World War I and the Jewish question

By Colin Shindler, June 20, 2014
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Jews in Austrian uniforms at a service in the main synagogue in Vienna in 1915

Jews in Austrian uniforms at a service in the main synagogue in Vienna in 1915

"Kingdoms shake and nations tremble

The shout of the warrior and the roar of battle resounds to the ends of the earth because of the fury of the oppressor.

The terrors of war are upon us: they have come close to our gates"

So wrote Chief Rabbi Hertz in a special Shabbat prayer on the outbreak of war in August 1914. In a statement to its readers, the Jewish Chronicle proclaimed that "England has been all she could be to Jews, Jews will be all they can be to England".

Some Russian soldiers believed that Jews were hiding phones in their beards to contact the German enemy

Leeds Jews rushed to join the West Riding Regiment. At a synagogue in Sunderland, a cheder room was taken from the children and given to the local military authorities. In Cardiff the Reverend Jerevitch urged all young people to join the Jewish division of the St John Ambulance Brigade. In Belfast the community collected £107 and handed it over to the Lord Mayor. Sir Marcus Samuel, later Lord Bearsted, donated the generous sum of £1000 to the National Relief Fund and converted his country house at Maidstone into a military hospital.

Sixty thousand British Jews served in the armed forces and 3,500 were killed. Seventeen hundred Jews were decorated.

In Germany a Berlin synagogue offered a prayer imploring God to "help our Kaiser and our fatherland". The scientist Paul Ehrlich and the painter Max Liebermann joined other Jews in signing "the manifesto of the 93" leading figures in German intellectual life which praised German military action. It stated that it was simply untrue that German soldiers had killed thousands of Belgian civilians - that it was a lie to suggest that "the life and property of a single Belgian citizen was injured by our soldiers without the bitterest self-defence having made it necessary".

Another Jewish signatory was the chemist, Fritz Haber, who synthesised ammonium compounds in his laboratory – a necessary component in explosives. These minerals occurred naturally in Latin America, but the British blockade had prevented such a lethal import. Through his brilliance, Haber allowed Germany to fight on for several more years. Walter Rathenau and the Jewish business community similar performed great service in the economic sphere.

One hundred thousand German Jews fought in the Great War, of whom 12,000 were killed. The Nazis later disputed this figure: it was no higher than 5,000, they said. In Russia, a reputed quarter of a million Jews fought for the Tsar that they hated. Facing them on the Eastern front were three Jewish field-marshals and eight Jewish generals commanding the Austro-Hungarian forces.

A century ago the JC commented that "Germany in this quarrel is wrong, absolutely, entirely, irredeemably wrong", yet the communal leadership still had to explain why Jews were killing each other in the mud of Flanders.

Russian Jews perceived the Jewish national interest much more clearly than their British and German brethren. Many simply could not understand why Great Britain – which had protested on numerous occasions on behalf of the oppressed Jews of Russia and Poland – was now fighting on the side of the Tsar against civilised Germany. When Jabotinsky paid a last visit to Russia, he was called a traitor from the pulpit of Odessa's Yavneh synagogue for siding with the Tsar's ally.

This feeling was accentuated by reaction to German military successes in 1914. Jews were blamed for Russian setbacks. In Poland and Lithuania, synagogues were sacked, shops were looted and Jews were hanged. Some Russian soldiers believed that pious Jews were hiding the newly-invented telephone in their long beards so as to communicate with the German enemy.

Jews in the revolutionary movements understood the war as one of rival imperialisms – and waited for its participants to exhaust themselves before stepping in. Zionists similarly wanted to wait and see who might win before making a move.

In November 1914 the situation changed dramatically with the entry of Turkey into the war. Chaim Weizmann and Vladimir Jabotinsky reasoned that if Zionists allied themselves with Britain, then sooner or later, a British military force would move up from Egypt to confront the Turks in Palestine. Even though a British-ruled Palestine was desirable, the vast majority of Zionists was not willing to gamble on a British victory.

Within a few days of Turkey's entry into the war, a member of the British cabinet, Herbert Samuel, perceived that a window of opportunity had opened. An anglicised Jew who had shown little previous interest in Zionism, Samuel independently submitted a memorandum to the cabinet in January 1915. Entitled The Future of Palestine, it put forward "the dream of a Jewish state, prosperous, progressive, and the home of a brilliant civilisation".

While many, including Lloyd George and Churchill, were sympathetic to Zionist aspirations, there were also national interests. The British war effort would clearly be assisted if such an apparently all-powerful ally was on board. Weizmann played up to such time-honoured Jewish stereotypes and this led eventually to the Balfour Declaration in 1917.

abotinsky advocated the formation of a Jewish military force which would eventually accompany the British advance into Palestine. .

The idea of a Jewish Legion was opposed by the Board of Deputies, future Bolshevik leaders in London's East End and Lord Kitchener himself. Thirty thousand Russian-born Jews lived in the UK, conscription and an agreement with the Russian regime were forcing them to effectively fight for the Tsar – so this was a welcome option.

In Palestine the situation had become more ominous. The Turks had expelled more than 1,000 Jews and banned Hebrew signs in Jaffa. There were fears that what had happened to the Armenians at the hands of the Turks would also happen to the Jews of Palestine. Jabotinsky's campaign to establish a Jewish Legion finally came to fruition in 1917. A Jewish battalion was brought back from Plymouth and housed in the Tower of London. Preceded by the band of the Coldstream Guards, they marched through the East End into the City. The effect was both symbolic and political. It also highlighted the difference between the nationally conscious foreign-born Jews and their British cousins whom they regarded as "diluted Jews".

Jews therefore died at Ypres and on the Somme fighting on opposite sides. The Jewish Legion, however, was the first Jewish military unit to fight for Palestine since Bar Kochba's rebellion - two different images of Jewish identity.

In a recent television programme, the historian Max Hastings presented a solid justification for going to war. He commented: "Once the shooting started, it became plain that their [the Germans'] war aims were little different from those of Hitler, 35 years later, excepting only the Jewish genocide".

But such a difference mattered profoundly to Jews. Jewish national interests were abundantly clear during World War II – and the road to that genocide originated with its precursor, World War I.

One hundred years ago next week the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were murdered in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist, it was the spark that ignited a war in which thousands of Jews died and whose patriotic self-sacrifice is rightly revered. But was it worthwhile?

Suppose Germany had won the war, would there have been a Hitler? Would there have been a Holocaust? Would the Communists have retained power in Russia?

Some historians argue that if Britain had stood aside when Germany handed Belgium an ultimatum in 1914, a united Europe under German hegemony would have brought the EU into existence half a century earlier. And Hitler would have eked out his miserable life as a failed, insignificant painter.

Even so, the atrocities carried out by advancing German troops in Belgium suggested that a Europe ruled by Germany would also have been authoritarian and dictatorial. At some point there may indeed have been another war, but would it have been a war to exterminate European Jews? This war did nothing to ameliorate the Jewish condition in Europe. It planted instead the seeds of death and destruction. Isaac Rosenberg, the war poet, evocatively wrote in 1917:

I killed and killed with slaughter mad;

I killed till all my strength was gone

And still they rose to torture me,

For Devils only die in fun.

Rosenberg's poem was aptly entitled The Immortals – and perhaps this is how we should remember him, and all those who gave their lives in this terrible conflict.

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London.

    Last updated: 10:45am, June 20 2014