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The Iron Wall

Lenni Brenner

The Iron Wall

6. Pact with the Devil – Simon Petliura


Resignation from the WZO

If it was Jabotinsky who stalked Weizmann and the Executive majority at the January 1923 Actions Committee, he did not lack critics of his own policies, particularly his relations with the Ukrainian pogromist, Simon Petliura. The Po’ale Zionists refused to even discuss his resolutions until they got an explanation for his arrangements with the Ukrainians, and the meeting was only allowed to proceed when Jabotinsky agreed to come before a special commission the next morning. When the commission met on 18 January 1923, it was greeted with a letter declaring that he had resigned, not only from the Executive but from the WZO. This being so, he saw no purpose in coming before them. The Labour Zionists were naturally indignant and announced that he “shirked the ordeal of appearing before the Commission”. [1] Should he return, they promised that they would again demand an explanation for his actions. He did return to the WZO, as an ordinary member, though the leftists never raised the matter again for formal organizational adjudication, but the Petliura affair was to pursue him throughout the rest of his life. He always insisted that his resignation had nothing to do with the scheduled hearing, and that he was proud of his dealings with the Ukrainians, but it is difficult to believe that the knowledge that he stood in danger of being declared a collaborator with a murderous anti-Semite, at least by the Labour Zionists on the commission, had nothing to do with the timing of his resignation or the fact that he quit not merely the Executive, but the movement to which he had devoted almost 20 years of his energies.

Meeting with Slavinsky

On 30 August 1921 Maxim Antonovitch Slavinsky, the chief of the Extraordinary Diplomatic Mission of the Ukrainian Democratic Republic in Czechoslovakia, came to visit Jabotinsky in Prague where he had come for the 12th World Zionist Congress. The government Slavinsky claimed to represent no longer existed, having been run out of Kiev by the Bolsheviks, but its leader, Simon Petliura, had taken refuge in eastern Galicia, an ethnically Ukrainian territory occupied by Poland, where he still had 15,000 men under arms and the financial patronage of the French.

The Ukraine had become one of the central cockpits of the vast struggle for power in the former Tsarist empire. Once the Germans had been defeated, the prime contenders there had reduced themselves to the Bolsheviks, the strongest force among the working class; the Anarchists whose stronghold was the peasantry in the eastern Ukraine; the White Guards or Tsarists, backed by the British and French fleets in the Black Sea; the Poles under Marshall Pilsudski, with his visions of the restoration of the medieval Polish empire running from the Baltic to the Black Sea; and the Ukrainian nationalists of the Rada or council. An estimated 60,000 Jews were murdered in the Ukraine between the years 1917 and 1920. About half were slaughtered by Petliura’s armies in at least 897 separate pogroms. It was the ferocity of the pogroms, those of Petliura and the Tsarists, who killed approximately 28,000 Jews, and the right- wing Poles, who butchered most of the rest, which had driven the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian Jewry into the arms of the Bolsheviks. In 1921 the bulk of world Jewry was not Communist, but the consensus was that, for the Ukraine and Russia, the alternatives for the Jews were massacre or Bolshevism. There is not the slightest doubt that even the richest of Jews abroad would have seen Slavinsky as a fiendish enemy of the entire Jewish people. But not Jabotinsky, who welcomed him as an old friend and as a liberal and a sincere friend of the Jews, with whom he had collaborated in the 1907 Duma elections. [2] Now, “as good old friends”, for so Slavinsky described their conversation in a report to Petliura, they set about to improve Jewish opinion concerning Ukrainian nationalism. [3]

Slavinsky told the Zionist that the Rada planned an invasion of Soviet Ukraine for the spring of 1922. Any success would raise the possibility of further pogroms; what could be done to prevent them? They had issued proclamations condemning the massacres, should they issue another? “No more proclamations. I or no one else will believe them. There must be some actions, not words.” [4] What Jabotinsky proposed was that the Ukrainian army be accompanied by an armed Jewish police force. These gendarmes would not fight the Red Army but would serve to protect the Jews of any area captured by the very army that would bring them into the country. Slavinsky went to his headquarters to see if Petliura would agree and Jabotinsky consulted with 11 Ukrainian and Russian Zionists in Prague for the Congress. Eight approved the concept, but it is to be noted that Jabotinsky failed to reveal the negotiations to a single leader of the WZO, in spite of the fact that a letter from Slavinsky condemning the pogroms had been read out at the opening session of the Congress. On 4 September, Jabotinsky, acting strictly in an individual capacity without the knowledge of the WZO, signed the Slavinsky-Jabotinsky Agreement. Each pledged “within the sphere of his personal influence”, to implement their planned Jewish police force. [5]

In October, a Nationalist border raid failed so disastrously that the planned spring invasion had to be called off, but the existence of the pact was leaked to the public by the Ukrainians. Their problems were primarily political and, in no little way, connected to the Jewish problem. They were already seen as a defeated force and their previous reign in Kiev had given them a deserved reputation as savages. As long as that image held they found it impossible to convince either the French or the Poles that they were a credible contender for power. Now here was one of the most famous figures in Zionism prepared to help them; how could anyone say that they were still pogromists?

The answer is, of course, that everyone still believed them to be pogromists. News of the pact did nothing to help the Ukrainians, the French soon cut off the subsidies for their army and the Rada disappeared from history, but the revelation of the treaty nearly destroyed Jabotinsky. He had gone off to America on tour for the Jewish National Fund when the storm broke. Emes (Truth), the organ of the Yevsektsiia, the Yiddish language section of the Soviet Communist Party, gave the report of the Agreement huge headlines: “The Zionists Are Plunging A Knife Into The Revolution’s Back. Jabotinsky Has Aligned Himself With Petliura To Wage War Against The Red Army.” The cry went up to finally liquidate the remnants of organized Zionism in the Soviet Union. In overwhelming proportions, the Zionist and the general Jewish press, to say nothing of the organs of the Jewish left, condemned the treaty. Many Jews thought of Jabotinsky merely as a fool: what was the point of even bothering with an obviously spent force as the Rada? Others – and not only on the left – saw him as indeed motivated by anti-Soviet animus. On 14 November 1921, the Executive cabled him in New York demanding a full explanation. In December, the Actions Committee formally declined “all responsibility on behalf of the Zionist Organization” and resolved that he be asked to justify his pact on his return from America. Calls for his resignation were heard all over Europe.

Jabotinsky’s Explanation

Jabotinsky reacted coldly to the fury he aroused. He elaborated his thinking on the general questions involved in a series of articles:

Wherever there is danger of Jewish pogroms, because of a conflict between two or more non-Jewish armed camps, I recommend an agreement to form a Jewish gendarmerie with the White Army, a Jewish gendarmerie with the Red Army, a Jewish gendarmerie with the lilac and pea-green army, if any; let them settle their quarrels, we shall police the towns and see to it that the Jewish population should not be molested. [6]

There was both an unreal and dishonest quality to his posture. That Jews could adopt such a damsel-in-the-tower posture towards contending forces in a civil war, when one side slaughtered Jews while the other side’s army was led by a Jew, is unthinkable. Throughout history, Jews, sometimes as individuals, often as a community, had immersed themselves in the civil strife of the societies they lived in. His position is dishonest in that there is not the slightest evidence that he ever proposed, or thought of proposing, “a Jewish gendarmerie with the Red Army”, that was just rhetoric. We shall see below that he never proposed any kind of defensive military alliance with any left wing force, Jewish or otherwise, against either the Nazi stormtroopers or any other anti-Semitic element. On the contrary, he repeatedly sought and received the patronage of anti-Semitic regimes both before and after the Slavinsky incident.

Jabotinsky’s initial position was that his pact was no concern of the WZO Executive. The WZO as such took no positions in Landspolitik, his action could only be examined by the Zionists of Russia and the Ukraine and these were already banned in theory and nearly so in practice. This left only the Conference of Russian-Ukrainian Zionists, an exile group, as qualified, in his mind, to sit in judgement on his action. On 7-11 September that body voted that his proposal was a neutral proposition and in no way an interference in Ukrainian politics, but even the exiles did not dare endorse Jabotinsky’s scheme as such. Schechtman, who was one of the authors of the conference’s resolution, insists that they expressed no approval: “the Conference did not go into the question of the merits of the Agreement”. [7] Their attitude was emphatically different from that of most Jews but it was quite predictable. Soviet Jewish youth, understanding that the Red Army was all that stood between them and the pogromists, had flocked into the military. These included many far removed from the Communist Party ideologically. The Conferees, on the other hand, represented those hostile to the new regime. Their reasons doubtlessly varied; some lost their property as a result of the Revolution; others were incensed by the ban on Zionism but, whatever their reasoning, they were atypical of Soviet Jewry. To an ordinary Soviet Jew anyone who proposed that Jews volunteer to accompany a pogrom army that would, at the very least, try to kill Jews in their capacity as Red Army soldiers, was, prima facie, a traitor and a madman. Countless other Jews outside the USSR, including many Zionists, shared that gut reaction.

There is no doubt that the WZO leaders would never have approved of a pact with Petliura if Jabotinsky had asked them in advance. Nor did they give it their retrospective assent. But they certainly did not want to condemn him on the question. He had acted in his own name, not theirs; they had a clear policy of staying out of the internal politics of any nation; Zionism was proscribed in the Soviet Union; and they were the clients of the British, who had been the ally of the Tsar and then the paymasters for the post-war White Guard pogrom armies. Weizmann and the others knew all this and had done nothing to protest against the British government’s criminal behaviour. The Executive recommended that the Actions Committee accept the finding of the Russian-Ukrainian Conference, but the Po’ale Zionists threatened to abstain from voting on the other political questions unless they got an explanation from Jabotinsky concerning the whole event. Jabotinsky, determined to pursue Weizmann and his friends on the question of their pusillanimous approach toward the British in Palestine, announced himself willing to face a special commission on the subject. His summary resignation and refusal to appear before the commission therefore automatically enraged the leftists and, in fact, gave everyone the feeling that he was evading the hearing. The leadership, seeing him as little better than a useless maximalist with regard to Palestine, and embarrassed by the whole Petliura affair, had come to see him as a thorn in their flesh and, with all due regard to his undeniable talents and past services, were glad to see him out of the movement.

Jabotinsky soon returned to the WZO but never again as part of the leadership. He always maintained that his resignation had nothing to do with the commission. And, in fact, most of the panel were not connected with the Po’ale Zion and were unlikely to have got into a fight with him over the matter. He had already taken up far too much of their time with his constant quarrelling over Palestine. As they had already insisted that they were not Zionism’s parliament but rather a business-like cabinet, they could hardly want to corner him on the question. When he showed up again as a delegate to the 1925 World Zionist Congress no one revived the issue. But as he began to rise up as an opponent of both the bourgeois grouping around Weizmann and the Labour Zionists the Petliura affair became a fixture in their characterization of him as an arch-reactionary.

Later Thoughts

Jabotinsky always defended the pact; in January 1935 Robert Gessner, a Jewish Communist journalist from Poland, encountered him on a liner crossing the Atlantic to America and Jabotinsky gave him a celebrated interview, telling him that he:

would be as proud today as I was then to sign such an agreement ... I don’t believe Petliura himself was anti-Semitic. He came from a healthy peasant stock. It was his soldiers that got out of control. [8]

In the real world this was, as Jabotinsky himself conceded, a distinction without a difference. On 26 May 1926, a Jew, Shalom Schwartzbard, assassinated Petliura in Paris. The next year, during the trial (the jury refused to convict), Jabotinsky wrote that, whatever Petliura’s feelings, he was responsible for the pogroms in that he failed to punish the pogromists and he did not resign. But he insisted that he remained a friend of the Ukrainian national movement “notwithstanding the grave sin this movement has committed against the Jewish people”. [9] By the end of his life he had talked himself into believing that the treaty was the high point of his career, claiming that he was “even more proud” of the Agreement than he was of his role in the creation of the Legion or the first Haganah: “when I die you can write this as my epitaph – ‘This was the man who made the pact with Petliura’.” [10]

In the end it scarcely matters if Jabotinsky resigned from the Executive because of his differences with the Weizmannites over Palestine or out of concern for the hearing before the commission. On both Palestine and the Ukraine he had clearly become unrealistic, taking positions that could not be implemented in the real world. For all his protestations, the WZO was powerless to compel Britain to change its course, and his Jewish gendarmerie for the Ukraine was nothing more than a fantasy. Jabotinsky was often a political halluciné, operating in his own world where thoughts were omnipotent. At times, as when the British and the Tsarists decided to use the Zionist obsession for their own purpose, as with the Legion, he had a measure of success, but this triumph masked his essential madness. Collusion with the Tsar’s Foreign Ministry was just as criminal as signing the pact with Slavinsky but one made him a hero to his movement in that it helped obtain a Legion; the other escapade, no different in principle – both efforts were treasonable to the Jews – revealed the fundamentally bankrupt basis of his Urpolitik. The notion of Jewish youth trooping into the Ukraine behind a pogrom army shall forever be seen as one of his most outrageous notions.


1. Schechtman, The Jabotinsky-Slavinsky Agreement, Jewish Social Studies, October 1955, p.301.

2. Ibid., p.290.

3. Ibid.

4. Robert Gessner, Brown Shirts in Zion, New Masses, 19 February 1935, p.13.

5. Schechtman, op.cit., p.292.

6. Ibid., p.297.

7. Ibid., p.299.

8. Gessner.

9. Schechtman, p.305.

10. Ibid., p.306.

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