“We Jews Are Also Men and Not Cowards”: Jewish Frontkämpfer and the Masculine Habitus

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:50 PM
Columbia 1 (Washington Hilton)
Michael J. Geheran, Clark University
For many Jewish ex-servicemen, the First World War was a psychologically transformative experience; it provided the context for their identity as Germans, Jews, and soldiers, and it also influenced how they imagined themselves as men. Fighting in the trenches led to the emergence of a distinctive habitus among the former combatants, where courage, self-assertion, and resilience became the measure against which their manhood was evaluated. National Socialism threatened to erase all this; it sought to destroy the identity Jewish veterans had constructed as soldiers in the service of the fatherland and the high status accorded them as Frontkämpfer, upon which their sense of masculine identity rested. The same values that compelled Jewish soldiers to demonstrate bravery in the front lines in World War I, however, also made it impossible for them to passively accept these degradations. The Nazi years were a struggle for redemption, a battle to reclaim their status and honor.

Supported by ego-documents and official records from archives in Europe, Israel, and the United States, my paper examines how fighting in World War I shaped the self-identities and habitus of the German-Jewish “front generation,” paying particular attention to their responses to National Socialism after 1933. What were the central values of Jewish veterans of World War I? How did antisemitism and persecution change the way veterans saw themselves as men? Under which conditions were they able to preserve their masculine honor? What do their behaviors tell us about soldiering, gender, war and identity? A study of German-Jewish war veterans has broader implications, and throws light on how minority groups embraced the ideals of hegemonic masculinity as a means to overturn racist or gendered stereotypes and claim greater inclusion in the national body.