chapter  6
30 Pages

SOLDIERS OF REGENERATION: The military might of old-new Maccabees and the Great War

At the end of the nineteenth century, when Nordau issued his call for the re-creation of a lost “muscular Judaism,” there was probably no stereotype as deeply imprinted on the Jewish body as that of the cowardly and un-soldierly Jew. Because of their small chest size, their flat-footedness, their ungainly gait, their hunched-over backs, their susceptibility to certain diseases (diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism), their dietary restrictions, their inability or unwillingness to abandon the world of abstractions and speculations, and their inherent cowardice, Jews could never become good soldiers.1 Their unfit bodies, cowardly psychic disposition, and religious-cultural strictures supposedly prevented them from defending the countries in which they lived, consigning them to “unheroic conduct.”2 In a scathing caricature from 1780, the year before Christian Wilhelm Dohm published his famous treatise advocating, among other things, for the “military” improvement of the Jews, a Viennese caricaturist by the name of Johann Löschenkohl published an illustrated poem called “Jewish Recruits Complaining About Learning Military Drills.” Condensing virtually all of the anti-Semitic stereotypes of the unsoldierly Jew, the poem consists of a dialogue between a Jewish recruit named “Mauschel”3 and a corporal who is overseeing his training. Mauschel says:

Look out, oh German world! Watch with wonder. We’re going into the battlefield. Ach! Is this befitting? We have to become, all at once, a Mauschel and a soldier. We swear by our beards, the heavens and the earth: It’s not going to happen because we lack courage. And yet we’re called upon to be warriors. . . . We fear the smell of gun powder and the whistle of the bullets; we are so scared when the canons fire. Look at how deep it cuts to my heart when a great enemy stands before me . . . Oi Vey, Mr. Corporal, I’m going to pee in my pants. Oi Vey, Mr. Corporal, listen to my screaming. Free me from this pain. Oi Vey! Oi Vey! Oi Vey!4