In the first World War Jews fought for various warring countries, including Germany. My (Jewish) grandfather fought for the Germans, and my father tells me that his relatives were “rabid German nationalists”. A distant relative was a German Jewish air ace.
In Britain, established Jews volunteered for service to fight the Germans, except for recent immigrants from Russia, who had no desire to fight on the side of Russia, given the anti-Semitism they had suffered there. In his book “Jews and the Military”, Derek Penslar puzzles over the fact that German Jews preferred to commemorate their dead than pay attention to their wounded. This contrasted with Britain, where there was extensive conversation in the Jewish press throughout the war about the Jewish wounded. He says that German-Jewish soldiers at times felt powerful solidarity with their Gentile fellow fighters, glorified the community of fighting men, and believed in heroic, redemptive death.” Penslar adds that “In any society people do not deal comfortably with the war wounded, or with disabled people of any type. Viewing the disabled…evokes guilt over being hale, not doing enough to assist the unfortunate or both…For the wounded in defeated countries, that guilt is aggravated by shame, for the broken body of the veteran symbolizes the humiliation of the nation.”
Amid Revolutionary chaos after the war (in the fall of 1918 and the winter of 1920), Jewish veterans formed self-defense squads, and when riots threatened Jewish neighborhoods they armed themselves with pistols and rubber truncheons and brawled with German toughs.
Joseph Kurt is an example of a Jewish soldier imbued with patriotism but excluded by anti-Semitism. He served during the war in the air corps, and returned to Berlin during the Spartacist rebellion. Deeply opposed to socialism, Kurt assembled a phalanx of government supporters who took on a group of advancing Spartacists, disarmed them, and took them prisoner. Later he volunteered to command a Freikorps unit on the Polish border but when troops in another unit threatened to kill him for being a Jew, he returned to Berlin.
Penslar points out that the German Jews were not fascists; there was no cult of the leader, no internal enemy, and little interest in territorial expansion. Jewish support for fascism was far greater in Italy than in Germany, in fact over seven hundred Jews took part in Mussolini’s March on Rome or were members of the Fascist Party at the time.
Victor Klemperer, a German Jew who survived World War 2, described being holed up with other Jews in a cellar in 1944, and chatting “naturally” about their service in World War 1. “…it goes without saying that each of us is attached to the German army of the First World War and to its opponents in this world war with the same degree of passion”.
The puzzle to me was that the Jews who were patriotic and wanted to prove themselves (not all classes of Jews were interested in super-patriotism), didn’t understand that their societies could turn against them, and that anti-Semitism could prevail instead of being something that could be surmounted. They didn’t understand their environment. Or maybe, their environment changed.