World War I – Jewish Soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian army

​​​Austro-Hungary was a Middle Europe Empire, composed 51 million subjects of various nationalities, including 2.5 million Jews. The Austro-Hungarian attitude to their country and ruler, the Kaiser Franz Joseph I, was derived from their acknowledgment of the civil rights granted to them in the Empire. Most Jews were patriotic, the Kaiser was regarded as an honest ruler who did right by his subjects, including the Jews ("The only true Austrians are the Jews").

The Jews were a small minority within the Empire (4.4% of its total population), but their social, political, economic, and cultural contributions were much above it. Jews were 10% and 12% of Vienna and Budapest populations respectively. Many were well off, on high social standing and considerable social influence.

The Austro-Hungarian army as a melting pot of many nations

Following their emancipation (in Europe and especially in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Jews were gradually integrated into the army. Indeed, Austria was the first in Europe to introduce conscription on Jews at the end of the 18th century.

A short history of Jewish integration in the Austro-Hungarian army

The number of Jews serving in the Austro-Hungarian army at the eve of World War I was generally proportionate to their share of the population. Although only 3% of the regular army, 18% of the officers in the reserve army in the years 1897 – 1911 were Jews, an impressive number, in harmony with their share of high school graduates, from which reserve officers were recruited.

The code of honor, habitual among army officers, contributed to minimizing disputes, hostility, and antisemitism. The code made it not only rightful, but obligatory of an officer to call to a duel (with pistols or swords) anyone who hurt his honor. And the Jews knew how to defend their honor.

World War I and Austro-Hungarian Jews

On July 28, 1914, Austro-Hungary, supported by Germany, declared war on Serbia. On August 1 Germany declared war on Russia, and two days later on France. Britain, France's ally, declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914. The Great War was on.

The outbreak of war was accompanied all over Europe by a wave of nationalism, the multitudes in Vienna demanded to "Teach the Serbians a lesson." Most Jews took part in the patriotic awakening among the nations comprising the Empire.

Enthusiasm for the war and its objective spread among Germans and Austrians, subjects of the Empire, and among the Jews, loyal subjects of His Highness the Kaiser. Belligerent songs were written, such as "The War Song" by Malwina Grunwald, in the spirit of the Maccabeans, and by Dr. Hugo Zukerman (1881 – 1914), whose greatest hit, the "Cavalry Song," was set to music by Franz Lehar, and became the most popular war song among Austrian and German soldiers.

The Austro-Hungarian army fought on several fronts: in the Balkan front against Serbia; with the Germans on the Russian front in Poland; on the Western Front in Belgium/France; on the South Eastern front against Romania and Bulgaria; and in 1915, following Italy's joining the Entente Powers on the Southern Front. Units of the Austro-Hungarian army also fought alongside the Ottomans in the Middle East, in Turkey and Palestine.

Jewish soldiers and officers fought on all those fronts, numbering 275,000 – 400,000. The prevailing estimation is around 320,000 recruits, 14.2% of all Jews living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Heroic deeds of soldiers and officers were recorded in many Jewish publications during the war, mainly to refute anti-Semitic claims, trying to "prove" that Jews are shirking their military duties and injure the war effort (eventually the "Defeat Accusation").

The Austro-Hungarian/German campaign against Russia, which was regarded in Vienne and Berlin as a "Culture War – Kulturkampf", was seen by the Jews as a liberation campaign of Polish and Russian Jews. The Russians were regarded by the Jews as perpetrators of anti-Semitic pogroms, were accused of conducting a policy of expulsion, banishment, even actual killing of Jews. Jewish Austrian propaganda published expulsion edicts, photographs of destroyed Jewish towns, etc.

Direct appeals to the Jewish population in the war zones called to refuse cooperation with Russian forces, while presenting the Austrian and German troops as carriers of the Western freedom and equality culture. In most cases the Jews were reluctant to identify themselves with any of the warring sides, however, many did cooperate with the Austrians and German "Liberators" against the Russians (and punished by the Russians, blamed and even executed for espionage).

This "Liberating" narrative appears in many wartime Austrian publications. For example a postcard from Chernivtsi, depicting the Austrian heir, Archduke Carl (1887 – 1922), saluting the many Jews living in the town and their patriotism. (See the documents above)

A quote by Archduke Karl: "The Jews suffered much under Russian rule. The Jews are very patriotic, and we shall never forget that."

Austro-Hungarian units reached even Palestine, Turkey and the Middle East. During the war around the Suez Canal, the Austro-Hungarian army deployed there two mountain artillery batteries (of 1,000 soldiers each) with 100 millimeter Howitzer guns. Austrian units fought alongside the Ottomans in Romany and later in Gaza. Before the third Gaza battle (November 1917), a third Austrian Battery of two 104 millimeter field guns arrived. The Austrian Batteries took part in the Ottoman effort of the Yildirim Army Group. Two more batteries were dispatched to Syria in 1918, but only one of them reached the front line before the ceasefire.

In all, 12,000 Austro-Hungarian troops served in Turkey and the Middle East, including a considerable number of Jewish soldiers. However, the Austrian headquarters in Vienna decided against sending senior Jewish officers to Palestine, to avoid conflicts with the Ottomans.

Jewish religious services in the Austro-Hungarian army.

At the outbreak of the war in 1914, 10 reserve field rabbis (Feldrabbiner der Reserve) were registered in the army. By the end of the war, ten more were certified, 56 rabbis served only in the war, 76 rabbis in total, all of them captains. Mostly they were posted to corps' or armies. The rabbis were in charge of all religious matters of the Jewish soldiers, including kosher food, and served as well as military censors of all Hebrew correspondence.

Spokesmanship and Propaganda

An additional element of the Austro-Hungarian war machine was propaganda. Already in 1909, a "Center of war attachés and Press Spokesman" was established in the army. During the war, many of Germany and Austro-Hungary's famous writers, poets, journalists and publicists were recruited to the center, among them many Jews. Within the "Press Spokesman" office were incorporated the writers Egon Erwin Kisch (1885 – 1948), Robert Musil (1880 – 1942), Alexander Roda Roda (1872 – 1945), Alice Schalek (1874 – 1956), the Zionist artist Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874 – 1925), and head of the filming unit Alexander Joseph "Sascha", Count Kolowrat-Krakowsky, (1886 – 1927) head of "Sascha Films" studios.

In summation

Austro-Hungarian Jews contributed much to their country's war effort, many excelled in battle and were decorated with medals of Honor. 79 Jews were decorated with the highest decoration ("Gold Bravery Medal"). For example, Non-Commissioned officer, Julius Arigi (1895—1981), a flying ace with a total of 32 credited victories, was 5 times decorated. Many Jews were decorated with the "Iron Crown" of all ranks.

40,000 Austro-Hungarian Jews were killed in action, 1,000 of them officers.

At the war's end, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. Jewish officers and soldiers organized some military committees, to safeguard Jewish communities and property. These committees were put in the service of the Jewish National Councils established in Vienna and Prague. Wolfgang Von Wiesel was active in Vienna's committee, and Hugo Shmuel Bergman at the Prague Committee. Other Jewish committees were established in Brno, Ulm, Terezín, Bratislava, Lemberg (Lviv), and other locations.

Senior Jewish Officers in the Austro-Hungarian Army

The Austro-Hungarian army was indeed multi-national, and Jews served in all arms and ranks, Including Generals. However, some had to convert to Catholicism to gain promotions. The advancement of those refusing to convert was normally arrested after reaching a colonelship. Others had to retire when their time arrived to command a brigade with a General rank. Some received their Major-Generalships upon retirement as an honorary rank, retaining it at the war's outbreak and their return to active service.

In World War I, an impressive number of Jewish senior officers served in the Austro-Hungarian army: Generaloberst (Colonel-General), Samuel Hazai, General Kornhaber, two Field marshals, and 20 other Generals (some Jews, some converts). 

Some examples of senior Jewish officers (see in "Pictures")

Field-marshal Lt. Eduard Ritter von Schweitzer (1844 – 1920)

Von Schweitzer was born in Hungary and fought in its war against Prussia (1866). As a young lieutenant, he excelled in the war in Bosnia, was awarded the "Iron Crown", and knighted. But due to his refusal to convert he was barred from the General Staff. However, due to his closeness to the Kaiser, who respected his military talents, he was promoted and became a Field Marshal Lt. (1908). Von Schweitzer retired in 1912.

Adolph (Abe) Kornhaber, Ritter von Pilis

Adolph (Abe) Kornhaber, Ritter von Pilis (1856 – 1925) was born in Drohobycz. He graduated from the Theresian Military Academy. He served in the Austro-Hungarian army. In November 1910 he became General-Mayor and was decorated with the Order of the Iron Crown and the title Adolf Kornaber von Pilis. During WWI he commanded an infantry division. In 1918 he was decorated with the Leopold Order and was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal. ​

​Samuel Hazai de Rimaszombat (Kohn), baron (1851 – 1942)

Hazai was born in Rimavská Sobota, Slovakia, served in the Hungarian army, and taught at the Hungarian Military Academy in Budapest. Minister of Defense fro 1910, when he became a baron and Field Marshal Lt. During the war Hazai was in charge of the emergency laws, and later of recruitment and supplies of the Imperial-Royal army. Became an Infantry general in 1914, and Generaloberst in 1918. Retired from the army at the end of the war. Was shortly arrested following the collapse of the Empire. Hazai converted to Christianity in his youth and hid his Jewish origins.

Dr. Alois Pick (1859 – 1945)

Pick graduated from the faculty of medicine at the University of Prague. As head of the medical school in Vienna, he was promoted to General Lt. In the medical branch (fourth in the hierarchy. After the war, pick served as head of the Jewish community in Vienna. In 1942 he was deported to Theresienstadt and later to Treblinka, where he was murdered in 1945.

Among other General majors serving in the Austro Hungarian army were, Simon Vogel, Alexander Ritter von Eis (who lost both his sons, Auto and Herman, in the war), Johan Mastitz, Dr. Leopold Austerlitz, Emil von Zommer and others. ​

Other Jewish officers in the Austro-Hungarian Army who were later active in Israel

The Von Friedmann / Avisar Family

Zigmund Adlen von Friedmann, later Major General Eitan Avisar, was born in 1892 into a family of Jewish Austrian officers. His father, Colonel Mauriz Edler von Friedman was a professional officer who served during the war as personal adjutant of the Minister of War in Vienna.

After graduation from the "Military High School," he was the Jew to study in the "Technical Military Academy." After graduation von Friedmann was posted as a Lieutenant to the heavy artillery. Following the outbreak of World War I his regiment was deployed to the front. Friedmann served in various functions: an adjutant in an artillery corps, commander of a heavy artillery battery, and divisional staff officer. After the war Friedmann served in the War Ministry.

Between the world wars von Friedmann was also involved in public activities. He was among the founders, and later head, of the "Jewish League of Front Soldiers" (1932). He was an organizer of the first World Congress of Jewish Front Soldiers.

After the Anschluss of Austria by the Nazis, Von Friedmann was arrested and released due to heavy pressure from all around the world. In September 1938, the von Friedmann family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine, where he joined the Haganah as a military advisor, and changed his name to Avisar. After the establishment of the IDF, General Avisar was appointed to head the High Military Tribunal, while continuing to advise about force generation. Avisar published articles, comments on military and strategic matters, and published books: "2,500 Years of Tactics;" "Strategy and Tactics in World War II."

The von Wiesel Family

Wolfgang (Zeev) von Wiesl's family originated from a town near Prague. His father, Dr. Ernst Franz von Wiesl (b. 1857) was a lawyer, soldier, and fencing enthusiast, who was among the those who drafted the Austrian Military Law. In World War I Dr. von Wiesl served as deputy military advocate general, and was knighted.

Wolfgang (Zeev) von Wiesl was born in Vienna, in 1896, to a Zionist family (Herzl and Nordau were regular visitors). Wolfgang studied medicine in Vienna. At the war's outbreak, he volunteered to the artillery corps and served as a front officer in the Galicia and Italy.

After the war von Wiesl organized a "Jewish Guard" in Vienna. In 1922, after graduation from medical school, he immigrated to Palestine and joined the Revisionist Movement. He commanded the Haganah' first Officer Course in Tel Yosef (1934).

In the War of Independence, von Wiesl volunteered to serve in the artillery corps. He fought in Negba and on the Southern Front, and was wounded in the occupation of Be'er Sheva.

Later he was a politician, journalist and publicist.

Avigdor Hameiri (Feuerstein) (1890 – 1970)

Hameiri was born in 1890 in a village near the town Munkatsch, Carpathian Ruthenia. At the outbreak of World War I he was recruited and served as an officer the Austrian-Russian front. In 1916 he was captured by the Russians and send to Siberia. Released after the February 1917 revolution, Hameiri move to Kiev, and from there to Odessa, where he joined Bialik's entourage.

In 1921 he immigrated to Palestine, where he worked as a publicist, writer, poet, playwright, translator, and editor.

His war years, his service in the Austro-Hungarian army and his captivity in Russia, influenced all of Hameiri literary output.

His most famous books are "The Great Madness" (1929), and "Hell on Earth" (1932).

Raphael Lev (1891 – 1961)

Raphael Lev was born in Austria. In World War I he fought as a captain in the Austro-Hungarian. As a leader of the Social Democrat paramilitary Schutzbund, he took part in the "Austrian Civil War" (1934), was captured, and served a two year term in prison.

In 1938 and was persuaded by Elyiahu Golomb to immigrate to Palestine, bringing much military knowledge.

In 1939 he was appointed to head the instruction section at the Haganah headquarters. In the same year he was arrested by the British and imprisoned in Acre.

In 1947 he was appointed to command the Middle Galilee.

Lev was the first director of the The Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives.

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