How defeat in the First World War solidified antisemitism in Germany

Almost 100,000 Jews wore the German military uniform in the First World War, only to face a horrific fate by the Second


When the armistice was signed 100 years ago this week, German Jews, as with most other Germans, could find few reasons to celebrate.

After more than four years of grim fighting, the end was a humiliating defeat in the field and a revolution at home. This was not the outcome that anyone had wanted.

“I almost fell over in shock” at the news, Joseph Levy, an Orthodox Frankfurt cantor, later recalled. For German Jews, there were manifold reasons for such disappointment, but three stick out particularly strongly.

First, people understandably struggled to comprehend the huge scale of physical and material sacrifice. At the time of the armistice, with Germany comprehensively defeated, it was hard to impose any kind of positive narrative.

Almost 100,000 Jews had worn the German military uniform in the war, 12,000 soldiers had lost their lives and thousands more returned home permanently maimed.

Julius and Lina Goldschmidt from Nuremberg had been deprived of their three sons — Ludwig, Moritz and Bruno — who all died at the front.

Max Waldmann, a war volunteer from Mainz, at least made it home. However, a gunshot wound to the head left him deaf and partially blind.

Massive sacrifices had been made by those in Germany too. Jewish women juggled their daily lives to serve in soup kitchens or to work in hospitals, while all the time trying to keep family and household together.

Elsewhere, nurses from Stuttgart’s Jewish hospital were dispatched into France, while Jewish communities across Germany raised funds, set up temporary hospitals and found space for refugees and the displaced.

The disparity between the hopes of August 1914 and the depressing realities of November 1918 was a second reason for post-war despair.

Certainly not all German Jews had been enthusiastic supporters of the conflict; sceptical voices had also made themselves heard. But nonetheless once the war was in full swing, there was a stout determination to defend Germany’s borders.

The large Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith issued its own rallying call, while even the main Zionist organisation urged its members “to serve the fatherland”.

A smaller number of German Jews viewed the war not just in defensive terms, but also as an opportunity for expansion. Davis Trietsch, a journalist, publicist and lesser-known Zionist, was a particularly keen advocate of German annexations.

In a series of publications, he called for Germany to take parts of France, Belgium and swathes of Eastern Europe. When the war made Germany weaker, not stronger, the roots of German disappointment become clear.

A third reason for post-war disenchantment lay in the rise of wartime antisemitism. At the start of hostilities, the Kaiser had given German Jews’ cause for hope.

In his famous civic truce speech, he attempted to heal social and political divisions, declaring that “we are all German brothers and only German brothers”.

Yet the hope of national unity and an end to antisemitic prejudice rapidly evaporated, as accusations of Jewish shirking and profiteering spread.

What finally extinguished the last glimmer of hope was the military’s ill-conceived Jewish census. In autumn 1916, the military decided to count the number of Jewish soldiers at the front and behind the lines.

The fact that there was never a similar survey of Catholic or Protestant troops only emphasised the antisemitic prejudices that underpinned this statistical exercise.

When the war ended, German Jews were already emotionally and physically drained from the years of conflict. Yet, the end of hostilities unleashed even greater uncertainties. In November 1918, troops needed to be demobilised and the wider economy somehow returned to a peacetime setting.

Otto Meyer was one of many people who had to make this personal journey. Stationed on the Western Front when the war ended, he spent many weeks on the slow march back to the northwestern town of Rheda.

It was only in mid-December that he could finally turn his attention to restoring the fortunes of his family textile business.

What made the return to peace all the more difficult for Meyer and other German Jews was deepening antisemitism. After suffering such a devastating defeat, many Germans demanded simple explanations for what had gone wrong.

The stab-in-the-back legend, which became the most widespread myth, blamed Jews and socialists at home for undermining the soldiers at the front.

During the war, Jews fought, died and suffered together with all other Germans. Despite the depth of these shared experiences, the post-war myths of defeat very gradually forced Jews to the margins.

Jewish war veterans and the bereaved continued to remember the war dead throughout the interwar years on memorials and through regular remembrance ceremonies.

But the pogrom of November 1938 finally curtailed such activities, after which the Jewish soldiers of the First World War suffered the same fate as all other European Jews in the Nazis’ genocidal war of destruction.

Dr Tim Grady is Reader in Modern History at the University of Chester and the author of A Deadly Legacy: German Jews and the Great War published by Yale University Press

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