Peter C. Applebaum. Loyal Sons: Jewish Soldiers in the German Army in the Great War. Portland: Vallentine Mitchell, 2014. 382 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-85303-948-8; $37.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-85303-999-0.
Reviewed by Jesse Kauffman (Eastern Michigan)
Published on H-War (October, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
From Verdun to Auschwitz
In this successor volume to his book Loyalty Betrayed: Jewish Chaplains in the Germany Army during the First World War (2014), Peter C. Appelbaum once again takes up the theme of the service of Germany’s Jews during the Great War, an inherently tragic story of bravery and loyalty that was ultimately repaid with oppression and murder. In Loyal Sons, Appelbaum expands on his original work by investigating German Jewish service more broadly. The resulting book evinces many of the strengths, but also the weaknesses, of his previous volume.
Appelbaum begins with a chapter on the history of Jewish service in the German militaries (primarily the Prussian, Bavarian, and Hanoverian) from the Napoleonic Wars to the early twentieth century. It is an excellent introduction to this topic for those unfamiliar with it. Appelbaum shows how the German lands were never short of Jews willing to serve their kings and emperors when duty called. These Jews were motivated by intense loyalty to their fatherlands as well as the sense that military service represented the path to the ultimate fulfillment of the dream of full acceptance as equal German subjects and citizens, with the rights and the duties such status entailed. And yet, as Appelbaum shows, these hopes were never fully realized. Despite serving in every nineteenth-century war the Germans fought, Jews remained outsiders to the military establishment, and, by extension, to the broader political worlds within which they lived. This was true even as formal oppression of Jews was done away with in the nineteenth century, since attitudes and traditions proved more resilient than the laws. “In summary,” Appelbaum notes, “on the eve of the First World War, the Prussian army did not have a single unbaptized Jewish officer” (p. 40). Nonetheless, he demonstrates that when the Great War erupted, it once again inaugurated the cycle of raised hopes, patriotic enthusiasm, and ultimate disappointment that characterized nineteenth-century German Jewish responses to the call to arms.
What follows in the rest of the book is a remarkable exposition of the wartime experiences of Jews serving in the German ranks. Appelbaum’s knowledge of the primary source material is probably unparalleled, and he draws on a wealth of diaries, memoirs, periodicals, and other publications to illustrate, often quite vividly, the extent of the Jewish contribution to Germany’s war effort, as well as the wartime experiences of those Jews whose individual experiences made up the collective Jewish experience Appelbaum seeks to describe. Over the course of the book, he takes us from familiar but no less harrowing terrain of the trenches and the artillery-blasted battlefield, to the war in the air, where German Jewish flyers served bravely alongside figures like the young Hermann Göring. Appelbaum, a distinguished physician and scientist, has thought to include a chapter on medical orderlies and doctors, important and compelling stories that are too often left out of accounts of the war. Throughout, his excellent translations and fluid, jargon-free writing complement his compelling source materials. (Loyal Sons will be exceptionally useful for undergraduates doing research on this topic.) As in his previous book, Appelbaum is very good at fleshing out the obscure and forgotten but often quite remarkable human beings whose vivid recollections of barracks life, infantry attacks, and operating rooms he uses to evoke the triumphs and hardships of Jewish service. Such figures, for example, include the military surgeon Dr. Oscar Rothmann, who served in all three of the wars of German unification, helped tend the wounds of Prince Anton von Hohenzollern, and discussed the relative merits of Denmark versus Germany with a Danish family around the time of the battle of Düppel. (Rothmann, of course, came out strongly for Germany, a reminder of the strong patriotism that Appelbaum wishes us never to forget was so deeply ingrained in many members of the German Jewish elite.) We again are introduced to the Rothmann family when the Great War breaks out and Oscar’s grandson, Max, attempted—unsuccessfully—to get one of his sons accepted at Prussia’s Cadet Academy. Another of Max’s sons, his oldest, joined up and was killed in October ’14. The fact that such a record of loyalty and sacrifice would count for nothing when the Nazis came to power lends such vignettes a terrible dramatic irony. Appelbaum powerfully reinforces this sense of futility and betrayal in an epilogue in which he traces the postwar fates of some of the Jewish soldiers who fought for the kaiser from 1914 to 1918. Particularly shattering is the case of Alwin Lippmann, a highly decorated soldier who served in such cauldrons as Verdun, the Somme, and Operation Michael. (Intriguingly, he then served in the Freikorps, suggesting that a biography of Lippmann would make for compelling reading.) He died in Auschwitz in 1944, his wife and daughter having been murdered several years earlier in one or another of the Nazi’s death factories in the East.
Unfortunately, in several chapters the effect of Appelbaum’s evocative source material is marred somewhat by his singularly ill-advised decision to employ present tense narration when describing what his subjects thought, said, and did (“On 18 January, he [Herbert Sulzbach] hears anxious news from Germany” [p. 98]). This flies in the face of historical convention and it is difficult to imagine why the editors at Valentine Mitchell did not insist that Appelbaum change it. In addition, some of his chapters have a strangely raw quality and consist mainly of lengthy verbatim excerpts from primary sources. Chapter 3, for example, which presents different views of the war by two Jewish soldiers, Julius Marx and the abovementioned Sulzbach, combines Appelbaum’s present-tense narration with long block quotes and transitions from one paragraph to another that are frequently jarring. The chapter reads like a researcher’s notes rather than a chapter in a book. It is indicative of this problem that the chapter ends with a section titled “Analysis and Conclusion” that is really neither, but rather a summary of what came before.
This is an inevitable consequence of the book’s central flaw: it is not driven by a clearly articulated question or problem. Appelbaum is primarily interested in the tragic narrative of “loyalty betrayed,” an important and gripping chapter in the history of German Jewry, to be sure, but one that could have been mined for greater analytical payoff. At times, it seems that he is primarily interested in refuting the charge, made both during and after the war in Germany, that the Jews were shirkers and profiteers. This leads Appelbaum to refighting the wars for public opinion in Germany of the 1920s, by countering the claims of anti-Semites with detailed descriptions of Jewish bravery, statistics illustrating the rates of service, the numbers of medals that Jews won, and so on. He successfully refutes the claim that Jews did not serve with distinction, but did he really need to do so? Does anyone believe today the wild claims of these long-dead anti-Semites? And if they do, are they worth arguing with?
It is only in the last chapter that Appelbaum engages with the scholarly literature on German Jews in the Great War and identifies several key issues and questions he wishes his work to contribute to—primarily the presence or absence of anti-Semitism in the German army as well as the effect of the Judenzahlung. Appelbaum’s editor should have insisted that this material come at the outset and then shape the remainder of the book, which would have streamlined and focused Appelbaum’s analysis. In any event he does deal with both questions in the book. He makes a compelling argument linking wartime suspicions of Jews with the conspiracy-obsessed anti-Semitism of the sort that poisoned Germany after the war, a topic that he might have devoted an entire book to. He is also excellent—as he was in his previous book—on the Judenzahlung and its devastating effects on German Jewish soldiers, who felt singled out and betrayed.
At the end of the book, Appelbaum also begins a tentative exploration of one of the most promising paths for future research in this field: comparative examinations of Jews in the armies of all the belligerents, as well as wartime anti-Semitism in general. Offering his own preliminary conclusions, he asserts that Jews generally had “an easier time” in other armies (p. 297), including the Austrian army, though it isn’t entirely clear what that means. Appelbaum tends to diagnose anti-Semitism in the German army when soldiers were not promoted who he thinks should have been, though there are many reasons why these soldiers may have been passed over. And to say that anti-Semitism was “probably worse” in the imperial Russian army than in the German army is an understatement to say the least. An important point of comparison for Appelbaum is France, which he inevitably compares favorably to Germany in terms of its treatment of Jews in the military. Perhaps; there were indeed more Jewish officers in the French army, but the allowances the Germans made for the observance of Jewish holy days and for the procurement by individual soldiers of kosher food suggests that such comparisons are a difficult business. A highly secular career military officer would probably have found the French army more congenial than the German army, but a pious citizen-soldier doing his bit for his country may not have.
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Jesse Kauffman. Review of Applebaum, Peter C., Loyal Sons: Jewish Soldiers in the German Army in the Great War.
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