World War One Beginning on Tisha B’Av

I have heard that one of the tragedies which occurred on Tisha B’Av is that World War One began on that day. Can you tell me if that is actually true? On what date did Tisha B’Av fall out that year?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In 1914 Tisha B’Av occurred on Shabbat, August 1, and was observed on the 2nd. The crisis which led to the outbreak of war (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne) began over a month earlier. After a diplomatic crisis, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, Russia called a general mobilization on the 30th, and Germany declared war on Russia on the 1st. France, allied with Russia as part of the Triple Entente, also began mobilization on that day.

August 1 thus marked the declaration of war between two major powers from the two opposing alliances which fought in the First World War. And it was the immediate precursor to the invoking of the alliances which turned it into a global war. It is thus arguably the most significant date of the start of the war.

It cannot be overstated how tragic the First World War was to the Jewish people – in many ways. Rabbi Berel Wein observes that we tend to think of WWI as primarily a battle fought in the trenches of France. But a simultaneous vicious war was being fought on the eastern front (which was not as stationary as the western front), between the Central Powers and Russia, cutting right through the heart of Jewish Eastern Europe, home to millions of Jews. Apart from the tens of thousands of Jewish soldiers who lost their lives on both sides (over a million served altogether), entire regions of Eastern Europe were uprooted, and ordinary civilian life was not possible during the upheavals of war. The Jews were suspected by both sides of collaboration with the enemy, and Czarist Russia expelled hundreds of thousands of them away from the front, often on virtually no notice. Most of the Jews in that region of the world were living in terrible poverty without a war, but the war made life unlivable for them, and caused the decimation of cities and Jewish communal life which had literally never recovered since.

The physical devastation of the Eastern European Jewry during the war was accompanied by an equally catastrophic spiritual one. The breakdown of the community destroyed the religious infrastructure which had preserved the Jews for so many centuries. The anarchy and desperation of the times radicalized many young Jews, who became Bundists, Socialists, Communists, revolutionaries, etc., intensifying a process of secularization and radicalization which had begun decades earlier.

Furthermore, many historians view World War One as one of the major causes of Hitler’s rise to power and the Second World War. Germany smoldered under the crushing terms of the Versailles Treaty signed at the conclusion of the first war. National anger over it was one of the factors which helped bring the ultranationalistic, racist Nazi party to power. It must have been the Jews who stabbed Germany in the back and caused it to lose the war (in fact a Jewish politician, representing Germany, signed the armistice ending the war), and the Jews were behind the creation of the corrupt, cosmopolitan Weimar Republic. Thus, in a very real sense, WWI was a direct progenitor of WWII and the Holocaust.

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