This month marks the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, arguably the most important turning point in modern European history. The Great War destroyed the old European order that had lasted since the settlement reached at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The war also ushered in a new and dangerously volatile era of insecurity and conflict, creating the conditions for regimes that were bent on violence and conquest and were prepared to practise mass killing on an unprecedented scale. The First World War was the Urkatastrophe, the original catastrophe without which the great dictators and mass murderers of the mid-twentieth century - Hitler, Stalin and their imitators - would not have been possible.
Whereas the fate of the Jews of Europe became a central issue during the Second World War, given that Nazi Germany, the power principally responsible for launching that war, wished to destroy them in their entirety, the role of Jews in the First World War is at first sight harder to pinpoint. Nevertheless, the Jews who fought in the armies of the chief European belligerent powers numbered around one million, to which must be added some 200,000 who served in the American forces from 1917. The attitudes of these combatant Jews varied from country to country. In Tsarist Russia, which contained the largest concentration of Jews in the world, Jews were subject to severe discrimination and persecution. Jews had long sought to escape conscription into the Russian army and, though many fought loyally even in the face of the ingrained anti-Semitism of the Tsarist officer corps, others were disaffected; after the enormous casualties suffered by the Russian armies in their unsuccessful campaigns of 1914-15, Jews were among those who turned towards the parties hostile to the war and the Tsarist autocracy.
Russia’s enemies benefitted from that country’s record of reactionary excesses. In Germany, the Kaiser’s government portrayed its decision to go to war in August 1914 in part as a defensive measure justified by the expected onslaught of the ‘Russian steamroller’ from the east. Russia was the natural enemy of the Jews and of the liberal, democratic institutions on which their gradual integration into the more advanced societies of Western Europe was predicated. Many German Jews allowed themselves to be persuaded that the preservation of the civil and political rights they had been granted over the decades was bound up with the struggle against Russia. It is, however, undeniable that Germany’s Jews were mostly motivated to flock to the colours by pure patriotism. It has long been known that German Jews equalled, or even excelled, their gentile compatriots in their eagerness to fight for their country in time of war.
While their parents sank their savings into German government war bonds, young Jews like the writer Ernst Toller, who was studying at the University of Grenoble in France when war broke out and only got back to Germany with difficulty, proved their patriotism by joining up, inspired by the mood of national euphoria in August 1914. About 100,000 Jews served in the German forces during the First World War, and some 12,000 died. The writer Thomas Mann, whose attitude to Jews had previously been somewhat ambivalent, movingly recorded in his diary the shock he felt when, after the war’s end, he saw how many men with the name Cohen were listed among the fallen. In recognising the patriotism displayed by Germany’s Jews, Mann was, however, an exception among non-Jewish German patriots and nationalists. As early as 1916, the belief that Jews were failing to support the German war effort was so widespread in right-wing quarters that the Prussian Ministry of War undertook its notorious Judenzählung (census of Jews in the German forces), pandering to the swelling tide of war-fuelled anti-Semitism; when the census showed that Jews were serving in proportion to their numbers in the population, its findings were suppressed.
Many AJR members will have had fathers, uncles, grandfathers and other relatives who fought in the First World War and kept their decorations and certificates as proud mementoes of their service to the country of their birth, even though no amount of Iron Crosses could save a Jew from discrimination and persecution after 1933. Before 1914, Jews had not been admitted to the German officer corps; but by 1918, some 2,000 Jews had been commissioned as officers, and a further 1,200 served as medical officers. This was a source of great pride to the individuals themselves, to their families and to their entire community. Herbert Sulzbach, a German-Jewish refugee who served with distinction in the British army in the Second World War, reaching the rank of captain, remained equally proud of having attained the rank of lieutenant in the Kaiser’s army in the First World War. Geoffrey Perry, born Horst Pinschewer in Berlin, who also distinguished himself in the British forces in the Second World War – he captured the traitor William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) - had as a child had to listen so often to his father’s patriotic stories of his First World War exploits in the Kaiser’s army that he refused to talk about his own wartime experiences until well into the 1970s.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg has recently written movingly about the deep-felt patriotism of his grandfather, Rabbi Dr Georg Salzberger, who served as a Jewish chaplain in the German army in the First World War and, after emigrating to Britain in 1939, was for many years the minister at Belsize Square. Salzberger, argues his grandson, saw wartime service as the ultimate proof that German Jews had, through their patriotic contribution to the national cause, achieved equality of status with their gentile compatriots. This Jewish patriotism reflected a belief that, as Germans, Jews and Christians shared a set of moral, social and civic values that bound them together in the name of distinctively German ideals. That form of patriotism could also descend into virulent nationalism: it was a German Jew, Ernst Lissauer, who penned the notorious Hassgesang gegen England (Hymn of Hate against England) in 1914.
The situation in Austria-Hungary, with its many competing national groups - almost all of them hostile to Jews - was different. Here Jews felt loyalty to the Empire and the Emperor, Kaiser Franz Joseph, who had come to symbolise the supranational character of the Habsburg Monarchy, standing above the ethnic strife that threatened to engulf the Jews and acting as guarantor of the civic rights that they had been granted under the constitution. In Austria-Hungary, the army, like the monarchy, transcended ethnic divisions, at least to the extent that some Jews were admitted to the officer corps. Jews had little problem in fighting as loyal citizens of the Empire for they feared, all too presciently, that the defeat and disintegration of the Habsburg Empire would endanger their position across Central and Eastern Europe.
In 1914, Russian armies advanced into Austrian Poland, taking cities like Lviv (Lemberg) and Przemysl and causing a mass flight of Jews. While the Germans concentrated on the western front, Austria-Hungary bore the brunt of the fighting against Russia in the east, a cause with which its Jewish population could readily identify. However, partly thanks to the incompetence of Habsburg strategists, the Empire also found itself fighting on two other fronts. Unable to overcome the stubborn resistance of the Serbs, Austrian forces became bogged down in a campaign that ended only in autumn 1915, when Bulgaria invaded Serbia. In May 1915, Italy came into the war on the opposite side, involving Austria-Hungary in a long and costly campaign conducted on the mountainous terrain of the Alps on the frontier between the two warring states. The huge losses suffered by the Austrians on this largely forgotten front, principally in the 11 battles fought on the river Isonzo, were in large measure responsible for the war-weariness that eventually swept the Empire away.
Probably the most significant development affecting Jews during the First World War occurred in the Middle East, where British forces faced the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally. As General Allenby advanced from Egypt into Turkish-held territory to capture Jerusalem, the British government issued in November 1917 the Balfour Declaration, in which it made its celebrated promise of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, previously under Ottoman rule. The First World War thus created the conditions under which the foundations of the future state of Israel were laid. But it also created the conditions for the Holocaust, and not only through the fateful rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, a society radicalised and traumatised by its defeat in 1918 and by subsequent political and economic instability. The Turks had already practised genocide against the Armenians in 1915. In the wake of the collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917, large-scale killings, notably of Jews, occurred across Eastern Europe as rival national and political factions, Poles and Ukrainians, Reds (Bolsheviks) and Whites (anti-Bolsheviks), sought to assert themselves, often by the radical means of eliminating en masse the groups they perceived as supporters of their rivals.