Fighting with the enemy - the Kaiser’s Jewish soldiers

By Rosa Doherty, July 31, 2014

When war broke out in 1914 German Jews joined their county’s armed forces in their thousands.

“Jews had a profound sense of commitment to the German fatherland during the First World War,” said Toby Simpson, the learning and engagement manager at the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide.

“Their stories are so tragic and remarkable, these are Jews who fought for Germany in the first war and were killed by Hitler in the second.

“Considering there were 510,000 Jews living in Germany in 1914, and 100,000 signed up to fight, that really is a large proportion.

“And they were proud to fight, they fought on the western and eastern fronts and came from all sections of society. They were labourers to the very upper middle classes.”

The majority of Jewish soldiers joined up voluntarily. “The posh ones usually joined as officers and others were infantry. It depended on your skills as to where and how you fought but large numbers of Jews fought on the front line,” explained Mr Simpson.

Despite their commitment to Germany Jews had to contend with an undercurrent of antisemitism in the forces.

Two years into the war, the army leadership ordered a count of Jewish soldiers (Judenzählung) serving on the front, after a series of media reports accusing Jews of shirking their responsibility and not fighting.

The census was never published because it proved that Jews were well represented, but it did not go unnoticed.
The response from soldiers on the battlefield was muted, but on the home front some German Jews loudly proclaimed their outrage.

The war was the first time Jews were allowed to observe their religion while in uniform. Chaplains were allowed to serve the religious needs of Jewish soldiers at war for the first time.

Mr Simpson said: “Jewish soldiers had served and sacrificed their lives on behalf of various German armies ever since the era of the Napoleonic Wars.

“But this war was the first time they were allowed to practice their religion in the trenches.

“Jewish army chaplains conducted religious services, festivities, and distributed prayer books.

“And perhaps most importantly they tended to the needs of the wounded and the bereaved.”

Some 12,000 German Jews died in World War One. Bereaved Jewish families often could not visit a grave to mourn, leading many to reach out for acts of communal remembrance.

Synagogues and community groups had to come together to remember the dead and they built hundreds of small memorials.

In Hamburg some 112 permanent sites of Jewish remembrance were constructed in the interwar period, including 19 war memorials and eighty-five memorial plaques.

After the war, the service record of Jewish soldiers was held up to scrutiny by those who sought a scapegoat for the German defeat.

Years later, that record was in danger of being erased by the Nazis altogether.

Mr Simpson said: “The last Jewish memorial to be dedicated before the Second World War was erected in the Jewish cemetery at Frankfurt on the Oder in autumn 1937.

“In November 1938 the Reich Association of Jewish Front Soldiers was dissolved and the remaining files of the Central Association of Germans of Jewish Faith were confiscated by the Gestapo.

“The tragedy is those soldiers held on to their German identity right up until the end. I think it shows the power behind a sense of national identity still relevant to this day.

Last updated: 12:38pm, August 5 2014