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Can it happen here?

"Blood Accusation: The Strange History of the Beiliss Case" by Maurice Samuel (Knopf/Jewish Publication Society)

At a time when the talk is of race war, and leaders worsen the atmosphere of social division, one wonders what to read in order to come to terms with events. A biography of Benito Mussolini might seem apropos, in its examination of the authoritarian personality and the overthrow of democratic institutions. Or a study of the interwar refugee crisis created by German racial policies and expansionism might aid in appreciating the present migration disaster in the Middle East and Europe.

Today’s American predicament combines racial and ethnic animosity with the mistrust of authority, while raising the potential for a demagogic turn in democratic life. In the American press, there is a persistent but at times suppressed urge to compare Donald Trump to Hitler, alongside a tendency to refer to recent American history in order to explain present-day developments. Commentators recall the second half of the 1960s to highlight the impact of the civil rights movement, as well as the damage done by the assassination of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. These events and the social chaos that took shape around them seem analogous to the contemporary version of what Philip Roth dubbed the “indigenous American berserk” (this language, to describe Trumpism, is in vogue again in the European and English press).

The desire to understand events and to predict the future takes us in various directions: back, toward the European totalitarian regimes of the 1930s; and to an examination of a period of rising nationalism, when nativism and anti-Semitism helped define ethnic identities.

History, it might be said, offers too many analogies to the present awfulness. But history throws up another challenge, as its would-be lessons grow distant in time and become increasingly difficult to grasp.

In Jewish Russian history, there is a significant story of ethnic hatred, social, economic and political division, and political and judicial machinations, which provides a useful analogy to contemporary events. This is the Beiliss blood libel accusation and its lengthy trial, which played out in Russian Kiev between 1911 and 1913.

These events are not so distant – taking place just over 100 years ago – but they are forgotten by most readers. The murder of a Christian child in a crime-ridden quarter of Kiev led to the accusation – promoted by rightist groups including the Black Hundreds – that the child’s murderers were Jews who required Christian blood for consumption as part of a Passover ritual.

The Beiliss case convulsed the Russian czarist empire in its final years (it was a symptom of a dying power’s resort to irrational political machinations). The events leading up to the trial involved local police, provincial governors, state prosecutors and judges, ministers to the czar and Czar Nicholas II himself, whose anti-Semitic ideas contributed to his willingness to view the trial as a mode of political resistance to liberalizing forces.

The court trial of the accused brickworks dispatcher Mendel Beiliss, a family man, aged 39, reverberated around the globe. The international press took sides, and foreign and economic policy between Russia and the other major powers of the time were influenced by its outcome.

The standout book on the case is Maurice Samuel’s Blood Accusation: The Strange History of the Beiliss Case. Begun in 1962 and published in 1966, it represented to its author the challenge of unearthing an “all but forgotten” set of events, which, in their day, defined contemporary ideas and allegiances. Samuel’s own birth in eastern Europe, his English education and his prolific career as an American writer of books about Jewish history and culture, offered him access to Russian sources along with a New World view of a collapsing European dynasty. Samuel’s study of the Beiliss case reminds us that disasters of political and social breakdown are generally man-made and, if not foreseeable, at least understandable with hindsight and careful interpretation.

Samuel’s Blood Accusation is laid out like a police procedural (in certain respects, it is), with brilliant character sketches of its dramatis personae: members of the Kievan underworld; corrupt and competent Ukrainian police officials, lawyers and judges; and key figures in the Russian court and its competing Duma, or parliament. Rasputin makes an appearance – his grip on the czarina contributed to Czar Nicholas’ incapacity to rule legitimately. On the side of honour and right thinking, there is the father of Vladimir Nabokov, V.D. Nabokov, who was an editor, parliamentarian and outspoken critic of Russian authoritarianism and its abuse of anti-Semitic demagoguery.

The seemingly fantastic aspect of the narrative is the fact that well into the 20th century, a set of events of worldwide importance were based on an ancient canard: the idea that Jews practised a religious ritual involving the sacrifice of a Christian child in order to consume its blood in matzah. In the Kiev courtroom in 1913, belief in this was promoted by witnesses, by would-be specialists on Jewish affairs, by state prosecutors and religious figures – the latter of the crackpot variety. But making political points via the crackpots were any number of officials – from careerist local police up to the Machiavellian ministers in St. Petersburg – who viewed the trial as a kind of political horse they might ride to trample their liberalizing political opponents. In the late czarist period the government’s enemies included liberals of all stripes, and officials, like Nabokov’s father, who would not countenance the use of anti-Jewish ideology as a guarantor of Russian authoritarian ideals.

In the shadow of the Beiliss trial, one found an empire convulsed by a lie. Police officers understood their job to be more easily done if they engaged the lie rather than investigate the murder at hand. The potential for mob violence – not long after the notorious Kishinev pogrom of 1903 – endangered Jewish communities throughout the Russian lands.

In Samuel’s epilogue to Blood Accusation, these phenomena are characterized in ways that seem utterly contemporary and useful in our effort to understand today’s news. Samuel writes of the events surrounding the Beiliss trial as an “episode in the continuing struggle between progress and reaction…” They offer, he adds, “an early illustration of the modern governmental use of the big lie,” which “does not simply misstate facts; rather it aims at the subversion of the intelligence” and “makes its assertions with brazen disregard for what is known, and seeks, by immense clamour, by vast rhythmic repetition, to make thinking impossible.”

How much of this could be applied to tonight’s news, to the rise of Trumpism, to the impossibility of “thinking” in response to the Trump approach to immigration, Muslim Americans, the Mexican border and so much more? To understand the “indigenous American berserk” the reader does well to step back 100 years and marvel at the mess a single lie made in Russian Kiev.

Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal.