Feb 2012 Journal
Exploding a myth (review)
This is an interesting and well-argued account of a topic that has been much neglected, mainly because of the reluctance of many German Jews to be identified with the nationalistic sentiments with which the advent of the First World War was greeted - almost celebrated - by the German population. After all, don’t Jews generally think of themselves as peace-loving and conciliatory? This book is intended to explode that myth. It is carefully researched, though perhaps not aimed at the intellectually faint-hearted. It includes a host of references and sources after each chapter. For former German Jews such as me, whose fathers participated in the First World War, it should be of considerable interest - even though its conclusions may not necessarily be accepted universally.
The stark fact is that at the outbreak of the war German Jews were well integrated into German society and were just as willing to serve their Fatherland as other German men. Indeed, some 100,000 donned uniform, about 12,000 were killed fighting, and a number became officers and even generals (the impressive war memorial in Berlin’s Jewish Weissensee cemetery bears witness to this). The author’s overall thesis is that, whilst remembrance of the war was at first all-inclusive and fully involved the Jewish population, the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1920s-30s, and the concomitant reluctance of the German Jews to be identified with the militarism and nationalism, led to the playing down of Jewish participation.
However, this process of separation was gradual and encouraged by Jewish writers and historians. Surprisingly, even after the Nazis came to power, the Jewish war dead were honoured in 1934 by the issue of a new war decoration. The real break came a year later with the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws, when legal exemptions for Jewish ex-soldiers were cancelled, followed by more complete exclusion from national and local acts of remembrance, and the German Jews had to arrange their own commemorations. Even so, the Nazi regime never denied that Jewish soldiers had died fighting for their country: even at the infamous Wannsee conference early in 1942, when the fate of European Jews was sealed, there were discussions on how to deal with the question of Jewish war veterans.
The author, an academic at the University of Chester, argues that it was after the Second World War had ended that the German Jews who had died in the First World War were again thought about by the Germans, even though at that time the victims of the genocide were not. Even when the Federal Republic was formed in 1949, the focus was more on the general suffering of the population than on the victims of the Holocaust. Yet the Jewish dead of the First World War gradually helped to reintegrate German Jews into post-war German society: Theodor Heuss, the first president of the Federal Republic, mentioned the Jewish soldiers at many remembrance events and encouraged the exploration in the early 1950s of the Nazi past and the crimes committed.
By the late 1950s, the German public had become more aware of the Nazi crimes, an awareness aided by the desecration of Jewish sites in Cologne and the war trials. For instance, Franz Joseph Strauss republished a book of war letters by Jewish soldiers at that time. Yet, ironically, the belated recognition of guilt for the Holocaust drove recognition of the contribution made by Jewish soldiers into the background: the Holocaust narrative - not unnaturally! - predominated and by 1970 few Jewish ex-soldiers were alive to question the submergence of First World War remembrance.
The circle was not squared until 1982, when the German Defence Ministry launched an exhibition devoted to Jews in the military. Werner Nachman, President of the Jewish Central Council, compared in the opening session the heroic participation of Jewish soldiers in the First World War with the treatment they received during the genocide: they fought for their country and were murdered by the Nazis!
This is a thought-provoking book. Many readers will remember their fathers’ participation in the First World War and the medals they earned and wore with pride. Alas, although they had hoped that these medals would protect them once the Nazis came to power, this was not to be.
I should add that this book is written entirely with West Germany in mind. In East Germany (the DDR), where culpability for the Nazi crimes was never acknowledged, it would have been a very different story.
Leslie Baruch Brent