World War I – General Information

The exhibition presents in a nutshell parts of the historical materials found in the The Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives, relating to the participation of Jews in World War I. The documents focus on the roles played by Jews in the various armies during the war, not to glorify the contributions to the war effort, but to present them as human beings in one of the cruelest wars in the history of the world. This, to commemorate the fallen, the war's victims, and to refute anti-Semitic theories about the Jews evading the dangers of wars.

The The Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives's Jewish Combatant Collection, in the World Armies and Undergrounds, contains thousands of files, documents, photographs, exhibits, books, etc., many of which about World War I. I, the person in charge of the collection, is honored to present a selection of them, to commemorate one of the cruelest wars in the history of the Mankind.

The introduction, presenting the background to the outbreak of the war and some of its major events, will be followed by chapters about Jewish service in the armies of the main participants in the war: Austro-Hungary; Germany; the Russian Empire; the Ottoman Empire; the British Empire; France; the USA; Italy; Bulgaria.

More than 1.3 million Jews fought on both sides of the conflict, with the Entente and The Central Powers.

The following is a quick look at the documents and events of these days. They are meant to invite the public to visit the The Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives, and be impressed by the various pieces of information from those days.

World War I – introduction

World War I broke on July 28, 1914 and continued until the armistice, on November 11, 1918. Besides the main theatre of war in Europe, it spread to the Middle East, China, the Pacific Ocean, and the shores of North and South America. It was the first modern world war, including infantry battles; static trench warfare; armored battles (for the first time, tanks took part in the warfare); naval battles (Dreadnoughts, battle cruisers, torpedo boats, submarines); air battles (zeppelins, reconnaissance and fighter aircraft); massive intelligence systems, espionage and psychological warfare; the use of poison gases; propaganda war (films, reporting, biased media).

More than 66.5 soldiers fought in World War I in the two opposing war alliances: The Entente (The British Empire, France, and the Russian Empire) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary). With the broadening warfare, the war alliances were broadened too: Italy, Japan, and the USA joined the Entente Powers, alongside Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Greece, Belgium, Portugal, etc., The Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers.

The outbreak of the war

The 20th century began in an optimistic atmosphere. A sense of stability, pacifism, liberalism, economic and industrial progress, openness, and flourishing art, prevailed in Europe.

Like in World War II, Germany was at the center of the global conflict in World War I. Its industrial and economic might rose impressively after its unification and the establishment of the German Empire (in 1871, following the French-Prussian War). Since the mid 1890's, Kaiser Wilhelm II's administration allocated huge economic resourced to establish a war navy, as a counterbalance to the hegemony of the British navy. The arms race between Germany and Britain spread all over Europe, where various states harnessed their resources to armaments, in preparation of a possible European conflict.

The most explosive area were the Balkans, Austro-Hungary exploited a crisis in Bosnia (1908 – 1909) to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina (which it occupied since 1878). Serbia, supported by the Russian Empire, reacted to undermine the "balances and checks" system in the Balkans. Thus, the first Balkan War broke out (1912 – 1913) between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire. The "London Accords" failed to stabilize the Balkans, and a second Balkan War broke in June 1913, further undermining stability in the region.

The assassination in Sarajevo as the opening signal of World War I

Contrary to the prevailing opinion, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungary's throne, was not the cause of the war, but the pretext, igniting an unexpected conflict in Europe. Old rivalries, hatreds, border and territorial conflicts, national intolerances, etc., rose to the surface. National chauvinism rose alongside an increasing armament race. The war became inevitable and many nations joined the warring sides in support of "culture and a new order."

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, with his wife Sophie, by Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian nationalist, member of the "Young Bosnia" group. The assassination led to an intensive diplomatic effort among Austro-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, and Britain, on the Balkan crisis issue. On July 1914, Austro-Hungary served an ultimatum to Serbia, containing ten demands. These could not be answered in the positive, especially with Russian meddling in its support of Serbia. It became clear that Austro-Hungary was preparing for war. When Serbia acceded to eight demands only, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia (July 28, 1914).

In reaction, the Russian Empire, allied with Serbia, declared a partial mobilization on July 29. Germany served an ultimatum to Russia, threatening to attack if the mobilization would not be canceled in 12 hours, while concurrently starting its own mobilization (July 30). Despite Russia's willingness to discuss demobilization, Germany declared war on Germany on August 1 1914.

The German war plan, the Schlieffen Plan, was to attack in the west to neutralize France before turning east to Russia. Therefore, while mobilizing, Germany demanded France to remain Neutral. In order to prevent a clash, France did not mobilize, and even withdrew its forces 10 Km from the border. But the German war plan was already rolling, and could not be stopped. On August 2 it attacked Luxemburg, and on August 3 declared war on France. On August 4, when Belgium refused passage of German forces in its territory towards France, Germany declared war. On the same day, Britain declared war on Germany, due to the breach of Belgian Neutrality.

On August 12, Austro-Hungary invaded Serbia.

World War I broke therefore following a fast escalation in a few weeks (end of July, beginning of August 1914). In the East Russia attacked Germany, disrupting its plan to attack in the west first. The German advance was arrested, and Europe deteriorated into a terrible trench war.

The war spread beyond Europe: to Asia and the Pacific Ocean islands, to China and India, to the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa, and the Far East. The British and German navies clashed in the oceans.

Losses in the war are presented in a table further in the exhibition. Over 8.5 million soldiers fell in the war, over 21 million were wounded, and nearly 8 million were declared MIA. All in addition to countless civilian casualties, refugees, and the destruction of infrastructures. World War I created a cognitive shock. World War I (The Great War, as it was known at the time) was doubtless one of the most horrible wars of the 20 century.

Note: statistical data serve only to illustrate scopes, there are much diverging data in the literature.

The War's outcomes:

The Entente Powers won the war;

Four empires disintegrated: the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, and the Ottoman;

New states were established in Europe, and in the Middle East;

The German colonies and various regions of the Ottoman Empire were distributed among the other powers;

The League of nation was established to preserve the world order.

The following photographs are taken from "The World War in Pictures (DER WELTKRIEG IM BILD). This rare book, a copy of which is stored in the archive, was published in 1928 by the National German Archive, and was not commercially distributed. The photographs reflect the character and aspects of the war, including soldiers, armaments, and destruction.  ​

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