Tens of Thousands Jewish Soldiers Died During World War I

APA, Der Standard, July 17, 2017

German original: http://derstandard.at/2000061142093/Juedische-Soldaten-starben-zu-Zehntausenden-im-Ersten-Weltkrieg

Summer Academy of the Institute for Jewish History of Austria – Hooray Patriotism on all sides. Military defeat fueled anti-Semitism.

Vienna – Millions of people of all population groups lost their lives, their economic existence and their health during World War I. The 27th International Summer Academy of the Institute for Jewish History of Austria focused on the experiences of both Jewish and non-Jewish combatants. This revolved around more than just „Emperor and Fatherland.“

During 1914 and 1918, Jewish soldiers fought in all combat zones and on all sides of the front in a war unleashed by Austria-Hungary. Starting in 1799, Austria was the first European nation to draft Jews into the military under Emperor Joseph II, thus deeming them worthy to perform military service. The proportion of Jewish soldiers in the military amounted to 3.9% in 1900 (when Jews accounted for 4% of the overall population), asserted the Viennese contemporary historian Erwin Schmidl during the meeting at the Folklore Museum (Museum für Volkskunde) in Vienna (July 5-7, 2017).  

30,000 Jewish Soldiers Died

„During World War I, we estimate that some 300,000 Jewish soldiers served in the Imperial Austrian Army – some estimates range from 275,000 to 400,000. Some 30,000 Jewish soldiers died during this war,“ writes the expert in the conference publication entitled „For Emperor and Fatherland. Jewish and non-Jewish Experiences During World War I.“

The first industrialized and mechanized war needed millions of people in order to enable the mass slaughter in the first place. „During the first phase of the war, the widespread hooray – patriotism  also swept the Jewish communities and even Russian-Jewish exiles (...), leading to a national closing of the ranks. (...)  And eventually even Czar Nikolaus II addressed his „dear Jews“ in August 1914 and promised them equal rights and officer’s ranks,“ writes the historian and philosopher Benjamin Grilj in his contribution. At the same time, Czarist Russia saw detestablepogroms surrounding the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1871, specifically in today’s Ukraine, as well as the eviction of Jews from most areas of public life and from the bigger cities.

„The statistics are clear: Out of 1.5 million Jews, who served in Europe during World War I, 500,000 to 600,000 fought in the Czarist Army. The number of Jewish soldiers therefore was not only much higher than their proportion of the overall Russian population, but also higher than in all other European armies,“ explained Grilj.

Hooray – Patriotism for Mobilization

The situation thus was the same everywhere: the rulers and their warmongers did everything to mobilize the human resource. The hooray-patriotism was the best tool to achieve this. The Viennese painter Maximilian Liebenwein wrote from the war zone in Galicia, where he came close to fierce fighting around Przemysl and Lemberg (in today’s Ukraine): „...migration of people, dawn of people, Germanic calvacade, world history, larger than it ever happened, and I get to witness it“ – he also painted street scenes with orthodox Jews. While some were fighting, the civilian population was suffering – Liebenwein wrote about the Jewish population: „ The Jews here are very intimidated by the many bad experiences of the recent past, and by the roar of guns close by, they cannot deal with the fire-red sky at all.“ People of Jewish descent – as combatants or as part of the civilian population – are always more or less „the others.“

The fragility of people of Jewish descent in the nations engaged in the war showed on all levels. Their situation often turned precarious when the particular army suffered a defeat, as was shown during the lectures of the Institute of Jewish History of Austria at the end of last week at Vienna’s Folklore Museum.

No Difference Between Military and Civilian Population

After the defeats of the Russian Army in East Prussia „a scapegoat was needed and found in the Jews. The newspapers spread rumors. For example, „the Jews“ were accused of smuggling gold out of the city inside coffins, instead of corpses, in order to hand it to the Germans,“ said historian Benjamin Grilj.  One rumor implied that Jewish prisoners of war were used to mistreat Russians because of their „common language.“ Russian officers ordered that „the Jews are to be driven towards the enemy, not a single one is to remain in the army’s fabric (...).“ This way, no more distinction was made between the military and the civilian population.

Apparently participation in World War I was of particular interest for Jews in Imperial Germany. „In line with general mobilization, Jewish communities, associations and organizations, too, called on their members to participate in the war. Despite all the patriotism, these official calls cannot serve as evidence for unanimous enthusiasm for the war. Rather, they bear witness to the pressure to conform and show loyalty that all segments of society, and the Jews in particular, were subjected to,“ described Sabine Hank, the archivist at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin.

At the same time, participation in the war was seen as an opportunity to unmistakably underline the own engagement for Imperial Germany. In 1914, the Centralverein Deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens (Central Association for German Citizens of Jewish Faith) called for the establishment of a record for each Jewish soldier. The reason: „We have a most urgent interest in reliably documenting the scope and the means of participation of German Jews in the developing campaign.“

Loyalty Towards the Own State

At the end of the day, these efforts were most likely designed to demonstrate loyalty towards one’s own state. For this purpose, the South Tyrolean specialist in German studies, Andreas Michaeli, investigated the writings of the German-Jewish writer, journalist and physician Richard Huldschiner (1872 – 1931, raised in Bozen, died in Innsbruck). Huldschiner was a member of a Tyrolean rifle company (Standschütze) and participated in the war on the Italian front, for example above Lake Garda.

In one war story, he broached the issue of his Jewish roots and Zionist ideals, emphasized Micheli: „For now the menorah is not lit for the Makabee fight. But this war might already be a preliminary stage for liberation. And we fight it knowing that we have to do more than others, because we are regarded as less, albeit we have known that we are not worth less than anybody else.“ After the end of the war, Huldschiner also worked as correspondent for the Völkische Zeitung and reported on Adolf Hitler’s trial following the attempted coup in Munich on November 9, 1923.

Heroes’ Monuments

It is no wonder that after World War I and the end of the old world order all involved were trying to find some kind of meaning in the past monstrous slaughter. Ultimately, there also existed war memorials and (heroes’) monuments for fallen Jewish soldiers as well. The largest such monument was erected in Vienna’s Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof). A jury led by Clemens Holzmeister chose the design by architect Leopold Ponzen entitled „Drawn Star of David in a Circle Between two Horizontal Lines.“

The monument was dedicated in 1929. During the design of an inscription an outlook towards a –hopefully- peaceful future was emphasized for the first time within the scope of such a project. In that context, the prophet Jesaja was cited: „No longer do the people raise the sword against a people and they do not learn for war.“ This should turn out to be an illusion soon thereafter – just like the participation of humans of Jewish descent in a war did nothing to change a dull and murderous anti-Semitism. (APA, 17.7.2107)