Jewish History Blog

World War I and the Jews

Hitler at a 1914 rally celebrating the outbreak of World War I

Among the tragic events that occurred in this mourning period of the Jewish calendar was the outbreak of World War I. Naively termed the “Great War,” it was the catalyst for World War II, the Holocaust, and all the other murderous events that would follow in the 20th century. It was brought about by catastrophic miscalculations of the great European powers, a combination of reckless politicians, stupid generals, and strong jingoist fervor. Yet when it first broke out, people all over Europe cheered – in London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, St. Petersburg. Here is a picture of a cheering crowd with Hitler himself right in the middle of it. The First World War was going to raise the art school reject out of his anonymity.

The war was a total war and therefore a total disaster. But in a perverse and not too surprising twist of events, the Jewish population of Europe suffered most. As individuals, the Jews fought in the armies of all sides, becoming super-patriots in their respective countries, determined to prove that they really “belonged.” This was especially true of German Jewry. Over 12,000 Jews died fighting for the “Vaterland.” Their patriotism and sacrifice would turn to ashes, literally, within twenty years.

German Jewish soldiers fighting for “der Vaterland". Picture courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute for the Study of the Culture and History of German-Speaking Jewry

But in spite of their super-patriotism, the Jews in Germany were subject to accusations of disloyalty. In 1916, the German General Staff ordered a census of all Jewish soldiers in the army to determine how many actually served on the front line. The fabricated census was publicized with great fanfare, intimating that the Jews were shirking their duty. The actual results showed that 80% of all Jewish soldiers served on the front lines, far higher than the general population, but this was never released to the general public.

Anti-Semitism had been virulent in Germany even before World War I. Germany’s subsequent defeat only served to exacerbate it. The stage was already set for the “Jewish-led-stab-in-the-back” betrayal theory that brought Hitler to power.

For the Jews in Eastern Europe, the war also brought unmitigated tragedy. A quarter million died in battle, and over a million became refugees because the Czar accused them of being German collaborators, forced them to leave their homes, and settle in inland Russia. Because of the Czar’s behavior towards the Jews, many actually welcomed the conquering Germans and Austrians as liberators and benefactors. The Jewish infrastructure in Eastern Europe, socially, economically, culturally and religiously, was almost completely destroyed by the war.

The war also served to radicalize much of Eastern European Jewry’s youth into secularists and Marxists. The yeshivot were scattered, and many of the Chassidic courts and dynasties were decimated. The Bolshevik revolution brought on by the war attempted to destroy the practice of Judaism. The anti-Semitism of the Polish and Lithuanian nationalists became overt and violent. In perfect hindsight, it seems clear that even without the Holocaust, Eastern European Jewish life was on the wane.

As we see in current times, divides within the Jewish world are not easily bridged. But what we must appreciate is that the ideologies that drive them were annealed in the heat of the First World War. The Jewish people are still paying the bill for it.

To learn more about World War I, please see our film, “Faith & Fate, Part II: The Implosion of the World Order

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Posted in:
Holocaust, Modern Jewish History
Rabbi Berel Wein

5 Responses to “World War I and the Jews”

  1. will brownell, phd says:

    Dear friends,

    Your information is superlative. One note: the stab-in-the-back concepts were vital to Ludendorff, who was the jackass general who (a) lost World War I for Germany and (b) thereby had to blame the Jews for same. Here do note, please, that he pretended the idea of the stab was from a British general. Not so, this lie, and do note: a British general merely summed up the kraut concept as a stab in the back, and Ludendorff concurred, in 1919. No British general, or private, concurred in this legend. Yet this legend allowed the Germans to think that they would have won, if their politicians had been true to their codes. Thus, they thought well of a new war. Thus they plunged the world into a second world war, and we all lost 50,ooo,ooo human beings.

    The cost is so staggering as to beggar the imagination.

    Note too that Ludendorff became the first nazi candidate for the presidency of Germany, in ’25.

    Note finally that we Christians do not even bother reading bios of Ludendorff, even tho’ he in many ways is a spiritual father to his friend Hitler.

    What would’ve happened if we had all accepted Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum that we should batter the Germans all the way to Berlin, to prove to them that they had lost the war?

    Alas we listened to the genteel Woodrow Wilson, who spoke of a peace without victors.

    Is there such a thing?


    Will Brownell, PHD

  2. Susan says:

    I am really trying to find out when my German-Jewish great grandfather left Germany…he made it to Ny. Changed his name from Weiss to Smith. I never got to meet him or my great grandmother…I have seen pictures. I would truly love to learn about their journey…and share it with my children. I have already done the Ellis Island computer checklist…they’re were so many Weiss family’s-
    Do you have any suggestions for me?

  3. Berel Wein says:

    Sorry no. But Good Luck on your search.

  4. David S. Levine says:

    The article only begins to tell about the tragedy of Jews during and after WWI. The revolutionary violence after the War was all in areas of heavy Jewish population and all the parties to it, white and red, perpetrated pogroms. Jews had no force protecting them from violence and many, many, too numerous to record, died in it, yet few historians have written about it. Sad.

  5. bryce says:

    im doing some research, during WWI did the jewish of germany join the army or go to war at all? Why is it that after WWI that germany was called the motherland? Also i ponder on why the nazi party put the star of david on store fronts and smashed the windows and burnd them down, could it be because they were once owned by Germans and bought out by the Jews after World War 1?