WWI and the Jews

How the Great War affected a great number of Jews around the world.

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Most people are aware of the place of World War II in Jewish history. The impact of World War I, however, is not as widely known or discussed. WWI was a significant turning point for world Jewry on several fronts. The following article describes the serious and lasting effects that the First World War had on world Jewry. It is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

The First World War, the most appallingly savage international conflict in all preceding history, had a profound impact on world Jewry. This was due to the existence of a large concentra­tion of Jews within one of the principal arenas, the enlistment of unprecedented numbers of Jews to the armies of the belligerent nations, and the success of Jewish leaders in influencing the political policies of the major powers. Furthermore, increasing tensions during the war years deepened the hostile attitudes towards the Jews, particularly in Germany and in Eastern Europe.

world war I and jewsThe war on the eastern front between Russia and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria) was conducted on territories that were home to almost four million Jews. In the autumn of 1914 and the winter of 1915, Russian forces occupied Austrian Galicia, and in the spring and summer of 1915, Germany and Austria conquered Congress Poland (the duchy annexed by Russia according to the treaties of 1815), Volhynia, Lithua­nia, and western Belorussia. Under Russian rule, the Jews were suspected of collaboration with the enemy, and 600,000 of them were banished from the front by the czarist army, a traumatic experience and aneconomic catastrophe that was still felt long after the war. To aid their displaced and impoverished brethren, Jews around the world established welfare organizations on a scale previously unknown.

At the outbreak of the war, the Jews, eager to demonstrate their loyalty to their respective countries, rallied to the war effort. Initially the Jews in Russia were no exception, but when the policy of deportation was implemented, many Jews began to pray for the victory of the Central Powers. Nevertheless, about half a million Jews donned Russian uniforms. On the opposite side, almost 100,000 Jews were serving in the German army. Yet despite this massive enlistment, accusations of evasion and of profiteer­ing were brought against the Jews in both countries, and official investi­gations were instigated. Although the conclusions of these inquiries were never published, the statistics indicate that the percentage of Jewish losses was in no way smaller than that of the non‑Jewish population. Suspicions concerning their loyalty were even voiced in England and the United States, since the Jews did not hide their hostility toward the oppressive Russian autocracy, the ally of the two powers; and indeed, there were those among the recently‑arrived immigrants from Russia who refused to enlist. In both countries, Jews of German origin were requiredto sign humiliating public declarations of loyalty.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University