On November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m., an agreement signed between the Allies and Germany at Compiegne France, ended hostilities on the Western front and signaled the end of the First World War.
When the war initially broke out in August 1914, few thought it would become the destructive conflagration it did, taking millions of lives. Finally its end had arrived, but there would be many consequences.
Jews were devoted to their host nations and served in every army. On the Eastern front, Jewish civilians suffered enormous casualties due to pogroms and expulsions. In the Land of Israel, Jews suffered under the brutal rule of the Ottoman Turks who had joined the Central Powers a few months after the war’s outbreak.
The end of the war raised the hope among Jews that their patriotism and sacrifices would put an end to age-old anti-Jewish animosity. That hope, alas, would not be realized. Many Jews also hoped that after 2,000 years of exile they would achieve independence in their ancient homeland.
On March 15, 1917, as a direct consequence of the fighting on the Eastern front between the Russians and the Central Powers, Russia collapsed. The czar, who abdicated, was replaced by a provisional government under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky.
The new leader denounced anti-Semitism and granted emancipation to the Jews. Some Jews hailed the changes as the long-awaited moment of liberation for oppressed Russian Jewry. But Kerensky would not last, and the nightmare of Czarist Russia would soon reemerge under Soviet rule. With Russia’s transformation under Communism, anti-Semitism morphed into a brutal war against Judaism that would last for decades.
At the conclusion of World War I, the Ukraine, where well over one million Jews lived, was the scene of a bloody three-way civil war between Ukrainian nationalists, Bolshevik forces, and the anti-Bolshevik White Army under Anton Denikin. In the fighting, all parties committed atrocities against the Jews. The forces under Simon Petliura massacred tens of thousands.
Pogrom survivors fled their homes and many perished from starvation and disease. This catastrophe, comparable to that perpetrated by the Cossacks under Bogdan Chmielnicki in 1648-1649, was directly connected to the First World War and the fall of the Russian regime.
The war also played a role in the heightened level of xenophobia that swept the U.S. and other Western nations and contributed to the enactment of legislation drastically reducing immigration. Quotas imposed in America in 1921 and in the 1924 Johnson Reed Act would remain in effect even as Jewish refugees desperately sought asylum from Germany in the late 1930s.
The defeat of the Ottoman Turkish-German forces in the Middle East by British and Anzac troops paved the way for the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917. Excitement enveloped the Jewish world. Would this gesture mean the amelioration of Jewish suffering? Was the dream of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel to be realized in the immediate future?
After the war, attempts by the British to accommodate promises made to both Jews and Arabs were inevitably met by Arab opposition in the form of terror and violence. The British responded by imposing restrictions on Jews while still seeking some form of compromise until the final act of appeasement, the MacDonald White Paper of 1939, which essentially negated the original Balfour Declaration. High hopes became bitter disappointment – another catastrophic blow to Jewry at its great hour of need.
The First World War led to the Second World War: The Versailles Treaty infuriated the German people and helped damage the German economy – both key factors contributing to the rising tide of Nazism in Germany.
The same hyper-nationalism that drove Germany to prepare for World War One now drove the defeated and humiliated Germans to look hungrily for a strong leader who would restore the country’s lost glories. The international community turned a blind eye while Germany went about rebuilding its war machine in violation of the terms of Versailles.
The era following the First World War was an ominous one for Jewry. The Jews of Russia would enter another long era of persecution under Soviet rule. The horrific massacres of Jews in the Ukraine in 1919-1920 presaged the mass murder perpetrated by the Nazi regime. Nazism was already on the rise, threatening the Jews of Europe who would be denied sanctuary by the nations of the world, including the British who still held the mandate over the Land of Israel.