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World War I and its impact on antisemitism

World War I and its impact on antisemitism
Let’s begin our exploration of the development of antisemitism in the 20th century with the first great international conflict of its time - World War I. “The Great War,” as it is also known, brought about drastic political, cultural, economic, and social changes that still echo greatly today, a century later. Tensions had been brewing throughout Europe for years prior to the beginning of the war. We have already discussed the rapid changes the continent was going through during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which were affecting every aspect of society. To this, a frail balance of power can be added, one which existed between the major forces in Europe and which was held together by a complex network of political and military alliances.
The spark that ignited World War I was struck in June 1914, with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke and heir, Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationalists. This set off a rapidly escalating chain of events. After presenting an unmet ultimatum to Serbia and securing Germany’s support, the Habsburgian Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The international alliances which were formed over the previous decades were subsequently invoked. Within a week, the Russian Empire, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia, known as the Allied Powers, had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, the Central Powers. World War I had begun. In late 1914, the Ottoman Empire had also entered the war on the side of the Central Powers.
Eventually more states joined in, most on the side of the allies. These included the United States which, in 1917, following three years of neutrality, united with the allies after continuous German naval hostility left them little choice. The war raged in several main fronts in Europe, as well as in the South-Eastern Mediterranean and in the Middle East. It is remembered for the brutal “trench warfare” that dominated the Western Front in Europe and for bloody battles such as Verdun and the Somme in Europe, and Gallipoli in the Eastern Balkans. It is estimated that 17 million soldiers and civilians, nearly a whole generation, lost their lives during this time.
The war finally came to an end on November 11th, 1918, when Germany and its allies signed an armistice agreement and surrendered. The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, laid the conditions under which Germany had surrendered. These were perceived by the Germans as extremely humiliating, and entailed losing territory, paying retributions, admitting to starting the war, and being banned from keeping a significant army. A republic was subsequently formed. Germany’s decision to surrender was based on military considerations.
However, the fact that not a single piece of German territory had been occupied during the First World War, along with the fact that the surrender was signed by a civilian government established just before the war ended, led many in Germany to wrongly feel that the defeat had been caused by internal weakness and subversion. It is in this atmosphere that the “Stab in the Back” myth emerged and spread. According to this myth, Germany had not been defeated on the battlefield, but rather by betrayal from within by Jews, liberals, and communists. This myth would play a role in the antisemitism that developed in this country during the interwar years.
The war vastly changed the world map, as the 1917 Russian Revolution dismantled Tsarist Russia, and the Ottoman Empire was divided into several states which came under British and French mandate. The Habsburg Empire was also dissolved and new nation states emerged in its stead and the German Empire became a republic. These new borders did not reflect the reality for a variety of ethnic groups living in Europe. Hungarians and ethnic Germans, for example, living in the newly established successor states, now found themselves divided between borders, or as minorities fighting for representation. This caused instability in Europe which was further shaken by the fact that many European countries entertained ultra-nationalist designs on their neighbors.
This new and unstable world order had deep implications for the development of hostilities in Europe, sowing the seeds for World War II. The totality of the war meant the restructuring of societies on every level. Over the past weeks we have seen how major events and processes had a direct effect on the way Jews were treated and perceived and on the development of antisemitism. It is no surprise then that the tumultuous and violent years of the First World War and its aftermath would do the same. Well I think World War I’s most obvious impacts on antisemitism are twofold.
One is that it was marked in Central and Eastern Europe and also to a degree in the Middle East by a sudden and violent and unexpected transition from multinational empires like the Habsburg and Ottoman empires to the nation state system or, in the Middle East, the proto-nation state system of League of Nations mandates in many cases. But this was a sort of fundamental paradigm shift in the whole conception of sovereignty, in the delineation of territorial boundaries, and it transformed the relationship between citizens and states, and transformed the sort of the nexus of loyalty and identity, a political and ethno-cultural identity in many parts of Europe and in the Middle East.
And Jews often found themselves in a false position and, notably in Central Europe, where the Habsburg Empire had created a relatively benevolent framework for Jewish existence, precisely because the ruling dynasty saw itself as supra-national, as above national identities. The Habsburg monarchs did not identify themselves as German in the national sense, although they certainly did to a degree in the cultural sense. And so the Habsburg ruler sort of played the role of father to all his peoples, including the Jews. But when a multinational structure such as the Habsburg Empire disintegrated and was replaced by new or enlarged self-styled nation-states, the Jews often found themselves in the position of an anomaly,
whose place in the new nation state was unclear to say the least. And in many cases, Jews were simply resented as “not belonging” in quotation marks to the Polish or the expanded Romanian nation state, just to take two examples. The creation of these nation states raised enormous expectations on the part of students, peasants - you name it - for economic betterment and upward social mobility, and, at the same time, Central and Eastern Europe, as much of the world was, were beset by economic setbacks in the aftermath of a tumultuous war and then of course with the onset of the Great Depression again in the 1930s.
So expectations for betterment rose even as opportunities were reduced, and of course the breakup of these empires also broke up spheres of economic integration, further hampering economic recovery. And amidst all this, the Jews were seen as competitors within realms which were now viewed and defined as being for the eponymous people of the given state. Poland was supposed to be a state for Poles first and foremost, and why were Jews then competing with Poles for economic position, for advancement in the professions, for seats in the universities etc - again just taking Poland as one example. The same story played out in Romania and in other places.
So, this transition to the nation state system left Jews exposed as a problematic anomaly and a source of competition in the eyes of many members of the official nationalities of these states.

Prof. Aviel Roshwald

Over the past weeks we have seen how major events and processes had a direct effect on the way Jews were treated and perceived and on the development of antisemitism. It is no surprise then that the tumultuous and violent years of the First World War and its aftermath would do the same.

How did the restructuring of Europe in the aftermath of the war change the perception and treatment of the Jews?

For additional visual materials please see “downloads” below.


  • Howard, Michael, The First World War: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

  • Mylonas, Harris, The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

  • Roshwald, Aviel, Ethnic Nationalism and the Fall of Empires: Central Europe, the Middle East and Russia 1914-23 (London: Routledge, 2002).‏

  • Rozenblit, Marsha L. and Jonathan Karp, eds., World War I and the Jews: Conflict and Transformation in Europe, the Middle East, and America (New York: Berghahn Books, 2017).

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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