This issue is devoted to the situation of German and Habsburg Jews during World War I. It delimits its scope in this way for the simple reason that Imperial Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire formed one of the two opposing wartime alliances. At the outset of the war German and Habsburg Jews widely expressed their loyalty to their home countries, consenting to fight against the Triple Entente of the British Empire, France, and the Russian Empire. The methodological focus of this issue is to examine the dialectic between expectations and experiences among the Jews of both Wilhelmine Germany and the Habsburg Empire,1 expanding the dimensions of this dialectic by considering the development of war memories.2
After two years of murderous fighting and of an atrocious, hitherto unseen industrialized form of warfare the First World War was nowhere near an end. On the contrary, the year 1916 witnessed some of the war’s most devastating battles, including the Battle of Verdun, “the longest battle in world history.”3 In three hundred days of attrition warfare more than 200,000 soldiers lost their lives, an average of 666 dead every day or twenty-seven dead every hour.4 The landscape had been devastated, and was ravaged by relentless artillery shelling.5 An anonymous photographer took a picture of the desolated landscape at Fort Vaux near Verdun, which is presented here as the frontispiece of this issue. The young Jewish psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), later a pioneer of social psychology and group dynamics as well as founder of psychological field theory, served in the Prussian army. In 1917 he wrote an article titled “The Landscape of War” (“Kriegslandschaft”), in which he sought to provide a phenomenology of the landscape to convey how it was experienced on the battlefield.6 In a peacetime landscape, Lewin begins, “the area seemed to extend out to infinity on all sides.” Yet, when one moves from the rear toward the front, and increasingly toward the enemy, one experiences a reshaping of the landscape. This new “landscape of war” is now “bounded.”7 As one’s “idea” of the bounded area, e.g. of the position of the first trench, the connectedness of various visible markers, the distances to the "boundaries" becomes more determined, the bounded area becomes a “zone,” referred to by Lewin as a “border zone.”8 While at a forward position, this zone differs from “danger” zones, which begin later and for the most part increase "in the direction of the enemy" but which are not strictly fixed. In the trenches, for instance, more exposed areas become “danger zones,” and one finds “unconnected islands of danger at the rear extremity, frequently bombarded villages and crossroads, for example.”9 Abandoned trench positions are “still full of death and war” and they are “left behind in the countryside as a ‘war formation’” as are “burned-down villages” as well.10 Lewin’s phenomenological observations are instructive because they provide us with an example, not untypical of intellectuals, of how young Jewish scholar attempting to make sense of the war experience by immediately transforming it into theoretical explanation.11
Verdun was by no means the only devastating battle of 1916. It had not yet came to an end when the Battle of the Somme – “the bloodiest battle” of the Great War – had begun, by the end of which more than one million men had been killed or wounded.12 At the Eastern Front, in the meantime, Russia had initiated the Brusilov Offensive, likewise one of the most lethal battles of World War I. In the course of these two years, European Jews passed through a series of tempests as well as inner turmoil, having gone from an initial phase of hope and enthusiasm to one of despair and terrifying dread.13 Forced to fight against their own coreligionists on the enemy front, they underwent a dialectical break between that which they experienced, or what Koselleck refers to as their “Erwartungsraum,” and their horizon of expectation.14 From the moment the governments decided to go to war, the ruling classes – especially in Germany and Austria-Hungary – felt urgently compelled to present themselves as victims of foreign aggression. Within both alliances the political classes attempted to forge social cohesion, to integrate society in a new national or imperial unity, and to convince the whole population to fight in unison against the foreign aggressor. Even if the myth, invented later, of the “August Days” in Germany was by no means so all encompassing as nationalist activists claimed in retrospect,15 the German ruling class nevertheless realized its aims to a considerable degree, and large segments of society felt it their duty to defend their country and enlist. Similar efforts took place in the countries of the Entente, as well. Their aim was to forge a new unity that would reinforce social loyalty to the state, national sentiment, and commitment to the nation states as well as to the dynasties of the Empires. The ruling classes proclaimed a truce between the political parties, known as the Burgfrieden in German. The rulers and state apparatus propagated this political line first among the working classes, whose international orientation raised doubts about their reliability, but they addressed such propaganda to all classes and the members of all religions, Jews included. In fact, the Jewish populations in all the European countries responded in broad terms no differently from the rest, tending to welcome the war policy with open arms.16 In October 1939, the historian Abraham G. Duker, later editor of the journal Jewish Social Studies, had given a brief historical outline of the Jewish participation in the First World War, underlining, that the “casualty figures for both sides demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of the Jewish soldiers saw actual combat, and their sacrifices equalled their comrades-in-arms.”17
Moreover, not only the integrated upper class Jews shared in this attitude, but also the younger generation of Zionists, although some radical young Zionists, like Gershom Scholem, opposed the war. In Germany and Austria many Jews hoped that this enthusiastic participation would bring an end to remaining forms of discrimination and to hindrances on their legal and social equality; additionally, they hoped the war would finally bring liberation for the Jews of the Russian Empire. Nevertheless, even among Jews the dimension of the support for the war remains unclear. The evidence drawn from literary sources shows concerns at the outset regarding the war, and the voices of those who expected and hoped for peace were far more frequent than those of the belligerent.18
At the same time, European Jews found themselves placed in an extremely difficult and awkward situation. French and British Jews, for instance, who were self-confident, conscious of their achievements and of the decisive contribution of their countries to Jewish emancipation, now found themselves in a coalition with Russia, the country in Europe that all European Jews and, indeed, Europeans in general viewed as the most anti-Semitic in the world. British and French Jews found it troubling to be confronted with this unexpected und unwanted situation.19
German and Habsburg Jews, on the other hand, could pose as liberators of the oppressed and afflicted Russian Jews, Polish Jews included. Austrian as well as German rabbis proclaimed a holy war as revenge for Kishinev,20 and they supported the German political rulers in their attempt to win over Polish Jews as partners, promising them liberation from Russian oppression. Yet German Jews, too, had been forced into an extremely difficult situation in regard to the western front. They had to legitimate a war against those countries, especially France and Great Britain, which had been at the forefront of Jewish emancipation.
Arriving at the frontlines, Jewish soldiers must have realized that they were compelled to fight against their coreligionists on the opposing front--Jews against Jews. Hence the broad willingness of Jews to serve in opposing armies had disastrous consequences for European Jewish history overall. More seriously still, even family ties among those living in different European countries suffered, with the sons of families forced to confront each other in battle.21 Transnational bonds that had previously existed among Jews in Europe now broke down; the war destroyed the histoire croiseé that had characterized European Jewry in previous decades.22 This war, therefore, was a decisive turning point in modern European Jewish history.23
With the collapse of the illusion that the war would end quickly and the growing number of debilitating experiences at the front the situation within the civil societies as well as the armies changed dramatically. In view of the disastrous course of the war, the public mood once again turned against the Jews. In search of a scapegoat to blame for defeats at the front and for the unsuccessful, never-ending war, anti-Semites in Germany and Austria-Hungary held the Jews accountable. They renewed anti-Jewish agitation, with anti-Semitic articles appearing again in the newspapers, while anti-Semitic groups reorganized. Amidst this new anti-Semitic agitation we can find the re-emergence of old stereotypes, that of the Jewish shirker accused of evading military service at the front, as well as of Jewish hucksters and war profiteers, exploiting those who were sacrificing their lives for the nation.24
The difficult situation for the Jews became even more complicated when, in May 1915, Italy and, in August 1916, Rumania entered the war, and these both on the same side. As a result, joining the Entente were the two countries in Europe most extremely opposed in regard to civil and political integration of their Jewish populations.
Furthermore, for East European Jews the conduct of the war was utterly disastrous. It was so because the territory in which nearly 80 % of European Jews lived--the area from the Pale of Settlement within the Russian Empire to Galicia in the Habsburg Empire--had become one of the most devastating battlefields of the war, having been conquered and reconquered repeatedly by the opposing armies. Indeed, the aforementioned Brusilov offensive of 1916 led through this territory.25 Moreover the war had devastating consequences for East European Jews because this war, as total war, was conducted against not only opposing armies but also civilian populations.26 Consequently, the dense Jewish population of these areas suffered all the more from the battles waged there.
In the very same year, October 1916, the Prussian War Ministry instituted the notorious Judenzählung, a census of Jewish soldiers serving in the German army.27 The announcement and conduct of this census profoundly shocked large segments of the German Jewish population which had, until then, not questioned its place in German society and felt no less committed to the war effort than the rest of the population. Recent studies have called into question the degree of shock produced by the Jewish census. They view earlier studies as somewhat exaggerating its impact in retrospect and question as well whether the census had the same effect in the different German-speaking countries.28 Even so, the fact remains that the German Jewish press responded sharply to the census, expressing palpable outrage. Hence for German as well as Habsburg Jews, the Great War “marked a turning point in their self-perception” – a tumultuous change from a sense of their own considerable integration to that of rejection.29
German historiography regarding World War I was dominated up to the 1960s by a political and diplomatic focus that still held sway in the politically ground-breaking studies of Fritz Fischer about the “German grab for world power,” focusing on the responsibility of the German and Austrian rulers for the outbreak of the war.30 This methodological approach shifted during the 1970s to an emphasis on social and economic historical factors.31 In the 1990s, beginning with the landmark volume edited by Gerd Krumeich, Gerhard Hirschfeld, and Irina Renz, historical research again shifted methodologically, turning to a focus on the history of everyday life, on how populations experienced the war, and to a greater emphasis on cultural history.32 More recently, at its 100th anniversary, historians have turned to critically scrutinizing global aspects of the War,33 yielding the rather unexpected and unintended result that, with the publication of the most influential and controversial book of that commemorative year, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, the question of the responsibility for the war has now returned.34
Regarding historical research on German Jews and the First World War, after a strong initial treatment in 1969 by Egmont Zechlin in his monumental study of German politics during the First World War,35 the topic attracted increased scholarly interest, beginning with an important edited volume in the series published by the Leo Baeck Institute.36 Werner T. Angress, a contributor to that volume, subsequently published further studies on this topic,37 and he touched also on one of the most frequently mentioned issues: the Jewish census of 1916.38 In 1977 George L. Mosse gave a brief Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture that offered an innovative perspective on the war experiences of German Jews.39 Later, Mosse expanded his focus to include the symbols of death and cult of fallen soldiers that emerged during the war.40 The unpublished dissertation by Stephen Magill, however, in which the author presented World War I as a pivotal crisis in the experience of German Jews has generally been omitted from consideration.41 Drawing on Magill's and other recent scholarship, Christhard Hoffmann published an essay in 1997 about the ambivalent Jewish experience in Germany between “integration and rejection,”42 and, in the same year, Peter Pulzer published a dense and inspiring overall account for the four-volume German-Jewish History in Modern Times.43 In 2001 Ulrich Sieg published a landmark study on German Jewish intellectuals in the First World War,44 and in 2007 Jacob Rosenthal published a volume on the Jewish census of 1916.45 Indeed, in recent historical research the outstanding importance of the Jewish census has been increasingly scrutinized.46 Most recently, Sarah Panter has published a comprehensive comparative study on Jewish history during the First World War, comparing experiences as they varied among Jews in Germany, Austria, Great Britain, and the United States.47.
In Austria, the history of World War I was for a long time a topic that came under the exclusive purview of historians of military institutions; it was characterized as “officer’s historiography.”48 Consequently Austrian research has been severely limited in terms of methodology and subject matter. A first step towards a critical historical approach to World War I was taken in Austria only with a conference in 1968 devoted to the collapse of the Habsburg Empire.49 Even then, Austrian historians avoided discussing the question of war guilt, unlike West Germans for whom Fischer's work provoked a huge public and scholarly debate around the subject--the so-called “Fischer Controversy” (“Fischer-Kontroverse”). As a result, Austrian scholarship on the First World War remained relatively weak in terms of both methodology and substance.50 Improved research on the subject really began in Austria only in 1993 with the publication of the first critical and comprehensive history of the Habsburg Empire during the Great War, even if this volume, too, was written by a military historian.51 Subsequently, Austrian historiography of the war has gradually broadened, with a strong upsurge ultimately occurring on the occasion of the 100th anniversary. This anniversary has witnessed a huge outpouring of publications in which Austrian historians have presented new critical perspectives on the politics of the Habsburg ruling classes, drawing on innovative research methods and exploring new aspects and neglected contexts of the war.52
Not surprisingly, given the path taken by Austrian historiography, the specific situation of Habsburg Jews in World War I has long been a blindspot. Significant impulses have come from non-Austrians like the American historian Marsha Rozenblit who has focused on the dilemmas of the broad variety of Habsburg Jews and their “tripartite identity,” on Austrian Jews and the Spirit of 1914, and the experience of Habsburg Jewish soldiers53; or from the British historian David Rechter who, in his volume on the Jews of Vienna during the First World War, examined the expectations of Vienna Jews in the context of Viennese political culture and the plight of Jewish refugees during the war.54
As a war fought from the very outset against civilian populations as well as armies, World War I had its most dramatic impact on the non-combatant Jews of Galicia and the Bukovina. German historian Frank M. Schuster has given this topic extensive and intensive treatment in his recent dissertation, completed at the University of Basel, which focuses on the dramatic situation of the Jews “between all the frontlines.”55
With this outpouring of new scholarship on the occasion of the First World War’s 100th anniversary Austrian historians – with a fundamental contribution from the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Graz--together with historians from Germany, the United States, and elsewhere are shedding new light on the specific expectations and experiences of Habsburg Jews at the time.56 The journal European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, to name a further example, published a special issue on “Rabbis and the Great War” in 2015, presenting different attitudes and perspectives from eleven European countries. As Jonathan Magonet notes in an introductory editorial, “sermons preached during the war” can explain “the significant fact from a Jewish perspective that the First World War was the first conflict in which hundreds of thousands of Jews loyal to one European nation state found themselves in direct conflict with Jews holding a similar allegiance to another state.” 57
This issue of the journal Quest focuses on the Reflections, Experiences and MEMORY of German and Habsburg Jews during and after the Great War, but the contributions can, alas, address only some of the many aspects of this complex and disturbing history. The articles selected here concern different contexts, specific constellations, and diverse situations of central European Jewish history and culture. Hence, Carsten Schapkow presents the reflections of two German Jewish intellectuals during the War and the dialogue that took place between them. He considers, first, the Austrian-Hungarian writer Fritz Mauthner (1849-1923) who later moved to Germany, became a skeptical philosopher and went on to author fundamental linguistic studies and a monumental opus on the history of atheism; the second is Gustav Landauer (1870-1919), the social anarchistic thinker and politician of the Bavarian Council Republic who advocated public enlightenment and education and who, after the counterinsurgency against the Council Republic, was arrested and assassinated by anti-Semitic Freikorps members. Although they belonged to different generations, Mauthner and Landauer maintained a close friendship even through the war years, and they conducted a dense conversation reflecting on their own experiences of the war and the dramatic situation of Eastern European Jewry, and beyond that, on their intellectual orientation as Jews in a dramatically changed world. Their dialogue, as Schapkow shows, provides new insight into central perspectives that shaped the course of 20th-century European Jewry.
Likewise focused on reflections and experiences, Ulrich Wyrwa examines the response of German Jewish intellectuals to the German occupation of Belgium, one of the first acts of war by the German army. Including, additionally, the voices of Habsburg Jews as well as some converts, Wyrwa seeks to determine if and in which ways they all understood Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality and the new feature of the war as one against a civilian population. Wyrwa bases his argument on autobiographical sources of German Jewish soldiers, German military rabbis, and other German Jewish witnesses to events in Belgium, as well as on coverage of the war in German Jewish newspapers; finally, he explores the responses of German Jewish intellectuals and socialists to the war against Belgium, with special focus on their experiences and perceptions in the war's first months.58
The year 1916 was a decisive turning point in the Jewish experience of the First World War for it was in that year that Germany and the Habsburg Empire witnessed the aforementioned resurgence of anti-Semitic agitation and propaganda as well as the first signs of extreme anti-Semitism. The initial policy of a Burgfrieden had by then clearly broken down. Peter Bihari examines this rise in anti-Semitism and its development during the war in the Kingdom of Hungary as well as Jewish responses to it. Hungary is an important case since before the war it was one of the countries in Europe that had effectively rejected anti-Semitic prejudices in the public sphere and in which Jews had experienced relatively extensive social integration. After violent attacks on Hungarian banks motivated by anti-Semitic rage around 1916 and after the publication of a volume refuting charges against Hungarian Jews in 1917, the Hungarian Jewish journal Twentieth Century conducted a broad public inquiry into the ‘Jewish question’, to which Bihari devotes an incisive discussion. The anti-Semitic agitation, however, did not subside. Rather, it now entered into the debates of the Hungarian parliament where especially populist and anti-liberal MPs accused Jews of war profiteering and exploitation of the Hungarian people. From there, it surged into a broad anti-Semitic campaign led by predominantly Catholic newspapers. Far from being a spontaneous outburst of popular feelings, Bihari shows, Hungarian anti-Semitism was fairly well organized and coordinated, mainly by ecclesiastical circles. He further shows how the First World War became the catalyst for this new anti-Semitic campaign.
Continuing the exploration of the Jewish experience, Ljiljana Dobrovšak and Filip Hameršak present the observations and perceptions of Croatian-Slavonian Jews during World War I. Drawing on a broad range of war diaries, memoirs, and other autobiographical sources, they explore, first, the religious and charitable activities of Jewish societies and, then, the biographies of Jewish individuals of different orientations, including liberal Jews, Zionists, and converts of Jewish background. As in Hungary, anti-Semitic attitudes increased in this period in the former Habsburg crownland Croatia-Slavonia, leading after the defeat of the Central Powers to protests and mass looting of Jewish businesses and property in 1918/19. The Jewish population of Croatia-Slavonia had, like German and Austrian Jews, entered the war with great expectations, but by war's end and in the immediate aftermath these expectations gave way to a mood of deep disappointment. In their essay, Dobrovšak and Hameršak also consider the practices of mourning and remembrance by Jews in Croatia-Slavonia, which had been confined for almost a century to the family milieu. Beginning with World War I, the majority of the fallen on the territory of Croatia and Slavonia, in general, received no memorials. In a series of images accompanying their text, Dobrovšak and Hameršak describe some of the--more or less well maintained--cemeteries along the former frontlines.
Memory is also central to Gerald Lamprecht’s contribution, which scrutinizes the activities of the Austrian federation of Jewish war veterans, the Bund jüdischer Frontsoldaten, founded in 1932. It was this institution that initiated the erection of Jewish war memorials in several Austrian cities. Focusing primarily on coverage of this activity in the Bund's journal, Jüdische Front (Jewish Front), Lamprecht analyzes the ways that Austrian Jews commemorated the war and their fallen, then turns his attention to the Jewish discourses on their experiences during the conflict and the contemporary situation of increased anti-Semitism in the Austrian Republic.
In conclusion, we note that like every scholarly undertaking this one, too, must unavoidably leave in its wake significant and regrettable gaps, even as it opens up new subjects for debate. Of greatest critical concern for us is the lack in the current special issue of any treatment devoted specifically to the situation of Galician and Bukovina Jews. This is even more regrettable because these Habsburg provinces had sizeable Jewish populations, amounting to 10 % and nearly 13 % of the total population, respectively. From August 1914 onward, these areas and their populations suffered terribly. Massive troop formations moved across Galicia and Bukovina with devastating results. In a recent article, Petra Ernst has described the impact of “ever changing conquests and recapture of vast areas and the consequent destruction of numerous villages – by both czarist and Austro-Hungarian units – as well as collective branding of civilians, […] by military commands on both sides.” This, she adds, “all meant that the populations of Galicia and the Bukovina […] were very badly hit by the war. As fighting also led to increased tensions among the different nationalities settled in these regions, it was the Jewish community, which suffered especially under these circumstances. Faced with such chaos, masses of people fled their homes and their villages, even those who did not fall victim to deportation or forced evacuation.”59
Petra Ernst is Senior researcher at the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Graz and co-coordinator of the interfaculty research core area ‘Cultural History and Interpretation of Europe’ at the University of Graz. She is a founder of the journal Transversal. Zeitschrift für Jüdische Studien. Her research interests include: German-Jewish literature; literature and World War One; Jewish ‘Goethephilologie.’
Among her recent publications: Europäisch-jüdische Literaturen und Erster Weltkrieg / European-Jewish Literatures and World War One, [Yearbook for European Jewish Literature Studies /Jahrbuch für europäisch-jüdische Literaturstudien 1], (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014); Jüdische Publizistik und Literatur im Zeichen des Ersten Weltkriegs, ed. together with Eleonore Lappin-Eppel, (Graz: Studienverlag, 2016). Forthcoming: Schtetl- Stadt – Staat: Raum und Identität in deutschsprachig-jüdischer Erzählliteratur des 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhunderts.
Jeffrey Grossman is Associate Professor and Chair of the German Department at the University of Virginia where he is also a founding member of the Program in Jewish Studies (on leave for the 2016-17 academic year). He is the author of The Discourse on Yiddish in Germany from the Enlightenment to the Second Empire (Camden House, 2000) and the translator of The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas: Jewish Dimensions (Waltham: Brandeis UP, 2007), and many articles on German Jewish culture, German-Yiddish literary and cultural relations, and on Heinrich Heine, including recently: “The Dilemmas of Translation: Cultural Politics, German Jewish Identities, and Yiddish Literature around World War I,” European-Jewish Literatures and World War One, ed. Petra Ernst, vol. 1 of the Yearbook for European Jewish Literature Studies, Jahrbuch für europäisch-jüdische Literaturstudien 1 (2014): 78-99; 59-110, and “The Invention of Love? Or How Moyshe Leyb Halpern Read Heinrich Heine,” Leket: Yiddish Studies Today, eds. Marion Aptroot et al. (Düsseldorf: Düsseldorf UP, 2012) 129-52; “The Yiddish-German Connection: New Directions,” Poetics Today, 36/1-2 (June, 2015).
Ulrich Wyrwa is Professor of modern History at the University of Potsdam and head of the international Research Group at the Centre for Research on anti-Semitism at the Technical University Berlin on the radicalisation of Anti-Semitism in Europe during and after the First World War.
Fields of research: The history of anti-Semitism and Jewish history in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Europe with a particular focus on Italy.
Among his recent publications: Gesellschaftliche Konfliktfelder und die Entstehung des Antisemitismus. Das Deutsche Kaiserreich und das Liberale Italien im Vergleich, (Berlin: Metropol, 2015); “The Language of Antisemitism in the Catholic Newspapers ‘Il Veneto Cattolico - La Difesa’ in Late Nineteenth Century Venice,” Church History and Religious Culture 96/3 (2016): 346-369; forthcoming: (together with Werner Bergmann): Article “Antisemitism,” in 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War (http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/home/ ).
How to quote this article:
Petra Ernst, Jeffrey Grossman, Ulrich Wyrwa, "Introduction" in The Great War. Reflections, Experiences and Memories of German and Habsburg Jews (1914-1918), ed. Petra Ernst, Jeffrey Grossman, Ulrich Wyrwa, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n. 9 October 2016
La sezione italiana di Quest sarà online entro breve!
The italian section of Quest will be soon online!