Muscle Jews and Airplanes: Modernist Mythologies, the Great War, and the Politics of Regeneration
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Modernism/modernity 13.4 (2006) 701-728


Muscle Jews and Airplanes:
Modernist Mythologies, the Great War, and the Politics of Regeneration

I. The Military Might of Old-New Maccabees

At the end of the nineteenth century, when Max Nordau issued his call for the re-creation of a lost "muscular Judaism,"1 there was probably no stereotype as deeply imprinted on the Jewish body as that of the cowardly and un-soldierly Jew. Because of their small chest size, their flat-footedness, their ungainly gait, their hunched-over backs, their susceptibility to certain diseases (diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism), their dietary restrictions, their inability or unwillingness to abandon the world of abstractions and speculations, and their inherent cowardice, Jews could never become good soldiers.2 Their unfit bodies, cowardly psychic disposition, and religious-cultural strictures supposedly prevented them from defending the countries in which they lived, consigning them to "unheroic conduct."3 In a scathing caricature from 1780, the year before Christian Wilhelm von Dohm published his famous treatise advocating, among other things, for the "military" improvement of the Jews, a Viennese caricaturist by the name of Johann Löschenkohl published an illustrated poem called "Jewish Recruits Complaining About Learning Military Drills."4 Condensing virtually all of the anti-Semitic stereotypes of the un-soldierly Jew, the poem consists of a dialogue between a Jewish recruit named "Mauschel"5 and a corporal who is overseeing his training. Mauschel says: "Look out, oh German world! Watch with wonder. We're going into the battlefield. Ach! Is this befitting? We have to become, all at once, a Mauschel and a soldier. We swear by our beards, the [End Page 701] heavens and the earth: It's not going to happen because we lack courage. And yet we're called upon to be warriors. … We fear the smell of gun powder and the whistle of the bullets; we are so scared when the canons fire. Look at how deep it cuts to my heart when a great enemy stands before me … Oi Vey, Mr. Corporal, I'm going to pee in my pants. Oi Vey, Mr. Corporal, listen to my screaming. Free me from this pain. Oi Vey! Oi Vey! Oi Vey!" [Figure 1].

In a somewhat later caricature of a Jewish soldier, "Jacob as Recruit and Jacob as Poet," the physical inadequacies of the Jew come to the foreground next to his deep-seated cowardice [Figure 2].6 When the diminutive Jacob, with flat feet and misshapen legs, cannot follow the commands of the drill sergeant—"Left, right! Left, right!" –, he asks: "Am I to blame for growing this way?" As the counterpart to the tall, muscular, serious, and erect standing German soldier, Jacob is small in stature, weak in physical composition, whimsical in demeanor, and downright terrified of his weapon. He cannot march straight due to his awkward gait; he does not know how to use his musket-bayonet; he falls prostrate on the ground in a plume of smoke. As the sergeant looms angrily above him, he cries out: "Ach! I'm dead. I'm kaputt." The final scenes show Jacob, at home, ogling a girl from his window and sitting at his desk composing poetry. Military service, we are to conclude, is not a Jewish characteristic.

Since defense of the state demonstrated loyalty to the state, military service became connected to the debate over Jewish emancipation and the extension of civil rights throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Of course, detractors found ample ammunition to bar Jews from serving in the military: Not only were Jews physically unfit for military service, they argued, but Jewish religious strictures, particularly the Sabbath and kosher dietary requirements, made them less than ideal candidates for fighting side-by-side with their Christian counterparts in battle. But when Frederick William III signed the Edict of Emancipation in 1812, Jews were recognized for the first time as "Einlaender," or native Prussian state citizens, thereby rendering them "subject to military conscription."7 In...