The coming centennial of WWI doesn’t seem to be eliciting much interest, especially among Jews. For this and the previous generation, WWII was the formative violent event of the 20th century, a war with clear “good guys” and “bad guys” (well, partially), which brought about not only the Holocaust but also (very indirectly) the birth of Jewish independence.
The Second World War is thus seen as THE ultimate event, filled with meanings big and small as well as myriad lessons for the future. WWI, by contrast, is an event shrouded in confusion and cliche. It is the classic “pointless war” with millions killing each other for no particular reason. The advance of scholarship beyond this simplistic picture has not penetrated this easy – and distorted – depiction of the conflict.
But one cannot understand either the 20th century or the Jews’ place therein without understanding what was then known as the “Great War”. For us Jews, it is crucial that we not only take the 1914 generation out of the “stupid box”, but that we understand how that cataclysmic event shaped Jewish identities and experiences, impressions which last far beyond the shocks of its terrible sequel.
Perhaps most formative was the Jewish wartime experience. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fought on both sides of the line, many out of deep patriotism or at least from a desire to prove Jewish loyalty. They did so despite the repeated suspicions of many leaders, especially in Russia and Germany, who maintained their traditional prejudice against Jews as cowards and traitors. They did so, despite persistent fears of having killed their own brethren across the many no man’s lands in Western and Eastern Europe.
This contradiction – between loyalty and prejudice, patriotism and kinship, hatred of the enemy but love for one’s people – encapsulated the paradox and tragedy of the whole of European Jewry up until 1939. Far more than the Holocaust, Jewish movements such as Zionism and Bundism were shaped in their formative period by these contradictions – before, during and after the war.
WWI and its aftermath was a time of great hope for many in the Jewish world. This was the period of the Balfour Declaration, the first binding international recognition not only of Jewish nationality but also of their rights in the Land of Israel. All throughout Europe, Jews were granted full civil rights for the first time in the new states that arose, rights enshrined in the Minority Treaties. The Russian Revolution – the actual one – in March 1917 brought new hope to Jews for full civil rights in what was then the worst country for Jews to live in.
But WWI had a far darker side for the Jews, one which set forth many of the demons that would come to haunt Jews during WWII and far beyond. Perhaps the worst of these was the Bolshevik coup d’etat of November 1917, otherwise known, wrongly, as the October Revolution. With an over-representation of Jews in its leadership ranks, this destructive takeover of Russia came to be seen throughout the world as a “Jewish revolution” – with devastating consequences.
Antisemitism had existed before 1914, to be sure, but the fear of a “Jewish Bolshevik” takeover gave it demonic and paranoid dimensions. The Protocols became massive bestsellers. Tens of thousands of Jews throughout Russia were murdered by anti-Bolsheviks in pogroms that make events like Kishinev look like nothing.
Then, as before, anti-semites cared nothing for the facts. They cared little for the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jewish communists cared nothing for their former people (they were often the most zealous in persecuting Jewish religion) or that the overwhelming majority of communists weren’t Jewish. Nor did they care that only a small (if highly visible) minority of Jews ever supported communism; in any country where Jews could vote, communists gained single-digit support.
Even without the specter of Bolshevism, the hopes of WWI disappeared quickly. In most countries formed after WWI, Minority Treaties were ignored or downplayed. In place of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire which tolerated pluralism to an extent and respected national minorities, many Jews were now all stuck in ethnocratic countries most of whom wished to forcibly assimilate or marginalize people not like the majority.
All this and more is the legacy of that most misunderstood event. It behooves us to give WWI the attention it deserves, both to understand the past and perhaps the future as well.