ASP Abridged: Habsburg Sons

We are pleased to present the latest in our ASP Abridged blog series, in which authors give readers a short and sweet introduction to their latest book.

Here, Peter C. Appelbaum introduces us to his new book, Habsburg Sons: Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Army, 1788–1918.

Tell us what Habsburg Sons is about in simple terms.

Habsburg Sons describes the role of Jewish soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army, beginning in 1788 but concentrating on World War I. About 300,000-350,000 Jews served during the war on the Eastern, Balkan, Italian, and Ottoman Fronts. Of these, 30,000–40,000 died of wounds or illness. Approximately 25,000 Jews (c. 10% of the total number who served) were professional or reserve officers and many rose to high rank. Soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army came from all parts of the polyglot Empire, many speaking very little German. Jewish soldiers with their knowledge of German and Yiddish were able to communicate with them better than their Christian counterparts. Over 130 Feldrabbiner (Jewish chaplains) cared for their spiritual needs. Austro-Hungary was unique in that many Orthodox Jews from Galicia, Hungary and Bukowina served and some were highly decorated. Liturgical objects and kosher food were provided, even on Pesach. The spiritual health of Jewish prisoners of war was also cared for. Antisemitism occurred, but was kept in check and a proposed Judenzählung (Jewish Census) such as the one carried out in the German Army in October 1916 was rejected out of hand. The Austro-Hungarian Army suffered from inadequate supplies and leadership but troops fought bravely especially in the mountains of the Italian Front. Soldiers came into close contact with Jewish civilians on the Eastern Front who suffered terribly, caught between the vises of ever-changing battle lines. Approximately 1/4 to 1/3 of all soldiers were taken captive by the Russians, some in large catches such as the Brusilov Offensive. They were imprisoned in camps all over European Russia, Siberia, and Central Asia, and many escaped, with travel odysseys through Russia and also Persia and Mesopotamia. Prisoners had unique meetings with Central Asian Jews such as Bukharan communities. After the war, soldiers returned to civilian life but after the Anschluβ in 1938 they were persecuted, stripped of their possessions, driven out, and ultimately murdered.

Why does Habsburg Sons matter?

Jews were amongst the most loyal members of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire, and understood its supranational nature better than many other nationalities. Before World War I, approximately 2 million Jews lived in the Empire, especially in Galicia and Bukowina. Nine percent of the population of Vienna, and 23% of that of Budapest was Jewish and some towns in Galicia and Bukowina were 28-72% Jewish. Jews contributed greatly to all aspects of life, and served loyally in the army. After the war the Empire splintered into its component nationalities, with the attendant problems of minorities and enmity which ultimately contributed to World War II. A scant 20 years later after the end of World War I, the population amongst whom they had lived for generations turned on them, barring them from professions, expropriating their property, persecuting and driving them out, and ultimately murdering those who stayed. The problems of shifting borders and minorities are still, to an extent, with us today. As Churchill wisely said, perhaps the region might have benefited by continuation and modification of the Empire under democratic rule. 

Peter C. Appelbaum is Emeritus Professor of Pathology, Pennsylvania State University. His publications include Loyalty Betrayed (2014), Loyal Sons (2014), and, as translator/editor, Hell on Earth (2017), Carnage and Care on the Eastern Front (2018), Voyage into Savage Europe (2020), and Jewish Self Hate (2021). He is the recipient of the 2019 TLS-Risa Domb/Porjes Prize for Hebrew-English translation.

Habsburg Sons is available now for purchase from ASP or wherever you buy your books.