Would it surprise anyone to learn that there were upwards of 150, 000 soldiers of partial Jewish descent serving in the German army during World War II? I had no idea until I attended a lecture by Bryan Mark Rigg discussing his book entitled Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers. What is even more startling is that Adolf Hitler was aware of this and for a while allowed them to serve. In most cases these soldiers had no knowledge of the Holocaust killing machine. From their point of view they were simple German patriots fighting for their country. Many did not even consider themselves Jewish. Some were unaware of their “Jewish blood”. According to his book, at least 20 soldiers of “Jewish blood” were awarded The Knights Cross. Included in the ranks were two field marshals and fifteen generals. The most prominently known of these commanders of Jewish descent was General Erhard Milch who had one Jewish parent. He was deputy to Herman Goring, the head of the Luftwaffe(German Air Force).
When I look back at my own Jewish Immigrant background, the “specter” of Jews fighting for the Nazis in the traditional sense sickens stomach. My ancestry is much like other Jewish immigrants. Both sides of my family immigrated to the Unites States from Czarist Russia in the early 1900′s. They came to escape the brutal exterminating pogroms of the Russian authorities much like the extermination of Jews by the Nazis. Czarist officials not only promoted pogroms to blame Jews for government failures and economic depressions but also to isolate jews and keep them fearful. They forced the “Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion,” a documents used the to justify persecuting Jews ans stil in circulation now in Middle Eastern Countries to “prove” that Jews controlled World Finance. Moreover, the Czars conscripted Jewish youth as young as 12 to serve 25 years in the army. Some Russian Jews immigrated to Poland only to be ultimately persecuted by both the Hitler regime and their very own. German born Jews treated Eastern Jews as inferior calling them “Ghetto Jews”. Jews of this background constituted the majority of the Jews massacred pursuant to “The Final Solution“.
The common public notion is that no one of Jewish descent would have ever been allowed to serve in the Nazi regime and, if discovered, would be immediately deported to a forced labor or extermination/concentration camp. This was not the case. The Nazi racial classification or “Nuremberg Laws” were complex and bizarre as to who was classified as a “Jew”. (see Nazi classification chart) This classification dispute is responsible for some controversy. Some scholars have complained that the title of Rigg’s book is sensational and misleading because it implies that these Nazi soldiers were Jewish when, in fact, many of them would not be classified as Jews under Jewish law (Young men were considered Jewish if their mothers were Jewish.). Many of the soldiers interviewed did not consider themselves Jewish at all and had been baptized into a Christian tradition. I view this as a simplistic criticism since the overall issue of how Hitler bent and twisted the racial laws of his regime to serve his own bizarre purposes in the face of the Nuremberg laws is a fascinating idea that Riggs explains from a unique perspective. Riggs demonstrates the willingness of the Nazis to bend their own laws of racial classification and Jewish persecution and documents Hitler’s extensive , obsessive involvement in deciding which “Jews” received a pass ,which would be discharged, and which would ultimately be deported. Riggs also explores the historical, religious and cultural individual personal conflicts of “The Jewish Identity”.
While most of Jewish descent were ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers, some rose to very high ranking positions of authority in the Nazi Regime. Some either directly or indirectly participated in the Jewish killing machine. Germans of Jewish descent were fighting for a country whose official policy was that they were regarded as second-class citizens and, in most cases, not even human. Germans of Jewish descent were fighting for a country that was deporting their relatives to concentrations camps for eventual extermination. Germans of Jewish descent were fighting for a country who, some say, planned to ultimately exterminate them also when Germany won the war. How could these “Jews” fight for a country that planned their extinction? Why did Hitler allow this to take place? We know it is not due to the common misconception that Hitler was part Jewish. Scholars universally agree that there is no evidence of this. Rigg’s thesis certainly goes against everything I believed about my identity as a Jew and what it means to be Jewish. Does having “Jewish blood” in itself make you Jewish? While the simple answer seems to be no, it was quite complicated in Nazi Germany.
A fascinating aspect of the lecture and the book is the method by which the Nazis determined who was Jewish and who was not. For racial and military purposes, the Nazi Party classified Jewish people as full Jews, half Jews, and quarter Jews. Each classification was treated differently with regards to whether they could serve in the German military and what rights, if any, they had under German law. As previously mentioned, according to Jewish law, a person is determined to be a Jew if the person’s mother is Jewish.
I would have been a full Jew under Nazi laws. All four of my grandparents on both sides were Jewish. I am also of Russian descent. Not only would I have been prohibited from serving in the German military, I would have in all likelihood been on the first train out to to Auschwitz or some other extermination camp. Jews of Eastern descent or “Ghetto Jews” were also looked down upon and discriminated against by German born Jews as well as the Germans. It was a double whammy. (it was an upper vs lower class type discrimination as compared to the totalitarian discrimination of the Nazis)
Many of those of partial Jewish descent while Jewish by both Jewish law and Nazi racial classification had become so assimilated into the German-Christian society through mixed marriages that they did not consider themselves Jewish. Some were practicing Christians. This was only changed through Hitler’s racial classification system and the Nuremberg Laws which officially made the majority of people of full and partial Jewish descent second-class citizens called “Mischling“, meaning they came from a mixed marriage and had partial Jewish ancestry. Germans of partial Jewish descent who had practiced Christianity all of their lives, were suddenly classified as a “Mischling,” Jews under Hitler’s racial classification laws. They were suddenly stripped of most rights under German law.
Interestingly, the situation was not just a German/Jewish phenomenon. In 1941, Finland joined the war as a “co-belligerent” of Germany. (Finland refused to call itself an ally.) There were 250-300 Finnish-Jews fighting alongside Germany on the eastern front against Russia, and some of the Finnish-Jews were even awarded German battle decorations. Soldiers with Jewish heritage also fought along side the Nazis when Romania was aligned against the Soviet Union as well as for Italy.
There was a huge ideology gap between what occurred in Finland and Nazi Germany. Finland was not under Nazi rule. Finland, from its perspective, was fighting for its independence from Russia rather than to support any anti-Semitic ideology or German persecution. Finland as a nation refused to endorse the Nazi anti-Semitic policies and refused to deport, persecute or discriminate against its Jewish population. It is quite the paradox that despite this policy their fighting alongside Germany certainly helped Germany achieve military goals and indirectly aided in the Jewish persecutions. The Finnish-Jewish soldiers were not blind to what was going on. It caused quite a bit of internal conflict and tension with the German soldiers. This was also not a racial classification issue. Finland did not discriminate against or classify their Jews. In this situation, full, practicing Jews were fighting alongside the Nazis against the Allies, fighting predominately at Leningrad.
The German racial classification system for Jews and the resulting disparate treatment with regards to military service in the Nazi army highlights some of the fundamental issues of Jewish Identify that exist even today. What does it mean to be Jewish? What qualities and beliefs make someone Jewish? If your mother is Jewish you are certainly a Jews by definition of Jewish Law but that may not be how you may look at yourself if you were not raised in the Jewish tradition. Are we as Jews defined by our culture, our religious practices or how other view us? As an example, several years ago I got into a heated argument when a person who was close to me told me in her opinion I was not Jewish because I did not adhere to Jewish religious practices. I was infuriated. It was and is my belief that my bond to Judaism is through culture, common history and suffering. The bond that all Jews share. That is what defines me as a Jew. She could not grasp this concept. This was the dilemma faced by many of the Mischling in Nazi Germany. This is a historical and religious conflict faced by Jews today as mixed marriages have become much more common and accepted in the United States. Jews argue among themselves over this issue. It is a conflict that transcends time.