World War I – Jewish soldiers in the Russian Army

On the eve of World War I the Russian Empire was in a social, economic, and international crises. Included within the Empire were Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Finland and large parts of the Trans-Caucasus. Most population, 170 million people, was composed of Slavic peoples, but there were also Jewish (6 million), Turkman, and dozens other minorities.

Tsar Nikolai the second (1867 – 1918) was an autocrat – the last remnant of the old, absolutist Europe.

In 1914, the Russian Imperial army, without its reserves, was the largest in the world, numbering 5.97 million soldiers. However, the backward transportation infrastructure, prevented flexibility in their deployment. The Russian aviation service (RAAS) was also the largest in the world. Two years after its establishment (1912) it numbered 360 aircraft. The Russian war navy numbered in 1914 4 dreadnaughts, 10 battle cruisers, 21 destroyers, 11 submarines, and 50 torpedo boats.

The Imperial army was prepared for the conflict, in its perception the German Reich was the main threat to Russia territorial integrity. Already in 1907 Russia joined the Entente with Britain in France, against the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy).  

At the first stages of World War I, the Russian army fought – mainly on the Eastern Front – against Austro-Hungarian and German forces, but some units were deployed in the Balkan and West European fronts. The army numbered 12 million soldiers (15 million, according to other sources). By the summer of 1916 the Russian army suffered 3 million casualties. The defeats at Tannenberg and at Lodz hurt morale, the huge casualty numbers hindered conscription. Riots broke in some cities against conscription.

The war undermined the Empire. In March 1917 the government collapsed, and the "February Revolution" brought to power the liberals headed by Kerensky. His government introduced reforms, in the army as well. The army tried to prevent defeat on the Eastern Front, but the July 1917 offensive failed, resulting in deterioration of morale. The "October Revolution" brought into power the Bolsheviks, headed by Lenin. The Bolshevik government negotiated a truce, and warfare on the Eastern front ceased on December 16, 1917. 

On January 28, 1918, the Council of People's Commissars established the Red Army. In February 1918 the German Army invaded the Soviet Union. The Red army fought until 1921, against the Germans, the White armies and the Poles.

A short history of Jewish integration in the Russian armies

Jews served in the Russian army since the introduction of compulsory conscription by Tsar Nikolai the first in 1827. Instead of being a liberalizing step in the Empire, conscription was a decree, hitting the whole population, including the Jews. The Jews were discriminated against, their conscription quotas were three times those of the general population.

Toward the end of the 19th century, over 55,000 Jews served in the Imperial army, including one!! Officer (Stabs Capitan Herzl Zam). 30,000 Jews fought in the Russia-Japan war (1904 – 1905). Among the outstanding soldiers was Joseph Trumpeldor, losing an arm in battle, and decorated with the High Georgian Cross.

On the eve of World War I, Jews were still discriminated against in the Russian army, they were not commissioned as officers, and many roles were out of bounds for them. They were humiliated, oppressed, and in the opinion of many officers were a burden on the army.

The issue of Jewish conscription was discussed extensively, due to the feeling that they hurt the army. Ultimately conscription continued out of necessity, namely the outbreak of war and the immediate need of manpower.

Russia's Jews in World War I

At the outbreak of World War I, the Russian army declared a general conscription. The number of Jews drafted is estimated at 400,000, but in 1917, at the climax of the war, 500,000 million Jews served in the Russian armies (other sources state even higher numbers – 650,000).

As for Jewish enthusiasm to enlist in the Tsar's army (Nikolai was not sympathetic to Jews, his regime even initiated pogroms against them) opinions are divided: on the one hand the war was regarded as being forced on Russia, therefore the need to defend Mother Russia; on the other hand many years of oppression and denial of basic rights resulted in unwillingness of Jews to be conscripted, therefore they invested much efforts to be exempted from military service (Dodging, going AWOL, bribing, even inflicting self-injuries).

The spirit of patriotism was expressed by a Jewish member of the Duma (Parliament), N. M. Friedman, in his speech of July 19, 1916: "At the beginning of the war, the newspapers reported about large numbers of Jewish volunteers. These were volunteers that, judging by their education, were entitled to officer ranks. They knew that they would be denied such ranks, and volunteered anyway. Jewish youth, which were expelled from their motherland by quotas to study abroad, returned to Russia at the outbreak of the war…"

The war stages

World War I was a catalyst to the disintegration of the Tsar's Empire. Military defeats, social unrest and economic difficulties led to the downfall of the Tsar Nicolay II (March 2017), his replacement by the weak liberal regime of Alexander Kerensky, and its routing in a violent Bolshevik revolution in November 2017.

The three stages of the war relevant to Jewish participation were:

  1. From the outbreak of the war (1914) until the February Revolution (1917) – Russia against the Central Powers (Austro-Hungary, Germany).

  2. From March 1917 to November 1917 – the Kerensky Offensive.

  3. From November 1917 to the end of the war – the creation of the Red Army; the end of World War I; the Civil War in Russia, and the war with Poland.

Jews in the army

A. The Tsarist Period

As aforesaid, the Jews were regarded as an unreliable element, treacherous, weak, and unfaithful to the Motherland. Moreover, Jews were suspected of cooperation with the enemy. Rumors spread about Jews spying for the Germans, transferring gold in coffins. The army authorities were generally hostile to Jews, often posting them to frontline infantry as "Cannon Fodder." The poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, who served as a doctor in the Tsar's army, described the sufferings of war and those of the Jewish soldiers.

The huge defeats suffered by the army caused millions of deaths, among them many Jews who served in the frontlines. Whenever the front moves east or west, the Jews became scapegoats, blamed automatically as traitors. The Russian army conducted a mass expulsion policy of the Jews, even taking them as hostages.

On Shavuot 1915, 200,000 Jews were expelled from villages, towns, and cities in Courland and Lithuania; the retreat of the Russian army in the summer of 1915 was accompanied by pogroms, pillage and rape. This conduct definitely influenced the morale of the Jewish soldiers in the front.

Despite the difficulties and bad treatment, many Jews excelled in battle. Many were cited for bravery and decorated with the Georgy Cross, some with all four ranks. Some Jews were promoted due to bravery in battle. Katz, Yofin, Korman, Schuler, Goldner, Kaplan, Sepian, Ratnov, and Helfman became Lieutenants. Some converted Jews were accepted into officers' courses.

Over 3,000 Jews were decorated with the Georgy Cross. The Jewish weekly "Hebreiska Medallia" named some: Raphael Baum, Shmuel Rosengarten, Easel Lifshitz, Haim Pritick, Haikin, Michael Guttmann, Solomon Glutman, Yankle Zlichnuk, Pinhas Eizen, Isak Saperstein, and Eisik Cantor   

The number of Jews who excelled in battles was a thorn in the flesh of anti-Semites. The anti-Jewish magazine "Novoya Wormia – New Times" threatened to abstain from publishing the names of Jews decorated for bravery, claiming that Jews are exploiting this to gain equality of rights. Some censors deleted Jewish names from lists of outstanding soldiers or published their initials only.

Among the Russian military aviators in 1914, we know of Emmanuel Margalit, a Jew from the town Oriol, who trained as an aviator in Germany and France before the war, fought in the Balkan War of 1912 (with the Bulgarian army), served in the Russian army at the Galicia front, and was wounded there.​

B. Kerensky's army

The February 1917 revolution put an end to the Tsarist regime, and with it to the restrictions on the Jewish rights, including those relating to military service. The new Minister of War, Alexander Guchkov, abolished all kinds of religious, racial, and social status discrimination regarding the promotion of soldiers to officer posts. 2,600 Jewish soldiers duly participated in three months, accelerated, officer courses. The first graduates were commissioned in the summer of 1917, among them some Jews. 131 Jews were commissioned in Kiev; 150 Jews participated in an officers' course in Odessa.

Beginning in the summer of 1917, religious services were introduced in the army. Rabbis served as officers responsible for religious and social serviced to Jewish soldiers. Jacob Berman, Berdichev's rabbi, was appointed in June 1917 to the South-West Front. He served as a colonel under the deputy Chief of Staff, and four more rabbis served under him in the armies.

On February 1918, rabbis' positions were discontinued alongside all religious services in the Red Army.

Self Defense Units. The weakening of security after the revolution led Jewish large communities to establish self defense units. Joseph Trumpeldor, who returned to Russia after the revolution, negotiated the issue with the authorities. At the beginning of 1918, he was appointed Jewish Affairs Commissar in the Ministry of War.

The development of Jewish self defense units was arrested after the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917, when the Red Army was launched.    

C. Jews in the young Red Army

The October Revolution (November 1917) overthrew Kerensky's Liberal weak regime with a revolutionary dictatorship headed by Vladimir Ilich Lenin.

At the core of the Red Army were the Red Guard Units, established in the main cities by the Bolsheviks in September/October 1917. Among the organizers of the Guards were the revolutionary Jew, Jacob Sverdlov, and other Jews, who saw in the Bolshevik Ideology a ray of hope in establishing a classless society, having no differences of religion, race, and sex, thus putting an end to discrimination against the Jews.

On January 28, 1918, the Council of People's Commissars established the Red Army. Concurrently a Revolutionary Military Council was established, which conducted the war in 1918 – 1921. Some Jews served on that council: Józef Unszlicht, who was among the defenders of Petrograd from the German offensive, Jacob Sverdlov, M. S. Oritzki, Jacob M. Fishman, and M.G Levin.

The architect of the Red Army and the chief strategist of the revolution was Lev Davidovich Bronstein - Leon Trotsky. Following his advice, the Red Army switched from voluntary to compulsory service already in May 1918. In the fall of 1918, the Red Army numbered 800,000 soldiers in 40 divisions. Jona Yakir was also among its founders.

In February 1918 the German Invaded Soviet Russia and occupied the Ukraine and Belarus. Among the red army commanders on the Western Front were M. Ruhimovitz, A. Schlichter, Emmanuel Kwiring, and Z. Dubinski.

Anti-Semitism and pogroms did not disappear in Bolshevik Russia, although the Army's official policy was totally against antisemitism. During the Red Army's retreat from the Ukraine, at the beginning of 1918, its soldiers conducted pogroms in Novgorod-Seversk, Novojivakov and other towns. In 1919 the authorities punished pogrom perpetrators. But during the Red Army's retreat from Poland in 1920, its cavalry slaughtered Jews.

In the spring of 1919, when the Red Army was in troubles, and desperate for new recruits, Lenin consented to the "Poalei Zion" offer, and Jewish units (the Borochov Units) were established in Belarus. The first units took part in intercepting the Poles in the vicinity of Minsk. They were not properly trained, and at the crucial moment were betrayed by their non-Jewish commanders to the Poles. Most of these units were destroyed, definitely diminishing Jewish motivation to enlist in the Red Army.

Jewish soldiers, victims of the war

World War I was a horrible battlefield for Russia. Over 14% of its recruits, 1,700,000 officers and soldiers were killed or declared MIA. It is no wonder that the defeat and its social/economic outcomes collapsed the Empire. The military carnage stopped only in 1921.

The Jews paid in dead soldiers over and above their percentage of the population. 100,000 Jewish soldiers were killed in the war (20% of Jewish recruits). Many more thousands of Jews were killed by rioters of the Imperial and Red armies, their homes looted and destroyed.

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