by Aaron Feigenbaum.
World War I is commonly thought of in terms of its epic battles: Verdun, Gallipoli, Somme and so forth. But while the war shook the world to its core in a hitherto unprecedented bloodbath, the Jews of Europe took an especially hard blow – one that would set the scene for the horrors of World War II.
After the outbreak of WWI in 1914, many young Jewish men volunteered for military service in their respective countries, especially in anti-Semitic strongholds such as Germany and Russia, in hopes of proving their loyalty. Many more Jews were conscripted as European countries adopted a total war footing. Ironically, German Jews fought and died in greater numbers than any other ethnic or religious group in Germany. According to historian Brian Rygg: “About 10,000 [Jews] volunteered for duty, and over 100,000 out of a total German-Jewish population of 550,000 served during World War One. Some 78% saw front-line duty, 12,000 died in battle, over 30,000 received decorations, and 19,000 were promoted. Approximately 2,000 Jews became military officers and 1,200 became medical officers.” (Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, pg. 72)
Despite these sacrifices, anti-Semites within the German military command began to suspect Jewish soldiers of disloyalty. Thus, in October 1916, the German High Command instituted the Judenzählung or “Jewish census” to “prove” that Jewish soldiers were routinely shying away from front-line duty. Of course, the results proved just the opposite. 78% of Jewish soldiers served on the frontlines, a far higher percentage than that of the general population. Sadly though, the census results were never released to the general public. As the tide of war turned against Germany, anti-Semitism ramped up as many German politicians and military figures were quick to blame their own failures on the Jews’ alleged “stab in the back.”
The Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequent fears of a Jewish-Bolshevik plot, in addition to the economic collapse immediately after the war’s end and the harsh terms of the treaty of Versailles, all contributed to the perfect storm that allowed the Nazis to eventually grab hold of Germany’s reigns and plunge Europe into chaos once again. Yet, even in Nazi Germany the legacy of the Jewish soldiers of WWI lived on. Hugo Gutmann, a German Jew who was Hitler’s commanding officer in the war and who personally awarded him the Iron Cross, serves as an ironic testament to this legacy. Despite their murderous anti-Semitism, the Nazis had just enough decency to guarantee Guttmann’s pension throughout WWII. In another strange turn of events, the Nazis also honored one Hermann Bendheim who was profiled in a recent issue of Haaretz. Bendheim was a Jewish-German soldier who served in France and who was given a badge of honor by Nazi representatives in Jerusalem in 1935. Ironically, Bendheim would later join a unit dedicated to protecting then-Palestine from a potential German invasion in WWII.
Yet, while German Jewry’s contributions towards the German war effort are one of the most noteworthy aspects of WWI’s Jewish history, especially in light of Germany’s treatment of its Jews in WWII, of even greater note are the profound and tumultuous changes undergone in and shortly after the war by Eastern European Jewry. They experienced anti-Semitism, pogroms, battle casualties, hunger, and population displacement to an unprecedented degree. While anti-Semitism in Germany was not at all insignificant, the level of persecution and hardship Jews faced in Russia and Russian-occupied lands was on a much larger scale.
As in Germany, young Russian-Jewish men believed they could earn the respect of their non-Jewish peers by fighting in the Great War to defend the Russian Motherland. Over 600,000 of them served in the Russian army, 80,000 of whom served on the frontlines and about 100,000 of whom were killed. Unlike in Germany where Jews were afforded at least some measure of dignity, the Russian media and politico-military establishment harbored a profound distrust of Russian Jews that manifested itself as early as August 1914 when the authorities intercepted a German message urging Jews to overthrow the Russian government. Furthermore, the German Foreign Ministry employed Jewish leaders to spread anti-Russian propaganda. Zionist leader Max Bodenheimer was particularly outspoken in his support of the German regime and established a Committee for Liberating the Russian Jews whose goal was to create a German-dominated buffer state between Russia and Germany in which Jews would be safe. While this initial support for Germany on the part of Jews would prove to be short-lived, many Jews nevertheless saw a German-controlled Eastern Europe as preferable to the barbarism of Russian anti-Semitism. Indeed, some prayed for Germany to liberate Eastern Europe.
Jewish civilians bore the brunt of Czar Nicholas II’s wartime policies. The czarist regime expelled some half a million Jews from the areas of Lithuania and Latvia on suspicion of collaboration with the enemy. Tens of thousands of Jews were displaced by Russian and German troops in other areas such as Galicia and Bucovina bringing the total number of refugees to around 600,000. Some fled to Central Europe, especially Vienna, and others to Warsaw, Vilna, and the Russian interior. The Pale of Settlement which had defined Jewish political life since 1791 had effectively ceased to be.
Jewish life in Eastern Europe was almost totally shattered. Not only did Jewish refugees face economic loss, hunger, and disease, but the war also marked the beginning of the end for the shtetl. To deal with this humanitarian and spiritual crisis, Jews organized their own relief committees, some of which were ironically funded by the Russian government. While the refugee crisis was greatest in German-occupied lands of Eastern Europe, the German authorities did allow the Jews to organize themselves politically, a move which led some to naively believe that the Germans would grant Jews autonomy in these lands.
All hopes of favorable treatment by the Germans, much less the czarists, evaporated in the Russian Revolution of 1917. While Jews in Russia suddenly found themselves enjoying unprecedented freedoms, the German government, its puppet leaders in Eastern Europe, and pro-czarist forces all suspected the Jews of orchestrating the revolution and treated Jews in their territories as potential Bolshevik spies.
The Russian Civil War of 1918-1921 wreaked further havoc upon the battered Jewish population of Eastern Europe. Throughout the war, both the czarists and Bolsheviks committed pogroms, mostly in Ukraine, which resulted in the murder of another 50,000 Jews. Jews flocked in droves to the Bolshevik party given that Bolshevik pogroms were statistically less deadly than czarist ones, and that many Jews saw them as infinitely better than the reviled czarist regime.
In addition to Bolshevism, Zionism too received a major boost in WWI. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the British saw their opportunity to advance their interests in the Middle East by taking control of Palestine. British policymakers saw an alliance with the Zionists as a way of maintaining a foothold in Palestine and encouraging America’s Jewish community to pressure the U.S. to enter the war, something the British badly needed in 1917 as they were stuck in a stalemate with the Germans. Thus, in November 1917, at the behest of future Israeli president Chaim Weizmann, the British government issued the famous Balfour Declaration which supported the Jewish people’s right to a “national home in Palestine.” Just five weeks later, General Allenby captured Jerusalem from the Ottomans and all of Palestine came under British rule less than a year later. Additionally, the legendary Zionist figures Vladimir Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor first came to prominence in WWI with their establishment of the Jewish Legion, a militia affiliated with the British Army and which fought with the British against the Ottomans in Palestine. The Jewish Legion would eventually serve as the basis for the IDF.
As we mark the hundredth anniversary of one of the most cataclysmic events in human history, we should remember that World War One was also one of the most traumatic events for the Jews. Entire communities were displaced, hundreds were killed, and traditional life was destroyed in most of Europe. After the war, Jews left Europe in droves heading for America, Palestine and elsewhere. While WWI has been overshadowed by the far greater horrors of WWII, we as Jews have a responsibility to ensure that those lost in WWI aren’t forgotten and to recognize that WWI affected the course of Jewish history up to this day.
(Sources: YIVO Encyclopedia, Jewish Virtual Library, Haaretz)