Scott Ury, Barricades and Banners: The Revolution of 1905 and the Transformation of Warsaw Jewry Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Edited by Aron Rodrique and Steven J. Zipperstein. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. Pp. xxii + 415.

Scott Ury has written a fascinating book, long in coming, that contributes to a number of different discussions among historians of modern Jewish politics, Polish-Jewish relations, and the role of city of Warsaw in the transformation of political culture and discourse in the early twentieth century.  Ury’s premise is that the Jewish encounter with modernity occurred in the heart of modernity itself, the big city, and not through the conduits of religious and intellectual change or community institutions (as posited by Jacob Katz and Simon Dubnow, respectively[1]), but through the lived experience of ordinary Jews, many of them recent arrivals to a rapidly developing metropolis.  As Jews encountered, struggled with, and attempted to master this dynamic and chaotic world, revolution in the Russian Empire created conditions for the emergence of a public sphere and participatory politics whereby a ‘discourse on order’ promoted the rise and ultimate victory of Jewish nationalists over their socialist and liberal rivals.  For Ury the nation is ‘a bound, defined and controlled intellectual, political and cultural construct’ that has been transformed ‘from an unbound, undefined, and threatening myriad of practically incomprehensible phenomena’ resulting from the dizzying and disorienting encounters of individuals with the hazards of modern urban life (17) .  In other words, this drive for definition and discipline characteristic of modern nationalist movements responded to ‘the individual’s search for order and need for belonging’ in the modern city (211).  Since the same could be said of the development of Polish political culture in the shared urban space, Ury views Polish and Jewish histories in Warsaw as parallel, interrelated and interacting parts of a larger cultural-political phenomenon which ultimately divided the city’s residents into two separate camps, those of ‘Poles’ and ‘Jews.’  This reviewer is essentially convinced by Ury’s arguments, which are supported by evidence drawn from an extraordinary range of archival and other primary sources in several languages.

The book begins with a background chapter on the history of Warsaw to 1905 and on the Revolution of 1905 throughout the Russian Empire, the latter intended mainly for the uninitiated.  Unfortunately, the brief summary of the history of Warsaw’s Jewish community before 1905 contained in this chapter notes only the dynamic growth of the Jewish community in the emerging metropolis, but has nothing to say about residential patterns in the city and how migration affected these patterns.  Such information would be far more relevant than a recitation of basic developments in 1905 in Russia, particularly since Ury devotes a great deal of attention to the Jewish confrontation with modernity, and to Jewish politics, in the Warsaw street.

Ury’s second chapter, a discussion of the ‘moral panic’ created by and reflected in the emerging Jewish daily press in turn-of-the-century Warsaw, is particularly strong and complements other recent studies.[2]  In the daily press, Jewish Warsaw is revealed as a city of strangers resulting from urbanization, in-migration and anonymity.  Women, children, and young male migrants were frequently cast as ‘dupes’ of many forces of social abandon and moral decay.  As in the Polish press, the white slave trade, missing children, rampant criminality, and unidentified corpses are regularly featured, along with tales of fraud, counterfeiting and pornography.  Readers of boulevard press, regardless of nationality, were both fascinated and frightened by the resulting image of Warsaw.  What separates Ury from others who have looked at these issues, however, is his discussion of their impact on traditional community institutions.  Violent crime, in particular, undermined these institutions by showing their growing irrelevance as a social and political force ‘that few seemed to fear’ (81).  Into the breach created by the perceived failures of these institutions and Russian government authorities to maintain order stepped the Jewish daily newspapers, Ury argues, and their ‘central role as a lifeline of information and organization would facilitate a series of fundamental changes in the very nature of community and belonging in Warsaw and throughout eastern Europe’ (75).

The influence of the press in shaping Jewish national politics is far more apparent after the post-October Manifesto liberalization, and particularly in 1906 and 1907, than during the year of revolutionary upheaval itself, when the number of legally published titles remained few.  In the meantime, Jews became attracted to revolutionary politics and organizations, also as ‘a direct result of the larger confrontation with life in the modern city’ (91), according to Uri.  These organizations served as ‘surrogate communities’ for many young Jews, and Ury gives a fascinating discussion of the revolutionary culture of safe houses, code names, language and holidays.  Ury also points out the ideological fluidity characteristic of the membership of revolutionary organizations and their failure (particularly that of the Bund) to create modern political organizations that commanded widespread popular support.  Basically, the Bund and other revolutionary organizations to which Jews belonged, including the PPS and SDKPiL, failed to adapt in a timely fashion to the new rules of the game and new political conditions created by the October Manifesto, which made it increasingly difficult for Jews and Poles to find a common language, both literally and figuratively, even where they may have found common political ground.

The public sphere that emerged and expanded between 1904 and 1907 may have ‘provided the foundation for a new type of community and new style of politics in the city’ (141), but it was also one that further separated Jews from Poles.  In the case of the former, that sphere was dependent on Yiddish.  Taking his cue from Jürgen Habermas,[3] Ury focuses on coffeehouses prior to the October Manifesto and Yiddish theaters following it to demonstrate the connection between institutions of the public sphere, popular culture and the rise of mass politics in Warsaw.  While the coffeehouse may have suitable for meetings of organizations like the Bund, the Yiddish theatre and especially Yiddish newspapers were far more effective in mobilizing the Jewish community as a whole, for example, in support of the victims of the June 1906 Białystok pogrom.  Before 1905, Ury notes, such an action would have been organized and led by Warsaw’s traditional gmina institutions.

The central role of the press in Ury’s story is again highlighted in his fifth chapter on the elections of 1906 and 1907 to the First and Second Russian State Dumas, which completed the process of the ‘politicization of ethnicity’ in Warsaw.  While others, including this reviewer, have focused on the 1912 elections to the Fourth Duma and subsequent developments as the culmination of this process,[4] Ury essentially argues that the transformation of the ‘bourgeois’ public sphere into a national one had occurred five years earlier, with the very advent of electoral politics in Warsaw and the participation of Jews, and Poles, in them.  On the Jewish side, it is noteworthy that 42,000 adult eligible adult male Jewish voters now suddenly became eligible to participate in Warsaw’s Duma elections, compared to a mere 2,800 Jews with voting rights in gmina board elections.  Secondly, the decision of revolutionary parties, including the Bund, to boycott the elections to the First Duma limited their influence in Warsaw as Jewish politics entered an area of public assembly and large-scale action.  Initial confusion among Zionists by the prospect of participatory politics created a vacuum that enabled the Jewish press, a vocal proponent of Jewish participation, to shift roles—from that of a public forum which provided information about voting to that of a ‘political master’ that instructed readers how to vote. 

An anomaly in this story, however, is the Jewish Electoral Committee which, led by members of the established community elite, dominated electoral activity among Jews in Warsaw, especially in the elections to the First Duma, and whose strategy of alliance with Polish progressives was supported by the Jewish daily press.  Ury sees this development as something of a liberal interlude, between socialist prelude and nationalist crescendo, yet it is interesting to note that the leaders of traditional Jewish community institutions, which supposedly had been undermined by their growing irrelevance in the face of modern urban conditions and whose authority had been eroded, nevertheless find themselves playing a central role—modern and liberal—during a crucial time of democratic transition.  This, it seems, is evidence of the adaptability of these traditional institutions to conditions of modernity, rather than their obsolescence, something that Brian Porter-Szűcs has argued in regard to the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.[5]

Nonetheless, Ury makes a convincing argument that the defeats suffered by the Jewish-Progressive coalition at the hands of the Polish National Democrats in both elections, which witnessed the rise of political antisemitism on the Polish side and an assault on Polish liberals as a philosemitic and crypto-Jews, would create a permanent division between Warsaw’s Polish and Jewish communities.  As a consequence mutually exclusive and irritating nationalisms would achieve discursive victory, above all in the mass-circulation press, where they dominated the definition of the nation, patriotism, loyalty and treason.  During elections to the Second Duma in particular, Ury shows how the entire political arena became saturated with national language and symbols, and how the strategies of intimidation and threats of physical violence became part of Warsaw’s political landscape, five years before the 1912 elections and the first major anti-Jewish boycott in Warsaw.

Having taken us this far, however, Ury comes to some rather unexpected conclusions which seem to contradict the logic of his accumulated evidence.  After earlier documenting the role of the Bialystok pogrom in the mobilization of the Jewish community, he argues that it and the pogrom in Siedlce three months later would lead to a ‘retreat from the public sphere and back to the private realm’ (263)—this before the Second Duma elections, which were contested by more and new political actors, including the Bund!  Ury provides no evidence of this retreat or any discussion of the Third Duma elections toward the end of 1907 where that retreat might be visible, especially as a result of the Russian state’s effective reduction of the electorate.  Surely, Uri would agree that retreat of both Jews and Poles from revolutionary politics and the failed liberal strategies of electoral alliance are not synonymous with retreat from a public sphere ever more dominated by the daily press after 1907.  Moreover, as Ury himself has demonstrated, the victory of ‘angry and exclusive nationalism’ by 1907 was not the result of retreat from the public sphere, but of its capture by political organizations that best responded politically to the era’s social and cultural imperatives of order and discipline.

Aside from this regrettable confusion at the end of his book which, if anything, points to the need for additional research, Ury has produced an outstanding work of scholarship.  He has raised a number of important questions into which he provides valuable insights that will force others to rethink their perspectives on key issues related to the evolution of political culture in early twentieth-century Poland and its periodization.  By focusing on the epicenter of this change, the dynamically developing metropolis, Ury’s study of Warsaw joins that of Cracow by Nathaniel Wood[6] as a pioneering contribution to the still undeveloped scholarship on the city in modern Poland.  Above all, Barricades and Banners highlights the similarities in the development of Jewish and Polish political cultures, which can only be viewed in tandem as common responses to the challenges of modernity posed by the big city, if they are to be fully understood.  As much as Jews and Poles have emphasized their differences, then and now, the popular political ascendency of integral nationalism coming out of the 1905 revolution is something they share. 

Robert Blobaum
University of West Virginia              

[1]Jacob Katz, Transition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages, trans. Bernard Dov Cooperman (New York, 1993) and Simon Dubnow, Nationalism and History: Essays on Old and New Judaism, ed. Koppel S. Pinson (Philadelphia, 1958).

[2]See Keely Stauter-Halsted, ‘Moral Panic and the Prostitute in Partitioned Poland: Middle-Class Respectability in Defense of the Modern Nation,’ Slavic Review 68, no. 3(2009): 557-581 and Robert Blobaum, ‘‘Panika moralna’ w polskim wydaniu. Dewiacje seksualne i wizerunki przestępczości żydowskiej na początku XX wieku’ in Kobieta i rewolucja obyczajowa. Społeczno-kulturowe aspekty seksualności. Wiek XIX i XX, ed. Anna Żarnowska and Andrzej Szwarc (Warsaw, 2006): 265-276.

[3]Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA, 1996).

[4]See Stephen D. Corrsin, ‘The Jews, the Left, and the State Duma Elections in Warsaw in 1912,’ Polin 9 (1996): 45-54 and Robert Blobaum, ‘The Politics of Antisemitism in Fin-de-Siècle Warsaw,’ Journal of Modern History 73, 2 (June 2001): 275-306.

[5]Brian Porter-Szűcs, Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity and Poland (Oxford, 2011).

[6]Nathaniel D. Wood, Becoming Metropolitan: Urban Selfhood and the Making of Modern Cracow (Dekalb, IL, 2011).