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Members of the Ukrainian military walk through debris and destroyed Russian military vehicles on a street on April 6 in Bucha, Ukraine.Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Jeffrey Veidlinger is a professor of history and Judaic studies and the director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. His most recent book, In the Midst of Civilized Europe, is on the short list for the 2022 Lionel Gelber Prize, presented by the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and Foreign Policy magazine.

The evidence of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine are shocking and disturbing. They are also familiar. Newly discovered mass graves remind us of the horrors Ukraine endured during the Holocaust and the Holodomor, the famine of 1932-33. But the brutality we are seeing now is even more reminiscent of the civil war that followed the collapse of the tsarist empire and the Bolshevik Revolution.

The legacy of that violence laid the seeds for the systematic mass murders of the Holocaust that began 20 years later in the same locales. We must ensure that the violence of today does not fester into more bloodshed tomorrow.

Between 1918 and 1921, 40,000 Jewish civilians were murdered in targeted violence in more than a thousand pogroms across about 500 locales in what is now Ukraine. Seventy thousand more subsequently died of starvation, exposure or injuries sustained during the violence. Approximately 600,000 Jews were forced to flee across international borders, and millions more were displaced internally.

In a typical pogrom of that era, hungry, demoralized and ill-prepared soldiers and guerrilla fighters looted Jewish shops and homes in newly occupied towns, searching for food, liquor and clothing. Then they set upon the Jewish population, assaulting them, raping them, torturing them and murdering them. On at least one occasion, local peasant insurgents forced the town’s Jews into a synagogue and burned it to the ground.

The names of the small towns – in Yiddish they are called “shtetls” – in which those pogroms occurred are once again in the headlines: In Trostyanets, where recent reports tell of civilians being executed for having photos of Russian tanks on their phones, 337 Jews were slaughtered by Ukrainian forces in May, 1919, on suspicion of sympathizing with the Bolsheviks; in Hostomel, where Mayor Yuri Pylyplo was recently murdered while delivering aid, his body then reportedly booby-trapped by Russian soldiers, local bandits plundered Jewish homes and murdered 66 unarmed Jewish civilians in 1919. Today the victims are different, but the dynamics of violence are the same.

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Like President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, the Ukrainian state that was established in the wake of the Russian revolutions fought rampant corruption, worked to unify the country and sought to join the European community of nations. It promised equal treatment for all minorities living within Ukraine and even established a cabinet-level Ministry of Jewish Affairs with an elected representative of the Jewish people.

But when it was invaded by Russian forces – the Bolshevik Reds from the east and the old regime Whites from the south – the Ukrainian government was forced into a defensive war. All sides committed atrocities, primarily directed against the Jewish population, which was concentrated in urban enclaves in what was otherwise a largely rural society. The Russians accused the Jews of siding with the Ukrainians; the Ukrainians blamed them for sympathizing with the Russians. The Bolsheviks attacked them as capitalist shop owners and merchants; the ruling classes branded them Bolsheviks.

When the Soviet government secured control over the region in 1921, it punished the individual perpetrators of violence, but then expanded the blame to the entire nation of Ukraine, brandishing ordinary peasants as criminals and punishing the region with forced grain requisitions that led to a famine, the Holodomor, killing millions. Many ordinary Ukrainians, for their part, continued to blame the Jews for the ills of communism.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees fled into European capitals, where right-wing parties such as the Nazis gained popular support by accusing the Jews of importing Bolshevism and spreading disease.

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, and initiated the mass shootings that signalled the onset of the Holocaust, they drew upon existing language and patterns from the previous conflict. Each bloodletting facilitated the next.

Today, we can learn from this history to ensure a more peaceful future.

First, the current violence must be stopped. In 1919, French warships cruised the Black Sea, and British Sopwith planes were stationed near the Caspian, but the Great Powers refrained from intervening to stop the atrocities for fear of alienating their Russian allies. Today, the nuclear threat may rule out increased military intervention, but foreign governments must do everything possible to ensure the safety of civilians.

Second, those individuals responsible for committing war crimes must be prosecuted through trustworthy courts. In the 1920s, many of the most egregious perpetrators of pogroms went unpunished, whereas innocent peasants were hastily sentenced to death by revolutionary tribunals or murdered by vigilantes. Plundered property was never restored, and the perception of arbitrary legal processes failed to convince the population that justice had been served. Today, frozen Russian assets should be used for Ukrainian reparation payments, and international investigations need to find and convict those responsible for committing atrocities – not just political and military leaders, but also ordinary soldiers.

Third, entire nations must not be demonized for crimes committed in their name. Those responsible – and only those responsible – should be prosecuted. The imposition of collective punishment must not become a pretext for the next conflict.

Fourth, refugees must be treated with dignity, respect and generosity to avoid a crisis that becomes a rallying point for nativist and illiberal movements in Europe. Those who have been forced out of Ukraine today must be housed and fed and provided the opportunity to work and study until they can return.

Finally, the truth of what happened must be established through rigorous investigation and impartial analysis. We can debate the causes and the implications, but a baseline narrative can help with the long and painful process of rebuilding and reconciliation.

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