How The First World War Changed Jewish History
Though World War II overshadows World War I in American Jewish consciousness, Professor Daniel Schwartz argues that it was the latter that shifted the arc of Jewish history — by fanning virulent anti-Semitism, and by motivating the British-Zionist alliance that led to the creation of the State of Israel.
Schwartz spoke with Moment senior editor George E. Johnson about how fears of Jewish disloyalty fueled deportations and massacres in Eastern Europe during and after the war, how the Jewish Legion helped conquer Ottoman Palestine for the British, and why World War I was a turning point for European Jewry.
Daniel Schwartz is an associate professor of history and director of the Program in Judaic Studies at George Washington University. He specializes in modern Jewish and European intellectual and cultural history.
How many Jews fought in World War I?
This is a watershed. The number of Jews who are soldiers for different sides far exceeds any precedent to that point. Approximately a million and a half Jews fought in World War I for their respective countries. On the Allied side, at least 500,000 Jews served in the Russian Army, notwithstanding widespread Russian anti-Semitism and distrust of Jews. After the United States enters the war, U.S. forces get something like 250,000 Jewish soldiers. About 40,000 or so throughout the British Empire fought for Britain. And about 35,000 soldiers for France.
On the side of the Central Powers, nearly 100,000 Jews served in the German Army and 12,000 were killed in action. German Jews were very determined to prove their loyalty to Germany, to the Kaiser. The overall population of German Jews at the time was probably around 500,000. So you had close to 20 percent of the total Jewish population serving. In the Austro-Hungarian Army there were around 275,000 Jews.
What made Jewish participation so significant?
In the debates about Jewish emancipation — granting Jews equality — dating back to before the French Revolution, the question was, “Can we really trust Jews to be good soldiers? Can we really trust them to be patriots?” The argument was made that, “Look, Jews will be more loyal to their fellow Jews than they will be to people in this particular nation.” World War I certainly is not the first time that Jews fight on opposite sides. There had been the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. In the American Civil War, Jews fought for both sides, as they did early in the 19th century in the various Napoleonic Wars. But nothing approaching this scale.
How did World War I affect Jewish history?
World War I is absolutely a turning point. You could say it’s a turning point in western history more generally, but also in Jewish history, because two of the most impactful events of the Jewish 20th century — the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel — are almost unimaginable without World War I.
By the second decade of the 20th century, modern anti-Semitism, which had emerged in the late 19th century, seemed, for the most part, to have petered out as a political movement. But World War I gave it new life. The German experience in the First World War — its defeat, its humiliation by the Allies, and the scapegoating of Jews for the economic, social and political turmoil that followed — set in motion the events leading to Holocaust.
Similarly, Zionism also is a late 19th century movement that as of 1914 seems to have run into a brick wall. The Ottomans are implacably opposed to Zionism, basically preventing Zionists from immigrating, at least from purchasing land. Even though the war itself is initially damaging to Zionism and to the Yishuv [early Jewish settlers of Palestine], the alliance and the Balfour Declaration that comes from it enable the movement to develop. This is something that could not have been anticipated in 1914.
Why isn’t World War I recognized as such a turning point for European Jewry?
This is quite astonishing. I’ve always been struck by the degree to which this catastrophe seems to fly under the radar today. The war was an absolute catastrophe for the Jews of Eastern Europe. The total death toll for Jewish civilians in Eastern Europe between 1914 and 1921 was more than 100,000, and I have seen estimates that as many 600,000 Jews who lived in the Russian Pale of Settlement or Austrian Galicia were uprooted. Ansky, the famous Russian-Jewish writer who toured through Galicia during the war, wrote a book after the war called Churban Galicia. They called it a churban — a destruction. But this didn’t become cemented in the collective memory. People often recall that in 1881-1882 there were major pogroms in Eastern Europe after the assassination of Czar Alexander II. “Kishinev” (the site of a major pogrom in 1903) is a name that was embedded in the collective memory. And then of course, the Holocaust. But this massive catastrophe in the interim doesn’t have a name, like a Kishinev, that has stuck. And it is not remembered to the same extent.
Why were the consequences of the war so grave for Eastern European Jews?
On the Eastern Front, one moment the Russians are invading, then the Germans or the Austro-Hungarians are successfully counter-attacking. And it goes back and forth. This is critical because the Eastern Front was basically located right smack in the heartland of East European Jewry. You have millions of Jews living in these areas who are immediately and direly affected by the war. Whole communities were destroyed and never reconstituted.
As the Russian soldiers attacked — or retreated, for that matter — they created tremendous refugee crises. They often would expel Jews. There was this fear that the Jews were not loyal. And so they pushed them east behind Russian lines, sometimes with as little as 24 to 48 hours’ notice. Or Jewish populations would attempt to escape to the west because they heard about all the brutality — both deportations and massacres. My paternal grandmother, who died earlier this year at the age of 100, was from Eastern Galicia and remembered having to leave her home with her mother and her grandparents and take shelter in refugee camps, as did thousands of Jews. They were running away from the Russians.
What accounted for the continuing devastation even after the 1918 Armistice agreement?
For Eastern European Jews, the war doesn’t end November 11, 1918 — or when the fighting between the Germans and the Russians ends earlier that year. The vacuum that’s left in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in March 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, and then the central powers’ withdrawing from these areas leads to all sorts of civil wars. And during these civil wars, tens of thousands of Jews are killed in pogroms, between 1919 and 1921.
What was the motivation? Why did that happen?
One of the canards that emerges in the aftermath of World War I that contributes to the surge of anti-Semitism is the idea of the Jew as Bolshevik. Jews were over-represented among the Bolshevik leadership. And there were other communist revolutions that occurred in Central Europe in the wake of World War I. In Hungary, for example, Bela Kun, who was the leader of the revolution, was Jewish. Ironically, these Bolsheviks had renounced their Jewishness. But because you could look at the leadership and say, “Look, they’re Jewish,” the link stuck. But it certainly was not the case that most Jews were sympathetic to Bolsheviks before the revolution. They would have had no reason to be, given the fact that traditional Judaism was still strong there. Also, Jews had long been heavily mercantile people.
How did World War I impact American Jews?
The impacts were mixed. On the one hand, the war plays a somewhat absorptive role. Jews fight in disproportionate numbers — about 250,000, or close to 8 percent of the total Jewish population — along with people of other backgrounds, other religions, and from other places. Also, American Jewish diplomats and major American Jewish organizations play an important role in the peace negotiations, particularly in negotiating the Minority Rights Treaties. But popular reaction to involvement in this European war also unleashes a wave of nativism and anti-Semitism, resulting in immigration laws that cut off Jewish entry during a period when the situation of Eastern European Jews is becoming increasingly dire. The war also ushers in a period of Ivy League admission quotas and widespread distribution of anti-Semitic propaganda, like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These developments effectively arrest and reverse some of the progress that Jews had already made in the US.
How did the war affect the assimilation of European Jews?
Assimilationism as an ideology, as a kind of vision of the Jewish future, is definitely weakened by the war, and by the collapse of the massive empires that had dominated Central and Eastern Europe and their replacement by ethnic nation states. Up until World War I, you really have four major empires that dominate the area where the vast majority of world Jewry lives — the Czarist Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was ruled by the house of Hapsburg, the German Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. With the collapse of these empires, what emerges to fill that vacuum are new nation-states defined by a dominant ethnicity, an idea sown from the ideal of national self-determination.
How are the Jews of Palestine affected by the war?
In the Yishuv, things get extremely bad. There are extreme food shortages, deprivation, often starvation. Plus, despite the Ottoman opposition to Zionism, there had been a whole regime of what were called “capitulations,” which basically granted immunity to foreign citizens, and allowed Jews to emigrate and not to have to pay Ottoman taxes or to have to serve in the army. With the war, though, the Ottomans cancel those capitulations. Jews who have emigrated from Allied countries… have to choose. Either you accept Ottoman subject status — in which case you have to pay taxes, and also serve in the army, quite possibly — or you’re going to be deported. They were enemy nationals. And there were some major figures in the history of Zionism who end up being deported because of these changes. One is David Ben-Gurion.
The use of Hebrew or Yiddish is suppressed. You have forced conscription. Atrocities take place. Turkish soldiers round up Jews on the streets to deport or even massacre them. By the end of the war the Yishuv is at a low ebb. It’s in crisis. The numbers of Jews have been reduced from roughly 85,000 as of 1914, to 55,000 by the end of the war. And the economy is in grave trouble.
But of course, we also have the emergence of the alliance between the Zionist movement and the British government and the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The Balfour Declaration was essentially a promise. But the British do end up invading and conquering Palestine. And the Balfour Declaration is incorporated into the British Mandate for Palestine, a concept that comes out of World War I. This is leagues beyond anything the Zionists could ever, ever have hoped to secure from the Ottomans.
Did the Balfour Declaration find its origins in the politics of the war?
The British leaders believe that if they commit themselves to the Zionist movement – that support will mobilize world Jewish opinion behind the Allied cause and this will help to draw the United States into the war. Unlike World War II, in World War I Jewish opinion was divided. There were many Jews, in particular East European Jewish immigrants — whether in the United States or even in Britain itself — who were very reluctant to support the Allied cause. “Why should we be going to war to help the Czar?” The British — believing the stereotype of international Jewish power — perceive the Jews to have an influence that they don’t really have. It is true that the Balfour Declaration did help to swing Jewish opinion more toward the side of the Allies — at least those Jews who didn’t live in Germany or the Austrian Empire, especially after Russia leaves the war.
Were there Jewish-only fighting units?
The Jewish Legion was incorporated into the British forces after the United States entered the war. The Jewish Legion was established after years of lobbying by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, who thought that participating in the conquest of Palestine would be crucial for Jews to have some kind of place at the negotiating table at the end of the war. It was composed of Jews from many countries. There were three active battalions: the 38th, the 39th, and the 40th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers. The 38th was comprised mainly of British Jews — often Russian Jewish emigrants, and included the famous sculptor Jacob Epstein. The 39th was mainly Jews from the United States. The 40th was made up of Jews from Palestine. There were some notable ones. Joseph Trumpeldor, for example, who became a Zionist martyr shortly after World War I in defense of Tel Hai in the Galilee, was an officer in the 40th, as was Jabotinsky.
David Ben-Gurion was also in the 40th Battalion, but apparently he was a very poor soldier, who was disciplined several times. Levi Eshkol, prime minister of Israel during the Six-Day War, and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who was the second president of the state of Israel, both were in the 40th Battalion. But it was the 38th Battalion that fought in Palestine under General Allenby in 1917. It was part of the army that took Palestine.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.