This interview by Dr.Gerstenfeld was first published at INN and republished here with the author’s consent.
REMEMBERING LEON POLIAKOV — FOUNDER OF ANTISEMITISM STUDIES
Interview with Philo Bregstein
“Leon Poliakov can be considered one of the founders of antisemitism studies. He was born in 1910 in Saint Petersburg. After the communist revolution his parents fled Russia and ultimately arrived in France. Poliakov studied law in the thirties. He was, like his father, an assimilated Jew.
“Poliakov survived the German Nazi-occupation of France in hiding. While there he started to study the Talmud with the help of the Jewish thinker Jacob Gordin. The latter was hiding in the same area and taught many people. After the war, at the age of 35, Poliakov began his career as a historian at the then recently founded Center of Jewish Documentation in Paris. The starting point of his work was a question which came up after the war and which occupied him for the rest of his life: “Why do people want to kill me as a Jew?”
Philo Bregstein was born in 1932 in Amsterdam. He completed his law studies in 1957 at Amsterdam University. Afterwards he started to write novels and became a filmmaker. Bregstein has lived in Paris since 1979. He assisted Poliakov with the research for his book, whose title translates into English as History of Antisemitism 1945-1993.
Bregstein continues: “Poliakov received his PhD in history only in 1964 at the Sorbonne with a thesis titled “The Jewish Bankers and the Holy See from the 13th to the 18th Century.” His supervisor was the famous historian Fernand Braudel. The latter strongly opposed Poliakov’s intention to write a history of antisemitism and blocked a university career for him. In Braudel’s opinion, Jews should assimilate while Poliakov’s research would strengthen Judaism.
“Poliakov called his methodology, the writing of a ‘counter history of Western civilization.’ With his anti-Marxist analysis, at the same time strongly influenced by Freud, he wanted to show the ‘unconscious’ hidden history behind the official ‘conscious’ one. Under the surface of the social and economic structure of society, Poliakov looked for the mythical and religious hidden patterns of thinking which condition it. Very often these are transmitted from generation to generation over centuries. In this way he became a pioneer of the much more recent approach to writing history with a psychoanalytical angle known as ‘psycho-history’.
“Poliakov’s main work is titled The History of Antisemitism. It consists of four volumes, respectively From the time of Christ to the Court Jews, From Mohamed to the Marranos, From Voltaire to Wagner and Suicidal Europe.
“In Poliakov’s books about antisemitism many often unknown anti-Jewish statements of leading church fathers, such as Augustine, were mentioned. He exposed the antisemitism of the protestant reformer Martin Luther and of the ‘prince of humanism,’ Erasmus of Rotterdam. In doing so Poliakov uncovered the hidden side of Christian civilization: the history of twenty centuries of anti-Jewish indoctrination. He also exposed the racist and antisemitic theories of French philosophers of the Enlightenment period such as Voltaire and of major German thinkers including Kant, Hegel and Marx.
“Poliakov furthermore bared the expressions of Jew-hatred of leading authors such as Dostoyevski, although he held him in high esteem as a writer. Poliakov felt that Dostoyevski had the merit to ‘doubt’ his own antisemitism. This strongly contrasts with the antisemitism expressed in pamphlets by Richard Wagner such as The Jews and the Music, which was filled with hatred and jealousy. Poliakov shows how Wagner was part of a strong German antisemitic movement in the 19th century. This was a precursor of Nazi-antisemitism.
“In a 1971 book on the sources of racism and nationalism Poliakov investigated Europe’s national myths. In this work he exposed the philosophers of the Enlightenment. They had developed the idea of freedom, equality and brotherhood, as well as the concept of human rights. Yet they continued to develop pseudoscientific classifications, like the division of human beings into ‘races.’ Poliakov thus uncovered the Enlightenment as one direct source of modern antisemitism at the same time also showing the continuity of the centuries’ old Christian hatred of Jews.
“All these ideas later laid the theoretical basis for the genocide by the Germans. Although the Stalinist mass murders were based on blind prejudice, they never used the idea of race inferiority.
“Poliakov concluded that Hitler and his associates didn’t invent much new ideologically. They adopted the ongoing traditions of anti-Judaism, applied the nineteenth century race theories to them and added the bureaucratic systems and technology of the 20th century. In his book, History of Antisemitism, he clarified that the Final Solution was not a sudden eclipse of the ‘humane’ Europe. It was the result of centuries-long antisemitic indoctrination and persecution of the Jews. In that way Poliakov showed the dark Janus face of European history and culture.
“In another book he published in the 1980’s, Poliakov investigated the history of conspiracy theories. He showed that the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion followed a long tradition of false pamphlets and accusations. Poliakov concluded, ‘Credibility often prevails above the truth’. He also showed that if one starts with paranoid projections against the Jews, others will also become the target of hate. In the first part of the 19th Century the Jesuits were also accused of many hidden conspiracies.”
Bregstein remarks: “When I interviewed Poliakov in 1990, he said: ‘As it is not fitting today to be an antisemite openly, I think that anti-Israelism will greatly increase, based on a strong dose of antisemitism which can only express itself in that way.’ He added: ‘I wrote a number of times that the Jewish State has become the Jew among the nations. The anti-Zionism of the media could become an acceptable form of antisemitism because it seemingly addresses another problem. The violence of criticism about Israel hides an unconscious antisemitism, not only in the left, but mainly there.’
Bregstein concludes: “Poliakov recognized the growing danger of the new Islamic anti-Semitism, which was not predominant in the Arab world for centuries. While many major Christian churches finally rejected antisemitism, the same antisemitic obsessions are today cultivated in the Islamic world. Poliakov had the intention to write a new book about the subject, yet did not live to accomplish this. Now, twenty years after his death, his views show great foresight, and indications of the future.”