The Great War – Jews and the War

Part 1 of a two part series outlining the reasons why I believe the Great War was the defining moment of modern Jewish history.

“Blessed be the Lord my Rock, who teacheth my hands to War, and my fingers to fight.” (Psalm 144)

So read the headline of Britain’s Jewish Chronicle one November morning in 1915. The biblical injunction was also accompanied by a masterly political slogan that was intended to endear the then (largely) Russian Jewish immigrant population to their British rulers. It reminded them that “England has been all she could be to Jews” and in turn, that they “will be all they can be to England.”

This popular slogan would also find it’s way into one very famous Canadian wartime poster (translated into Yiddish as well as English) featuring the Liberal politician Edwin Montagu, his cousin, Herbert Samuel, and also Rufus Issacs, the Viscount of Reading. All of them – prominent Jews in British society and some of the first practicing Jews in the cabinet – were meant to be the exemplars of Anglo-Jewish patriotism and the reasons why grateful Jewish subjects should give their flesh and blood to fight for King and country. The Jews were encouraged to serve even if it meant fighting alongside the King’s hated cousin, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia – a man whose anti-Semitic regime had forced their families to look for a better life in Britain in the first place.

It did not help, of course, that many of these Russian immigrants were unnaturalised and therefore classed as resident aliens who were barred from army duty. Only in 1916 when alien conscription was introduced would they also have to serve (or face deportation). Britain’s Jews signed up in their thousands – 50,000 in total. Their motives, revealed to posterity through letters and diaries, were various. They fought for the ‘carrots’ of patriotism, acceptance and adventure. Others were terrified by the social and political consequences of not signing up. For Jews who had been brought up on their parents’ tales of Cossack raids and violent pogroms, there were bigger ‘sticks’ than white feathers which encouraged them to do battle for Britain. In the heightened jingoistic atmosphere, Jews involved in the manufacture of military uniforms and other supplies were accused of war profiteering and avoiding the front line. Nasty stereotypes about ‘cowardly Jews’ resurfaced until war’s end when the extent of the Jewish community’s contributions to the national effort were laid bare for all to see. British Jews of German ancestry were forced to sign humiliating declarations of loyalty, while others were attacked in Germanophobic riots (which had anti-Semitic impulses) in Leeds and Bethnal Green.

Britain’s Jews, while notable in their war service, were far from alone in the Great War. Over a million Jews served in the combined forces of the Allied powers – another 55,000 in the French army, 250,000 in the United States army (which entered the war in April 1917) and 650,000 in the Russian army. Two of Britain’s most famous war poets – Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon – were of Jewish ancestry. While Sassoon’s family had converted to Christianity, Rosenberg’s poetry evokes the ethical dilemmas facing many Jews in the midst of the most appalling suffering. In “Dead Man’s Dump”, Rosenberg inquired;

“Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back,
Is their soul’s sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

For many, his “Break of Day in the Trenches” captured the hellish shock that affected men with “cosmopolitan sympathies” who entered the “torn fields of France” in a manner that surpassed many of his contemporaries, even immortal names such as Owen, Graves and Sassoon. Rosenberg also captured the mood of discrimination that often faced Jewish recruits in the trenches. To quote;

“The blonde,
the bronze,
the ruddy,
With the same heaving blood,
Keep tide to the moon of Moses.
Then why do they sneer at me?”

The Jewish contribution to the forces of the Central Powers was also highly considerable (and a continuing source of embarrassment to the Nazi Regime which would come to power in those territories a few decades later). 320,000 served in the forces of Austro-Hungary, another 100,000 in the Germany army and a further 20,000 in the forces of the Ottoman Empire. Many of the battles on the Eastern front were fought in the ‘Pale of Settlement’ – the vast territory spanning Eastern Europe in which lived 4 million Russian and Polish Jews. Many of them greeted the German and Austrian armies as liberators, a process further encouraged by the pro-German propaganda distributed among Polish Jews by the German-Jewish backed ‘Committee for the East’.

Excepting the voices of a few Jewish liberals (Walther Rathenau), communists (Rosa Luxembourg) and pacifists (Albert Einstein), the expressions of patriotic allegiance were even more vocal in these nations. Kurt Blumenfeld, the Secretary of the Zionist Federation, published one article in September 1915 in which he argued that the Zionist movement might be crucial for joint German-Ottoman interests in the near East. Some phrased their patriotism towards the Fatherland in philosophical, even quasi-spiritual, liberating terms. One Nahum Goldmann, a future President of the World Zionist Organisation, wrote on behalf of Germany’s War Ministry that the “[German] drill sergeant personifies Kant’s categorical imperative.” At the beginning of the war, it might not have been wholly unrealistic to predict that it would be the (privately) anti-Semitic Kaiser who would declare Germany’s support for a Jewish state in the Middle East as well as backing a general insurrection of Russian and Polish Jews against their Tsarist oppressors.

Yet what the Great War caused was a total reorientation in the worldwide Jewish community’s sympathies, from the Germanic territories and the Ottoman Empire, towards the United States and the countries of the British Commonwealth. Whereas the Zionist movement was previously split between the world powers and officially retained a neutral stance, the overt embracing of Zionism by the Lloyd George British government (as expressed in the 1917 Balfour Declaration) had the effect of cementing close cooperation between the British authorities and Zionist leadership in the early inter-war period. As I will discuss in further detail in part three of my series, this totally affected the destiny of the Zionist project in Palestine as well as the character of the present day Jewish community which is overwhelmingly English speaking and Americanised in its cultural outlook.

Of course this could not have also occurred without the later annihilation of six million Jews in Eastern Europe in the Holocaust – an act that was to nearly wipe out what remained of Yiddish speaking Jewish life in Europe. But the political and linguistic ties forged between Jews and their Anglo-American hosts in the period of the Great War was the beginning of their long path of integration into those respective societies. This was a significant change to the suspicion, hostility and snobbery that had been inflicted on many Jewish immigrants by their hosts at the start of the Great War.

In the grand scheme of things, German Jews were to fare much worse. As Amos Elon recounted so movingly in his “Pity of it all”, the German-Jewish love affair was never reciprocated. In spite of their distinguished war service and the immense losses they had sustained, German Jews (alongside Socialist politicians) were accused of ‘stabbing Germany in the back’ while simultaneously shirking from their duties at the front. I will explain this in more detail in my final part which will look at the War’s impact on the rise of Fascism across Europe.

The Great War also led to a technological innovation which would have a catastrophic impact on Europe’s Jews in the future – poison gas. Ironically, the person who pioneered Germany’s chemical weapons programme at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute during the First World War was a fierce patriot of Jewish ancestry named Fritz Haber. Haber – the famed chemical scientist who had discovered the Haber-Bosch process of manufacturing Nitric acid – put his destructive new invention to use in the war effort. The German War Ministry developed several plants to produce explosives using Haber’s methods with a total of 300 million tons being produced p.a. by 1916.

Haber also experimented with pesticides and other toxic fumes in order to break the stalemate on the Western Front. Alongside chlorine and mustard gas, his efforts led to the creation of the deadly Zyklon B. Haber, who died in 1934, only lived to see one year of Nazi rule. Haber, who had willingly devoted his energies to developing weapons of mass destruction for the German war machine during the First World War (and for which the English atomic scientist Ernest Rutherford would later refuse to shake his hand), had also unwittingly armed the genocidal regime that would wage the Second Great War. Haber never witnessed his terrible creation being put to use in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor – where his own Jewish friends and distant relatives would be sentenced to death. We can only begin to imagine the horror and guilt he would have felt. Of course such horror would have been deeply hypocritical. Haber had no qualms about perverting the cause of science when devoting himself to his nation.

For the Jews of Britain, America, Germany and the Middle East, the Great War was to have an incalculable impact in different ways. It brought about the Jewish community’s greatest triumph (the ascendancy of Zionism in Jewish politics) and its greatest catastrophe (the technology and ideas that brought about the Holocaust). The effects of the Great War upon world Jewry would resonate throughout the twentieth century and even up to the present day. Meanwhile, as I will show in my next part, the First World War brought Revolution to the Jews of Russia – and the replacement of one terrible tyranny with another that was even worse…

This is the first part in a series on the relationship between Jews and the First World War:
1) The Great War – The Defining Moment of Modern Jewish History (introduction)
2) Jews and the War PART 1 (this one)
3) White Tsars, Red Tsars and Jews PART 2 (coming soon)

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About the Author
Richard Black is a freelance journalist and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford.
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