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The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY TIM GRADY

WHEN THE armistice was signed 100 years ago this week, Ger­man Jews, as with most other Ger­mans, could find few rea­sons to cel­e­brate.

Af­ter more than four years of grim fight­ing, the end was a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat in the field and a revo­lu­tion at home. This was not the out­come that any­one had wanted.

“I al­most fell over in shock” at the news, Joseph Levy, an Ortho­dox Frank­furt can­tor, later re­called. For Ger­man Jews, there were man­i­fold rea­sons for such dis­ap­point­ment, but three stick out par­tic­u­larly strongly.

First, peo­ple un­der­stand­ably strug­gled to com­pre­hend the huge scale of phys­i­cal and ma­te­rial sac­ri­fice. At the time of the armistice, with Ger­many com­pre­hen­sively de­feated, it was hard to im­pose any kind of pos­i­tive nar­ra­tive.

Al­most 100,000 Jews had worn the Ger­man mil­i­tary uni­form in the war, 12,000 sol­diers had lost their lives and thou­sands more re­turned home per­ma­nently maimed.

Julius and Lina Gold­schmidt from Nurem­berg had been de­prived of their three sons — Lud­wig, Moritz and Bruno — who all died at the front.

Max Wald­mann, a war vol­un­teer from Mainz, at least made it home. How­ever, a gun­shot wound to the head left him deaf and par­tially blind.

Mas­sive sac­ri­fices had been made by those in Ger­many too. Jewish women jug­gled their daily lives to serve in soup kitchens or to work in hospi­tals, while all the time try­ing to keep fam­ily and house­hold to­gether. Else­where, nurses from Stuttgart’s Jewish hos­pi­tal were dis­patched into France, while Jewish com­mu­ni­ties across Ger­many raised funds, set up tem­po­rary hospi­tals and found space for refugees and the dis­placed.

The dis­par­ity be­tween the hopes of Au­gust 1914 and the de­press­ing re­al­i­ties of Novem­ber 1918 was a sec­ond rea­son for post-war de­spair.

Cer­tainly not all Ger­man Jews had been en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port­ers of the con­flict; scep­ti­cal voices had also made them­selves heard. But none­the­less once the war was in full swing, there was a stout de­ter­mi­na­tion to de­fend Ger­many’s borders.

The large Cen­tral As­so­ci­a­tion of Ger­man Cit­i­zens of the Jewish Faith is­sued its own ral­ly­ing call, while even the main Zion­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion urged its mem­bers “to serve the fa­ther­land”.

A smaller num­ber of Ger­man Jews viewed the war not just in de­fen­sive terms, but also as an op­por­tu­nity for ex­pan­sion. Davis Tri­etsch, a jour­nal­ist, pub­li­cist and lesser-known Zion­ist, was a par­tic­u­larly keen ad­vo­cate of Ger­man an­nex­a­tions. In a se­ries of pub­li­ca­tions, he called for Ger­many to take parts of France, Bel­gium and swathes of Eastern Europe. When the war made Ger­many weaker, not stronger, the roots of Ger­man dis­ap­point­ment be­come clear.

A third rea­son for post-war dis­en­chant­ment lay in the rise of wartime an­tisemitism. At the start of hos­til­i­ties, the Kaiser had given Ger­man Jews’ cause for hope. In his fa­mous civic truce speech, he at­tempted to heal so­cial and po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions, declar­ing that “we are all Ger­man broth­ers and only Ger­man broth­ers”.

Yet the hope of na­tional unity and an end to an­tisemitic prej­u­dice rapidly evap­o­rated, as ac­cu­sa­tions of Jewish shirk­ing and prof­i­teer­ing spread.

What fi­nally ex­tin­guished the last glim­mer of hope was the mil­i­tary’s ill­con­ceived Jewish cen­sus. In au­tumn 1916, the mil­i­tary de­cided to count the num­ber of Jewish sol­diers at the front and be­hind the lines.

The fact that there was never a sim­i­lar sur­vey of Catholic or Protes­tant troops only em­pha­sised the an­tisemitic prej­u­dices that un­der­pinned this sta­tis­ti­cal ex­er­cise.

When the war ended, Ger­man Jews were al­ready emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally drained from the years of con­flict. Yet, the end of hos­til­i­ties un­leashed even greater un­cer­tain­ties. In Novem­ber 1918, troops needed to be de­mo­bilised and the wider econ­omy some­how re­turned to a peace­time set­ting.

Otto Meyer was one of many peo­ple who had to make this per­sonal jour­ney. Sta­tioned on the West­ern Front when the war ended, he spent many weeks on the slow march back to the north­west­ern town of Rheda. It was only in mid-De­cem­ber that he could fi­nally turn his at­ten­tion to restor­ing the for­tunes of his fam­ily tex­tile busi­ness.

What made the re­turn to peace all the more dif­fi­cult for Meyer and other Ger­man Jews was deep­en­ing an­tisemitism. Af­ter suf­fer­ing such a dev­as­tat­ing de­feat, many Ger­mans de­manded sim­ple ex­pla­na­tions for what had gone wrong. The stab-in-the-back leg­end, which be­came the most wide­spread myth, blamed Jews and so­cial­ists at home for un­der­min­ing the sol­diers at the front.

Dur­ing the war, Jews fought, died and suf­fered to­gether with all other Ger­mans. De­spite the depth of these shared ex­pe­ri­ences, the post-war myths of de­feat very grad­u­ally forced Jews to the mar­gins.

Jewish war vet­er­ans and the be­reaved con­tin­ued to re­mem­ber the war dead through­out the in­ter­war years on memo­ri­als and through reg­u­lar re­mem­brance cer­e­monies.

But the pogrom of Novem­ber 1938 fi­nally cur­tailed such ac­tiv­i­ties, af­ter which the Jewish sol­diers of the First World War suf­fered the same fate as all other Euro­pean Jews in the Nazis’ geno­ci­dal war of de­struc­tion.

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Dr Tim Grady is Reader in Mod­ern His­tory at the Univer­sity of Ch­ester and the au­thor of A Deadly Legacy: Ger­man Jews and the Great War A ser­vice for Aus­trian sol­diers dur­ing the First World War


Cel­e­brat­ing Chanukah on the front in 1916

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