According to some sources, the concept of a Jewish conspiracy threatening Polish social order dates in print to the pamphlet Rok 3333 czyli sen niesłychany (The Year 3333, or the Incredible Dream) by Polish Enlightenment author and political activist Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, written in 1817 and published posthumously in 1858. Called "the first Polish work to develop on a large scale the concept of an organized Jewish conspiracy directly threatening the existing social structure," it describes a Warsaw of the future renamed Moszkopolis after its Jewish ruler. (See "Judeopolonia" article for more.)
At the end of the 19th century, Roman Dmowski's National Democratic party characterized Poland's Jews and other opponents of Dmowski's party as internal enemies who were behind international conspiracies inimical to Poland and who were agents of disorder, disruption and socialism. Historian Antony Polonsky writes that before World War I "The National Democrats brought to Poland a new and dangerous ideological fanaticism, dividing society into 'friends' and 'enemies' and resorting constantly to conspiratorial theories ("Jewish-Masonic plot"; "Żydokomuna"—"Jew-communism") to explain Poland's difficulties." Meanwhile, Jews played into National Democratic rhetoric by affirming themselves as alien through their participation in exclusively Jewish organizations such as the Bund and the Zionist movement.
The term Żydokomuna originated in connection with the Russian Bolshevik Revolution and targeted Jewish communists during the Polish-Soviet War. The emergence of the Soviet state was seen by many Poles as Russian imperialism in a new guise. The visibility of Jews in both the Soviet leadership and in the Polish Communist Party further heightened such fears. In some circles, Żydokomuna came to be seen as a prominent antisemitic stereotype expressing political paranoia.
Accusations of Żydokomuna accompanied the incidents of anti-Jewish violence in Poland during Polish–Soviet War of 1920, legitimized as self-defense against a people who were oppressors of the Polish nation. Some soldiers and officers in the Polish eastern territories shared the conviction that Jews were enemies of the Polish nation-state and were collaborators with Poland's enemies. Some of these troops treated all Jews as Bolsheviks. According to some sources, anticommunist sentiment was implicated in anti-Jewish violence and killings in a number of towns, including the Pinsk massacre, in which 35 Jews, taken as hostages, were murdered, and the Lwów pogrom during the Polish-Ukrainian War, in which 72 Jews were killed. Occasional instances of Jewish support for Bolshevism during the Polish-Soviet War served to heighten anti-Jewish sentiment.
The concept of Żydokomuna was widely illustrated in Polish interwar politics, including publications by the National Democrats and the Catholic Church that expressed anti-Jewish views. During World War II, the term Żydokomuna was made to resemble the Jewish-Bolshevism rhetoric of Nazi Germany, wartime Romania and other war-torn countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
The National Democrats (Endeks) emerged from the 1930 Polish elections to Sejm as the main opposition party to the Piłsudski government. Piłsudski had a liberal attitude towards minorities, and was respected by much of the Polish Jewish minority. In the midst of the Great Depression and in a climate of widespread nationalist and antisemitic sentiment, the Endeks expressed anti-Jewish sentiment to show their dissatisfaction with the government. The Endeks called for reducing the numbers of Jews in the country and for an economic boycott (launched in 1931); subsequently, outbreaks of violence occurred against Jews, particularly at universities. Following the death of Piłsudski in 1935, the Endeks moved towards seizing power in Poland, and began to focus more fully on the Jews. While there was a limited audience for Endek rhetoric, it was supplemented by the much larger circulation enjoyed by Catholic Church publications, which increasingly referred to the communist threat and the alleged "Godlessness" of the Jews. One such Church publication, the newspaper Samoobrona Narodu ("Self-Defense of the Nation," which meant defense against Jews), had a circulation of over one million.
In the period between the two world wars, Żydokomuna sentiment grew concurrently in Poland with the notion of the "criminal Jew." Statistics from the 1920s had indicated a Jewish crime rate that was well below the percentage of Jews in the population. However, a subsequent reclassification of how crime was recorded—which now included minor offenses—succeeded in reversing the trend, and Jewish criminal statistics showed an increase relative to the Jewish population by the 1930s. These statistics were seen by some Poles, particularly within the right-wing press, to confirm the image of the "criminal Jew"; additionally, political crimes by Jews were more closely scrutinized, enhancing fears of a criminal Żydokomuna.
Another important factor was the dominance of Jews in the leadership of the Communist Party of Poland (KPP). According to multiple sources, Jews were well represented in the Polish Communist Party. Notably, the party had strong Jewish representation at higher levels. Out of fifteen leaders of the KPP central administration in 1936, eight were Jews. Jews constituted 53% of the "active members" of the KPP, 75% of its "publication apparatus," 90% of the "international department for help to revolutionaries" and 100% of the "technical apparatus" of the Home Secretariat. In Polish court proceedings against communists between 1927 and 1936, 90% of the accused were Jews. In terms of membership, before its dissolution in 1938, 25% of KPP members were Jews; most urban KPP members were Jews—a substantial number, given an 8.7% Jewish minority in prewar Poland. Some historians, including Joseph Marcus, qualify these statistics, alleging that the KPP should not be considered a "Jewish party," as it was in fact in opposition to traditional Jewish economic and national interests. The Jews supporting KPP saw themselves as international communists and rejected much of the Jewish culture and tradition. Nonetheless, the KPP, along with the Polish Socialist Party, was notable for its decisive stand against antisemitism. According to Jaff Schatz's summary of Jewish participation in the prewar Polish communist movement:
Throughout the whole interwar period, Jews constituted a very important segment of the Communist movement. According to Polish sources and to Western estimates, the proportion of Jews in the KPP [the Communist Party of Poland] was never lower than 22 percent. In the larger cities, the percentage of Jews in the KPP often exceeded 50 percent and in smaller cities, frequently over 60 percent. Given this background, a respondent's statement that "in small cities like ours, almost all Communists were Jews," does not appear to be a gross exaggeration.
According to some bodies of research, voting patterns in Poland's parliamentary elections in the 1920s revealed that Jewish support for the communists was proportionally less than their representation in the total population. In this view, most support for Poland's communist and pro-Soviet parties came not from Jews, but rather from Ukrainian and Orthodox Belarusian voters, though some of these may have been of Jewish ancestry. Schatz notes that even if post-war claims by Jewish communists that 40% of the 266,528 communist votes on several lists of front organizations at the 1928 Sejm election came from the Jewish community were true (a claim that one source describes as "almost certainly an exaggeration"), this would amount to no more than 5% of Jewish votes for the communists, indicating the Jewish population at large was "far from sympathetic to communism." "Even if Jews were prominent in the Communist Party leadership, this prominence did not translate into support at the mass level" wrote Jeffrey Kopstein and Jason Wittenberg, who analyzed the communist vote in interwar Poland. Only 7% of Jewish voters supported communists at the polls in 1928, while 93% of them supported non-communists (with 49% voting for Piłsudski). The pro-Soviet communist party received most of its support from Belarusians whose separatism was backed by the Soviet Union. In Łwów, the CPP received 4% of the vote (of which 35% was Jewish), in Warsaw 14% (33% Jewish), and in Wilno 0.02% (36% Jewish). However, in terms of overall numbers, CPP was "the Jews' least favorite political grouping" during the 1928 elections. It was the disproportionately large representation of Jews in the communist leadership that led to Żydokomuna sentiment being widely expressed in contemporary Polish politics.
Following the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, resulting in the partition of Polish territory between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (USSR), Jewish communities in eastern Poland welcomed with some relief the Soviet occupation, which they saw as a "lesser of two evils" than openly antisemitic Nazi Germany. The image of Jews among the Belorussian and Ukrainian minorities waving red flags to welcome Soviet troops had great symbolic meaning in Polish memory of the period. Young Jews joined or organized communist militias, others organized a new, communist, temporary self-government. Such militias often disarmed and arrested Polish soldiers, policemen and other authority figures; often, Poles and the Polish states were mocked. In the days and weeks following the events of September 1939, the Soviets engaged in a harsh policy of Sovietization. Polish schools and other institutions were closed, Poles were dismissed from jobs of authority, often arrested and deported, and replaced with non-Polish personnel.
According to some sources, the Poles resented their change of fortunes because, before the war, Poles had a privileged position. Then, in the space of a few days, Jews and other minorities from within Poland occupied positions in the Soviet occupation government—such as teachers, civil servants and engineers—that they allegedly had trouble achieving under the Polish government. What to the majority of Poles was occupation and betrayal was, to some Jews—especially Polish communists of Jewish descent who emerged from the underground—an opportunity for revolution and retribution. There were even some extreme cases of Jewish participation in massacres of ethnic Poles such as Massacre of Brzostowica Mała. Such behavior affronted non-Jewish Poles.
Such events implanted in the Polish collective memory the image of Jewish crowds greeting the invading Red Army as liberators, and willing collaborators, further strengthening Żydokomuna sentiment that held Jews responsible for collaboration with the Soviet authorities in importing communism into divided Poland. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, widespread notion of Judeo-Communism, combined with the German Nazi encouragement for expression of antisemitic attitudes, may have been a principal cause of massacres of Jews by gentile Poles in Poland's northeastern Łomża province in the summer of 1941, including the massacre at Jedwabne according to Joanna B. Michlic. However, the responsibility of the gentile Poles for the Jedwabne pogrom has been highly disputed, with some sources stating that the Germans were the principal authors of the massacre.
Though some Jews had initially benefited from the effects of the Soviet invasion, this occupation soon began to strike at the Jewish population as well; independent Jewish organizations were abolished and Jewish activists were arrested. Hundreds of thousands of Jews who had fled to the Soviet sector were given a choice of Soviet citizenship or returning to the German occupied zone. The majority chose the latter, and instead found themselves deported to the Soviet Union, where, ironically, 300,000 would escape the Holocaust. While there was Polish Jewish representation in the London-based Polish government in exile, relations between the Jews in Poland and Polish resistance in occupied Poland were strained, and Jewish armed groups had difficulty joining the official Polish resistance umbrella organization, the Home Army (in Polish, Armia Krajowa or AK). Some Jewish groups (such as the Bielski partisans) robbed local Polish peasants for food, also performing massacres and crimes like Naliboki massacre in 1943 ; in turn, the Polish underground often labeled those armed Jewish groups as "bandits" and "robbers." Jewish partisans instead more often joined the Armia Ludowa of the communist Polish Workers' Party and Soviet guerrilla groups, which increasingly clashed with Polish guerillas, contributing to yet another perception of Jews working with the Soviets against the Poles.
The Soviet-backed communist government was as harsh towards non-communist Jewish cultural, political and social institutions as they were towards Polish, banning all alternative parties. Thousands of Jews returned from exile in the Soviet Union, but as their number decreased with legalized aliyah to Israel, the PZPR members formed a much larger percentage of the remaining Jewish population. Among them were a number of Jewish communists who played a highly visible role in the unpopular communist government and its security apparatus.
Hilary Minc, the third in command in Bolesław Bierut's political triumvirate of Stalinist leaders, became the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Industry, Industry and Commerce, and the Economic Affairs. He was personally assigned by Stalin first to Industry and than to Transportation ministries of Poland. His wife, Julia, became the Editor-in-Chief of the monopolized Polish Press Agency. Minister Jakub Berman – Stalin's right hand in Poland until 1953 – held the Political propaganda and Ideology portfolios. He was responsible for the largest and most notorious secret police in the history of the People's Republic of Poland, the Ministry of Public Security (UB), employing 33,200 permanent security officers, one for every 800 Polish citizens.
The new government's hostility to the wartime Polish Government in Exile and its World War II underground resistance – accused by the media of being nationalist, reactionary and antisemitic, and persecuted by Berman – further strengthened Żydokomuna sentiment to the point where in the popular consciousness Jewish Bolshevism was seen as having conquered Poland. It was in this context, reinforced by the immediate post-war lawlessness, that Poland experienced an unprecedented wave of anti-Jewish violence (of which most notable was the Kielce pogrom).
The Polish-American historian Marek Jan Chodakiewicz stressed that after the Soviet takeover of Poland in 1945 violence had developed amid postwar retribution and counter-retribution, exacerbated by the breakdown of law and order and a Polish anti-Communist insurgency. According to Chodakiewicz, some Jewish "avengers" endeavored to extract justice from the Poles who harmed Jews during the War and in some cases Jews attempted to reclaim property confiscated by the Nazis. These phenomena further reinforced Żydokomuna sentiment. Chodakiewicz noted that after World War II, the Jews were not only victims, but also aggressors. He describes cases in which Jews cooperated with the Polish secret police, denouncing Poles and members of the Home Army. Chodakiewicz noted that some 3,500 to 6,500 Poles died in late 1940s because of Jewish denunciations or were killed by Jews themselves. Encouraged by their Soviet advisors, many Jewish functionaries and government officials adopted new Polish-sounding names hoping to find less acrimony among their adversaries. "This practice often backfired and led to widespread speculation about 'hidden Jews' for decades to come."
The combination of the effects of the Holocaust and postwar antisemitism led to a dramatic mass emigration of Polish Jewry in the immediate postwar years. Of the estimated 240,000 Jews in Poland in 1946 (of whom 136,000 were refugees from the Soviet Union, most on their way to the West), only 90,000 remained a year later. The surviving Jews of Poland found themselves victims of the explosive postwar political situation. The image of the Jew as a threatening outsider took on a new form as antisemitism was now linked to the imposition of communist rule in Poland, including rumors of massive collaboration of Jews with the unpopular new regime and the Soviet Union. Of the fewer than 80,000 Jews who remained in Poland, many had political reasons for doing so. Consequently, – as noted by historian Michael C. Steinlauf – "their group profile ever more closely resembled the Żydokomuna." Regarding this period, Andre Gerrits wrote in his study of Żydokomuna, that even though for the first time in history they had entered the top echelons of power in considerable numbers, "The first post-war decade was a mixed experience for the Jews of East Central Europe. The new communist order offered unprecedented opportunities as well as unforeseen dangers."
During Stalinism, the preferred Soviet policy was to keep sensitive posts in the hands of non-Poles. As a result, "all or nearly all of the directors (of the widely despised Ministry of Public Security of Poland) were Jewish" as noted by Polish journalist Teresa Torańska among others. A recent study by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance showed that out of 450 people in director positions in the Ministry between 1944 and 1954, 167 (37.1%) were of Jewish ethnicity, while Jews made up only 1% of the post-war Polish population. While Jews were overrepresented in various Polish communist organizations, including the security apparatus, relative to their percentage of the general population, the vast majority of Jews did not participate in the Stalinist apparatus, and indeed most were not supportive of communism. Krzysztof Szwagrzyk has quoted Jan T. Gross, who argued that many Jews who worked for the communist party cut their ties with their culture – Jewish, Polish or Russian – and tried to represent the interests of international communism only, or at least that of the local communist government.
It is difficult to assess when the Polish Jews who had volunteered to serve or remain in the postwar communist security forces began to realize, however, what Soviet Jews had realized earlier, that under Stalin, as Arkady Vaksberg put it: "if someone named Rabinovich was in charge of a mass execution, he was perceived not simply as a Cheka boss but as a Jew..."
Among the notable Jewish officials of the Polish secret police and security services were Minister Jakub Berman, Joseph Stalin's right hand in the PRL; Vice-minister Roman Romkowski (head of MBP), Dir. Julia Brystiger (5th Dept.), Dir. Anatol Fejgin (10th Dept. or the notorious Special Bureau), deputy Dir. Józef Światło (10th Dept.), Col. Józef Różański among others. Światło – "a torture master" – defected to the West in 1953, while Romkowski and Różański would find themselves among the Jewish scapegoats for Polish Stalinism in the political upheavals following Stalin's death, both sentenced to 15 years in prison on 11 November 1957 for gross violations of human rights law and abuse of power,but released 1964.
In 1956, over 9,000 socialist and populist politicians were released from prison. A few Jewish functionaries of the security forces were brought to court in the process of de-Stalinization. According to Heather Laskey, it was not a coincidence that the high ranking Stalinist security officers put on trial by Gomułka were Jews. Władysław Gomułka was captured by Światło, imprisoned by Romkowski in 1951 and interrogated by both, him and Fejgin. Gomułka escaped physical torture only as a close associate of Joseph Stalin, and was released three years later. According to some sources, the categorization of the security forces as a Jewish institution—as disseminated in the post-war anticommunist press at various times—was rooted in Żydokomuna: the belief that the secret police was predominantly Jewish became one of the factors contributing to the post-war view of Jews as agents of the security forces.
The Żydokomuna sentiment reappeared at times of severe political and socioeconomic crises in Stalinist Poland. After the death of Polish United Workers' Party leader Bolesław Bierut in 1956, a de-Stalinization and a subsequent battle among rival factions looked to lay blame for the excesses of the Stalin era. According to L.W. Gluchowski: "Poland’s communists had grown accustomed to placing the burden of their own failures to gain sufficient legitimacy among the Polish population during the entire communist period on the shoulders of Jews in the party." (See: above.) As described in one historical account, the party hardline Natolin faction "used anti-Semitism as a political weapon and found an echo both in the party apparatus and in society at large, where traditional stereotypes of an insidious Jewish cobweb of political influence and economic gain resurfaced, but now in the context of 'Judeo-communism,' the Żydokomuna." "Natolin" leader Zenon Nowak entered the concept of "Judeo-Stalinization" and placed the blame for the party's failures, errors and repression on "the Jewish apparatchiks." Documents from this period chronicle antisemitic attitudes within Polish society, including beatings of Jews, loss of employment, and persecution. These outbursts of antisemitic sentiment from both Polish society and within the rank and file of the ruling party spurred the exodus of some 40,000 Polish Jews between 1956 and 1958.
Żydokomuna sentiment was reignited by Polish state propaganda as part of the 1968 Polish political crisis. Political turmoil of the late 1960s—exemplified in the West by increasingly violent protests against the Vietnam War—was closely associated in Poland with the events of the Prague spring which began on 5 January 1968, raising hopes of democratic reforms among the intelligentsia. The crisis culminated in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on 20 August 1968. The repressive government of Władysław Gomułka responded to student protests and strike actions across Poland (Warsaw, Kraków) with mass arrests, and by launching an anti-Zionist campaign within the communist party on the initiative of Interior Minister Mieczysław Moczar (aka Mikołaj Diomko, known for his xenophobic and antisemitic attitude). The officials of Jewish descent were blamed "for a major part, if not all, of the crimes and horrors of the Stalinist period."
The campaign, which began in 1967, was a well-guided response to the Six-Day War and the subsequent break-off by the Soviets of all diplomatic relations with Israel. Polish factory workers were forced to publicly denounce Zionism. As the interior minister Mieczysław Moczar's nationalist "Partisan" faction became increasingly influential in the communist party, infighting within the Polish communist party led one faction to again make scapegoats of the remaining Polish Jews, attempting to redirect public anger at them. After Israel's victory in the war, the Polish government, following the Soviet lead, launched an antisemitic campaign under the guise of "anti-Zionism," with both Moczar's and Party Secretary Władysław Gomułka's factions playing leading roles. However, the campaign did not resonate with the general public, because most Poles saw similarities between Israel's fight for survival and Poland's past struggles for independence. Many Poles felt pride in the success of the Israeli military, which was dominated by Polish Jews. The slogan, "Our Jews beat the Soviet Arabs" was very popular among the Poles, but contrary to the desire of the communist government.
The government's antisemitic policy yielded more successes the next year. In March 1968, a wave of unrest among students and intellectuals, unrelated to the Arab-Israeli War, swept Poland (the events became known as the March 1968 events). The campaign served multiple purposes, most notably the suppression of protests, which were branded as inspired by a "fifth column" of Zionists; it was also used as a tactic in a political struggle between Gomułka and Moczar, both of whom played the Jewish card in a nationalist appeal. The campaign resulted in an actual expulsion from Poland in two years, of thousands of Jewish professionals, party officials and state security functionaries. Ironically, the Moczar's faction failed to topple Gomułka with their propaganda efforts.
As historian Dariusz Stola notes, the anti-Jewish campaign combined century-old conspiracy theories, recycled antisemitic claims and classic communist propaganda. Regarding the tailoring of the Żydokomuna sentiment to communist Poland, Stola suggested:
Paradoxically, probably the most powerful slogan of the communist propaganda in March was the accusation that the Jews were zealous communists. They were blamed for a major part, if not all, of the crimes and horrors of the Stalinist period. The myth of Judeo-Bolshevism had been well known in Poland since the Russian revolution and the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920, yet its 1968 model deserves interest as a tool of communist propaganda. This accusation exploited and developed the popular stereotype of Jewish communism to purify communism: the Jews were the dark side of communism; what was wrong in communism was due to them.
The communist elites used the "Jews as Zionists" allegations to push for a purge of Jews from scientific and cultural institutions, publishing houses, and national television and radio stations. Ultimately, the communist government sponsored an antisemitic campaign that resulted in most remaining Jews being forced to leave Poland. Moczar's "Partisan" faction promulgated an ideology that has been described as an "eerie reincarnation" of the views of the pre-World War II National Democracy Party, and even at times exploiting Żydokomuna sentiment.
Stola also notes that one of the effects of the 1968 antisemitic campaign was to thoroughly discredit the communist government in the eyes of the public. As a result, when the concept of the Jew as a "threatening other" was employed in the 1970s and 1980s in Poland by the communist government in its attacks on the political opposition, including the Solidarity trade-union movement and the Workers' Defence Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników, or KOR), it was completely unsuccessful.
Historiography of Żydokomuna remains controversial. Works such as those by Jan T. Gross have polarized debate over anti-Jewish violence in Poland, with Gross and his supporters characterizing Żydokomuna as an antisemitic cliché while to some of his critics Żydokomuna was a fact of history. According to Gross's supporters, the strength of the Żydokomuna belief stemmed from age-old Polish fears of Russia and from anti-communist and antisemitic attitudes. Schatz writes that "because antisemitism was one of the main forces that drew Jews to the Communist movement, Żydokomuna meant turning the effects of antisemitism into a cause of its further increase." Żydokomuna boosted antisemitism by amplifying ideas about an alleged "Jewish world conspiracy." According to this thinking, Bolshevism and communism became "the modern means to the long-attempted Jewish political conquest of Poland; the Żydokomuna conspirators would finally succeed in establishing a 'Judeo-Polonia.'" Subscribers to this theory maintain that there was a strong tradition of antisemitism which provided a base for Żydokomuna to feed upon. These sources claim that many Poles likely exaggerated Jewish participation in the Soviet occupation because a Jewish presence in the government apparatus was a novel phenomenon in pre-war Poland. Critics of these sources, such as Niall Ferguson, claim that much of the anti-Jewish sentiment was justified due to the disproportionate influence of Jewish communists in carrying out Soviet policies. According to Ferguson, "The entire Polish population adopted a negative attitude towards the Jews because of their blatant cooperation with the Bolsheviks and their hostility against non-Jews."
Historian Omer Bartov has written that "recent writings and pronouncements seem to indicate that the myth of the Żydokomuna (Jews as communists) has not gone away" as evidenced by the writings of younger Polish scholars such as Marek Chodakiewicz, contending Jewish disloyalty to Poland during the Soviet occupation. Historians Joanna B. Michlic and Laurence Weinbaum charge that post-1989 Polish historiography has seen a revival of "an ethnonationalist historical approach". According to Michlic, among some Polish historians, "[myth of żydokomuna] served the purpose of rationalizing and explaining the participation of ethnic Poles in killing their Jewish neighbors and, thus, in minimizing the criminal nature of the murder."