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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 130-132

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Reconstructing a National Identity:
The Jews of Habsburg Austria during World War I

Reconstructing a National Identity: The Jews of Habsburg Austria during World War I. By Marsha L. Rozenblit (New York, Oxford University Press, 2001) 252 pp. $49.95

Interviewed by the Berlin newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel, on the occasion of the opening of the new Austrian embassy in the German capital, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel observed that the legacy of his country's supranational past might have positive application in a contemporary Europe of interdependent regions. A Mitteleuropa loosely confederated on the model of the Benelux countries, Schüssel continued, could offer the prospect of harmonious co-existence to peoples who were embroiled in, or endured, too much of the opposite in the preceding century.

No one would have concurred more in the attractiveness of this vision than the subjects of this fine new book. As Rozenblit describes it, the Dual Monarchy, particularly the provinces ruled from Vienna rather than Budapest, provided Jews a unique opportunity to forge an identity combining loyalty to the state and its dynasty, cultural affiliation more or [End Page 130] less freely chosen, and a sense of Jewish ethnic kinship and shared religious belief. In the Hungarian half of the monarchy, Jews were "Magyarized"; they became Hungarian in their citizenship and culture, while remaining Jewish in their ethnicity and religious practice. In the Austrian provinces, Jews were no less devoted to venerable Emperor Franz Joseph but adopted German, Czech, or Polish culture, usually, but not always, on the basis of geography, and conducted their lives, in ethnic and religious terms, as Jews. This complex structure of political, cultural, and ethnic identity was reinforced during World War I, as 300,000 Jewish soldiers served at the front and countless other Jews contributed to the domestic war effort. But its foundations collapsed with the disintegration of the monarchy in 1918 and the emergence of new national states in central and eastern Europe. Nearly 2 million Jews, hitherto Habsburg subjects, faced the challenge of reconstructing their identity, often in hostile, sometimes dangerous, circumstances.

Drawing upon the work of theorists as diverse Smith, Anderson, and Gellner, Rozenblit differentiates between Anglo-French conceptions of nationality, founded on common citizenship in a territorially contiguous state, and central and eastern European notions of a romantic, ethnocultural national identity that either spilled over or was denied political boundaries and territorial delineations. 1 Distributed, unevenly, across the Habsburg lands, Jews could neither aspire to citizenship in a nonexistent national state nor identify in ethnic terms with any of the more numerous nationalities around them. As racial and biological qualifications increasingly defined membership in a particular Volk, Jews became the state-people par excellence, dependent on the protection of the Habsburg central authorities for whatever security this status afforded them.

Rozenblit describes with sympathetic understanding the difficulties that Austrian Jews faced during World War I—for example, the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Galicia and Bukovina, support for whom fell preponderantly on their more modern and cosmopolitan co-religionists in Vienna, or the efforts by Jewish organizations to combat the rising tide of antisemitic vituperation fed by food shortages, black marketeering, and other dislocations of domestic life. Many Jews turned to Zionism, and even among non-Zionists, expectations grew that the Jews would be recognized as a nationality and accorded national minority rights in the postwar political order. Events turned out otherwise. Some of Rozenblit's most incisive pages recount the repeated disappointment of Jewish nationalist aspirations in the Habsburg successor states. Only in the new Czechoslovak Republic were Jews able to reconstitute an identity that approximated the one that they had known previously, and even there unresolved nationality conflicts threatened their well-being. [End Page 131]

Rozenblit's account is essentially a straightforward historical one. She moves with ease among the multiplicity of Jewish subcommun- ities—assimilationist, traditional, Hasidic, and Zionist—that populated the Habsburg lands, although her primary concern is the German...


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