The British Foreign secretary, Lord Edward Grey of Fallodon observed upon the outbreak of the First World War that “The lamps are going out all over Europe we shall not see them lit again in out time.” Jewish historian Simon Dubnov commented on the outbreak of war, “My head is spinning at the horror of the coming slaughter of peoples, the self destruction of Europe.”
The Jewish people were caught in the middle of the conflagration. The First World War officially began on August 1, 1914 when Germany declared War on France and Russia. That day was Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av which commemorates the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and long history of Jewish suffering. Just days before the official declaration of war between Germany and France, the London Jewish Chronicle poignantly noted the approaching day of Tisha B’Av with a foreboding tone, “Politically the Jew is today still suffering in his own condition the consequences of the overthrow of 2,000 years ago. The homelessness which then began still continues, with all the manifold disabilities and tragedies that spring inevitably from it. Religiously, again, the loss of home has meant and still means, exposure to an increasingly hostile environment. “
At this time, there were about fourteen million Jews in the world.
The total number of combatants in World War I was 65 million. Nearly 1.5 million Jews fought comprising 2% of the total. Among the 42,000,000 fighting men for the allies, 2.5% were Jews, of the 23,000,000 troops in the Central Powers, 450,000 or 2%, were Jews. Of the 8.5 million men killed in combat, the number of Jews who fell in action was 170,825- of that number were 116,825 in the allied armies, otherwise known as the Entente, and 54,000 were killed in forces for the Central Powers. Over 400,000 were wounded in action. The proportion of Jews who died on the battlefields approximated their percentage in the armies.
The hope for acceptance; of ending age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes was a driving force for many Jews adding impetus to their patriotism. Change in attitudes towards the Jews seemed to be forthcoming given the pronouncements of some world leaders who called for acceptance of minorities, which included the Jews. However, anti-Semitism would increase and the Jew would be further isolated in a far more precarious world by the end of the war.
Just days into the war, the Kaiser expressed his support for all Germans including Jews at the Berlin Palace before Reichstag deputies, stating, “I know of no parties, I only know Germans.”
Ludwig Frank, a prominent Jewish member of the Reichstag (German Parliament) volunteered in August and was among the first casualties. He spoke of his devotion and gave a glimpse of the future. “We trust in the final valid victory of German arms and in the glorious peace which we are helping to attain by fighting.….. We are sure that after such soulful experiences that after this storm tried fellowship the flame of the old hatred will not blaze up again.”
At the beginning of the war, German Jewish poet Ernst Lissauer composed a popular Hymn of Hatred against Great Britain. One stanza states, “Never is our hatred going to abate. Hatred on the sea, hatred on the land. Hatred of the head, hatred on the hand.” The Kaiser himself bestowed a medal on Lissauer.
An appeal to German Jewry by the Imperial Association of German Jews expressed the sentiments of patriotism of the era.
“German Jews, in this fateful hour it is once again time to show that, proud of our lineage, We Jews are among the best sons of our fatherland. The noblest of our millennia Old history obliges. We expect our young to hasten to the colors voluntarily and with high hearts. German Jews! We appeal to you, in the spirit of the old Jewish rule of duty, to dedicate yourselves to the service of your fatherland with all your heart, all your soul, and all your abilities.”
By October 11, 1916, as the war was taking a significant toll upon Germany, manifestations of anti-Semitism were apparent as the German War Department which called for a ‘Jewish census’ after claiming to receive numerous complaints that Jews shirked military service, despite the considerable losses suffered by Jews on the battlefields.
By October 1917, the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith newspaper ominously noted, “We Jews are in for a war after the war.”
After the war, plaques to German Jews who fell on battlefields marked synagogues of each town. Memorial services were held annually by Jewish organizations. Even after the Nazi rise to power in January 1933, there were still attempts to hold memorials. Most of the memorial plaques were destroyed on Crystal Night, November 9-10 1938.
Across the English Channel, the London Jewish Chronicle displayed a banner outside its offices, which represented the view of British Jewry at large, stating, “ENGLAND HAS BEEN ALL SHE COULD BE TO THE JEWS, JEWS WILL BE ALL THEY CAN BE TO ENGLAND” A letter published by a soldier in the London Jewish Chronicle on June 4, 1915 expressed the views of so many fellow countrymen, “We must remember that in no part of the world is a Jew treated so freely as in England, and it is up to us to do our precious duty to our gracious King and country.”
While the issuing of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, by the British government, offering Jewish statehood in the Land of Israel, seemed to show some measure of appreciation for the loyalty of British Jewry, (along with the belief by British leaders that this was the proper course of action), it soon became apparent during the days of the British military administration in Palestine immediately following the war, that fulfillment of those British commitments were in serious doubt.
This does not mean that support for the war was unanimous. There were German Jewish intellectuals in opposition such as the physicist Albert Einstein. In Great Britain, many recent Jewish immigrants were reluctant to join the fight as an ally of Russia: they very empire whose anti-Semitic policies they had escaped.
Among the massive community of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York City and other US metropolitan centers, initially, there was support for the German cause as Russia and its anti-Semitic policies were likewise disdained, until the United States officially entered the war in April 1917. Then, American Jewry was well represented on the battlefields of France. But by 1924, the doors of America were virtually shut to Eastern European Jewry due to congressional acts imposing immigration restrictions, largely the result of anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic vitriol in America.
In Paris, over two thousand Jews took part in a patriotic demonstration. The crowd consisted mostly of Jewish immigrants who carried French, English, Russian, and Belgian flags, as well as banner with French and Yiddish inscriptions appealing to the Jews to come to the assistance of France. The demonstrators marched through the streets singing the French National Anthem and shouting “A Berlin.” (to Berlin) Christians everywhere greeted the Jewish procession with great enthusiasm.
Naturally, behind the public expressions of support there was doubt and concern over the war’s outcome and how it would impact the lives of the young recruits.
When the war broke out, the Russian Czar Nicholas II, allegedly appealed for support from the Jewish community, entitled, “My dear Jews” which offered long awaited promises of equality. The Jews responded enthusiastically. Jewish communities sent funds to the war effort, and established hospitals. Jews in Russia enlisted in large numbers before drafts were enacted, and participated in patriotic rallies throughout the empire.
One such event occurred in the city of Tiflis (Kavkas), after morning services, where Jews marched in a body to the governor- general’s palace and indulged in a patriotic demonstration.
A prayer for the Russian czar found in a Siddur, Otzar HaTefillot, Vilna 1914, read, “May nations surrender under his feat, and may his enemies fall before him, and wherever he turns, may he find success.”
Many Russian Jews hoped their hour of freedom was forthcoming.
Yet, despite all manifestations of patriotism by Russian Jews, as in Germany, Jews would be blamed for failures in the war. Russian Jewry would also be the targets of widely publicized accusations of treason and spying for the Germans, despite their vehement denials and displays of patriotism. By the middle of 1917, over 60,000 Jews were decorated for heroism and 26,000 were promoted to higher ranks. For Jews living under the yoke of the Russian empire, pogroms, and forced evacuations, would devastate much of Polish and Russian Jewry.
And when the Czar was forced to abdicate in the wake of the Russian Revolution in March, 1917, the initial euphoria expressed in the secular Jewish media would be replaced by dread with the rise of the Bolsheviks in November of that year. The horrors that awaited humanity under the rule of communist dictatorships were unimaginable. Russian Jewry as well, faced a new dark chapter in its history.
In a small Galitzian town over the Russian border within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, news of the war was received not much differently from the small towns of the Pale Settlement within the rival Russian empire. War brings upheaval and trouble, its’ outcome is unpredictable. An author, Manes Sperber wrote of his father, “For us this war is a terrible disaster,” he stated. “Why a disaster?” Someone asked, “Our Kaiser will be victorious and the Czar will be defeated and will never oppress his subjects again.” He replied, “For us every war is a disaster, no one in this room can be sure of his survival.”
It was a war of unprecedented horrors, in a century were many more would follow. For Jewry it was a time of immense suffering.
In 1913, the following poem penned by the writer Zalman Schneur entitled “The Middle Ages Draw Near,” foresaw the modern day catastrophe emerging from the new post ‘enlightenment’, world in which hatred and anti-Semitism was on the rise. Zalman Shneur foresaw the horrors which awaited Jewry in Europe during this ill fated era, and exhorted his fellow Jews to awaken and see the imminent dangers facing the Jewish people. His words were a warning to Jewry of the coming storm.
Mighty is the approaching winter for summer tarried in the land.
The middle ages draw near!
Like a cloud in the distance
Open wide your eyes and ears, ancient people!
The wheel is…the turning wheel:
and a wild wind before it.