The Great War – White Tsars, Red Tsars and Jews

Part 2 of a two part series outlining the reasons why I believe the Great War was the defining moment of modern Jewish history.

The outbreak of war in 1914 unravelled the perilous system of alliances that had existed between the imperial powers. Russia hurried to defend its Slavic ally Serbia from the gathering Austrian and German armies. The heavily xenophobic tone with which the nations mobilised their men for war startled Jews across Europe, not least in Russia where they had been traditionally persecuted as outsiders for centuries. The war’s coming seemed prophetic. It was ironically declared on the 9th of Ab – the sorrowful day in the Jewish calendar when Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonians and Titus’ Roman legions destroyed both the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem. While the Jews of Russia had been accustomed to great hardship, total destruction now seemed a faint possibility. In spite of their oppression, Russian Jews feared reprisals from their Russian rulers and felt intimidated into military service. Over half a million of them fought in the Tsarist army in the Great War.

The Austrian invasion of Poland in 1914 was smashed by the Russian Empire, which then proceeded to occupy the heavily Jewish region of Austrian Galicia around the city of Lvov. This brought hundreds of thousands of Jews under the control of the Tsarist forces, which now began to suspect the competing loyalties of the large number of Jews fighting in their own forces. However, the German military machine managed to repulse the Russians and pushed them back to Eastern Prussia after the major victories at Tannenberg (the site of the major medieval battle between the Teutonic Knights and Polish-Lithuanian kingdom) and the Masurian lakes.

In doing so, the Central Powers acquired much of the formerly Russian Pale of Settlement (including Congress Poland, Lithuania and Western Belorussia), and a region that contained over 4 million Jews. Having been granted equal rights by the occupying forces (later freedom of association and self government in 1916), the Russian Jews viewed the Central Powers as liberators and saviours as opposed to the anti-Semitic, autocratic system that had burdened and victimised them for centuries. As it is clear from their diaries, many of the assimilated Jews serving the Austro-Hungarian and German militaries described the traditional Jews of Eastern Europe in terms that made them seem repulsive, backward and pitiful creatures. Some of them, perhaps under pressure from their non-Jewish comrades, dismissed them as ‘ostjuden.’ Others felt great sympathy and offered the Eastern Jews the realisation of a better life beyond the old customs and superstitions of the Shtetl. This promise of secularisation may have discarded ancient and revered traditions, but it was the promise of a greater future – one that seemed a more welcoming opportunity to the Jews of the Russian Empire than that posed by the radical politics of the late 19th century.

The Russian response to the Germanic liberation was predictable and cruel. In 1915, Hebrew and Yiddish publications were once again censored and the large scale defeats were accompanied by large pogroms against Jews throughout Russia and the Ukraine, including persecutions campaigns within the military itself. Once again, the ‘Zhid’ was the universal scapegoat of choice. The worst action was an even greater expulsion than the one carried out by the Tsar in the 1890s – an ethnic cleansing campaign removed some 600,000 Jews from the Eastern Front so that there was no chance that they could aide the liberating Central Powers. This led to the Jews being resigned to internal Russia where many died of fatigue, disease, hunger and violence. This campaign also broke up the ancient yeshivas and Rabbinic communities of ‘little Israel’ that had existed in Poland and Lithuania for centuries. Few were allowed to return home, thus establishing the vacuum that would later aide the assimilation programme under the future Soviet regime.

Instead of making the Jews subservient, the Tsarist government’s actions stiffened their resolve and compelled them to further pray for the victory of the Central Powers. On the world stage, Jews of Russian descent set up aid organisations such as the American Jewish Distribution Committee in order to raise awareness of the plight of the exiled Russian Jews as well as supply them with humanitarian aid. These international organisations (in particular the Zionists and the Socialists) usually took a bias towards the Central Powers due to their collective hatred of the Tsar’s regime. Even though the World Zionist Organisation (set up by Theodor Herzl in Basel in 1897) maintained official neutrality, many of its members defied the British and the French in desiring Germany and Austria’s victory over the Russians.

On the Eastern Front, the Tsarist army was now suffering from the drastic effects of attrition due to its exhausted and broken supply lines. Malnutrition and starvation was rife. The chronic lack of weaponry meant many Russian soldiers fought with sticks and clubs while often barefoot. Despite the minimal gains under the Brusilov offensive of 1916, they were reduced to starving victims being sent to their deaths. The epic scale of persecution and deaths of over 250,000 Jews meant that many of the remaining serving Jewish troops now looked to more radical ways of undermining the Tsarist government than hoping for a German victory – they turned to radical Marxism or democratic Socialism as the bedrock for a new society that filled up the destruction of traditional Judaism in Eastern Europe.

They joined an en masse movement within the Russian forces that overwhelmed the Russian generals. Even the celebrated commander Aleksei Brusilov was sympathetic to the demands of the revolutionary dissenters. The prevailing view was that the Tsar had to abdicate and end the war. Men deserted from the army in the hundreds of thousands, including a large number of war weary Jews who no longer saw the need to fight for a system that had treated them as second class citizens. Hordes of angry soldiers marched from the front right to the heart of the Empire. Mutinies were followed by strikes and violent demonstrations in Russian cities. These came from the elements of society that had been most persecuted under the Tsars. At their helm, many politicised Jews joined the worker Soviets and enthusiastically took part in demonstrations that protested harsh Tsarist rule. Nothing had been seen like this since the violence that had erupted against the Tsar in 1905. The troops could no longer contain the riots within Petrograd, and in early 1917 the State Duma sent Tsar Nicholas II a telegram asking for his resignation.

Russian Jews were jubilant – the hated tyrant had been removed and in his place was installed a provisional government of Liberals and Socialists under Prince Georgy Lvov, followed shortly afterwards by Alexander Kerensky that July. The Jews of Russia supported Kerensky and were promised greater equality, freedom, representation and security. The provisional government declared that citizens’ rights would no longer be conditional on one’s national or religious identity, thus leading to the abolishment of 150 discriminatory laws including the prohibition on Jewish settlement outside the Pale. The Jews felt they had been granted civic emancipation, and the Jewish parties hoped to form an ‘all Russian Jewish convention’ to provide the self government that they had lacked under the Tsars.

Yet for the many radicalised Jews who despised particular national identities, Kerensky was simply another bourgeois Liberal who would replace one tyranny with another capitalist system of exploitation. There could be no cooperation with the other political parties and trade unions in order to create a more egalitarian society. Many of the Jewish Mensheviks abandoned their cause in droves, including Leon Trotsky. Following the definitive vision that was offered in Lenin’s April Theses, the Bolsheviks became the premier party for revolutionary activism in Russia.

Just five days after the Balfour Declaration was granted to the Jews of Palestine, Vladmir Lenin was making his final preparations for the October coup d’etat and the Bolshevik seizure of the Winter Palace in Petrograd. Few of the Russian Jewish organisations had any sympathy with the aims of the radical Bolsheviks, particularly because of their desire for an arbitrary centralisation of power within one party and also due to their hostility to religious institutions. They feared Lenin’s belief in the dictatorship of the party, with a small minority (one that had an immensely disproportionate amount of Jewish members) creating another dictatorship over the majority of Russians. They feared the anti-Semitism that would arise in response to such a tyranny. A quarter of the party leadership were of Jewish origin, and thus all the Jews of Russia were held accountable for the actions of the party. The Jewish leaders worst fears were soon confirmed. Automatic identification of Jews with Communism led to a series of massacres undertaken by the White Army in the Civil War period (1918-1921). The General Anton Denikin, who led White forces and Ukrainian nationalists in the Ukraine, killed over 100,000 Jews in pogroms over 160 different settlements.

The Bolshevik government withdrew from the Great War in November 1917 and formally signed a peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk in 1918. The Bolshevik approach to the Jews was twofold. On the one hand, they repudiated anti-Semitism and severely punished any soldiers for attacking Jews. In a series of speeches during the Civil War, Lenin fiercely denounced Tsarism for its anti-Semitic oppression and exploitation of the Jewish proletariat. However, Marxist orthodoxy taught them that they were to be ideologically committed to the destruction of all religious superstitions. They soon liquidated many of the Jewish organisations. For more secular Jews, formal liberation by the Bolsheviks allowed them to leave the Pale. Jews became the third largest national group amongst party members. Despite the initial reluctance, for many Jews the revolution meant freedom and new opportunities. Many became cadres of the party. Any Jewish political activism that was not related to Bolshevik party politics was suppressed – the Socialist Revolutionaries were banned as ‘counter revolutionary’ following the incident at Kronstadt , whilst Jewish interest groups like Zionist organisations or the anti-Zionist ‘Bund’ were outlawed as the devices of capitalist saboteurs from Britain and America. The Marxist theoretician Georgi Plekhanov described Jewish Bundists as Zionists “suffering from sea sickness”.

Hebrew publications were completely forbidden as a superstitious religious tongue, whilst Yiddish was strangely promoted as a ‘proloterian language’ that could aide the Jews’ assimilation into Soviet culture. It was only under Stalin that this scheme too would be drastically abandoned. Shortly after the Bolshevik takeover of the State, the Communist Party developed its own Jewish Commissariat, ‘The Yevsektsyia’, under the former leader of the Bund, Esther Frumkin. The policy on Judaism was to be ruthless – wary that the population would use more anti-Semitic attacks to undermine the Jewish intelligentsia during the Civil War, she exclaimed that “it rests with Jewish Communists to be even more ruthless with Rabbis than non-Jewish Communists are with priests”.

The Jews were themselves subject to indirect forms of discrimination with Rabbis and community leaders facing heavy taxation by the state. They were stereotypically portrayed as ‘petty bourgeois’ reactionaries. Many were encouraged by the Yevsektsiya to move to agricultural and industrial communities in the Crimea and Ukraine in a renewed effort to rapidly restructure Russian Jewish society. The ancient Kehilahs were formally abolished and brought under state jurisdiction by 1919.

Their actions were excessively ruthless – observant Jews were persecuted, yeshivas and synagogues were shut and many were exiled to the Gulag or executed. The Jewish members of the Yevsektsiya and the Cheka were particuarly brutal to the Orthodox Church, whom they reviled as abusers of power who had collaborated with the ancien regime in spreading anti-Semitic prejudice. Despite actually increasing general levels of anti-Semitism, the Jewish Communists were intent on showing the backward peasants that state atheism was the way forward.

Many Jewish individuals were later executed in the purges or imprisoned in the Gulag under the increasingly anti-Semitic regime instituted by Joseph Stalin from the 1930s onwards. From the 1950s, the Soviet Union would regularly state its opposition to ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, ‘Zionist saboteurs’ and ‘refuseniks’ in a pragmatic alignment with the Arab states during the Cold War. Judaism was certainly not offered the protection of Communism for very long.

Whilst the vast majority of Russian Jews were content to retain their religious traditions and even emigrate outside of Russia, there was a small minority committed to the overthrow of the established order within Russia. The Tsars had marginalised Jews socially, economically, religiously and politically – with the onset of these pressures, the Tsars had been forced to institute a set of reforms which acquainted many Jews with their first taste of freedom. Revolution distilled these ideas still further – war led to them becoming state policy. Yet unrestricted critical inquiry and skepticism also has the ability to prosecute a tyranny of its own.

Like the Jacobins at the height of the French Terror, many Jews had taken Enlightenment thought to its absolute extreme. For them, freedom did not come through laws and civil rights but the absolute abolition of capitalism, pluralism and an independent rule of law. With a repudiation of all religion and nationalism, they had sought to replace one tyranny with another – that of the party and the proletariat. They were not motivated by their own Jewishness but by a desire to stamp it out – and any other identity which could lead to persecution of one community by another. In an attempt to “force Russia to be free”, they ended up losing not only their own freedom but that of the entire nation.

This is the last 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
3) White Tsars, Red Tsars and Jews PART 2 (this one)

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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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