The Guns of August

July 10, 2014 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

One hundred years ago, on a summer’s day in Sarajevo, a Serb nationalist gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, during a ceremonial motorcade parade. The assassination was the spark that ignited the First World War. Within six weeks, for reasons that scholars continue to probe and debate, the nations of Europe plunged into a brutal four-year bloodbath, bringing suffering and death to millions. For Jews, it seemed an ominous omen that the sad day of Tisha B’Av, linked with Jewish tragedy and mourning, coincided that August with the escalation of hostilities across the continent. How did the war affect the Jews?  Here are some snapshots:

More than 1.5 million Jewish soldiers fought on both sides of the war, eager to prove their loyalty to the nations in which they lived. The London Jewish Chronicle proclaimed in its August 7, 1914, edition, “England has been all she could be to Jews; Jews will be all they can be to England.”

Likewise, the editor of a leading German Jewish newspaper praised German Jews’ enthusiastic defense of the Fatherland, saying that their patriotism served to rebut any accusation that Jews were primarily loyal to international Jewry. “The German Jew,” the editor wrote, did not “think of himself as a Jew first, but rather as a member of his country.”

Nonetheless, Jews everywhere were grimly aware that they were fighting fellow Jews. One oft-repeated story, perhaps apocryphal, told of a Jewish soldier poised to plunge his bayonet into an enemy soldier. The enemy cried out, “Shema Yisrael!” Horrified, the attacking soldier dropped his weapon.

Jewish Refugees

 In Eastern Europe, the battle lines ran through regions where nearly four million Jews lived. Distrusting the Jews’ loyalty to Russia, Russian forces expelled 600,000 Jews from villages near the front lines and massacred many accused of enemy collaboration. Eyewitness accounts report whole communities driven on foot for hundreds of miles or jammed into trains heading toward Russian interior towns that had neither resources nor desire to help the refugees.

 A Jewish Poet

 In Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, a plaque commemorating notable British writers who died in World War I includes the name of Isaac Rosenberg. A poor Jew from the East End of London, Rosenberg was among the most famous of the soldier-poets who fashioned poetry out of warfare. One of his best-known poems is set in the trenches – the miserable, muddy, rat-filled ditches in which the warring armies encamped.

Break of Day in the Trenches

 The darkness crumbles away.

. . .

Only a live thing leaps my hand,

A queer sardonic rat,

. . .

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew

Your cosmopolitan sympathies.

Now you have touched this English hand

You will do the same to a German

Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure

To cross the sleeping green between.

It seems, odd thing, you grin as you pass

Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,

Less chanced than you for life . . .


At long last, the slaughter ended in November 1918. In hindsight, two legacies of the war predicted both future Jewish triumph and tragedy. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, voicing Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland, foreshadowed the birth of Israel. A more menacing legacy, however, was the post-war myth within Germany blaming Jews for Germany’s humiliating defeat. That vicious myth helped fuel Hitler’s rise to power and the ensuing Holocaust.

Further reading: Congregants’ Frans Coetzee and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee’s fine book, World War I: A History in Documents. Also: The Sleepwalkers (Christopher Clark); Catastrophe 1914 (Max Hastings); To End All Wars (Adam Hochschild); The War that Ended Peace (Margaret MacMillan); and The Guns of August (Barbara Tuchman).