- The German-Jewish Soldiers of the First World War in History and Memory by Tim Grady
Roughly 100,000 German Jews fought in World War I, and approximately 12,000 lost their lives, yet the meaning of this sacrifice remains contested even today. Did the infamous Jewish census of November 1916 break down the German-Jewish symbiosis? Did the rising antisemitism of the Weimar era exclude Jews from German society even before the rise of the Nazis? Was there ever such a thing as a German-Jewish symbiosis? Have historians and others subverted reality by placing the memory of the German-Jewish soldiers of World War I in a false framework of remembrance? These are the central questions posed by Tim Grady, and his answers are often surprising (if, in retrospect, quite reasonable). In relying on records of Jewish veterans associations, myriad other local organizations, and diaries and letters of individual Jews, Grady has mounted an effective challenge to the dominant narrative of the German-Jewish war experience—a challenge that, if not quite dislodging this narrative, will certainly force historians to reconsider their interpretations.
To Grady, the dominant narrative is linear: German Jews, largely liberal and believing themselves increasingly integrated into German society, initially welcomed the outbreak of war in 1914 in the belief that it would break down the remaining barriers and result in a unified society. Rising antisemitism and the so-called “Jew Count” led to disillusionment and humiliation, so that by the end of the war most Jews were [End Page 506] estranged, if not yet isolated, from German society. The growing crescendo of antisemitism and the rise of radical right-wing groups in the 1920s completed the exclusion of Jews from German society, so that by the time of the Nazi assumption of power, Jews had largely retreated into their own sphere—a process eventually made horribly complete by the Holocaust.
For Grady, this narrative is incorrect, based as it is on a process of looking back through the prism of the Holocaust, rather than investigating contemporary German society on its own terms. In reality, he stresses, Jews were never excluded from the common experiences of war—death, mutilation, grief—nor did Germans attempt to bar them from the developing memory culture. Since the initial memory culture emerged during the war and was based largely on local communities of mourning—themselves extensions of pre-existing groups that crossed religious and ethnic lines (business and professional associations, school groups, sporting clubs, social organizations)—Jews and Germans shared a common iconography of mourning and participated jointly in remembrance processes.
This local process of mourning and memorialization, and with it Jewish inclusion, continued in the chaos of the postwar period. Even as veterans associations formed after the war came to dominate this memory culture, Jews still were able to find a place. Many such groups were regimental associations, which meant that Jewish veterans were included by virtue of their service in the regiment, while Jews themselves formed national veterans associations that quite actively kept alive the memory of Jewish participation in the war. More important, at both the local and national levels a conservative narrative emerged, one shared by both Jewish and German organizations, that emphasized heroism and sacrifice on behalf of the nation. Thus, even as emerging right-wing groups stressed the racial and völkisch nature of the war, traditional conservatives (most notably, President Hindenburg) continued to recognize and honor the service of Jewish veterans.
To this point, Grady’s interpretation modifies the dominant narrative, but what he writes about what came after the Nazi takeover shakes it to its core. Flying in the face of emerging evidence that popular German attitudes toward Jews during the 1930s were harsher than previously believed, Grady asserts that, at least until Kristallnacht, the Nazis proved unable to dislodge Jews from local memory culture (although he does admit, in common with other researchers, that Jews tended to withdraw from German society into a more intense community...