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We are about to mark the ninetieth baleful anniversary of the outbreak of World War I - the "Great War" as it was then naively known. The war was the catalyst for all of the other murderous wars, revolutions and events of the bloodiest century in human history that followed this war. The war was brought about by catastrophic miscalculations of the great European powers. It was a combination of reckless politicians, stupid generals and strong jingoist nationalistic fervor in all of the countries of Europe that brought about the catastrophe. The war claimed millions of lives and was followed by an influenza epidemic that claimed millions more. More American soldiers in Europe died of influenza in the war's aftermath than did in actual combat. No country in Europe except Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries and Holland was spared. The war was a total war and it was therefore a total disaster to all concerned. But in a perverse and not too surprising twist of events, in perfect hindsight, we can conclude that it was the Jewish population of Europe that was most affected and damaged by the war. The Jews as individuals fought in the armies of all of the combatants. As was their wont, the Western European Jews became the super patriots of their respective countries, determined to prove thereby that they really "belonged." This was especially true of German Jewry. Over twelve thousand Jews died fighting for the "Vaterland." Their patriotism and sacrifice would turn to ashes, literally, within twenty years.

In spite of their super patriotism, the Jews in Germany were subject to accusations of disloyalty and shirking. In 1916, the German General Staff ordered a census of all Jewish soldiers in the army to determine how many were actually serving and the percentage of their actual front line combat. A fabricated census was publicized with great fanfare, intimating that the Jews were shirking their duty. The actual results of the census that showed that eighty percent of all Jewish soldiers were serving on the front lines and that the Jewish numbers in the army were far higher than they were in the general population were never published or released to the general public (shades of the UN and the EU!). Anti-Semitism was very strong and virulent in Germany before World War I. The war itself and Germany's subsequent defeat only served to exacerbate it. The stage was therefore already set for the "Jewish-led-stab-in-the-back" betrayal theory that brought Hitler and Nazism to power. The Germans really believed that "the Jews are our misfortune."

For the Jews in Eastern Europe, the war brought on unmitigated tragedy. A quarter million of them died in the war, in its battles and from dislocations. Over a million of them became refugees as the Czar accused them of being German collaborators and forced them to leave their homes in western Russia, Poland and Lithuania and settle in inland Russia, far from the front. Because of the Czar's behavior towards the Jews, many actually welcomed the conquering Germans and Austrians as liberators and benefactors. The Jewish infrastructure in Eastern Europe, socially, economically, culturally and religiously, was almost completely destroyed by the war. The war also served to radicalize much of Eastern European Jewry's youth, with secularism and Marxism being the main beneficiaries of this trend. The yeshivot were scattered and in exile and many of the Chasidic courts and dynasties were decimated. The Bolshevik revolution brought on by the war attempted to destroy Russian Jewry and the practice of Judaism. The anti-Semitism of the Polish and Lithuanian nationalists became overt and violent. Again, in perfect hindsight, it seems clear that even without the Holocaust occurring, Eastern European Jewish life was on the wane.

The "Great War" was also the catalyst for the Zionist movement's success in creating a Jewish society and eventually a Jewish state here in the Land of Israel. The exigencies of war brought England to issue the Balfour Declaration and served to end the hegemony of the Ottoman Empire over the country. The war also reawakened long dormant Arab nationalism and set in motion the conflicting forces driving the Arabs and the Jews. The war served to harden Jews, physically, emotionally and mentally. The great divides that then existed (and still do) within the Jewish world would not be easily bridged for the ideologies and beliefs that drove them had become annealed in the heat of the terrible war that engulfed them all. The world generally and the Jewish people most particularly are still paying the bill for the disaster that befell mankind ninety years ago with the coming of World War I.

Berel Wein

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