One tries to avoid personalizing a book review, but in this case, the personal angle provides the hook.
Two years ago, I wrote about finding the grave of my father’s father, a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army who was killed on the little-discussed eastern front of the First World War.
A reader responded: How did I feel that my grandfather fought on the same side as Adolf Hitler?
I did not reply. Adolf Hitler? He was a 30-year-old corporal at the end of the Great War, a nobody who was still stinging from a gas attack (sustained on the western front) and was now a hungry, unemployable wannabe artist.
Was my grandfather to telegraph what this unknown loser would become? Were all the other Jewish soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian and allied German armies supposed to be similarly clairvoyant?
Perhaps the hapless reader got his world wars confused.
But he got me thinking about another little-known aspect of modern history: the Jewish experience during the First World War – eclipsed by the global conflagration that would start just 21 years later and prove to be the signal event in modern Jewish history, and perhaps all of Jewish history.
There has been surprisingly little written on the subject in popular histories – chapters here and there in studies and texts. Some historians skip over the First World War entirely and go straight to the Holocaust. Most of the discussion about Jews and the Great War is relegated to academic journals and monographs.
A notable exception came just a few years ago when British historian Tim Grady produced The German-Jewish Soldiers of the First World War in History and Memory, which examined the efforts of the 100,000 Jewish soldiers who served in the German military (12,000 died), as well as the various activities patriotic Jewish civilians supported back home, such as raising funds for the war effort and securing vital food supplies. It was one of the first books of its kind in English.
There was also U.S. academic Marsha Rozenblit’s 2001 book, Reconstructing a National Identity: The Jews of Habsburg Austria During World War I, which tells us that the Habsburg Empire was good to its Jews. Thus, some 320,000 of them enthusiastically signed up for service in 1914 to assert their loyalty to Emperor Franz Joseph and show they “belonged” – and then faced a grave identity crisis when the dual monarchy collapsed four years later.
Now, Rozenblit is back, alongside historian Jonathan Karp, to edit a deeply welcome and overdue collection of 14 essays contained in World War I and the Jews (Berghahn Books). Finally, here’s a volume, though still a bit academic, that examines not only the Jewish experience in central Europe, but also in Russia, where nearly half a million Jewish soldiers served in the Imperial Army, hoping to gain more rights in return for their sacrifice, and the tens of thousands of Jews in the Ottoman armed forces (like other non-Muslims, they served mostly in harsh and humiliating labour battalions).
The volume is not just about soldiers who served and died on the front lines. The war on the eastern front between Russia and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) was conducted on territories that were home to almost four million Jewish civilians (500,000 in Galicia alone were dislocated as a result).
But the winds of war were felt everywhere. The Great War “utterly transformed the lives of Jews around the world,” the editors assert. “It allowed them to display their patriotism, to dispel anti-Semitic myths about Jewish cowardice and to fight for Jewish rights.”
It also created massive flux. By war’s end, the major powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire – either collapsed or were radically reconfigured and maps were redrawn, confronting Jewish communities with a new set of challenges and rewards.
The authors cite four major developments: The war offered unprecedented opportunities for Jews to demonstrate their loyalty and patriotism to their host countries; it destroyed the imperial umbrellas under which some 80 per cent of the world’s Jews had lived; it occasioned the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which favoured a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and the peace talks of 1919-1923, in which Jews became a distinct voice and won a measure of self-determination; and it produced a slew of new Jewish organizations to champion rights, whether in the United States, Germany, France or the Soviet Union.
In Palestine itself, the war wrecked the economy and placed Jews in extreme isolation and deprivation. To the rescue came the newly created U.S. Joint Distribution Committee, which would alleviate Jewish suffering in the world for decades to come. As a result, Jewish solidarity and a sense of klal Yisrael emerged.
Despite ongoing ideological spats and massive dislocation, the war created, perhaps for the first time in history, a truly globalized Jewish world, “one in which effective isolation and insularity were no longer possible.”
On this four-year-long centenary of the First World War, it’s helpful to know of the great strides Jews made against huge hurdles. The next war would rewrite everything.