Between two world wars
A hundred years ago, one of the most terrible wars the world has known was raging.
For the first time in their history, the Jews -- about a million and a half of them -- actively took part in a war that belonged mainly in the Christian world.
Some of them charged eagerly toward the front lines, volunteering to fight with zeal.
In 1961, the German army, the Bundeswehr, published a book called "War Letters of Fallen German Jews." Franz Josef Strauss, then West Germany's defense minister, recognized the Jewish contribution to the war effort in the book's preface: "These letters reveal a patriotism that has since been lost. More than this, the Jewish soldiers' letters from the front exhibit a profound love of their homeland that nowadays is no longer understood."
Indeed, the Jews fighting in the First World War were devoted to their homelands, whether Germany, France, Hungary, Austria, Italy, Belgium, or elsewhere. Preserved old photos show Jewish soldiers guided by military rabbis, mostly Orthodox, on both sides of the front praying in makeshift synagogues or outdoors for the defeat of their enemies, including the Jewish ones.
Zionism was not part of these patriotic Jewish fighters' experience. The Zionist movement had just begun to develop mainly in the extremely anti-Semitic Russian empire.
However, in central and western Europe most Jews had not heard about it and those who had ignored and scorned it.
Their loyalty was devoted solely to their country of residence.
World War I was an unexpected historical opportunity for European Jews to prove loyalty to their "homelands" and thereby assimilate into the societies they longed to be a part of.
Until then, the 19th century Jewish emancipation in central and western Europe had only seen the legal recognition of Jews as equal citizens, but socially they were still perceived as foreigners.
Their ardent sacrifice in the war was supposed to fundamentally change that perception and allow the integration of the Jews into their Christian surroundings.
We all know what happened just little over 20 years later.
Those patriotic Jewish fighters were forced to flee their so called "homelands" to save their lives from the ruthless Nazi regime that persecuted them.
Those Jews who fought valiantly in World War I but were unable to escape the Nazis, including amputees and decorated heroes, were led to the gas chambers along with their families and medals.
World War I was a key event in the Jewish nation's history, not only for the many lives lost in it, but because it changed the Jews' perception and world views. It led to the Balfour Declaration and the end of Ottoman rule in pre-state Israel. Yet, its importance has been forgotten from the heart.
Avi Primor is an Israeli columnist and former ambassador to Germany, and the director of the Center for European Studies at Tel Aviv University.