Jewish Power and Powerlessness: Prague Zionists and the Paris Peace Conference

Tatjana Lichtenstein. East European Jewish Affairs. Volume 44, Issue 1. April 2014.

On 14 September 1919, Ludvík Singer took to the stage to address a gathering of fellow Jewish activists in Prague. A 42-year-old lawyer from the Bohemian town of Kolín, Singer was among the most influential Zionist leaders in Bohemia after the First World War. Indeed, he had recently returned from the Paris Peace Conference, where he had been part of an international Jewish effort to secure Jews’ rights in the new East European states. Together with other activists from Czechoslovakia, Singer had met with Czech leaders in Paris in late August. During these final days of treaty deliberations between the Czechoslovak delegation and the Allies, Singer had worked to commit the Czechs to special protections for the Jews living in the new state.

These negotiations had been less than smooth. Even though Czechoslovak leaders Tomáš Masaryk and Edvard Beneš had appeared to be forthcoming to the Prague-based Jewish National Council in the aftermath of the war, when the Jewish delegation impressed on Beneš the need for special protection for Jews he rebuffed them. Refusing to commit to rights for specific minorities, Beneš noted that the Jewish delegates should satisfy themselves with the general assurances of the protection and equality of minorities already made by Czechoslovak leaders. In no uncertain terms, Beneš told the delegation that he considered the campaign to have the so-called Jewish clauses included in the agreement between Czechoslovakia and the Allies a form of defamation. It was a level of distrust he found inappropriate considering the new state’s democratic, Western, and civilised character.

A few days later, Ludvík Singer made another attempt to forge inroads with Beneš. When he arrived in the latter’s Paris office for a scheduled meeting, Singer was handed a letter. In it, Beneš warned the Jewish delegates that it was in the interest of Jews and Czechs alike that the question of special rights for Jews be abandoned. Hinting at the rising anti-Jewish sentiment in the Bohemian lands and Slovakia in the spring and summer of 1919, Beneš cautioned that “a number of complaints and criticisms concerning certain Jewish elements have come to our attention.” He hinted that further Jewish pressure might “provoke renewed recriminations from one side or the other.” The delegates were infuriated by Singer’s humiliation. Chillingly, it alerted them to the risk of alienating Czechoslovak leaders. Torn about how to proceed and fearful of repercussions at home, the delegates handed the case over to the international Jewish leadership and left Paris.

When Singer stood up in front of the assembly of the Jewish National Council a few weeks later in Prague, he showed no sign of defeat. Singer pointed out that, since the Czechoslovak representatives had already adopted general minority protection clauses and considering the “exceptional character of the conditions for Jews in this country,” the delegation had not deemed it necessary to insist on special protection for Jews such as the ones included in the Allied treaty with Poland. Making no mention of a disagreement between the Jewish delegates and Beneš, Singer presented the lack of protection for Jews as a sign of the smooth cooperation between the Jewish National Council and the Czech leaders. It was an alliance, Singer explained, built on mutual trust between Jews and Czechs.

The image of Czechoslovakia as an unusually favourable environment for Jews is a trope in histories of the country’s Jews. At the same time, it is one of the key ingredients in the myth of Czechoslovakia as an exceptionally democratic and Western state in interwar Eastern Europe. Tomáš Masaryk and Edvard Beneš are often depicted as tolerant, progressive, and politically sophisticated strategists bestowing rights on “their” Jews. Even historians more critical of Masaryk and Beneš’s mythmaking tell only part of the story. They ignore the post-war efforts of local Jewish activists to secure the protection of their communities by convincing Czech leaders that the fate of Jews mattered. In fact, a closer look at Jewish activists’ strategies and Czech leaders’ perceptions of Jews tells a somewhat different story.

Singer and his colleagues on the Jewish National Council were unsure of the Czech authorities’ attitude towards Jews. On the one hand, Czech leaders expressed support for Zionism and a commitment to equal rights for minorities in the new state. On the other, however, they did little to quell the anti-Jewish incitement, violence, and looting that swept Bohemia and Moravia as well as Slovakia in the immediate post-war months and continued through the summer of 1919. Uncertain about what the future might hold, Jewish activists in the Bohemian lands joined the broader international Jewish efforts to secure protection and rights for Jews in Eastern Europe.

Similarly, Czech elites were somewhat uncertain about the strength of their case for state sovereignty at the Paris Peace Conference. Although the Allied powers had signed declarations in support of a Czechoslovak state, the exact contours of its borders were still undecided. The Czech leadership was particularly concerned about the domestic and international opposition to the inclusion of a large population of German-speakers in Czechoslovakia. As a result, the Czechs were on guard against any attempts to curtail the power of the state vis-à-vis its national minorities and to set out provisions for specific groups. Having already established a reputation as more Western, more mature, and more capable statesmen than other East European representatives, Czech politicians worked hard to uphold an image of Czechoslovakia as the exception to the rule among the new states. Seeking international legitimacy and support, Czech leaders courted, among others, prominent American Jews.

The Jewish minority in Czechoslovakia was not a concern to Beneš and his colleagues, the way Jews were to the Polish delegation. Jewish power, however, was at the top of the Czechoslovak leadership’s mind. Both Paris and Prague leaders believed that, through their alleged control of the press and their international financial and political networks, Jews held considerable influence with Western statesmen and public opinion. Although they were determined not to give in to calls for extensive minority rights, the Czechs were unsure of the extent of Jews’ power on the international stage and of their ability to influence Czech fortunes abroad. In this they were encouraged by Jewish activists. Czech leaders’ attention to Jews and their somewhat forthcoming pose was not a reflection of trust between the two parties. Rather, as I argue, it was a sign of their respect for Jewish power. It was a moment shaped in profound ways by Jews’ experience in and outside the warzones of Central and Eastern Europe during the First World War.

The First World War and the Paradox of Jewish Power and Powerlessness

For Jews and Jewish activists, the First World War created a paradoxical situation. As the historian Jonathan Frankel observed, the victimisation of Jews and evidence of Jewish powerlessness and vulnerability coexisted with a widespread belief in Jewish power and in the growing influence of a financial and political network connecting Jews across the world. This perception was nurtured not only by traditional beliefs about Jews’ influence and solidarity, but also by the work and claims of Jewish activists lobbying for their cause. At the end of the war, there was a growing sense among state authorities on all sides of the conflict that Jews had the will and ability to influence world affairs.

Although often overshadowed by the cataclysmic events of the Second World War, the First World War caused enormous destruction and dislocation in Eastern Europe. In contrast to the famously static yet devastating trench warfare in the west, the eastern front moved back and forth across vast swathes of territory. With frontlines stretching hundreds of kilometres, advancing and retreating armies alike wrought havoc on villages and towns, fields and forests. For much of the war, the eastern frontlines swept through the borderlands between the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. These were regions of extraordinary linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity, a complexity that made civilian populations in these areas vulnerable to the anxieties and desires of the competing imperial armies. Significantly, these border regions constituted the heartland of East European Jewry. Since the late 1700s, Russian authorities had restricted Jewish populations to the vast former Polish lands absorbed into Russia and known as the Pale of Settlement. To the west, the Austrian provinces of Galicia and Bukovina were also home to a large number of Jews. No one expected the war that broke out in August 1914 to last more than a few months and few anticipated the enormous dislocation, violence, and material destruction about to befall the Jewish communities in the war zones of Eastern Europe.

In the course of the first two years of the war, about 750,000 of the four million Jews in the eastern war zone were expelled or fled their home communities. Terrifying rumours and evidence of the invading Russian soldiers’ mistreatment of Jews created panic among Jews in Austrian Galicia and Bukovina in the war’s early months. Historians believe that between 200,000 and 450,000, or half, of Galicia’s Jews fled the area. In parts of Austria-Hungary well away from the frontlines, such as the Bohemian lands, the impact of war on civilians in the east was felt early on. In the autumn and early winter of 1914, 16,000 Jewish refugees reached Prague. In those first months of the war, the Austrian authorities estimated that more than 75,000 refugees from Galicia and Bukovina arrived in the Bohemian lands. Even more fled to Vienna at that time and thousands were displaced to other parts of Austria-Hungary and beyond. The following spring, the Russian authorities expelled more than half a million Jews from the frontlines to the Russian interior. Tens of thousands more fled the fighting of their own accord. Thus, from the very beginning of the war, Jewish refugees were a familiar sight along roads, in train stations, and on city streets in Russia and Austria-Hungary.

With the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the Civil War that followed, the victimisation of Jews in Eastern Europe reached new heights. In the chaos that erupted with the crumbling of German authority in the region, Jews were targeted by the warring parties because they were suspected of harbouring Bolshevik and German loyalties. Thousands of Jews were attacked and killed, entire communities destroyed, their members left destitute and homeless. Thousands more died of the hunger and epidemics that ravaged the war-torn region. In all, historians estimate that between 1917 and 1921, more than 100,000 Jews were killed and tens of thousands more died as a result of the war. As the First World War came to an end in November 1918, it was clear to many observers that the violence and chaos threatened not only to create a Jewish refugee crisis of yet unseen proportions, but also to strengthen sympathy for the Bolshevik regime—widely regarded as the only non-antisemitic force among the warring parties—among Jews in Eastern Europe and beyond.

During the war, Jews on the home fronts in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Britain, and in neutral countries such as the US, were confronted with news of the destruction of Jewish societies in Eastern Europe in different ways. Some witnessed the arrival of destitute refugees in their communities, others read press reports and letters from the front, and some listened to stories from returning soldiers. Many read the articles and reports filed by Jewish activists who documented the devastation in order to mobilise humanitarian aid. Stories of wanton murder, mass rapes, torture, and destruction and dislocation of entire Jewish communities shocked readers. Jewish relief organisations sprang into action in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Petrograd, New York, and London, collecting funds and disseminating information about the hardship of the refugees and the mounting pressures on the communities sheltering them. The help other Jews extended to Eastern Europe was unmatched by any previous crisis. The main German Jewish aid organisation, the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden, raised M 15.5 million for Jews in German-occupied territories in the east. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the premier US relief organisation, distributed more than US$38 million from 1914 to 1920 and facilitated the distribution of an additional US$10.5 million in private funds sent from Jews in the US to their families in Eastern Europe. It was an effort that mobilised Jewish society in an unprecedented way and added a unity of purpose in communities often divided by social, cultural, political, and religious differences.

Alongside the aid efforts, Jewish activists also pursued political goals. Indeed, Jewish leaders inside and outside the region saw the war as an opportunity to shape the future for the Jews of Eastern Europe. On both sides of the frontlines, Jewish leaders saw the war as a chance to make headway on the improvement of Jews’ status in East European society. In Germany, Jewish leaders promoted Eastern Europe’s Jews as a force for Germanisation. Meanwhile American Jewish leaders made the case that if only given equal opportunity Russia’s Jews would prove themselves as loyal and patriotic citizens. Once it became clear that the war had brought down the old order, these Jewish elites worked to persuade the Allies to make the question of equality for Jews and guarantees of their rights part of the post-war agenda. Among these Jewish lobbyists was a group of relative newcomers: representatives of the World Zionist Organization (WZO).

In the course of the First World War, the Zionist movement emerged as a significant political presence in Jewish life. Zionist wartime politics were many sided and dynamic, shifting with developments in the war itself. When the war broke out in August 1914, the WZO was headquartered in Berlin. At the time, German Zionists formed the most influential faction within this international and diverse institution. In the war’s early days, influential German Zionists, such as Max Bodenheimer, the Director of the Jewish National Fund, an institution that collected money for land purchase and colonisation in Palestine, sought to align the movement as a whole with the German war effort. Meeting with German authorities in August, Bodenheimer proposed that in the east an estimated six million Jews would act as a loyal political group in a future German-dominated multinational state located in the territory between Germany and what would remain of the Russian Empire. At the same time, he argued, support for Jewish settlement in Palestine, then under Turkish control, would help solidify German influence in the territories of its Turkish ally and in the Middle East more broadly. By aligning Zionist goals with German imperial interests, Bodenheimer and his wartime allies hoped to secure national rights and civic equality for Jews in Eastern Europe as well as the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Although Zionists in Germany and Eastern Europe continued to work with the German authorities through the war, from the very beginning there was resistance to Bodenheimer’s initiative from other Zionist leaders. They deemed the WZO’s involvement with German imperialism too risky. By December 1914, the organisation’s main office was relocated to Copenhagen, thereby signalling the WZO’s official position of neutrality in the war. Regardless, Zionist leaders in Germany, Britain, and later the US, continued to approach their governments and military authorities and cast Jews and Zionists in particular as useful partners in the pursuit of the great powers’ wartime and post-war goals. Although it created great excitement and hope among Zionists, and among Jews more broadly, the Balfour Declaration, the letter expressing British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine issued in early November 1917, reflected only one of several different political alliances and visions pursued by Zionist activists. As the war came to an end, the Zionist movement had gained prominence on the Jewish political stage in Eastern Europe and in Allied countries, most significantly among American Jews.

With a looming Jewish refugee crisis sparked by wartime displacement and post-war violence, Jewish representatives were invited by the Allies to participate in the Paris Peace Conference. Western Jewish leaders were soon joined by Jews from Eastern Europe acting as, mostly self-appointed, spokesmen for the region’s Jews. As fear of Bolshevism intensified in the West, along with a growing unease about the prominent role played by Jews in the Russian, Bavarian, and Hungarian Communist revolutions, Zionists garnered support for their plan for a Jewish homeland in Palestine as a solution to the “Jewish question,” a compelling alternative to “Judaeo-Bolshevism.” In the wake of the war, the paradox of Jewish power and powerlessness ensured Jewish representatives a highly contested seat at the table in Paris.

Prague Zionists on the Domestic and International Stage

For Zionists as well as for many of Eastern Europe’s nationalist movements, the war served as a catalyst for international activism in the capitals of the great powers. Polish nationalists, for example, were active in Berlin, London, Petrograd, and Washington. There they mingled with other nationalist activists, among them the Czechoslovaks Edvard Beneš, Tomáš G. Masaryk, and Milan R. Štefánik as well as Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, who were all on similar missions to get international support for their national projects. Claiming to represent the political will of their people, these activists struck alliances, outlined plans, and taught audiences about their land and people. Their task was often complicated by competing leaderships on opposite sides in the war and by the shifting attention of great power leaders whose interest in these activists waxed and waned. However, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 and Russia’s subsequent withdrawal from the war, the calls for a new order in Eastern Europe, one that would contain Bolshevism, gained traction among both the Allies and the Central Powers. In Eastern Europe, political activism thus had domestic as well as international dimensions. As the war came to a close, hectic activity ensued among these self-appointed representatives of Eastern Europe’s peoples. In the capitals of the victors, and at home in the territories of the defeated Central Powers, new leaderships emerged as the old order crumbled.

In early January 1919, Jewish activists gathered in Prague for the first Jewish National Congress in the newly minted Czechoslovakia. Over 340 delegates attended along with dignitaries from Czech political and cultural life. The Congress was the culmination of months of hectic activity by Zionists seeking to take charge of the country’s Jews in light of the political changes. In October 1918, Jews in Prague and Brno established Jewish national councils, as did Jews in many parts of Eastern Europe towards the end of the war. These political bodies consisted primarily of Jewish nationalists, including Zionists, claiming to represent local Jews. Soon the Moravian council, along with Jewish religious and community leaders, joined the Jewish National Council in Prague, now known as the Jewish National Council for the Czechoslovak State. On 28 October, the day Czech leaders declared Czechoslovakia’s independence, Ludvík Singer, Karel Fischel, and Max Brod, representing the Jewish National Council, approached the new authorities in Prague. On behalf of the country’s Jews, they pledged loyalty to the provisional Czechoslovak government. During the meeting, the Zionist representatives delivered a memorandum to the Czechs outlining concrete demands on behalf of the country’s “nationally conscious Jews.” On the model of the manifesto “The Demands of the Jewish People” issued a few days earlier by the Zionist Office in Copenhagen, the Prague activists called for “recognition of the Jewish nationality and freedom of individuals to profess that nationality, full civil and legal equality for the Jewish people, national minority rights for the Jewish people, including cultural autonomy, and democratization and unification of the Jewish congregations.” The Jewish National Council’s swift approach to the Czech leaders, almost a week before other Jewish representatives pledged their communities’ loyalty to the Czechs, was symptomatic of the Zionists’ efficient organisation, political acumen, and self-confidence.

The Council’s efforts were part of a coordinated attempt by Zionists and Jewish nationalists in Eastern Europe and beyond to present a united front on the domestic as well as on the international stage. Across Eastern Europe, Jewish councils presented similar manifestos aimed at securing national rights for Jews and solidifying their own authority as national leaders. Indeed, Jews’ war experience and the international Zionist movement’s recent successes encouraged Jewish activists seeking recognition for Jews as a nation. By claiming to speak for a national minority rather than a religious one, Jewish activists sought legitimacy for their demands for cultural autonomy, language rights, and political representation. In short, Jewish nationalists framed national rights for Jews as part of the new democratic order in Eastern Europe. It was a political strategy shaped by these activists’ wartime experiences.

The catastrophes that befell Eastern Europe’s Jews during the war served to rally Jews from a wide variety of political, cultural, and social backgrounds in areas outside the immediate war zones. The Bohemian lands were no exception. When thousands of Jewish refugees arrived in the region in the autumn of 1914, Jews in Prague and Brno rushed to their aid. By the end of 1916, about 90,000 Jewish refugees languished in camps near Uherské Hradiště/Ungarisch Hradisch in Moravia. As the number of destitute refugees continued to grow, so did the financial burden on the local Jewish communities in the Bohemian lands and Hungary. Soon, Jews in Vienna and Budapest, with help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, sent aid to the displaced Jews. Initially, the various competing factions within Jewish society in Bohemia and Moravia, religious traditionalists and secularists, conservatives and socialists, Jewish nationalists and assimilationists, joined forces to assist the Jewish refugees.

Even though they were brought together by the plight of the refugees, Bohemian and Moravian Jews were nevertheless deeply divided on how to respond to the growing antisemitism and to the increasing political uncertainty. The Czech Jewish movement, which promoted Jews’ assimilation to Czech culture and desired an alliance with Czech nationalists, had experienced several setbacks during the war. Czech nationalist enthusiasm for Russia’s symbolic pan-Slavic leadership made Czech Jewish activists uncomfortable as Jewish victims of pogroms perpetrated by the Tsar’s forces appeared in the Bohemian Lands. Furthermore, accusations of Jews’ parasitical character, exploitation of non-Jews, and loyalty to Austria caused a surge in Czech antisemitism. This made Czech Jews increasingly uneasy among their Russophile peers as the war dragged on.

At the same time as Czech Jews met suspicion from other Czechs and from the Austrian authorities, who were distrustful of any form of Czech nationalism, Zionist groups continued unhindered in their political activities promoting Jewish nationalism. Heartened by Jews’ expression of solidarity with other Jews, embodied in the broad Jewish support for the refugees, they were nevertheless frustrated by their lack of influence in the established Jewish communities. Their frustration with the communal elites only intensified as antisemitism grew. In the minds of the Zionists, the existing leadership’s inability to respond effectively to the mounting hostility of non-Jews to their Jewish neighbours only confirmed that German or Czech assimilation as a strategy for coexistence was a dead end. Zionists saw the popular vilification of Jews as proof that the assimilationists’ claim that Jews would achieve acceptance and equality if they became Czech or German in language, culture, and national feeling was false. To the Zionists, it was time for a revolution on the Jewish street. If the various political factions within Jewish society had buried the hatchet during the war, then, once it became clear that the tables had turned, that Austria-Hungary’s so-called small and oppressed nationalities, among them Czechs and Slovaks, had become partners of the Allied powers, the Zionists began their quest for recognition as leaders of the region’s Jews.

As an emerging Jewish leadership, the Jewish National Council considered its contact with the Czech political elite to be of great importance to its bid for influence. From the outset, the Council, chaired by prominent Zionists from Bohemia such as Ludvík Singer and the well-known literary critic Max Brod, represented itself as enjoying the support of the new authorities. It publicised statements about the virtues of the Zionist movement and Jewish nationalism made by the most prominent Czech leader, Tomáš G. Masaryk, and reiterated by other Czech politicians. When, in mid-November 1918, Masaryk, then on a propaganda tour in the US, expressed “sympathy” for Zionism in a message to the Zionist Organization of America, the Jewish National Council in Prague immediately spun it as an “act of state” in support of their programme. Zionists invoked the authority of Masaryk’s statement repeatedly when addressing Jewish audiences and when they intervened on behalf of Jews with local authorities.

Zionists were unsure about their clout among local Jews. Jews were, after all, divided by political loyalties, language, cultural traditions, religious practices, and class. In addition, Jews lived dispersed in large and small communities across the territory of the new state, where authority was still changing hands. Zionists were, however, fairly certain that as a vulnerable minority Jews would be looking to the central government for protection. By presenting themselves as close to political power in Prague, they sought to appear, on the one hand, as effective leaders among Jews and, one other, as loyal partners to the new Czech leadership and their allies. When the Jewish National Congress opened in January 1919, the hosts greeted delegates and guests with a message from Masaryk whose portrait was displayed alongside the other members of the Zionist trinity, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the WZO, and President Woodrow Wilson.

During the January Congress, the Jewish National Council selected a number of local activists to represent Czechoslovak Jewry at the Paris Peace Conference. Having been symbolically vested with representing the Jews of Czechoslovakia, these representatives joined other Jewish nationalists from Eastern Europe and Jewish leaders from the Allied countries in Paris. As in Prague, across Europe and North America, Zionists, diaspora nationalists, and other Jewish activists had organised congresses, passed resolutions, and dispatched delegates. They now met up in the French capital to make a bid for Jews’ civic equality and national minority rights in the new Europe. The delegates from Czechoslovakia joined in as anti-Jewish violence re-emerged close to home in the spring of 1919.

Post-War Violence and International Audiences

On 22 November 1918, the Polish army entered Lemberg, a town in former Austrian Galicia. In a rampage that lasted for more than two days, Polish soldiers and civilians attacked the city’s Jews, killing 72 and wounding more than 440. Soon, panicked messages made their way to the West spreading the news. International publicity campaigns brought the continuing atrocities to the attention of Western audiences. Their indignation with the violence against Jews soon became an important tool for activists concerned with the fate of the Jews in Eastern Europe.

A few days after the events in Lemberg, anti-Jewish violence erupted in parts of Bohemia and Moravia. By early December, it had spread to the capital. The unrest in Prague was quelled, but attacks continued in other areas of Bohemia and Moravia in the days following. Most riots took the form of looting and beatings, some of which resulted in deaths. By March 1919, “the topics of daily discussions and worries among Jews [are] the boycott against everything Jewish, the untruthful press campaigns, the unjust and inhumane treatment of the [Jewish] refugees, attacks on Jewish citizens, [and] the recent assaults in the streets which has created a state of panic among Jews.” By then reports of renewed attacks on Jews in Slovakia were also adding to the increasing uncertainty as to the authorities’ ability and willingness to protect Jews and their livelihoods. In Slovakia, Jews had been victims of widespread looting and violence in the immediate aftermath of the war. The press and the new authorities cast much of the violence as a punishment for Jews’ persistent Hungarian sympathies and their wartime betrayal and exploitation of their Slovak neighbours. When Hungarian Bolshevik forces entered Slovakia in March 1919, accusations of Jews’ Magyar, Bolshevik, and anti-Slovak sentiments fuelled the press’s calls for punishment of Jews through economic boycotts and expulsions.

As anti-Jewish unrest intensified in the Bohemian lands and Slovakia, the Jewish leaders stepped up their efforts to convince local authorities to intervene. An aspiring Jewish leadership with no formalised status, the Zionist leaders were eager to present themselves as an effective and influential leadership to the country’s Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. Their exploits and interventions were documented in the German- and Czech-language Zionist press. Indeed the papers were one of the few ways in which Jewish writers and activists could respond to anti-Jewish campaigns, document attacks on Jews, and seek to influence the authorities to protect Jewish communities in various parts of the country. In doing so, they highlighted the damaging effects to Czechoslovakia’s image abroad should the authorities fail to protect Jews.

Although direct criticism of the Prague government was subdued in the local Zionist papers—most likely in an effort to satisfy the censors who on occasion did ban reports on anti-Jewish violence—authors often made reference to the antisemitic policies of the Polish government. In particular, the news reports highlighted the damaging effects antisemitism had for that country’s cause on the international stage. One author warned, “it would be a shame if the Czech nation, who enjoys so much sympathy abroad, would attract the attention of the Allies in the same manner that the Poles have done.” Another cautioned against more Polish-style Jew-bashing because “the Czechs now see for themselves the detrimental effects that the Polish pogroms against the Jews have had on that country’s prestige.” With an eye to the negotiations in Paris, activists reminded the Czech authorities that the negative effects of antisemitism on the country’s reputation could be limited if action was taken to restrict incitement and violence, a step the Polish government had failed to take.

Furthermore, when voices in the Czech press persisted in accusing Jews of harbouring Austrian loyalties and anti-Czech attitudes, the Zionist press launched a campaign to counter these allegations. At the heart of the message was the important role played by Jews in influencing key international players. They never missed an opportunity to point out that prominent Zionist leaders, such as Louis Brandeis, acted as advisors to President Wilson. The Prague-based Selbstwehr reported that “Jews had played a decisive role in fulfilling the Czech aspirations through the Entente.” Arguing that Brandeis and the French representative in Washington, Henri Bergson, also a Jew, had worked with Masaryk to deploy the Czechoslovak Legions in Siberia, the author implied that Jews had helped ensure recognition of the Czechoslovak leadership as belonging to the Allies. Eager to depict Jews as supporters of the Czechoslovak cause, the writer spared no efforts in highlighting the significance of this alliance:

It is clear that the Czech people should be very grateful to these Jews, representatives of the world’s most powerful states, for the freedom and independence that it enjoys today. It is obvious that the policy of the Czechoslovak state has to take this circumstance into account along with the more important consideration that the Jewish people, which is already a very important international power, once organized on a national basis will gain a still unforeseeable influence on world politics, as well as financial and economic affairs.

Although the belief that Zionists were influential with Wilson was used strategically, the attention Jewish writers afforded American Jewry and its alleged power suggests that, like their non-Jewish peers, Jewish activists believed that in the US Jews had gained unprecedented political and economic power and influence. In the summer of 1919, when Slovak leaders were preparing to pass anti-Jewish legislation, the Zionist editor Emil Waldstein indignantly reminded his readers that “Jews had a hand in the creation of the Czechoslovak state. We will leave it to the conscience of those people, who did not reject the help of world Jewry at the most critical hour, whether or not they will support the implementation of this destructive legislation.” The strategy of invoking Jewish power reflected local Jews’ admiration for their American allies and the latter’s political thrust. At the same time, it also betrayed that Jews had few other tools at their disposal. As anti-Jewish incitement and violence continued to endanger their communities, Jewish activists had few other choices than to play on non-Jews’ inflated perceptions of Jewish power. Once in Paris, they pleaded with, cajoled, and threatened representatives of the new states with the power of international Jewry. This was a tactic that heightened the sense among politicians and their publics that Jews could be both an asset and an obstruction in the delicate negotiations underway.

Czech Leaders and Perceptions of Jewish Power

From the outset, the notion of Jewish power influenced Czech leaders’ attitude towards antisemitism and anti-Jewish unrest as well as their perceptions of the consequences that these events might have for Czechoslovakia. The Czechs were not worried about the country’s Jewish population (2.6% of the country’s total population). They were concerned about the much larger number of Germans (23.4%) and Hungarians (5.6%) living within the state’s borders. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, a good deal of the Czechs’ resistance to special protection for Jews was rooted in a fear that the German and Hungarian minorities might demand similar concessions. It was precisely because of this much greater anxiety that Czech leaders were so preoccupied with Jewish power, particularly Jews’ influence in the international political arena. In their wartime correspondence, Masaryk and Beneš discussed the significance of American Jews’ support for the Czechoslovak cause. Both believed that Jews were influential with President Wilson and with Western public opinion more broadly. This belief did not, however, endear Jews to either of these men. Beneš had, what one historian has called, “a confused fear of Jews.” Suspicious of their role on the international stage, he warned Masaryk to watch out for Jews.

Masaryk shared with Beneš this perception of Jewish power and, like his colleague, he never divested himself of an emotional suspicion and fear of Jews and their foreignness. His prejudice towards and distrust of Jews, however, did not prevent him from supporting Jews even when it was unpopular to do so such as during the 1899 Hilsner ritual murder trial. Later, he endorsed Zionism as “a movement of great moral value,” one that would ensure the reform of Jews’ character. Thus, Masaryk’s actions were products of his politics and his prejudices, rather than the philosemitism that some Jews and critics assumed. The future first president of Czechoslovakia placed great significance on the public support of American Zionists and other Jewish leaders. By facilitating personal contacts to Wilson and by otherwise supporting the Czechs, they had, Masaryk believed, rewarded him for his opposition to antisemitism. Looking back on his accomplishments years later, Masaryk evaluated the role of Jewish power as follows: “In the United States, as in Europe, Jewish influence is strong in the press; it was very beneficial for us that this great power was not against us.” Uneasy about Jews and the power they wielded, Masaryk and Beneš were convinced that if they were seen as harbouring or tolerating antisemitism, it would be detrimental to the Czech cause.

The perception of Jews’ ability to control the press—and by extension influence Western public opinion—caused concern among Czech leaders as violence against Jews erupted throughout newly independent Czechoslovakia. In December 1918, having only recently returned to Prague, Masaryk wrote to Beneš of the need to present the recent attacks on Jews as food riots, noting, “There is great dislike of Jews here … I will endeavour to get it under control.” With an eye to the international outcry against the pogroms in Poland, Masaryk warned the ministerial council against giving in to local public pressure to deport the Galician Jewish war refugees who remained in the Bohemian lands. He argued that “it is half the victory, if we can keep things tidy up to the peace conference.” At the same time, Karel Pergler, the head of the Czechoslovak National Council in the US, warned Masaryk of a “campaign of falsehood against us, charging for instance that an order was issued to deport all Jews from the Czechoslovak Lands. As you see, they do not differentiate between the Galician refugees and our own Jews.” “It is essential,” claimed Pergler, “that our people at home are quite careful in the handling of the Jewish situation.”

Both international Jewish leaders and activists from the Bohemian lands were aware of Masaryk and Beneš’s strategy to create an image of Czechoslovakia as a respectable, Western state in order to negotiate a favourable treaty with the Allies. As Zionists abroad intervened with Czech and Slovak leaders on behalf of Jews, they invoked the importance of the fledging state’s reputation on the international stage. “We were gratified to learn that President Masaryk … openly recognized the moral importance of the Jewish national movement, and the place it takes within the republic,” the Zionist leader Chaim Weizman wrote in a letter protesting against the Slovak authorities’ antisemitic policies and arrests of local Zionists in July 1919. “No one would regret more than ourselves,” he continued, “if as a result of these occurrences in Slovakia, the Jewish and non-Jewish circles of England, America and other Entente countries, which have always inclined to the Republic, should call public attention in their respective countries to the dangerous position of the Jews in Slovakia.”

Similarly, in the wake of Beneš’s rejection of the Czechoslovak Jewish delegation’s requests in late August, Nahum Sokolow, the Zionist movement’s Paris delegate, explained to Beneš that “disappointing” news of his lack of cooperation on the question of Jewish rights was making its way to American Jewish leaders. When Beneš refused to accept Sokolow’s arguments, the latter cautioned, “We have been friends of the Czechoslovak people. If these articles [articles regarding Jewish education and protection of the Sabbath included in the Polish treaty] should not be included in the Czech treaty, the Jews who until now have been friends of the Republic will be thunderstruck, and a press campaign might very well begin which we will not be in a position to avert.” Even though Beneš was unsure of the extent of Jews’ influence, he did not give in to the international Jewish delegation’s demands.

The notion that Jews, whether as pogrom victims or as political players, were able to influence the fate of the Czechoslovak cause was shared by Czechs in the home guard as well. At a public meeting in October, 1918, Václav Klofáč, a prominent member of what became Czechoslovakia’s provisional government, cautioned that “we should not consider all Jews equally guilty [of profiteering and other crimes during the war] and should not forget that the Jews are very influential advisors of Entente leaders like Wilson. Proceeding thoughtlessly in this matter could result in a setback.” Similarly in the aftermath of the pogroms in December 1918, Karel Kramář, the head of the Czechoslovak National Committee in Prague and the country’s first prime minister, warned in a speech to the provisional parliament, “allow me to say as someone who oversees foreign affairs and receives reports from abroad that any violence [against Jews] would cause real damage to our freedom.”

Even though some Czech politicians called for an end to anti-Jewish violence, they displayed a certain amount of unease about suppressing popular calls for punishment of alleged Jewish profiteering and loyalty to Austria. In order not to run the risk of appearing to be in the pocket of Jews, Czech politicians played on the widely held belief in Jewish power to present antisemitism as detrimental to Czech interests. They claimed to act in the interest of the Czech nation and the future of Czechoslovakia when calling for protection of Jewish refugees and restraint in public displays of antisemitism. The Social Democrat Josef Stivín warned that antisemitism “might harm us at the peace conference and in the eyes of the civilized world.” In explaining how antisemitism would damage the “exceptional respect” that the Czech nation enjoyed abroad, not least thanks to the contribution of volunteer Slovak and Czech soldiers in the Allied armies, Karel Kramář argued “that it would be a monstrous crime if we were to damage the good name of our legionaries because of disorder, pogroms, looting, and pillaging. Every [Jewish] window pane that is destroyed in a store, and every scrap that is stolen, the Czechoslovak Republic will have to pay for with her future.” Even if humanitarian concerns motivated these politicians to condemn attacks on Jews, they though it prudent not to phrase their disapproval in those terms. In short, they did not condemn antisemitism out of sympathy for Jews, but out of respect for Jewish power.

The amorphous notions of Jews’ simultaneous power and powerlessness were reflected in the Czech leadership’s understanding of the position of Jewish activists. Beneš, for example, although careful not to appear uncooperative towards Jews, also cautioned them against not supporting the government. Hinting at possible retribution, he capitalised on the Jewish activists’ anxiety, knowing full well the precarious position of Jews back home. In other words, although sensitive to the possibility of damaging publicity about antisemitism in Czechoslovakia, Beneš also used the recurring anti-Jewish violence as a way of repelling Jews’ demands. Similarly, even though they did censor Jewish papers reporting news of attacks in Slovakia in July 1919, Czech leaders did little in response to complaints from Jewish circles about the antisemitic campaign in the Czech press. Thus, even if Czech leaders believed that Jews held considerable influence with Allied governments and Western public opinion, they also acted on the assumption that Jews, as pariahs, and increasingly vulnerable ones, would be reluctant to damage their relations with the central government, dependent as they were on its protection. This was a fact that Jewish activists were acutely aware of.


In negotiating the international treaty that created Czechoslovakia, the Czech leadership rebuffed calls for provisions for particular minority groups within the new state. Thus, the Jewish National Council’s efforts to secure special protections for Jews were unsuccessful. Yet, in the 1920 Czechoslovak Constitution, the state-makers awarded the Jews status as a national minority and thus allowed them to claim Jewish national identity in the population censuses, a key demand of the Jewish National Council. The Czech leaders’ decision was in part motivated by their sense that this would diminish the number of German- and Hungarian-speakers in the census. Nevertheless, it was a provision that afforded Jewish nationalists an unprecedented degree of legitimacy and potential access to public funds for national institutions such as schools. Jewish activists were well aware that the Czech leaders’ decision was a strategic rather than an idealistic one. In fact, the Jewish National Council had encouraged the idea that the inclusion of “Jewish nationality” as a category in the census would diminish the numbers of Germans and Hungarians. Nevertheless, they saw it as a means to shore up support for Jewish nationalism among Jews and strengthen the relationship between Czechs and Jews. Zionists thereby sought to ensure that the central government remained a protector as well as assuming a new role as a benefactor of its Jewish national minority.

This small study of the interplay between Jewish political strategies and fantasies of Jewish power suggests three insights. First, the emergence of international political arenas with participation of state representatives as well as non-governmental organisations, such as the Paris Peace Conference, facilitated the kind of politicking in which image and perceptions of public opinion influenced strategic negotiations. The Czech leadership’s enormous investment in cultural diplomacy—in public lecture tours abroad, in the publication and dissemination of propaganda materials, and in the creation of alliances with domestic constituents in great power states—reflects how they placed significant emphasis on creating an image of Czechoslovakia that would garner favour with international audiences. Czech leaders’ concern about image and their uncertainty about Jews’ ability to influence it, created an opening for local Jewish activists who managed to convince them that the fate of Jews at home mattered. Jewish power, if anything, created access for local Jewish activists to corridors of high politics from which they would otherwise have been excluded.

Second, the article demonstrates that the experience of the First World War, the unprecedented victimisation of Jews, and the upsurge in antisemitism coexisted with bold and public Jewish activism. If Jews did not in the end have the ability to convince Czech leaders to give in to international Jewish demands for special protection, it was not because they did not try. Jewish leaders brought together by their Zionism and wartime activism worked hard, relentlessly, to secure the authorities’ protection of local Jewish communities. They alerted the Czech leadership to the risks involved in remaining tolerant of antisemitism and unresponsive to Jews’ pleas for protection. They carefully nurtured the Czech leaders’ perception that the fate of Jews was tied to the fortunes of Czechoslovakia abroad. This was a connection that persisted in the decades that followed. As the myth of Czechoslovakia as Western, civilised, and governed by mature and reliable statesmen remained central to the Prague government’s international political strategies in the 1920s and 1930s, so did the image of Czechoslovakia as an exceptional place for Jews in Eastern Europe.

Third, it is worthwhile examining the consequences of Jewish activists’ strategy of playing up Jewish power. It is unclear to what extent Jewish activists’ message about a fruitful alliance between Czechs, Slovaks, and Jews stuck in the public debate. Were these Jews’ voices not hard to hear amidst the clamour of a more widespread and ingrained discourse of the threat of Jewish (and German and Hungarian) power to the Czech and Slovak nations? I would suggest that Zionists’ employment of these discourses—their grandiose depictions of Jews’ influence with US leaders and in world politics and their threats of international press campaigns and sanctions—nurtured anti-Jewish perceptions. Trapped in the midst of an avalanche of antisemitism, Jews were damned if they didn’t utilise these beliefs—and damned if they did. If antisemitism and the accompanying violence and destruction had shocked Jewish communities across the new state in these early years after the war, the memory of these experiences was soon marginalised in favour of a politically useful story of trust and mutual respect and admiration as the basis for an alliance between Jews and Czechs.