[From Charles King's post at The Wilson Quarterly]
I wrote last Sunday about the book I was reading, Charles King’s Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams. I finished it yesterday morning. Still awaiting me when I wrote the post were chapters on Odessan life in the final years under the tsar, during World War I and the revolution, the first two decades of the Soviet Union and Stalin, and the Romanian occupation from 1941 to 1944.
Once Germany broke the German-Soviet Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in 1941 and invaded the Soviet Union, it invited Axis ally Romania to head into the regions to Romania’s northeast along the Black Sea. King’s chapter on the Romanian occupation, Romanian anti-Semitism, and the removal of Jews from Odessa is the climax of the book. A horrific tale, as one would imagine, but a fascinating one as well. Also of interest are subsequent chapters on Odessa in the postwar Soviet Union, Odessa as part of post-Soviet Ukraine, and the rich Odessan-infused community in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
I had an unexpected sense of familiarity when I read a passage in the chapter on the Romanian years. King first explains that
Odessans began denouncing each other almost as soon as the Romanian cavalry trotted down a deserted and sandbagged Richilieu Street. … The demand to unmask hidden Bolsheviks before they could stage further terrorist attacks was greater than ever, and the supply of Odessans eager to avoid suspicion themselves probably spiked as well. After all, it was hard to have survived the 1930s without embracing to some degree the Soviet system, and in the topsy-turvy world of war and occupation, every virtue conjured from necessity was now a vice waiting to be revealed. It really was like stepping through the looking glass.
This leads into a story of two men’s dueling denunciations, after which we come upon the following passage:
For plenty of Odessans, the way to demonstrate a healthy sense of civic duty was by stepping up and being of use in the maintenance of law and order, the discovery of underground Soviet agents, and especially the exposure of hidden Jews.
Alexianu’s administration saw all Jewish Odessans, at least in theory, as Soviet agents. … the search for hidden Jews was not simply a matter of what would now be called ethnic cleansing. It was also, from the perspective of the occupier and many of the occupied, a matter of security.
By no means do I wish to compare early twenty-first century America to Odessa under the Romanians, but really, is this familiar or what? Just replace Jewish Odessans with Muslim Americans and Soviet agents with Al Qaeda agents. Yes, this is an enormous stretch, but still. What is one to make of our airport security theater apparatus? Of our data collection? And so on.
Just yesterday I read an article about the aldermen in Brookfield, Wisconsin, just outside Milwaukee, approving construction of a mosque. I know I should focus on this positive news — it was approved — but I couldn’t get the following portion of the report out of my mind:
Brookfield resident Beverly Kuntzsch told aldermen she was concerned about public safety. She said the New York Police Department surveyed 100 mosques nationwide in 2007 and found substantial ties to terrorism and “Jihad.”
“How will you monitor the literature or the preaching/teaching of violence that’s going on in the mosques?” Kuntzsch asked.
We’re not wartime Odessa, or anything remotely like it. But the security apparatus grows. It’s big business, for one thing, with bipartisan government support.
Where are we headed?
By the way, Charles King’s post at The Wilson Quarterly a year ago, from which the photo at the top is taken, is short and provides a good overview of what his book is about. See also Timothy Snyder’s review, which King’s post links to, again at The Wilson Quarterly. (Snyder is the Yale historian whose book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin I read, and wrote about, a few months ago.)