World War I and the Jewish illusion


by Gerard Leval

Given this, the centennial anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it is appropriate to give renewed consideration to that war’s significant impact on the Jews of Europe. For the Jewish communities of Western Europe, this first major world conflict of the 20th century created the grandest of illusions. At the beginning of the war, the Jewish communities on both sides were infused with unparalleled patriotic ardor for their homelands. Tragically, the ultimate consequences of their patriotism were hardly what those communities imagined.

Before World War I began, the Jews of Western Europe were still very insecure about their status. In France, which had granted civic equality to its Jewish citizens in 1791, full integration into society had remained elusive. In the 1890s, the French Jewish community, which had grown and prospered throughout the 19th century, had suffered a major setback with the Dreyfus Affair. In Germany and Austria-Hungary, Jews had achieved intellectual and commercial success, but remained social pariahs. With the outbreak of the Great War, Western European Jews saw an opportunity to earn their equality by proving that they were patriots of their respective countries. Patriotism, courage and sacrifice would be their passports to full social integration.

Jews enlisted by the thousands in the German and French armed forces. Casualty figures suggest that they took enormous risks and exhibited extraordinary courage. On both sides, thousands of Jewish soldiers died, and many received military honors as testimonials to their bravery. After the war, French Jews celebrated with their countrymen and German Jews mourned with theirs. Both communities reasonably assumed that their bravery and sacrifices would remove any taint of suspicion that they were less than fully loyal to their country. But they were wrong. In Germany, within a short time, nationalists began to blame Germany’s defeat on the Jews. It was alleged that Jewish bankers and merchants had sabotaged the war effort.

How else could the superior German armed forces have been defeated? That belief fueled the growth of Hitler’s National Socialist Party and helped to propel it to power in 1933. In France, there was a short respite from anti-Jewish sentiment. However, as the economic situation deteriorated in the 1930s, French nationalists increasingly espoused anti-Semitism as an excuse for France’s troubles. The Jewish communities of both countries falsely believed that their conduct during World War I had earned them full membership in their societies. This made it difficult for them, and, in particular, for Jewish communal leaders, most of whom had served in the Great War, to confront reality. Even with growing anti-Semitism, many Jewish veterans of the war refused to believe that their sacrifices would not shield them from the hatred of some of their countrymen.

This illusion was so firmly ingrained that it led many Jews to refuse, indeed, in many cases, to be unable even to see the danger growing. During the German occupation of France, many proudly wore their military medals alongside the humiliating Yellow Star – in some cases probably all the way to the death camps. The “War to End All Wars,” was for all mankind, a “Grand Illusion.” For Jews, it became an especially tragic illusion. But it was also much more and much worse. It became a psychological trap that lulled thousands, if not millions, of Jews into believing that they could count on the protection of the fellow citizens they had fought to protect.

World War I, which led the Jews of Western Europe to the glorious mirage of full acceptance within their nations, simply blinded them to the reality that would engulf them less than a generation later. Ultimately, it is the notion that extraordinary patriotic sacrifice and acts of bravery could, by themselves, eliminate the highly resistant virus of anti-Semitism that proved to be the most destructive of illusions.

Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington, DC law firm of Arent Fox LLP, and an active member of both the Jewish and French communities of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. He is a frequent lecturer and writer on topics related to French-Jewish history.

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