Thursday, July 23, 2015

The First World War and the Jews

A great deal has been written about the devastation that resulted from the First World War, which left millions dead, thousands maimed and a generation devastated. For those who have never lived through a war, the extent of the losses is truly unimaginable.

For much of the Jewish population of Europe, the war meant both social and physical upheaval. The eastern front, where Russia battled Germany and Austria, cut through the center of European Jewish life. The Russian army moved into Austrian Galicia; the Germans and Austrians moved into Russian-controlled Poland; etc. As the enemy armies crossed each others’ borders, they had one thing in common - their dislike of the Jews.

Both sides of the war believed that the Jews were helping the enemy. In Czarist Russia, hundreds of thousands of Jews joined the army. Nevertheless, the Jewish population was accused of evading service, profiteering and supporting the enemy. Entire Jewish communities were banished from their homes near the front and sent deeper into Russia.

The Jews in Germany and Austria also heeded the patriotic call-to-arms.  Alas, here too, they were mistrusted by the government. In 1916, the German General Staff ordered the Judenzählung, a census of Jewish soldiers meant to determine whether the Jews were shirking their duties. The results show that the Jews were serving at the front proportionally to their numbers and were honest and dedicated. The results that were leaked, however, said the opposite.

Beyond the destruction of community and the economic hardships, perhaps the most terrible outcome of the First World War was the fact that the war-time suspicions of the Jewish populace festered into a belief that the Jews were responsible for the Germans losing the war (which they were blamed with starting as an attempt at world domination) and for orchestrating the Bolshevik Revolution that transformed Russia into the Soviet Union.

*World War I began on August 1, 1914, which was the 9th of Av.

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