“More German than the Germans” is what aptly described many German Jews from the 19th century up to and occasionally including the Hitler Era. At a time when the Russian and Romanian Jews were facing institutionally-sanctioned antisemitism and Jews were prominently described as enemies of the state, German Jews had been progressively achieving nearly equal legal status. While antisemitism was still prevalent, the belief that integrating into society would end antisemitism was widespread.
It is thus no surprise that when the First World War erupted, German Jews rushed to defend their “homeland,” echoing the Kaiser’s statement in favor of German unity: “In disregard of political parties, social status, and religion.” German Jews also saw this as a war against the barbarism of Tsarist Russia, which at the time was relentlessly persecuting Jews.
Twelve thousand is the staggering number of Jews who died fighting for their German homeland in WWI. In total, over 100,000 Jews are estimated to have served in the Imperial Army during the war, of which 18,000 received the Iron Cross award. World War One coincided with the first Jewish chaplains in the German Army, called feldrabbiner (field-rabbis), a total of 81 German rabbis volunteered to the position during the Great War.
Of the more prominent chaplains to serve Jewish interests during this era was Leo Baeck (1873-1956). Writing to the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums, a Jewish German Magazine, and published on Sep 27, 1914, he writes of the area that he was tending to: “extending between 40 and 70 kilometers, often over difficult terrain. The Jewish troops were scattered in trenches, not easy to reach, requiring much patience to approach them.” The German Army issued abridged prayer books for the Jewish soldiers, and these were used by the Jewish servicemen during these services. Other such abridged prayer books were published by individual communities, such as one published in Hamburg in 1915, which contained a calendar for the Jewish year. The introduction of this prayer book contained a prayer that “in the forthcoming year, you will be saved from all the suffering of the previous year… we will defeat our enemies for the glory of our king.”
The sermons of several of these military field-rabbis during the high holidays were collected and published in 1916 in a brief publication titled Ein Gruss der Feldrabbiner an die jüdischen Kameraden im Deutschen Heere (“A greeting from the field rabbis to the Jewish soldiers in the German army”). In the infant “Air Force” of the German military, many Jews served as well, including 50 who were killed in combat. The most famous of these was Wilhelm Frankl (1893 – 1917), credited with striking down 20 enemy aircraft, including what is the first known downing of an aircraft at night. Aside from soldiers, it is estimated that over 30,000 Jewish doctors and medical personnel served the German war effort.
During the war, despite the above proportionate representation of German Jews in their host country’s war effort, the German Jews were accused of being disloyal and avoiding the draft. In 1916, the War Minister Wild von Hohenborn, in an attempt to paint the Jews as a people avoiding the draft and cowards, made a census of the Jews in the army to determine the number of Jews on the front lines and the number of Jews serving in the rear. The census, known as the Judenzählung, found that the vast majority, 80 percent, served on the front lines. When the results turned out to be different than the war minister hoped they would be, they were kept quiet.
The fact that many fellow German countrymen turned on the Jews, despite their efforts in the war, was a shocking moment for many in the Jewish community. Some historians point to this event and the related antisemitic actions as a turning point in the history of German Jewry, who until then generally believed that they were accepted and embraced by the German people. The result of this blatant antisemitic act and the related acts of antisemitism was that many Jews evolved to become Pacifists and Zionists.
After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg directly intervened on behalf of Jewish German war veterans and protected them from dismissal from government employment. After his death, though, in 1935, this protection ended and the Jewish veteran society, Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten, encouraged German Jews to pursue emigration. When the final solution was implemented, even the most prominent German Jewish war veterans found no protection and they were deported alongside their brethren to the concentration camps.