At the turn of the 20th century, the majority of European Jews were integrating into their respective national communities. Unprecedented numbers of them enrolled and fought for their nations on the battlefields of the Great War. They mainly were not discriminated against – then things started to change.
Jewish patriotism had always been a cause of distrust towards them, especially in times of war. Jews belonged to an international community. They had been present in many different nations, not only in Europe but increasingly everywhere in the world. In case of a conflict, nations wondered whether their Jews were going to fight for them or if they would instead gang up with Jews from other nations, including their enemies.
But in the course of the long 19th century, something changed. Many Jewish communities, especially in Western Europe, melted into their national culture. At the opening of the 1900s, many Jews felt to belong equally to their Jews community and their national community.
The younger generation, in particular, lived this duality. Most of them felt that their national affiliation didn’t conflict at all with their Jewish community. When WWI broke out, many of these young Jews (it’s estimated about one million) enrolled for their respective nations, eager to show their patriotism.
The experience of war
Like their compatriots, Jews celebrated the outbreak of war as a meaningful chance for national renewal. Young people from all countries joined the war effort believing this would create a new world – their new world. Jews had – if anything – one more reason to do so: they could reshape their own existence inside their nation.
Evidence of Anti-Semitism, or anti-Semitic insults, in the trenches are very rare. Jews were normally integrated into their country’s force, as soldiers lived in close quarters and fought together. Some Jews escalated on the military ranks – though sometimes they may have found resistance from their generals.
But mostly, the first phases of the war were indeed an occasion of creating a common experience.
It wasn’t in the trenches that things started to change.
The German Case
Germany planned to attack France, defeat her quickly, then turned on the Eastern front against Russian. In theory, it could be done.
But on the Flanders battlefields, they came to a stalemate. The war that was supposed to be over in a few months dragged on for years.
On her part, Germany could truthfully say that no enemy had ever touched the nation’s ground. Propaganda storytelling presented this as the foreshadow of victory. Soldiers fighting in the trenches in ever more dire conditions certainly believed in that victory.
It was on the home front that things were getting tricky.
All the resources – including food – were directed to the war effort. This slowly turned circumstances inland ever more difficult. When a terrible winter between 1916 and 1917 hit, people started to starve and die for the cold.
How could the situation be so bad if Germany was winning the war?
Since the reasons for war were untouchable, people – the government and the media, first of all – started to look for a different cause to their misery. It must be the Jews. Who else could work against Germany from inside? They must be conspiring with the enemy to defeat Germany, as well as hoarding resources they took away from the populations.
The legend of the ‘stab in the back‘ started to form together with rising anti-Semitism, though it was only in the inter-war years, during the Weimar Republic, that things eventually precipitated.
Holocaust Encyclopedia – Anti-Semitism in HIstory: World War I
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Antisemitism
Tablet – The Jews Who Stabbed Germany in the Back
Moment – How the First World War Changed Jewish History
My Jewish Learning – World War I and the Jews