Deeply rooted in Christian European culture was the medieval notion that the hated Jewish minority should not be allowed to possess or bear arms. Only after the French Revolution did this attitude begin to change. In 1808 a Prussian official wrote to King Friedrich Wilhelm III (r. 1797-1840):
The Jew has fiery oriental blood and a lively imagination. All signs point to manly vigour when properly used and directed. It should also be noted that in both the French and American revolutions, striking examples of Jewish bravery have occurred
Beginning in the “War of Liberation” (1812-1814) fought by Prussia and other German States against Napoleon, Jews were accepted as army volunteers. Small numbers of Jews served in Prussia’s wars with Denmark (1848-51, 1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-71).
During the First World War, about 100,000 Jews served in the German Army. Of these, some 80,000 as Frontsoldaten (“combat troops;”) of whom about 12,500 were killed or missing in action, 35,000 were decorated (ironically, with the Iron Cross) and two thousand became officers, despite the fierce resistance of the aristocratic Prussian officer corps; Catholic Bavaria, which maintained its own Army within the German Empire, proved somewhat more willing to promote Jews to junior officer ranks.
When the European powers went to war in August 1914, it was on a wave of popular enthusiasm. Eager to prove their patriotism, to demonstrate their assimilation into German society, and to discredit racist stereotypes of the Jew as weak and cowardly, young Jewish men flocked to volunteer.
is the first book-length English language account of Jewish soldiers in Kaiser Wilhelm’s military. One of the great strengths of the book is that we hear the voices of these men in their own words, carefully translated by the author, who makes extensive use of memoirs, diaries, and soldiers’ letters.
A particularly good chapter documents the significant role of Jews in the German Army medical corps. Appelbaum, the author was trained as a doctor and microbiologist, taking up military history after retiring from a successful medical career. His insights into the horrors of injury, disease and chemical weapons during the war are noteworthy.
Another chapter chronicles the development of the Imperial German Air Force, where some 200 Jews served as pilots, gunners, Zeppelin crew, balloon observers, or technicians, with about fifty killed in action.
Unfortunately the book provides relatively little information on Jews in the Imperial Navy.
A considerable amount of space is devoted to the 1916 Judenzählung (“Jew count”) an attempt to conduct a census of Jewish front line combat troops. This was organized by anti-Semitic staff officers attempting to prove that Jews were slackers, deliberately avoiding hazardous duty. Nothing of the sort was ever proved, but the malicious slander had a negative effect on morale, and exacerbated tensions in the ranks.
A melancholy final chapter describes the fate of Jewish veterans. Most who did not escape Germany before the outbreak of World War II perished in the Holocaust.
The author’s earlier book, from the same publisher, was Loyalty Betrayed: Jewish Chaplains in the German Army During the First World War (2014), throws additional light on this subject. One hopes that someone will undertake a similar study of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Army (kaiserlich-und-königlich or K-u- K), where some 300,000 Jews served in the First World War. This would be a daunting research challenge, since the primary sources, in addition to German and Yiddish, will also be in Hungarian, Italian, Czech, Polish and Serbo-Croatian.
Loyal Sons is also available in paperback shortly, $28.00, ISBN 978-0-8530-3999-0, ND as an ebook, ISBN 978-1-935902-24-9
Mike Markowitz is a D.C. based defense analyst, who writes for several defense related journals and Defense Media Network, including, The Year in Special Operations. He is the co-designer, with John Gresham, of
, both from Clash of Arms. A collector and lecturer on ancient coins, he is active in the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington, DC. His previous reviews for StrategyPage include To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940,
The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire
, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), D-Day Encyclopedia: Everything You Want to Know About the Normandy Invasion, and
Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War