jewish communities. The Jewish population concentrated itself in the cities inside the Pale of Settlement, focusing on trade; skilled trades and the cultivation of the land had become less profitable and therefore lost their appeal for most Jews. Although a small portion of the population established itself in banking and credit, most Jews became impoverished. From this point on Jews attempted to succeed as petty merchants, peddlers, and handicraftspeople. They thus found themselves in bitter, destructive competition with their Christian neighbors, which led to a rise in anti-Semitism. The Russian upper classes and nobility also became increasingly anti-Semitic, associating the Jews with modernization and capitalism (i.e., with movements that threatened the traditional social order). Thus anti-Semitism came to be associated with anticapitalism and antisocialism.
The hostility toward Jews was widespread in the Russian Empire: between 1881 and 1921 there were three devastating waves of pogroms. The first followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II (1818–1881), when anti-Semitic circles blamed his death on the Jews. The rumor spread like wildfire and gave an anti-Semitic mob justification for attacks on the Jewish community. Pogroms regularly ensued until 1884, primarily in southeastern Ukraine, but also in White Russia (later Belarus) and Lithuania. The Ukrainian pogroms were perpetrated primarily by migrant workers and railway employees. The local population, especially in the Ukraine, passively observed the plunder and violence and left the mobs unhindered, seeing these pogroms against an unloved minority as a suitable release for the pressures of unresolved social issues. Czar Alexander III (1845–1894) blamed the pogroms on the Jews themselves and drafted a series of discriminatory edicts against them in order to unite a divided population behind him. In their struggle for legitimacy, the Russian upper classes fanned the flames of already widespread anti-Semitism, misusing it as an ideology of social integration.
The outbreak of the second wave of pogroms, from 1903 to 1906, was linked directly to political developments in the czarist empire. In order to try to contain growing revolutionary sentiment, the government fanned anti-Semitism by inciting the conservative press against the Jewish population. The first pogrom of this era took place at the Jewish holiday of Passover in 1903 in the town of Kishinev, with roughly 1, 500 Jewish houses and businesses looted. These pogroms were organized by the so-called Black Hundreds, an association of reactionary monarchist groups. The government instructed local authorities not to proceed against the perpetrators. Representatives of the czarist secret police wrote and disseminated anti-Semitic pamphlets, such as the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which blamed the Jews for all the country’s ills. After the Reform Edicts of 1905, which extended suffrage to the Jews and established the Duma (i.e., the Russian parliament), the most devastating pogrom to date occurred involving sixty-four cities and six hundred villages. More than eight hundred Jews fell victim to its violence.
The wave of pogroms from 1917 to 1921 occurred in the context of world war, revolution, and civil war. Even before the end of World War I (1914–1918), deserters committed terrible massacres and robberies of Jewish property in villages near the front. After the Bolshevik October Revolution in 1917, units of the Red Army and more particularly counterrevolutionary forces (the so-called White Russian, anti-Bolshevik armies) fell on the Jewish population in towns and cities. The worst pogroms took place in the Ukrainian Republic. Before the pro-Bolshevik Red Army’s victory in 1920, over sixty thousand Jews lost their lives in the violence.
As a result of the constant pogroms and growing legal and social discrimination, from the 1880s onward many young Jews joined the socialist opposition. A Jewish national consciousness also developed, culminating in Zionism. The Zionists believed that Jewish integration into eastern European society had failed and that the sole solution to the “Jewish question” was the creation of a Jewish national state. During this time also Jewish emigration to the United States (and also to Palestine) rose steadily.
German Jews only achieved full civil rights with the creation of the Second German Empire, following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. But the path was a bumpy one. In 1819 some manual workers, merchants, and students took the discussions instigated by Jewish emancipation as an occasion for pogroms in several German cities. During the nineteenth century a large portion of the Jewish population in Germany was able to achieve some social progress; however, by the 1870s several anti-Semitic parties had formed with the explicit aim of reversing the social equality and integration of the Jews. After the beginning of the twentieth century, most of these parties sank into insignificance. Although anti-Semitism was as widespread and significant a political force in Germany as in surrounding European states, it was considerably less powerful than in eastern European states.
Extreme nationalism during World War I had already led to a growing climate of anti-Semitism. After the end of the war, nationalist and populist groups, such as the rightwing extremist party the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), blamed German Jewry for the defeat as well as the succeeding economic misery. For many members of the NSDAP Judaism and bolshevism (anticapitalism) were synonymous; both phenomena were treated as dangerous to traditional social and political order.
The systematic disenfranchisement and exclusion of German Jews began soon after the NSDAP’s seizure of power in January 1933. The first pogrom against the Jews during this period broke out on 9 and 10 November 1938 and was referred to as Reichskristallnacht or Kristallnacht (night of broken glass). But this incident was anything but a spontaneous expression of violence. Members of the NSDAP and the Gestapo (the secret security police of the NSDAP) as well as paramilitary organizations such as the Sturmabteilung (SA) started fires in synagogues across Germany and plundered Jewish businesses. In the process they murdered one hundred German Jews. The German police had received orders that under no circumstances were they to intervene on behalf of the Jews. A small portion of the population participated in the pogrom, especially the plunder, while most Germans observed the events passively without participating. The NSDAP government had attempted to portray the pogrom as a spontaneous reaction by the Germans to the assassination of a German diplomat by a Jewish conspirator in Paris. The NSDAP government had three goals in the November pogrom. Initially forces within the party for whom existing anti-Jewish measures were insufficiently radical were to be mollified. Moreover the Nazi leadership sought to further intimidate the Jews and encourage their emigration. Finally, the pogrom accelerated the systematic persecution and dispossession of the Jews, a process referred to as “aryanization.”
During World War II members of the NSDAP, or Nazi Party, committed countless pogroms against Jewish populations in occupied areas of eastern Europe. The local populations generally cooperated willingly with the occupiers and permitted themselves to be dragged into deeds of violence against their Jewish neighbors. On occasion, such as in the Polish town of Jedwabne, the local population did not wait for the arrival of the German conquerors and murdered the Jewish population on their own initiative. The prospect of taking over Jewish property was every bit as much to blame for this turn of events as historically deep-rooted anti-Semitism.
The czarist pogroms in Russia and the November 1938 pogrom in Germany all occurred with government participation in the planning and the violence. Nonetheless, the involvement of the population in Russia was considerably greater than in Germany, since the integration of Jews into German society was considerably more advanced than in Russia. Thus the aim of the 1938 pogrom was not so much to push social and political problems into the background and unite a politically and socially divided populace.
SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Bolshevism; Christianity; Concentration Camps; Ethnic Conflict; Ethnic Fractionalization; Ethnocentrism; Ghetto; Hitler, Adolf; Holocaust, The; Jews; Nazism; Riots; Russian Revolution; Shtetl; Terrorism; Violence; World War II
Friedländer, Saul. 1997. The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939. Vol. 1 of Nazi Germany and the Jews. New York: Harper Collins.
Gross, Jan T. 2001. Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Judge, Edward H. 1992. Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom. New York: New York University Press.
Klier, John D., and Shlomo Lambroza, eds. 1992. Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Dominik J. Schaller
Pogrom, a Russian word that originally had several meanings, such as "beating," "defeat," "smashing," or "destruction," has come to be identified with violent attacks on the persons and property of one ethnicity by large crowds of other ethnicities, in particular, attacks on Jews by ethnic Russians. The first occurrence that historians generally agree was a pogrom took place in Odessa in 1821, and pogroms against Armenians took place in Azerbaijan in 1988 and 1990. Most pogroms in Russian history, however, took place in three major waves: 1881–1884, following the assassination of Alexander II; 1903–1906, following the announcement of the October Manifesto; and 1919–1921, during the Russian Civil War. In the first wave, more than 250 pogroms were recorded, mostly within the Pale of Settlement in present-day Ukraine. Beginning in April 1881, the largest and most violent were in the large cities, but then radiated out through the countryside, often along the railroad lines. Most pogroms occurred in the spring and summer of 1881, with ever smaller numbers in the next three years. These were less violent than later waves, with probably only forty deaths in 1881. The next wave began in 1903 with the infamous Kishinev pogrom, accelerated through the dislocations of war and revolution, and reached a great crescendo at the end of 1905. In the two weeks after the October Manifesto, it is estimated that seven hundred pogroms occurred throughout Russia, leaving nine hundred dead and eight thousand wounded. Unlike other waves, pogroms occurred at this time in many places outside of the Pale of Settlement, including small cities with an insignificant or nonexistent Jewish population; in the latter cases, students and political activists were often the major targets.
The classic explanation of these pogroms was that either the tsarist regime, or forces close to and supportive of the regime, encouraged these pogroms as a way of directing popular discontent away from the government and onto a visible minority group. While still widely held today, this explanation has been convincingly challenged in recent years by historians who have pointed out the complex and varied reactions the regime had to pogroms, the lack of archival evidence for such a conspiracy, the regime's deep fear of any sort of popular violence, and a general belief that the Russian government was incapable of organizing such widespread and, in the case of October 1905, simultaneous disturbances. However, if the old conspiracy theory is breaking down, no consensus explanation has emerged to replace it. The last great wave of pogroms, in 1919–1921, was the bloodiest and the most atypical, occurring after the fall of the imperial regime and during conditions of bitter strife in which violence of every kind was unrestrained. Concentrated in Ukraine, all parties to the conflict carried out pogroms at one point or another, but the most organized and bloodiest were perpetrated by the White Volunteer Army. Condoned by officers and carried out by Cossacks, with some looting by peasants, these pogroms may account for 150,000 deaths.
See also: civil war of 1917-1922; jews; nationalities policies, tsarist; october manifesto; pale of settlement
Klier, John D. (1993). "Unravelling of the Conspiracy Theory: A New Look at the Pogroms." East European Jewish Affairs 23:79–89.
Klier, John D., and Lambroza, Shlomo, eds. (1992). Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
An armed riot by one ethnic, tribal, or religious group against another, incited by the government; usually accompanied by looting, mass property destruction, rape, and murder.
The term pogrom derives from the Russian pogromit (to destroy); Russia was the scene of the first modern pogroms, against its minority Jewish population, beginning in 1881. During the Russian Civil War (1918–1923), armed forces of all sides perpetrated atrocities against the Jews, though Vladimir Lenin's government went on record as opposing antisemitic violence.
Laqueur, Walter. A History of Zionism. New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1972.
Russian word meaning "attack" or "devastation." Historically, it designates mob attacks accompanied by pillage and murder that were perpetrated against the Jews of Russia—for example, in 1881–1882 and in 1903 at Kishinev. An important component of a pogrom is the usually silent complicity of the police and other authorities. Many Arab attacks on Jews in pre-1948 Palestine, such as those in 1908, 1920, 1921, 1922, and 1929, were labeled by some of the victims as "Arab pogroms."