World War I

Some 100,000 Jewish soldiers fought in the ranks of the German army, approximately 12,000 of whom died on the battlefield

World War I broke out in July 1914 and officially ended on November 11, 1918. Humanity had never seen the horrors of war on such a massive scale, with over forty countries taking part in the war with some 70 million soldiers in action on different fronts throughout the world.

During the war, clashes took place between the most powerful forces in the modern world with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and the Ottoman Empire (and briefly Italy) on one side, and Britain, France, Russia, and later the United States on the other.

As a result of the war, some 20 million people died and the world’s great empires fell. Czarist Russia was replaced by the communist Soviet Union. The Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist, as a number of new countries emerged in the Balkans in addition to the new Austrian Republic, which wished to unite with Germany – a move prohibited by the victorious Allied Powers. The Ottoman Empire disintegrated and in its stead the New Turkish Republic arose, in addition to a number of other new entities, including the areas of the Mandate in the Middle East. Imperial Germany became the Weimar Republic and lost considerable parts of its territory in the East and West. The great monarchies disappeared, and in many places significant steps were taken towards the adoption of democratic methods of governance.

Jews served on all sides as citizens of the countries in which they lived. German Jews were drafted to the Kaiser’s Army in August 1914, generally with the same enthusiasm as their non-Jewish neighbors.

Some 100,000 Jewish soldiers fought in the ranks of the German army, approximately 12,000 of whom died on the battlefield. In 1916, anti-Semitic officers, who believed that most of the Jews would attempt to secure safe jobs behind the front lines, demanded a “Jewish census” in order to prove their claim. The results were not published until the end of the war, leaving room for speculation regarding the reasons for such secrecy.

After the war ended, discussion of the topic continued as the reputation of Germany’s Jewish population continued to be slandered. As a result of the anti-Semitic accusations and due to the fact that Jews were not approved to become members in “The Steel Helmet” (Stahlhelm) veterans’ organization, Jewish veterans established their own organization, “The Reich Federation of Jewish Front Soldiers” (Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten). The “Jewish census” affair made it painfully clear to Jewish soldiers to what extent anti-Semitic sentiment was still deeply rooted among broad segments of the German population. The trend continued in full force and anti-Semitism grew steadily, if somewhat surprisingly, during the years of the democratic Weimar Republic (see Part II of the exhibition).

At the outbreak of the “Great War”, Germany was considered a political, economic, scientific and cultural superpower. The German language was regarded as “the language of culture”, mainly in Northern and Eastern Europe, and German universities were considered the best in the world. To a great extent, German scholars and thinkers determined the agenda for scientific, cultural and philosophical discourse. Yet ultimately, the actions of German soldiers on the battlefield, the tremendous destruction witnessed by the German populace and the country’s overwhelming defeat robbed Germany of much of its radiance, and damaged its standing on many fronts.

Weimar Republic

Despite all of the difficulties faced by young democratic Germany, its parliamentary method was quite well-developed

Between the end of World War I in 1918 and the Nazi rise to power in 1933, Germany was a democratic republic. This attempt at democracy, however, endured for only 14 years, ultimately failing due to tremendous political, social and economic strains.

In gatherings of the National Assembly, held at the National Theater in the city of Weimar at the beginning of 1919, delegates formulated a modern democratic constitution, which provided the foundation for German society after hundreds of years under monarchic rule. This constitution is considered progressive to this day, although a significant discrepancy remained between the good intentions of most of the delegates and their implementation during the short life of the republic, a gap that ultimately led to the failure of the first democracy on German soil.

Although political power was seized from the elite following the revolution that took place at the end of 1918, most of the state functionaries remained in office even after the political change, and in most cases, these individuals did not support the democratic government.

Despite all of the difficulties faced by young democratic Germany, its parliamentary method was quite well-developed. Many parties competed for votes and for the first time in German history, women were granted suffrage in 1919.

The range of parties was quite wide, including streams and ideologies from the left (the Communist Party) to the center (Social-Democrats, Liberals, Christians) and the far right (the German Nationalist Party, and later, the National Socialist Party). The electoral threshold remained very low, which increased the number of parties in the national parliament and made coalition agreements very difficult throughout the Weimar Republic’s 14 years.

The beginning of this political entity was also complex. Difficulties abounded. Defeat in the world war resulted in subsequent debts and enormous reparation payments to the Allied powers, a high number of casualties, a high rate of unemployment, a general sense of disorientation, and hyper-inflation so out of control that in December 1923 a loaf of bread cost billions of marks. Beginning in 1924, the overall situation began to improve, and the period until 1929 became known as the Golden Age. With the global financial crisis that began in 1929, and its particularly detrimental effect on Germany, the ranks of the unemployed rose to unprecedented rates (in 1932, there were some five and a half million unemployed Germans!). As a result, the political system became unstable. This state of affairs made it possible for the Nazi party to garner strength and quickly gain hold of public support.

At the same time, the period of the Weimar Republic is considered one of the most dynamic in the history of Germany with technological and scientific advances including the research of Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Gustav Herz in Berlin, radio broadcasts reaching a broad audience, German zeppelins crossing the Atlantic Ocean, sound films conquering the cinemas, and many other notable achievements.

Fourteen German scientists won Nobel prizes between 1919 and 1933. In design and art, innovations appeared in the famous Bauhaus school, while modern German literature reached many readers and popular music was influenced by America, as can be seen, for example, in the success of the Comedian Harmonists ensemble (comprised of three Jews and three Christians), which conquered the concert halls of Germany and Europe at that time.

Countless German Jews were leaders in a variety of fields, including Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches, two of the founders of the German Communist Party, as well as Walther Rathenau, the Director of the Board of AEG and German Foreign Minister of 1922 (all three of whom were murdered by right-wing extremists); conductor and composer Otto Klemperer; actors Alexander Granach and Kurt Gerron; authors Else Lasker-Schüler, Lion Feuchtwanger and Jakob Wasserman; director Max Reinhardt; scientists Albert Einstein, James Franck and Gustav Hertz; philosophers Ernst Cassirer, Leo Strauss and Ernst Bloch; architect Erich Mendelsohn; and many others.

The Weimar Constitution and its “Father” Hugo Preuss

Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss' contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic

The collapse of monarchic rule following the defeat of Germany in World War I and the revolution of November 1918 gave rise to a new and almost completely unknown political order in Germany: democracy. The nascent political forces understood the need for drafting a new constitution that would suit the democratic regime and prevent the aristocracy from obtaining any political power.

The assembly of the German people that gathered in the city of Weimar included a special committee for drafting a new constitution. Members of the committee were jurists with an expertise in constitutional law and legislation.

The committee’s discussions continued for a number of months, until the new constitution was approved by the general assembly in Weimar on August 11, 1919. One of the permanent members of this committee who also served as its chairman for several months was the Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss (1860-1925). His contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

Preuss presented the first draft of this important text and considerable portions of it became part of the final version, approved by the representatives of the general assembly. For the first time in German history, a constitution was passed that included basic civil rights.

Among the many innovations that Preuss suggested in his draft was a new internal division of Germany, necessitating the dismantling of Germany’s historical states, including the largest state of Prussia. This suggestion was unacceptable to the more conservative assembly representatives, but it anticipated the future, since the idea was carried out in the prevailing political reality after 1945, with the founding of the new German state.

Hugo Preuss was born in Berlin to a family of merchants, studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg, and completed his doctorate at the university in Göttingen. He decided to devote himself to academic research, and joined the faculty of the University of Berlin as a “private lecturer” (a special status of senior lecturer without a position but with teaching obligations). He remained in this uncomfortable position for 15 years, since Jews were not awarded the status of professor unless they agreed to convert to Christianity for this purpose. While conversion was not a formal legal requirement, in the minds of German academics it was still required. Only with the establishment of a private trade school in Berlin in 1906 was Preuss hired as a professor of law.

Beginning in 1895, Hugo Preuss became a member of the Berlin City Council. In 1918 he became one of the founders of the German Democratic Party DDP, where Walther Rathenau was a member as well. From 1919 to his death, Preuss was a member of the Prussian parliament, yet he also served as Interior Minister of the Weimar Republic. He resigned from this post in protest when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. In this treaty, Germany relinquished its sovereignty in certain areas and committed to paying hefty reparations to the Allies. Preuss’s resignation as minister brought about an absurd situation: the signature of this brilliant jurist does not appear at the bottom of the constitutional text, though most of it is his brainchild; the constitution was approved only after he had stepped down.

In 1949, when German jurists drafted the “Basic Law” of West Germany (instead of a formal constitution, which Germany lacks to this day), they used the Weimar Constitution as a basis for their work. Considerable portions of the original constitution migrated to the “Basic Law,” though certain articles that proved to be ineffective or even dangerous to democracy and state stability were amended.

Ultimately, it should be recalled, Hitler established his reign of terror based on article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which enabled the revocation of basic civil rights as well as human rights when state security was at risk, a provision that the Nazis exploited for their own interests.

Elections Placard for the German National Assembly, 1919

The placard states that this day was "the great day of the German people" and emphasizes that "every vote counts."

Elections Placard for the German National Assembly, 1919

After the end of World War I, with the resignation of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the soldiers’ and workers’ revolution at the end of 1918, the temporary government agreed to hold general elections to establish a national assembly, a kind of preliminary parliament after the collapse of the Second Reich. The elections, set for January 19, 1919, were the first in which women in Germany were given the right to vote. The placard states that this day was “the great day of the German people” and emphasizes that “every vote counts.” Following the political-revolutionary riots in the German capital of Berlin, it was decided that the elected assembly would meet in Weimar, a small and quiet city, “the capital of classical culture,” located in the center of the country. On February 6, 1919, the delegates met for the first time and appointed Friedrich Ebert, representative of the Social Democratic party, as chancellor. Ebert in turn appointed the first government of the young republic. The city where the National Assembly convened was the origin of the informal name for the political entity: The Weimar Republic.

This placard was collected by the Jewish physician Arthur Czellitzer, who ran a private clinic in Berlin until the Nazis’ rise to power. Czellitzer was interested in various historical questions and in Jewish genealogy, but he also had a broad historical consciousness that manifested itself in the collection of announcements and posters he cultivated between 1918 and 1928. His collection contains hundreds of items relating to many political parties and candidates for various elections that took place during the Weimar Republic, and Czellitzer appears to have acquired the items in Berlin. In many cases, he added the date of acquisition and sometimes the location, filing his findings meticulously. In 1936, Czellitzer donated his collection to the National and University Library in Jerusalem. Dr. Arthur Czellitzer was murdered in the Holocaust, at the Sobibor Camp, in 1943.

Source: Archive Department, Ephemera Collection from the Weimar Republic, V 662.