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American Jews in World War I - German Propaganda Courting the American Jewry

©2004 Bachelorarbeit 34 Seiten


In early August 1914, the first days of World War I, Germany’s attention was focused on the United States. The world’s biggest economic power had so far remained neutral and was therefore the field of the “Krieg der Geiste” (War of Minds). England tried to push the United States into the war against the Central Powers and Germany tried to keep the United States out of the war and worked through diplomatic efforts to ensure that the US stayed completely neutral.
The German Empire saw Americans of the Jewish faith as major allies in this effort. Many of these American Jews were powerful financiers, including immigrants from both Germany and Russia. The German Empire hoped that it had the support of the highly influential Jewish bankers as well as of many Jewish -American voters.
The sources on which the research is based are former works of the German propaganda efforts in the United States, material from the New York Times and accounts of contemporary people.
This research will show how the German Empire tried to win and keep the favor of these particular groups of Americans and why they hoped that the American Jews were on their side, what measures German Jews made to achieve this goal and why it ultimately failed.


American Jews in World War I - The German Propaganda courting the American Jewry


Nearly all the public expressions that have come from the Jews in this country have been anti-Russian. That seems to be the Jewish way of being pro-German. Practically the entire Jewish press of the United States has adopted that policy. The leaders in that movement have for the most part more or less avowed German sympathies. All that the Jews have in the way of liberty they owe to the influence of France and England. Yet I have looked in vain for any expressions from prominent Jews in this country laying emphasis on their pro-English and pro-French sympathies. With few, very few exceptions they have all adopted the watchword given out by the international German-Jewish Money Trust “Anti-Russian”.[…] It is my belief that the one who would take the leadership in that movement would render his race a lasting benefit. It is also my belief that those German-Jews who have adopted the anti-Russian slogan are doing it, not from any Jewish motive, but from a pronounced German motive.[1]

Maurice Leon, a New York attorney, in this letter to the American Zionist Stephan Wise, is complaining about the single sided view of the American Jewry toward the war. Furthermore he suspects an invisible German hand behind the single sided view hand. Certainly, it is true that German propaganda existed in the United States of America at the beginning of the European War, but it was not the only warring nation which tried to win the favor of the biggest and most important neutral nation. The most powerful propaganda in the US was created by England with its advantage in using the cables to the United States and their connections to the news agencies in the US.[2]

In contrast to Leon’s attitude of the Jewish population in America towards Europe, most Americans had a pro-Entente feeling. But the whole American population was not pro- Entente, because some ethnic minorities in America felt an amount of antipathy for individual countries in the Entente. It is worth mentioning that Americans of Finnish, Irish, Swedish, German origin, and of course Americans of Jewish faith were not always pro-Entente.[3]

This paper will investigate if the previous statement by Leon was really true or if he misread the situation. To find out how Americans of Jewish faith evaluated the situation toward the warring pacts, it is necessary to look at the social structure of the American Jewry and what their background and their experiences were with the warring nations. This will give some idea of their native attitude toward the different nations and will explain why the German propaganda had interest in the American Jewry. The next step will look at the attempts by Jews living in Germany to influence their co-religious in the United States. This part will show if and how these attempts were fueled by the needs of the American Jewry and how cohesive German and American Jewry was. Furthermore it will show that besides the official German interest in the American Jewry, German Jews tried by their own to influence the American perception of the war. The next and main part will investigate the actual German attempts to influence the general Jewish opinion in their favor. It will show in which ways German propaganda efforts tried to win the favor of the Americans of Jewish faith. American Jews became interesting for Germany because they were voters in America and could have had an impact on American policy and American Jews had great influence on the American financial market. In this part, private persons and people who were paid by Germany will be investigated. Hans Jacob Schiff will be investigated as a representative for private persons and the German Zionist Dr. Isaac Straus as member of the German propaganda. One of the most influential men of Jewish faith who promoted the German cause was the German Harvard Professor of Psychology, Hugo Münsterberg, who was of Jewish faith. He will play only a secondary role because his who argumentation was not related to Jewish aspects of the war.

The paper is mainly based on accounts of contemporaries like the German Ambassador Count Bernstorff, Bernhard Dernburg, who propagated the German cause in the United States, the publicist Binjamin Segel, and the German-Jewish professor Hermann Cohen. Furthermore, contemporary articles from the New York Times and other daily or weekly newspapers are provided. These primary sources show quite well the public discussion about the Jewish question in World War I America. Important monograph are the work by Zechlin Die deutsche Politik und die Juden im Ersten Weltkrieg, Rappaport’s Jewish Immigrants and World War I, and Szajkowski’s The Attitude of American Jews to World War I. All of these three major works have a different point of view looking at the American Jewry and World War I. Zechlin is basically interested in the German policy toward the Jewry in general and assumes that the German Empire had different interests than to appeal the American Jewry. Rappport’s works is focused on the public responds toward the war in the Yiddish community represented by a study on the Yiddish Press. Szajkowski tries to show an overall picture of the Jewish community in the United States and their relations and communication with the German Jewry. Following her assumptions the German propaganda toward the American Jewry failed because of the intrapropaganda interferences.

The socio-structure of the American Jewry

The German Empire had two groups of American Jews in mind when they started advertising their goals to the Jews. The first group consisted of the Americans of Jewish faith who immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century from Eastern Europe. Jewish emigration existed before the 1880’s too, but after the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, Jews were persecuted in the Russian Empire. The anti-Semitic policy, with pogroms against the Jews, was the major reason for the mass emigration of the Russian Jews.[4] Another reason for the emigration were economic crises. Actually, American Jewry of Eastern European origins emigrated not only from Russia, but from Galicia, Rumania, Ukraine, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries.[5] Jewish Americans with Eastern European origins were the largest group among the 3 million Jews living in the US.[6] The American Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe lived mostly in cities on the east coast; more than one million Jews lived in New York City, which was the largest Jewish community in the United States. Of the whole population of New York was one quarter was of Jewish faith. Since that most of this group were craftsmen and shopkeepers with little educational background, they started working in lower positions in industry. Although some of them managed to climb up in the social hierarchy, the structure of this group did not change much until 1914. They still kept their cultural identity and did not assimilate quickly into American culture. One sign of this is that New York had four Yiddish theaters and five Yiddish Newspapers with a total run of one million papers.[7] For many Russian born Jews who edited the Yiddish newspapers in the United States and who were not allowed to study in Russia the German Empire was a model of a modern country without restricted minorities. The Eastern European Jews glorified the German Empire in their descriptions of it. Nevertheless, Germany restricted the emigration of Eastern European Jews to Germany.[8]

The other group of Americans of Jewish faith was a well established and strongly influential group in American society. Unlike the Eastern Europeans, the group of emigrants from Western Europe, mostly with German origins was very small and among the elite. This group was well established in the American society by 1914 because they had lived in some cases for several generations in the United States; indeed before the Napoleonic wars, Jews had emigrated from Western Europe to the US. Jews emigrating from Germany were more and more dominant among the American Jewry during the 19th century.[9] Furthermore, they tried to foster the cultural assimilation of the American Jews with Eastern European origins and called for the abolition of the national separatism of Yiddish culture.[10]


[1] Quoted in Szajkowski, Jews, War, and Communism. The Attitude of American Jews to World War I, The Russian Revolution of 1917, and Communism (1914-1945). KTAV Publishing House. New York 1972
p. 8.

[2] The other warring nations had no or only few propaganda efforts in the US. Glant, The War for Wilsons Ear: Austria-Hungary in Wartime American Propaganda, in: Hungarian Studies Review. Vol. 20. No. 1-2. 2002. p. 25-41; and Bruntz, Allied Propaganda and the Collapse of the German Empire in 1918. Stanford University Press. London 1938, p. 30; and Roetter, The Art of Psychological Warfare 1914-1945. Stein and Day. New York 1974, p. 53-67.

[3] Zechlin. Die deutsche Politik und die Juden im Ersten Weltkrieg. Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht. Göttingen 1969. p. 455. Kluge. Irland in der deutschen Geschichtswissenschaft. Politik und Propaganda vor 1914 und im Ersten Weltkrieg. Europäische Hochschulschrifen. Frankfurt/Main 1985. p. 222. Wiedemann-Citera. Die Auswirkungen des Ersten Welkrieges auf die Deutsch-Amerikaner im Spiegel der New Yorker Staatszeitung, der New Yorker Volkszeitung und der New York Times 1914-1926. P. Lang. Frankfurt/Main 1993. p. 40.

[4] The famous play “Fiddler on the Roof” describes the live of the Jews in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century. The author of the stories on which Fiddler on the Roof is based, Solomon Rabinowitz (Pseudonym Sholom-Aleichem), fled Russia in 1905 and emigrated to the United States. Actually, Fiddler on the Roof is set in 1905.

[5] Sachar, A History of the Jews in America. Alfred A Knopf. New York 1992, p. 117. Duker, Structure of Jewish Community, in Janowsky, The American Jew. A Composite Portrait. Harper & Brothers Publisherr. New York, London 1942, p. 134-135.

[6] Zechlin,. p. 459. The importance of the Yiddish culture is also illustrated in Warnke,. Immigrant Popular Culture as Contested Sphere: Yiddish Music Halls, the Yiddish Press, and the Processes of Americanization, 1900-1910, in: Theatre Journal. Vol. 48. No. 3. 1996. p. 321-335.

[7] Zechlin. p. 460.

[8] Brenner. Marketing Identities. The Invention of Jewish Ethnicity in Ost und West. Wayne State University Press. Detroit 1998. p. 27. For the problematic of Eastern European Jewish immigration to Germany see also Wertheimer, Unwelcome Strangers. East European Jews in Imperial German, Oxford University Press, New York 1987

[9] Sachar, p. 38-69.

[10] Jacob Schiff called on an assembly of the Jewish Publication Society of America to give up the Yiddish language. It would not have a future in America. „Jiddisch ist keine moderne Sprache, wenn es überhaupt eine Sprache ist und kann in Amerika keine Zukunft haben.“ Zechlin, p. 472. During the 1880 attempts were made by the established sector of the American Jewry to avoid the arrival of new Jewish immigrants, who were coming mostly from Eastern Europe. Friesel, Jacob H. Schiff and the Leadership of the American Jewish Cummunity, in: Jewish Social Studies. Vol. 8. No. 2/3. 2002, p. 64.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Paperback)
577 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Juniata College
2009 (Juli)
Erster Weltkrieg Propaganda Juden Kommunikationsgeschichte USA

Titel: American Jews in World War I - German Propaganda Courting the American Jewry