The “Great War” and the Jewish Question: Reflection on a Centennial

Last week marked the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. How many of you noticed?

I had been vaguely aware early in the year that 2014 would mark the centennial of what was in its time called the “Great War,” and by some (naïve idealists) the “war to end all wars,” but initially I hadn’t paid much attention.  After all, 2014 also marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II and is the middle of the five year series of sesqui-centennial commemorations of the American Civil War.  At first glance, either of those conflicts seems more significant historically than World War I.

The approaching centennial caught my attention a couple of months ago, when, in the course of a routine perusal of the official Buckingham Palace web site (yes, I know, I’m an incurable anglophile), I took note of a press release listing where various members of the British royal family would be on August 4th, the date of the centennial commemoration in Britain.  Thirteen royals would spread out to participate in commemoration ceremonies in eleven different locations.  That level of coverage made it clear that the Queen — and presumably the British government on whose advice she is constitutionally required to act – is attributing a far greater significance to this centennial milestone than an American would expect.  That difference of perspective was confirmed last week, when the various commemoration ceremonies took place throughout Europe, and the American news media made only passing mention of the centennial commemorations.

It’s not surprising that World War I looms larger in the historical memories of Europeans than it does for Americans.  They fought that war for a lot longer than we did, and they fought it mainly on their own continent. The war began in Europe in August of 1914, but the United States didn’t join the fight until April of 1917.  No battle in that war was fought in American territory, and the casualty rates for American troops, though by no means negligible, were not remotely comparable to the horrendous losses suffered by the principal European combatants.

Perhaps the most important difference between American and European perspectives on the “Great War” is evident from their actions after it ended.  The United States withdrew into its habitual isolationism as if nothing had changed.  We had entered the war reluctantly, mainly because of Germany’s persistent attacks on neutral shipping.  The effect of our entry on the military balance was dramatic, confirming our status as a major world power.

There was an American tradition, however, going back to George Washington, of avoiding entanglement in Europe’s periodic outbreaks of bellicosity.  In the aftermath of the “Great War,” many Americans sought to revive that tradition by refusing to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the newly formed League of Nations and instead relying for protection, as we had done throughout our history, on the natural buffer zones created by the two great oceans that surround us.  Technological advances were already eroding the value of that buffer zone, but most Americans were not eager to accept the responsibility of being a world power.

Europeans, unlike Americans, did not have the option of pretending that the end of World War I could bring a restoration of the status quo ante.  When the war began in August of 1914, the map of Europe was dominated by five empires.  When the Armistice ended the war in November of 1918, only one of those five empires – the British — still existed. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires had shattered, and the German state that replaced its empire had shrunk in Europe and ceased to exist almost anywhere else.  In Russia, the war had brought about not only the collapse of the Tsarist regime but its subsequent replacement by a totalitarian Communism that would cast a shadow over the world for most of the twentieth century.

The collapse of those four multi-national empires radically changed the map of Europe, but this by itself was not unprecedented.  Similar revisions had resulted from the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, which ended the Napoleonic wars, and before that from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years war. What was novel about the process that ended World War I was the articulation of the right to national self-determination as (at least in theory) a fundamental principle of statecraft. The resultant treaties were inconsistent in their application of this principle, but once articulated it proved to be an irresistible force, not only altering radically the map of Europe but also sounding the death knell of colonialism.

The most significant result of World War I, however, arose out of the unavoidable realization of the destructive power of modern weaponry.  In our era of vast nuclear arsenals capable of incinerating the entire planet, the destructive power of World War I weaponry hardly seems significant.  At the time, however, the accuracy and destructiveness of the available weapons was a tremendous “advance” over anything previously available. The extent of that change and its effect on the course of the war seemed to take all the combatants by surprise.  None of the leaders of the major European powers that stumbled into war in 1914 imagined that the war would last more than four years and cost millions of lives.

The most immediate effect of the war’s immense cost in lives and treasure was the need to find someone to blame.  Too much had been sacrificed to achieve the allied victory for the resulting peace treaty to be equivocal about who was at fault.  The more punitive elements of the Treaty of Versailles – the “war guilt” clause, the reparations and those border adjustments that made a mockery of the newly articulated principle of self-determination — were necessary in order to satisfy the demands of the French and British publics for someone to be held accountable for the carnage.

Because of America’s late entry into the war, its soldiers did not experience the full horrors that deployment of the more destructive weaponry caused.  Because the battles took place far from the American heartland, its civilians were not part of the transformation into what we now call collateral damage.  America had experienced a preview of the horrors of modern warfare, however, during its Civil War half a century earlier – and the result was eerily similar.

The weapons used in the Civil War were not as sophisticated or as destructive as those which would be deployed in World War I a half century later, but it was still a technological leap from the weaponry that had preceded it.  No one on either side had expected the Civil War to last as long as it did. The level of destruction, and the enormous numbers of dead and wounded, were well beyond what anyone could have imagined at the outset.

The course of events that followed the end of the Civil War foreshadowed that which would later follow World War I.  The unexpected enormity of the carnage in both cases demanded accountability, which led to the harshness of Reconstruction after the Civil War and the harshness of Versailles fifty years later.  That harshness in both cases led to resentment by the defeated side, and ultimately to a backlash.  The misery resulting from the backlash against Reconstruction was borne primarily by the newly freed slaves and their descendants. The misery resulting from the backlash against Versailles –Nazi Germany’s war against civilization — was more widely distributed.  The victim that suffered most, however, was one that had nothing to do with the excesses of Versailles — the Jewish people.

As twenty-first century Americans – and especially as twenty-first century Jews — we cannot view the First World War except through the lens of the Second.  We know now that the punitive provisions contained in the Treaty of Versailles created among the German people a sense of grievance that Hitler skillfully exploited.  It is difficult to imagine the Holocaust without the allied overreach embodied by that treaty.  It is, alas, even more difficult to imagine what subsequent Jewish history would look like without the catastrophe that we call the Holocaust.

The Holocaust was the greatest catastrophe to befall the Jewish people since the Romans crushed the Bar Kochba rebellion eighteen centuries earlier.  As a result, it is tempting, to view the significance of World War I within Jewish history solely for its indisputable role as a primary cause of World War II.  Such a viewpoint, however, would ignore those effects of the “Great War” that were apparent even at the time.

One of these results is well known, though its connection to World War I is often ignored.  The British government, on November 2, 1917, issued what is now commonly known as the Balfour Declaration.  For the first time, one of the world’s most powerful nations committed to advance the goal of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”  Twenty years after the first Zionist Congress, Herzl’s dream of a Jewish state, though far from guaranteed, for the first time seemed like a realistic possibility rather than a utopian fantasy.

Not surprisingly, Israel’s enemies, in their ongoing battle to delegitimize the Jewish State, frequently take aim at the Balfour Declaration.  They argue, for example, that the British government, in that declaration, was giving away land that wasn’t theirs to give.  That contention may be factually accurate, but it’s beside the point.  No one has claimed that the Balfour Declaration was a legally binding document; it was simply a statement of Britain’s policy.  What Israel’s enemies ignore, however, is that the Balfour Declaration’s language was subsequently incorporated into the mandate given to Britain by the League of Nations.  The mandate was the legal basis for Britain’s control of Palestine, which had previously been part of the collapsed Ottoman Empire.

The other Jewishly significant result of World War I, though traumatic at the time, has been largely forgotten.  That war marked the first armed conflict in which substantial numbers of Jewish soldiers were fighting on both sides of a non-Jewish war.  (The American Civil War had actually broken this ground earlier, but although there certainly were Jewish soldiers on both sides during that conflict, the numbers were too small to receive significant attention.)

Of course, the phenomenon of Jews fighting against other Jews as soldiers on behalf of the predominantly non-Jewish countries of which they were citizens should not have surprised anyone.  It was the logical – indeed, the inevitable — result of the bargain of the Emancipation.   During the course of the nineteenth century, Jews had been given citizenship in most European countries.  Henceforth, at least in theory, they were entitled to the same rights as every other citizen.

But the Emancipation came at a price.  Jews were entitled to the rights of citizens of the countries in which they lived and were expected to fulfill the obligations of citizens – including the obligation to bear arms in time of war.  As citizens, Jews owed political allegiance solely to their countries of citizenship.  Their bond with their fellow Jews could only be that of a shared religion, not of a shared national identity.

As World War I ended, the choice before European Jews seemed clear.  Jews could live in their respective countries as citizens and relate to their fellow Jews solely as co-religionists.  In the alternative, they could take advantage of the promise of the Balfour Declaration and work toward the establishment of a nation-state of their own.

The rise of Nazism, and the catastrophe that followed, made it clear that the choice that appeared to face Jews in the aftermath of World War I was an illusion.  In theory, Jews might be entitled to be citizens of their respective countries on the same terms as everyone else, but they were still dependent on the good will of their host countries.  Without a sovereign country of their own, Jews would continue to be at the mercy of their fellow citizens.

Of course, national sovereignty is not a panacea either.  The destructive powers of today’s weapons of war make the weaponry of World War I look primitive by comparison.  The world of statecraft and diplomacy is a complex one, and a Jewish State, like any other State, cannot afford to be isolated.  As it is, Israel has been under siege during the entirety of its independent existence.  Without the friendship of the United States, its status would be even more precarious.

The apparent choice confronting world Jewry at the conclusion of World War I was not a choice at all.  Jews in the modern world need both a sovereign state and the ability to function as full citizens in the countries in which they live.  Without a sovereign state to call their own, the Jews of the Diaspora would be at the mercy of every charismatic bigot who finds them a convenient target.  Without Diaspora Jews respected by the countries of which they are citizens, Israel’s survival could well be at risk.

As it happens, while Britain’s royals were spreading out to attend their respective commemoration ceremonies, Jews throughout the world were beginning the fast of Tisha b’Av.  We have had, unfortunately, centuries of practice in commemorating tragedy.  The fast of Tisha b’Av was initially established as a day of mourning for the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash and the beginning of the Babylonian exile that followed.  Over the course of centuries, many of the numerous tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, regardless of when they took place, have been appended to Tisha b’Av, the day that has come to symbolize the all-too-numerous tragedies of Jewish history.

During most of the years of exile, Jews were a powerless people who had neither a country of our own nor the ability to function as full citizens of the countries in which we lived.  Today we have both of those tools, though it remains to be seen whether we also have the ability to use them wisely.  The process of obtaining these tools was a long one, but among the milestones along that route, World War I surely ranks high.  It’s certainly worthy of more attention than it has received from either the Jewish or the mainstream American media.









About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.