During World War II, despite being persecuted by the Nazi regime, over 100,000 soldiers of Jewish descent served in the German military. The Jewish people of Germany had a long history of service to their respective state, with thousands of Jewish soldiers falling during World War I on both the Eastern and Western Front. While their numbers were miniscule in comparison to the size of the German military, which had over 20 million men in service it is still a remarkable number given how the Nazi regime viewed the Jewish people and their subsequent genocide. Some Jewish soldiers would even be given prestigious awards, such as the Knight’s Cross for their service to the German war effort although in many cases these soldiers had disavowed their Jewish heritage.
The history of Jews in Germany goes back to the Roman era. Jews living within the Roman Empire moved throughout the empire, especially following the Jewish-Roman War in the 1st century AD and a significant Jewish population had amassed in Italy. With portions of Germany under Roman control, Jewish immigrants moved into these regions and established themselves there becoming prominent members of their communities. Into the Middle Ages, Jewish populations spread throughout Germany moving beyond their Roman territory. During the Crusades, these Jewish populations were targeted by their Christian neighbors, and in many cases entire Jewish communities were eradicated by Crusader forces moving to the Holy Land.
During the Enlightenment, Jew’s joined their Christian neighbors in advancing the sciences and bringing German society out of the Middle Ages. Jewish citizens became prominent bankers, scientists, and psychologists in Germany. Individuals like Sigmund Freud (although Austrian, the Austrian people share both cultural and linguistic characteristics with Germany) and Albert Einstein were both Jewish and of Germanic origin and greatly advanced science and psychology, becoming leaders in their respective fields. Because of German attacks on the Jewish people, many of these scientific leaders fled the nation when the Nazi’s seized power. In the end the Allies were able to triumph with the aid of those Jewish scientists who helped develop the nuclear bomb that brought World War II to its conclusion.
Look for more information regarding the history of Jewish soldiers serving in the Germany military in the upcoming World at War issue #43 with the article “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers” and join the conversation on Facebook!