Coming of the Great War

In the first decade of the 20th century the world was poised for a war it would call “The Great War.”

One of those little realized facts is that the destruction of European Jewry did not begin with the Second World War. It began with the first one. The genocide of six million Jews, which occurred in the 1940s, was the terrible end of a tragedy which began with the First World War.

It is ironic that statements before the war foresaw a time of lasting peace, perpetual advancement and an unceasing march toward utopia. Europe believed it lived a charmed life. War was a thing of the past. The new technological advances would usher in a period of unequalled prosperity.

We have a hard time understanding their optimism. Even though we live in a world of much greater technological progress we are beset with doubts. After the bloodiest century in history, we know what type of uncertain world we live in. They did not. They felt that the world going to get better and better.

Even as words of optimism poured out of the mouths and pens of Europe’s intellectuals and pundits, however, the signs of a terrible storm rapidly approaching on the horizon were unmistakable.

The Russian Bear

The coming of the war was highlighted by a few events that shook Europe and had a profound effect on the Jews as well. The first was the Russo-Japanese war of 1905.

Russia was the sleeping giant of Europe. Churchill said, “Woe to the one that wakes the Russian bear.” However, Russia was backward militarily and owned an empire too vast to control. Russia’s military and industrial strength lay in the west, but it had claims in the east, specifically in Manchuria and ports on the Pacific Ocean. Japan, though, was a burgeoning power and also laid claim to some of the same land and ports.

When war came, the Russians were ill-prepared. They had to transport their army and its supplies army across an entire continent, and the only way to do so was one railway: the trans-Siberian railroad. It created a supply nightmare. On top of that, their equipment was poor and their generalship awful.

The Russian army sustained a terrible drubbing. Worse, the Japanese sank the entire Russian fleet at Port Arthur in Manchuria. In the peace that was negotiated Russia was forced to cede to Japan great chunks of territory, which threatened to eliminate them as a Pacific power.

When the Russian soldiers returned home they were extremely discouraged. They realized that they were led by poor generals, had bad equipment and that hundreds of thousands of their brethren in arms died needlessly. In their anger, they helped ignite a revolution against the Czar in 1905.

There had been threats of revolution in Russia ever since the Czar had been assassinated in 1881. Now the threats would become realized.

Jewish Revolutionaries

Jews were very heavily represented by all the revolutionary organizations. In the same party as Lenin was a young Jewish man by the name of Julius Cedarbaum, who was known through his revolutionary alias, Julius Martov. He came from southern Russia where the pogroms were very common and particularly brutal. Early in life he decided that he would devote himself to the revolutionary cause. Organizing revolutionary cells, he was caught, sent to forced labor in Siberia and eventually escaped.

Lenin would head the group that would become known as the Bolsheviks, meaning the “majority.” Martov would come to head the group known as Mensheviks, meaning “minority.” In reality, it was the opposite. Martov represented the majority of the communist party whereas Lenin represented the minority. Among their differences, Lenin was much more exclusive. He did not want to give any power to the people. Only an inner cadre of revolutionaries could run it, in his view. Martov and the Mensheviks were much more tolerant and liberal. For that reason they did not really stand much of a chance against the likes of Lenin.

In Lenin’s wing of the party was another revolutionary, a Jew by the name of Leib Bronstein, who became known to the world as Leon Trotsky. He also came to Marxism as a reaction to terrible anti-Semitism. Born into a traditional family, Trotsky was an example of a Jewish revolutionary originally educated in the yeshivas of Eastern Europe. Succumbing to the pressures of the time, they left the fold and became inflamed with Marxist zeal.

Trotsky was also arrested by the Russians, sent to Siberia and eventually escaped. He lived for a while in New York City, drinking tea on the Lower East Side and arguing the cause of Marxism. It all looked very harmless. However, when the Communist Revolution exploded in 1917 it was appropriately described by the title of a book by journalist John Reed, The Ten Days That Shook The World.

The revolution of 1905 was put down by the Czar and his secret police in six months. Hundreds of people were executed and thousands were exiled and tens of thousands were sent to Siberia. Other thousands escaped.

Defections from Judaism

This period saw a large defection of Jews from traditional views and ways of life. The as-of-yet untried Marxist theories inspired in people belief that the world was going to get better once capitalism and government were destroyed. That belief found a strong echo in the Jewish street.

With that belief came the bitter hatred of religion. Marx had said that religion was the opiate of the masses. Religion, in his opinion, made people docile with the belief that even if things were unbearable in this world there was a better world awaiting them. In Marx’s thinking, however, revolution could not come without things being unbearable.

For the first time in centuries the Jewish street was filled with groups who purposely set out to destroy the Jewish religion and who equated it with all of the evils and shortcomings of their society. The Jewish labor unions in Poland and Russia would purposely make their banquets on the night of Yom Kippur when Jews were fasting. They purposely desecrated the Sabbath and trampled other traditional Jewish values.

The inner turmoil and outer unrest caused by the failed revolution in 1905 resulted in a new wave of migration among Eastern European Jews. Hundreds of thousands came to the United States. Ironically, many of them became capitalists instead of communists. The one “ideal” they kept was hatred of the Jewish religion.

The unraveling of Jewish life in Russia benefited the Zionist movement. With everything disintegrating, the only alternative, the Zionists said, was to leave for Palestine and start over. In the nine years before the First World War, from 1905-1914, approximately 15,000 Jews came from Eastern Europe to Palestine. Approximately 3,000-4,000 of them were hard-core revolutionaries. Most of them went to the kibbutzim, which were then being formed, and introduced a communal life based in part upon idealism and in part upon a complete disregard and distain for their Jewish heritage.

Their viewpoints became the dominant ones in the pioneer communities. Therefore, it was they who would have the power as the fledgling Jewish state developed.

The Effects of Urbanization

For centuries, the Jewish people in Eastern Europe had basically been a rural people. Unlike the Jewish population in the United States, which is almost exclusively urban and suburban, the Jews in Eastern Europe had lived in small towns and farms.

Beginning in the middle 1800s, the process of urbanization and industrialization reached Russia and Poland and changed the face of society. For the first time, there were mass migrations to the cities. Included in those migrations were Jews.

Jewish migration also contributed to the undoing of centuries of religious life. City life and factory work proved more than many of them could bear. The great Jewish metropolises of Eastern Europe served as a rallying point for the de-Judaization of the Jews.

At the same time, urbanization increased anti-Semitism. As anti-Semitic as the Russians and Poles were when the Jews lived in the rural areas, they were more so when Jews came to the city. All of a sudden they encountered high concentrations of Jews. It was one thing to live in a little town and see maybe 20-40 Jewish families whose ancestors lived there for centuries. They were not a threat. But it was another thing to see hundreds and hundreds of Jews coming out of synagogue in Warsaw. It was overwhelming to the non-Jews. Jews became terribly visible all of a sudden. Warsaw alone had 300,000 Jews. Lvov had 100,000. That served to intensify the already existing anti-Semitic feelings among the local populace.

In short, the inner structure of Jewish life began to fall apart with the process of urbanization.

The Powder Box of Europe

In 1910, there was an outbreak of war in the Balkans, which had been controlled by Turkey, the Ottoman Empire. Called the “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire had long been disintegrating and could not control any of its holdings. That is how little countries like those in the Balkans – e.g. Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria — could break away.

Immediately upon attaining their independence, though, these Balkan countries celebrated by fighting among themselves. The Balkans is a composite of many ethnic groupings, none of whom like each other very much. It was called the “Powder Box of Europe.” The Europeans always worried that conflict there would ignite a larger conflict, which it did eventually. That was how the First World War began, as we will learn.

The Austrians were interested in replacing Turkey as the empire ruling the Balkans. They wielded enough influence to put out the fire before it spread into a wider conflagration. However, the leader of Serbia already said in 1912 when he was forced to sign the peace treaty, “This is only the first round.” His words would prove prophetic.

All this had a tremendous impact upon the Jews. In a situation of instability, Jews are the first to be effected because they tend to be viewed as the archetypal outsiders. Therefore, volatile political situations put Jews at particularly great risk. Even today, it is the political stability of the United States – as much as political freedom – which allows Jews to feel secure and function.

In the time immediately preceding the First World War almost 80% of the world Jewish population lived in the areas that would be affected by it. If the war had taken place in the trenches of France alone it would have had very little impact upon the Jewish people. However, a great war raged as well on the eastern front. Germany, Austria, Turkey fought bitter, pitched battles against Russia. And that is the part of the war that really ravaged Jewish communities and changed the face of Jewish history forever.

In short, as the world flung itself headlong toward “The Great War” the Jewish world was disintegrating. It was a time of great flux. The center was giving way. Nothing was stable any longer. When the shock of the war would hit this already destabilized society it would shatter it completely.

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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