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The Uncivil Servant: Counting German Jews

Mitchell Abidor
November 23, 2014
by Mitchell Abidor Discussed in this essay: Loyal Sons: Jews in the German Army in the Great War, by Peter Appelbaum. Valentine Mitchell, 2014, 347 pages. 3g11278u-1117IT’S LONG BEEN A HISTORICAL TRUISM — and truth — that Hitler’s rise to power and the consequent Holocaust were to a large extent the fruits of the German defeat in World War I and the iniquitous Versailles Treaty. Peter Appelbaum’s fascinating Loyal Sons: Jews in the German Army in the Great War makes a convincing case that the germs of those horrors could be found in the German army well before that defeat, not just during World War I, but also in the century that preceded it. Appelbaum’s examination lays bare the tumor that the German defeat would allow to spread. (My choice of a medical metaphor here is not accidental: the author of this volume is a physician by training, not a historian, making his accomplishment here all the more striking.) As he shows, the army is a perfect place for examining mistreatment of Jews in Germany. It was there that we can perhaps most clearly see how the Jews’ efforts to become a part of the German nation were rebuffed. Jews answered the call to the colors in the Napoleonic Wars, and in Prussia’s wars with Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-1871), yet restrictions against them in the army and in society remained in effect and actually hardened as time passed. Jews had been prohibited from joining the army until 1813, and despite their volunteering to join in all Prussia’s fights, promotion into officer ranks and admission to civil service remained barred to them even after unification under Bismarck. Nothing, of course, could be more ironic than German Jews faithfully defending their fatherland against Napoleon, who liberated the Jews in every country his armies conquered. Jews chose fidelity to their homeland over their own interests and those of their people, hoping improvements would result from their patriotic actions. But they didn’t. The German rabbinate worked to instill patriotism in their flock, going so far as to tell Jewish soldiers that the fight for the nation absolved them of all religious duties. The chief rabbi of Silesia is reported as saying in 1813, “The moment you enter military service you must think only of king and Fatherland, and your religious duties cease!... You need not put on phylacteries when you are unable to do so. Take them with you, but you do not need to use them... God will accept your service for king and Fatherland as a prayer, and will send you back to your family adorned with honors.” JEWS CONTINUED TO BE ABHORRED by a significant section of the German population and to have their lives constricted, while those who wanted to make the military their career found it to be impossible. In the period 1885-1914 there was not a single Jewish officer in the Prussian army. So when a German, as Appelbaum reports, mocked a Frenchman for the Dreyfus Affair, saying such a thing would not be possible in Germany, he was speaking the truth, though not the one he intended: A Jew on the army’s general staff could only be accused of spying if it was possible for a Jew to be on the general staff. In France, this was possible; in Germany, it wasn’t. However widespread anti-Semitism was in Europe, Appelbaum makes it clear that the situation in the German army was far worse than anywhere else in Europe, with the exception of Russia. In Austria-Hungary, 2,179 Jews were officers; in Italy, 500 Jews served as reserve officers; in France, “despite the negative fallout from the Dreyfus affair, 720 Jews were officers.” So when the German army rolled east during World War I and a call was issued to the Jews of Poland telling them to look on the German army as liberators, this was, on a relative scale, true — the situation in Russia and Poland was unspeakable, and the Russian army didn’t even allow Jews to have chaplains, while the German army allowed chaplains and extended leaves to cover Jewish holidays — but that was pretty much the extent of Germany’s liberalism towards Jews. As the banker Max Warburg wrote to his son in 1888, when the latter had expressed a desire to be a military officer: “My Dear Max: Meshugge. Your loving father.” THE OUTBREAK OF WORLD WAR I led to the Kaiser’s declaration of the burgfrieden (civil peace), in which he stated that with the war, “there are only Germans,” and that “I see no more parties in my Volk.” Political differences vanished and acceptance of all religions was the order of the day, at least in the initial days of the war. The situation soon returned to normal, however, with Jewish soldiers the regular butt of insults, anti-Semitic campaigns reappearing, and the road to promotion now open but obstructed. Appelbaum recounts the story of a much-decorated Jewish soldier who applied five times for promotion, and was denied in all his attempts until September 1918, when his promotion could no longer make any difference. The omnipresence of Jew-hatred in Germany society permeated the army; the omnipresence of Jew-hatred in the army permeated the society. And the two currents met in the Judenzählung, the Jewish census of 1916, perhaps the most absurd and insulting enterprise ever undertaken by an army at war and a true precursor of the World War II shunting of resources away from the war effort for the extermination of Jews. The accusations of the stab in the back and of Jewish shirking, which Hitler, the Nazis, and the right in general would swing like a cudgel after the war, were already making themselves felt as the war raged and Jews were being killed in battle. Even during the period of the burgfrieden, in fact, during the first month of World War I, anti-Semites were accusing Jews of shirking and profiteering. As the war continued and the dreams of easy victory faded, anti-Semitic groups and rightwing parties brought the issue up in parliament, talking about “behind-the-line Jews.” The army’s response was not to combat this, not to ignore it as unworthy of attention, but rather to impose a census of all Jews in the army. “Bitter complaints,” the Prussian War Ministry wrote on June 9, 1916, “have been laid before the War Ministry that Jews have remained free of duty with arms in a relatively higher proportion than Christians.” And so Jews, and Jews alone, were counted, and their locations — at the front, in rearguard positions working in offices, as invalids — were recorded and compiled.Their status on one date in 1916 would stand for the entire record of the Jews. Anti-Semitic officers engaged in feats of legerdemain, relieving Jews temporarily of posts at the front in order to deflate the number of Jewish fighters, while wounded soldiers sent home on leave to recover counted among the shirkers. And since no such census of non-Jewish soldiers was done, it was impossible to compare the ratios between Jewish and non-Jewish fighters. The government, under attack from Jewish organizations and the left, made a half-hearted effort to claim that the census “had as its only purpose compilation of statistical data, to be able to test accusations against the Jews,” and so was actually a positive thing, but no one was fooled. The results of the census were never released during the war — the statement attached to the bill calling for the census was that it was for the military’s internal use alone — but post-war rightwing groups gained access and, by twisting the numbers, provided ammunition for their case that Jewish cowardice played a key role in Germany’s defeat. Appelbaum, citing a number of experts, carries out a careful analysis of the numbers that can be obtained (the actual surveys were destroyed in a bombing raid during WWII), and finds that 17.3 percent of all German Jews served in frontline positions, compared to 18.3 percent of all Germans, the difference, again according to Appelbaum, attributable to the relatively older Jewish population. Far too many Germans heard about and read the rightwing’s numbers and accepted the Jewish role in Germany’s defeat. The officer corps of the army, long eaten away by Jew-hatred, never had a doubt that this was the case, the Jews providing a perfect scapegoat for their own misguided conduct of the war. Military anti-Semitism, the carrying out of the census in the middle of a war, and the demoralization it led to among the Jewish fighters, made it clear that nothing good was in the offing for Germany’s Jews. Quoting another historian of the period, Appelbaum correctly says that “the Judenzählung was a precondition, necessary but certainly not sufficient, of the post-war anti-Semitism which led to the rise of National Socialism.” In the end, 100,000 Jews served in the war, 80,000 at the front. 12,000 were killed and 35,000 decorated, but it mattered not a whit. The theme of this book is Jewish participation in the war, and so the heroes are those who fought at the front, or who wielded scalpels in field hospitals, or flew planes in dogfights. Appelbaum thus misses the true Jewish heroes of the war, those who, like Rosa Luxemburg, refused to support it. This required a bravery of a different kind, one all too rare in the years 1914-1918. (I would like to thank my brother Bob Abidor for both discovering this book and obtaining it for me.) Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.