Jewish History in Multiethnic East-Central Europe, 1850-1918

Publication date 28.04.2023
Prof. Theodore R. Weeks

This short course looks at Jewish history in the context of two multinational empires: the Russian and the Habsburg. Both of these states must be understood as fundamentally pre-modern, non-national (even anti-national) political structures, a fact that is crucial for understanding Jewish history here. In the mid-19th century, the great majority of world Jewry made its home in this region and even at the end of the First World War, after the great wave of emigration to the Americas, western Europe, Erets Israel / Palestine, and South Africa, the Jewish presence here was considerable. In 1918 even antisemites could hardly imagine a Warsaw, Wilno, Lwów, Odesa (etc.) without Jews.

During our week together, we will examine a number of crucial topics in Jewish history, all of which were affected by the surrounding politics, populations, and economy of this territory. Our approach will attempt to integrate Jewish history into larger trends and transformations of this period. In European history, Jews provide an unusual (though not absolutely unique) example of a ethno-cultural group that to a great extent retained its cultural separateness into the twentieth century. As we will see, however, even in the shtetlekh of the Pale of Settlement and Galicia, Jews were affected by economic, political, and cultural transformations coming from Paris, Berlin, London, even New York. Some of our readings and discussions will look into these influences across the European continent and beyond, e.g., relations between Jews and the states, tensions between tradition and “modernity” (however defined!) in the Jewish community, the creation of modern Jewish politics, Jews as urban dwellers, and the rise of modern antisemitism (as opposed to traditional Christian prejudice against Jews).

This course was a part of Jewish History and the Multiethnic Past of East Central Europe: Societies, Cultures, and Heritage summer school.

Russian Empire, Russification, Jews

(The Russian Empire was not a nation-state. However, in the final halfcentury of its existence and even more during the Duma period after the 1905 Revolution, non-Russian peoples – in particular in European Russia – increasingly came to perceive the Russian state as an enemy to non-Russian people and culture. Discrimination against Jews fit into this pattern of general preference for Russian culture and language, but there were also peculiar and specific elements to tsarist Russia’s anti-Jewish policies.)

Required readings:

T. Weeks, Nation and State in Late Imperial Russia: Nationalism and Russification on the Western Frontier 1863-1914, DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1996, pp. 3-43.

For further reading:

Андреас Каппелер, Россия многонациональная империя:возникновение исnория распад. Москва, 1997.

Алексей И. Миллер, Украинский вопрос в поли тике влас тей и русском общес твенном мнении в торая половина ( XIX века), С.Петербург: Алетеря, 2000).

Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

T. Weeks, Across the Revolutionary Divide: Russia and the USSR 1861-1945, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2011, Chapter 3: Nations.

Questions to consider:

1. How did the Russian Empire differ in politics, economy, and society from a modern nation-state?

2. In what ways were policies toward Russia’s Jews similar to “nationality policy” toward other nations? How did Jewish policies differ?

3. How did the legal situation of Russia’s Jews change from ca. 1850 to 1914?

Habsburg Empire, Dualism, Jews

Haskalah, Hasidism, Tradition

Modern Jewish Politics: Zionism, Bund, Assimilation

Antisemitism as Modern Politics: the Polish example

Jews as Urban Dwellers: Vilne, Odesa, Warsaw

World War I and the Jews