World War I – Jewish soldiers if the German Army

The Second German Reich was established in 1871 by a union of 25 German states and principalities, led by the King of Prussia, as Kaiser and head of its armies and war navy.

Jews served in the German army since the first half of the 19th century. They excelled in battles, especially in the Prussia-France war (1871 – 1872), but their patriotism did buy them equality in promotions. Although enjoying full civil rights, the army avoided promoting non-converted Jews to officer positions. Thus, at the outbreak of World War I, there were no Jewish officers in the Prussian army. A few Jewish reserve officers served in the Bavarian army, which was more "liberal."

A short history of Jewish integration in the German armies

Since the beginning of the 20th century, 50% of the Jewish soldiers, high school and university graduates, served as "One year volunteers." They enlisted upon graduation for a one year compulsory service, and later served in the reserves, normally as Sergeants.

World War I and the German Jews

Germany entered the war 3 days after Austro-Hungary, by declaring war on Russia (August 1, 1914), and France (August 3, 1914).

As other nations, Germany was also awash in patriotism at the outbreak of World War I. Generally, German Jews shared these feelings: on the one hand, they saw Germany as dragged into the war against its will, on the other hand, they identified with the war's objectives, defending the Western European culture against the "barbarism" of Tsarist Russia, British "Arrogance," and French "Revanchism." At the outset, the German war strategy was regarded as a "Defense of Civilization, and hatred of Russian antisemitism played a major role in the Jewish support of Kaiser Wilhelm II's war.

A prayer for our "King, people, and fatherland"

Going to war, and the need for social coherence were regarded by the Jewish communities as an opportunity to improve their status in the Reich. The Kaiser himself spoke in those days about the need for German unity "In disregard of political parties, social status, and religion." The Jews interpreted this royal declaration in the Reichstag in Berlin as a clear statement of the ruler's standing on the side of those advocating equality of rights in the German society.

Following the Crown's Speech

The German army entered the war with a pre-planned strategy (The Schlieffen Plan). It invaded neutral Belgium in order to attack France's exposed border, and joined the Austro-Hungarian forces on the Eastern front in Polish Russia.

100,000 Jews served in the German armies in 1914 – 1918, 18% of all German Jews (similar to the general population), 10,000 of which were volunteers. 80% of all Jewish soldiers served on the fronts, 12,000 of them fell in battle or declared missing in action. Over 20,000 Jews were promoted during the war, 2,000 to officer ranks. 30,000 Jews were decorated, many of them more than once.

In August 1914, multitudes of German men, aged 20 – 40, were mobilized for the war effort, many of them volunteers. The patriotic fever and readiness to sacrifice for the fatherland did not leave the Jews indifferent. The youngest volunteer was a Jewish student, born in Constantinople in 1904, Joseph Zips, who was mobilized in 1917 being 13 years old. He lost both legs in battle and died in 1934. The oldest volunteer was Jewish too, Adolph Stern, aged 63, who was promoted to a colonel rank.

Among the volunteers were to Jewish Reichstag (Parliament) members (volunteering was not very widespread among politicians in those days):

Dr. Ludwig Franck (1874 – 1914) (see his photograph), was a lawyer and member of the Social Democratic Party. After the Reichstag voted for the war budget, patriotic Dr. Franck joined the army, and fell in battle three days later, on September 3, 1914, near Lunévile.

Dr. Ludwig Hass (1875 – 1930), member of the Progressive Faction in the Reichstag, also volunteered to serve in the army. Hass was cited for bravery in the battles near Ypres, and decorated with the Iron Cross. After serving nearly a year on the front, Hass was appointed to head the military government in Warsaw (July 1915).

Religious services in the German armies

At the outbreak of the war, on September 1914, the Prussian War Ministry approved the service of eight rabbis as "Military Chaplains," six on the western front, two on the eastern front. The rabbis enjoyed similar rights and duties as Christian chaplains: they were considered officers, wore the same uniforms, and a heavy gold chain with a David's Shield and the two tables of the covenant.

Later in the war, it was decided that one field rabbi (Feldrabbiner) will serve in each army. Therefore, already at the end of 1914 ten rabbis served in the German armies, the most notable being Dr. Leo Beck (1873 – 1956) of Berlin, in the 10th army.

In all, 30 military rabbis served in the German army on all fronts, mostly in the east. Their functions included conducting religious services for soldiers and prisoners of war, burials services, hospital visits, distributing religious literature and gift boxes, and assisting Jewish inhabitants in occupied territories.

Jewish aviators in the German Armies

Modern aviation was in its infancy in World War I, military aviation was a novelty and the "Aviator's Club" was relatively close, but aroused the curiosity of many Jewish youth. Despite the difficulties in being accepted to the various air corps', out of a total of 5,000 aviators, 200 were Jews. 50 Jewish aviators were killed in action. After the war, Dr. Felix Teilhaber (1884 – 1956) prepared a memorial list of 120 Jewish German aviators, including dozens of names and their deeds during the war. The book served as a propaganda tool in the post war struggle regarding the "Combativeness" of Jews, and was printed in many, even expanded editions (1924). The original copy from 1919, with the author's dedication to his father, is in the archive's collection.

The Jewish aviators' subject and Teilhaber's book gained renewed interest with its translation into Hebrew, and publication, with a thorough research article by Colonel (ret.) Elimor Makevet, by Maariv in 2012, including a detailed list of the aviators.

The best known German Jewish ace aviator in World War I was Lieutenant (res.) Wilhelm Frankl (1893 – 1917) (see his picture above). Although converting to Christianity in 1914, apparently to gain promotion, he remained, mostly in anti-Semitic eyes, a Jew. He shot down 20 enemy aircraft, including one at night (06/04/1917), the first in History. For these heroic deeds, Frankl (known then as "the most decorated aviator") was decorated with the highest military decoration, Pour le Merit, as well as the Iron Cross, first and second degree, Knight's Cross with Swords of the  Royal House Order of Hohenzollern, the Prussian aviator decoration and The Hanseatic Cross. Lieutenant Frankl was killed in action over the town of Vitry-Sailly in France (April 8, 1917).

The oldest Jewish volunteer aviator was Paul Spiegl (see his picture above). Spiegl, an experienced civil balloon pilot, was 62 when he volunteered to serve in a balloon base on the Western Front.

Among other Jewish aviators mentioned in the book are Lieutenant (res.) Joseph Zirndorfer (see his picture above) who died in 1915 in a flight accident, and the aviator Jacob Wolf, who, despite his advanced age, 46, flew many operational sorties, promoted to an officer's rank and was decorated with the Iron Cross first degree.

Jewish doctors and medical staff

Over 30,000 Jewish doctors, medics, sanitary personnel and veterinarians served in the German armies during the war. 1,400 (4.6%) of them fell in their service. In 1916, 2,500 Jewish senior medical personnel served in the German armies. Among the regular medical officers, nearly none were Jews, due antisemitism in the promotion processes. Rolf Vogel, in his book, "Part of Us," about the Jewish contribution to the German army, estimates that 4,160 Jewish medical staff served in the army (based on their relative share of those killed serving in the medical corps).

Jewish doctors and nurses served in the "Red Cross" as well, where they were also discriminated.

Jews in the supporting war effort: research and development, logistics etc.

Jews enlisted in the war effort in communal assistance, such as collecting and distributing donations, assisting refugees, social work in the community, and in the public administration, various government ministries, research and development. The Jewish contribution was criticized during the war already, from anti-Semitic motives, as a way to avoid fighting in the front. Later the Jews were blamed for Germany's defeat in the war.

The most important in this category were:

Walter Rathenau (1867 – 1922) (see his picture above)

As a scion of a bourgeois family, Rathenau was involved in running industrial enterprises, including AEG, and in other senior economic functions. In the 1880's he served in the Prussian army, but due to his Jewish origins, and to his frustration, he was not made an officer.

During World War I, Rathenau served in the Prussian war office in charge of the raw materials department. He was responsible for supplying the German war industries, and for war production in general.

After the war Rathenau represented the Weimar Republic in the Paris Peace Conference (1919), and served as Minister of Economic Rehabilitation and Foreign Minister. Rathenau was a victim of virulent anti-Semitic incitement, and was blamed as being directly responsible for Germany's defeat in the war. On June 22, 1922 Rathenau was murdered by an assassin from the extreme German Right.

Dr. Nahum Goldman (1894 – 1982)

A jurist by profession, despite his Russian origins, Dr. Goldman was active in the Zionist Movement in Germany. At the outbreak of World War I, he joined the foreign office where he headed the "Jewish Department," mainly responsible for relations with the Jewish communities in the territories occupied by the Germans.

Goldman was also involved in Zionist activities vis-à-vis the Kaiser Wilhelm. In mid-1916, news arrived in Berlin that the Ottomans intend to expel whole settlements from Palestine. Goldman saw to it that the Kaiser intervened with his ally, the Ottoman Sultan. (To this purpose, Goldman involved Prof. Dr. Herman Lebrecht Strack, a renowned theologian and close friend of the Kaiserin, Augusta Victoria (1858 – 1921), who agreed to persuade the Kaiser to be sympathetic to the Jews).

After the war, anti-Semitic circles blamed the foreign office for involving extraneous considerations and employing a "foreign hostile element."

Prof. Dr. Fritz Jacob Haber (1868 – 1934)

A professor of physical chemistry, Haber converted to Christianity in 1898, to promote his scientific career. In World War I he was active in military research and development. Inter alia Haber developed a method used in industry to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas, a process important in the production of fertilizers and explosives. Haber is also considered the "father of chemical warfare" for his years of pioneering work developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I. Haber received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918.

In 1933, after the Nazis came to power in Germany, Haber was forced to resign from all his posts, and left Germany. He died in 1934 on his way to visit the "Ziv Institute" in Rehovot (later the Weismann Institute) as a guest of his friend Prof. Haim Weizmann.

Prof. Dr. Richard Willstätter (1872 – 1942)

A professor of chemistry in Berlin and Munich, member of the Science Academy and head of the national Physics/Chemistry Academy. His main contribution the war effort was in developing the gas mask as a response to gas attacks on the battlefields. In respect of his military research and development, Prof. Willstätter was decorated by the Kaiser with the Iron Cross (Civil), and the Pour le Merit. In 1915 Prof. Willstätter received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for his contributions to the research of chlorophyll and other flora pigments. Willstätter's career came to a tragic end when, as a gesture against increasing antisemitism, he announced his retirement in 1924. He was among the guests of honor at the inauguration of the "Ziv Institute." Professor Weizmann offered Willstätter's the presidency of the institute, but he refused the honor.

In 1939 Willstätter was forced to leave Germany and moved to Switzerland, where he refused to work "In the service of Germany's enemies." He died in 1942.

Dr. Leo Lowenstein (1879 – 1956) (see his picture above)

As a member of a bourgeois family, Lowenstein was involved in industry, and was among the Jewish scientists who took part in military research and development. He also took part in sound waved transmission measurements. After the war he participated in the development of guided rockets (1929). In 1900 – 1942, Lowenstein registered 25 national patents.

In World War I Dr. Lowenstein served in the German Army, excelled in battles, was injured a few times, rewarded with a captain (res.) rank, and was twice decorated with the Iron Cross first and second degrees.

After the war Lowenstein was first chairman of the German Reich Union of Jewish Front Soldiers (RJF) The union and its official journal "Der Schield" struggled against the rising antisemitism in Germany. In the framework of "proving the Jewish contribution to the nation and the War" the Journal published a memorial book "The Fallen Jews" (1932), with a dedication of President Paul Von Hindenburg (1847 – 1934) himself a war hero.

In the 1930's Lowenstein put much effort in saving Jewish army veterans from Nazi persecution. In 1934 – 1935 Hitler refused to award crosses of honor to Frontline Jewish and communist veterans of World War I. Due to the lobbying efforts of the RJF and Lowenstein himself, Christian army officers objected to Hitler's order, and he was forced to award hundreds of crosses of honor to Jews who excelled as combatants in the German army in the First World War. In November 1938, following Kristal Nacht, when many German Jews were arrested, Lowenstein struggled bravely against the decree, harnessing his Christian officer friends, who praised the Jewish contribution to the German Fatherland. Finally, on Christmas Eve 1938, 20,000 veterans were released from concentration camps (by Hitler's direct order). Most were allowed to leave Germany, thus saving their lives.

Lowenstein, who had many opportunities to leave Germany, decided to stay and help his Jewish comrades in arms. In the 1940's, with the rising persecutions Lowenstein was sent to perform forced labor in Berlin (1942), and was later sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Dr. Lowenstein passed away in Israel in 1956.

The struggle against antisemitism

The outbreak of World War I, the Kaiser declaration about "peace among believers in all religions," the Jews and their representative organization's willingness to participate, volunteer, and identify with its objectives, all symbolized for many an opening for hope about Jewish assimilation in German society.

But Jewish hatred was deeply rooted in many strata of the population. "The 1914 spirit of reconciliation" quickly faded away. Already in August 1914, the anti-Semitic "Hammer Union" demanded its members and affiliated organizations to collect data about Jewish participation in the war and their casualties. This, in order to prove Jewish evasion. The "Jewish danger" was emphasized again, alongside the fear from Jewish refugees who may "flood" Germany from the east.

Concurrently, the Jews were also collecting statistical data to refute publicly the anti-Semitic claims.

The debate about Jewish contributions in the war fronts reached the Reichstag. Anti-Semitic tendencies were prevalent in the Prussian War Ministry, leading to the decision to initiate the "Judenzaehlung – Jewish census" (October/November 1916), when Army and Navy units were requested to report about the number of Jews and their functions.

The Jews were of course offended by the census: their patriotism was in doubt again. At the anti-Semites command Jews were described as foreigners, exploiters, and dodgers. Mrs. Friedenreich, a Jewish housewife from Hanover, expressed her bitterness in one of her poems.

The census' outcomes were never published, the Jewish organizations saw it as proof that the anti-Semitic accusations are baseless. But the quarrel did not end with this. In 1919 an anti-Semitic booklet appeared in Munich, written by Auto Armin, pretending to present the statistical outcomes "from sources in the office." anti-Semitic accusations were printed in the booklet, masquerading as scientific facts. Its "Moto" was a false quotation from the "Talmud"

In going to war

Do not be the first, but the last,

So you will be the first to return home

The anti-Jewish propaganda included various accusations. In Munich an anti-Semitic propagandist, Dietrich Eckhart, offered a bet concerning Jewish evasion. He offered 1,000 marks to anyone identifying a Jewish family which had three of its sons serving in the front, each for a period of three weeks at least. Jewish organization rose to the challenge, presenting Jewish families which had up to eight sons serving in the fronts for longer periods. Pamphlets were published describing the scope of Jewish casualties, and calling the German people to prevent a social schism due to anti-Semitic incitement.

In summation

German Jews contributed to the German war effort in all its aspects, like the rest of the population. Antisemitism spread due to the defeat and war losses. Jewish hatred, normally latent among certain population strata, spread manifestly among many parts of the German society.

Albeit all difficulties and the antisemitism, 35,000 Jewish soldiers (out of 100,000) were decorated for bravery in the war. Propaganda leaflets published by The German Reich Union of Jewish Front Soldiers (1920), named over 1,000 Jewish soldiers decorated with the Iron Cross of the first degree, and 17,000 decorated with the Iron Cross of the second degree. Some soldiers were decorated more than once.

The war cost Jewish victims too. Over 12,000 were killed or died due to their military service, from all Jewish communities.

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