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What is a Pogrom?

A pogrom is a violent riot aimed at the massacre or expulsion of an ethnic or religious group, particularly Jews. Historically, these brutal events have left deep scars on communities, often with state support or indifference. Understanding the dark legacy of pogroms is crucial. How do they reflect on our past, and what lessons can we carry into the future?
Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

Simply stated, a pogrom is an act of mass violence or mass-murder of a certain group of people. Historically, this term -– Russian for "demolish violently or riot" -- has been applied more specifically to the mass killing of the Jewish people, perhaps because of the frequency with which pogroms were committed against them. But a pogrom goes well beyond mere killing; a pogrom is much like a riot aimed not only at killing, but also at destroying homes, businesses, and other forms of daily life and culture.

Throughout history, the Jews have suffered pogroms at the hands of various groups throughout Europe. They began in Eastern Europe and spread west, Russia and the Ukraine being sites of particularly concentrated violence. During a pogrom, a certain sect or group was targeted and violently attacked. Businesses were ransacked and looted, homes were destroyed, entire villages would be burned to the ground, and more often than not, people would die at the hands of their aggressors. In the case of the Jews, these pogroms persisted for decades after the first reported pogrom in Russia in the 1880’s, thereby perpetuating anti-Semitism and eventually culminating in the Holocaust.

Pogroms in Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler targeted the Jewish population.
Pogroms in Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler targeted the Jewish population.

In Nazi Germany, pogrom activity persisted under Hitler’s rule, though Hitler himself discouraged such disorganized violence. But Nazi troops and German police would often allow such rioting to take place, sometimes even encouraging it. Perhaps the most famous and devastating pogrom, Kristallnacht, occurred in 1938 and saw the destruction of approximately 2000 synagogues as well as the murder of almost a hundred Jews. Thousands of Jewish businesses were destroyed and aggression toward the Jews ran wild, paving the way for Hitler’s Jewish eradication plans.

Greeks were the target of a pogrom in Istanbul, Turkey, in the 1950s.
Greeks were the target of a pogrom in Istanbul, Turkey, in the 1950s.

During this era, however, Germans were not the only aggressors toward the Jews. Polish citizens organized pogrom after pogrom throughout the war, even persisting after the war ended, leading Jews to believe they would never be welcome in Poland again. As a result of the Polish pogroms, as well as earlier pogrom events in Russia, other nations including the United States and the United Kingdom experienced a massive influx of Jews fleeing the violence.

Millions of Jews died under pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe.
Millions of Jews died under pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe.

Pogroms have occurred in other parts of the world to other groups: Sikhs in India endured a pogrom in the early 1980’s, and Muslims in India were targeted about twenty years later. Greeks were targeted in Istanbul in the 1950’s by Turks. In 1999 in Kosovo, non-Albanians were forced from their homes and saw the destruction of their property and businesses. NATO forces were present but did not intervene.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a pogrom?

Sikhs in India endured a pogrom in the early 1980’s.
Sikhs in India endured a pogrom in the early 1980’s.

A pogrom is a violent riot aimed at the massacre or expulsion of an ethnic or religious group, particularly one aimed at Jews. The term originally comes from Russian, where it was used to describe violent attacks by local non-Jewish populations on Jews in the Russian Empire. Pogroms are characterized by killings, destruction of property, and widespread violence, often with the local authorities turning a blind eye or even participating.

When did pogroms typically occur?

Pogroms have occurred throughout history, but they are most commonly associated with a series of violent attacks against Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Notably, the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 and the wave of pogroms that swept through Eastern Europe following the Russian Revolution of 1917 are often cited. These events were marked by extreme violence and had devastating effects on Jewish communities.

What were the causes of pogroms?

Pogroms were often the result of a combination of deep-seated ethnic hatred, religious tensions, economic envy, and social upheaval. They were sometimes incited by false accusations, such as the blood libel against Jews, or triggered by political changes and economic crises. In many cases, local authorities and governments used pogroms as a way to deflect public dissatisfaction away from themselves and onto a scapegoated group.

How did pogroms affect the Jewish community?

Pogroms had a profound impact on Jewish communities, resulting in loss of life, severe trauma, destruction of property, and mass emigration. The violence and fear led many Jews to flee Eastern Europe, with a significant number immigrating to the United States and other countries. The psychological and cultural scars of these events have been long-lasting, contributing to the collective memory and identity of Jewish diaspora communities.

Are pogroms still a concern in modern times?

While the term "pogrom" is most closely associated with historical events, similar types of ethnic violence can and do occur in contemporary times. Modern-day pogroms or pogrom-like violence can be seen in various parts of the world, often as part of ethnic cleansing or sectarian conflict. The international community, human rights organizations, and governments work to prevent such violence, but challenges remain in ensuring the safety of vulnerable populations.

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    • Pogroms in Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler targeted the Jewish population.
      By: Recuerdos de Pandora
      Pogroms in Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler targeted the Jewish population.
    • Greeks were the target of a pogrom in Istanbul, Turkey, in the 1950s.
      By: EvrenKalinbacak
      Greeks were the target of a pogrom in Istanbul, Turkey, in the 1950s.
    • Millions of Jews died under pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe.
      By: nzgmw
      Millions of Jews died under pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe.
    • Sikhs in India endured a pogrom in the early 1980’s.
      By: Kadmy
      Sikhs in India endured a pogrom in the early 1980’s.