Another Version of Empire: Jews in the German Military Administration in Eastern Europe during the Great War

Friday, January 6, 2012: 10:10 AM
Chicago Ballroom F (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Philipp Nielsen, Yale University
As is well known by now, Jewish Germans joined the ranks of the German army in August 1914 as enthusiastically as any other German. Yet as the conventional story goes, shortly into the First World War Jewish Germans had already grown disenchanted with the war effort. Following an army-led census to determine the number of Jews in its ranks in 1916, they turned against the war and its conductor, the Wilhelmine Empire. While this story has a lot of truth to it, it falls short in two important areas: it fails to account for the attraction of the military as a society of men governed by honor, and for the appeal of Germany’s Eastern European policy, which initially had the liberation of Eastern European Jews as one of its, at the very least rhetorical, cornerstones.

The presentation will focus on the fusion of these two aspects in the participation of Jewish Germans in the administration of conquered Eastern Europe, their position in the military hierarchy, and their constructions of their identity—both within these all-male settings, and vis-à-vis the Eastern European Jews they encountered. Most interesting and most extensive in these respects are the writings of German military rabbis in the East. Having left their civilian life at the beginning of the war, they found themselves as officers attached to the Army Groups’ Higher Staffs and the General Command of the German forces in the East. The rabbis, just as other Jewish soldiers, embraced the imagery of military masculinity. Many of them posed proudly in their uniforms, decorated with medals, or occasionally even wearing gas masks. Yet they were also proud of their achievements on the behalf of Eastern European Jewry and in many cases managed to get the military’s support for their actions.