For the first time in a century, the German military is appointing Jewish chaplains. That’s right, an organization whose predecessors helped kill six million Jews in World War II will now officially have rabbis, just like the U.S. and other armies do.
“As defense minister, it fills me with gratitude and joy that women and men of the Jewish faith serve in our armed forces,” announced Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s first female defense minister (another fact that would have set Hitler’s mustache ablaze). “Military rabbis used to be an integral part of a soldier’s everyday life in the German armed forces. I’m glad that they will be again soon.”
It’s not that there are many Jews in the German military, known as the Bundeswehr. Though the 182,000-strong Bundeswehr doesn’t obligate soldiers to state their religion, there are only an estimated 300 Jewish soldiers in the ranks. Out of a German population of 82 million, Jews comprise 120,000, infinitely more than in 1945 but still a far cry from the 500,000 that resided in Germany when Hitler took power in 1933.
But what German Jews in 1933 could have dared imagine that one day rabbis would be military chaplains? Despite postwar attempts to whitewash the Wehrmacht—as the military was known under the Nazis—as an apolitical organization that kept its hands clean of Nazi crimes, abundant evidence has shown that regular German soldiers and their commanders enthusiastically participated in atrocities alongside the SS and Gestapo.
Some 100,000 Jews fought for the Kaiser in World War I. The adjutant of Corporal Hitler’s regiment—a Jew—was the one who recommended him for an Iron Cross, a medal that Hitler boasted of for the rest of his life. Yet their military service did not save them from the death camps.
The revival of Jewish military chaplaincy had been urged by Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, in an op-ed in February. Schuster believes only two chaplains—one liberal and one Orthodox—will be sufficient to care for the small number of Jewish-German soldiers. They will be appointed on the basis of recommendations by the Central Council of Jews. Their duties will span pastoral care for both Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers, which could include serving overseas to support German soldiers deployed on NATO missions outside Germany.
One reason Schuster wants Jewish chaplains is the threat of growing right-wing extremism in Germany, including a small but growing number of neo-Nazis in the ranks of the military. “The Bundeswehr also attracts other people—people who like hierarchical structures as well as command and obedience,” he wrote. “Among them are obviously not just citizens who value democratic values.”
Jewish-German soldiers who are victims of racism may feel more comfortable talking with rabbis who are familiar with the military but are outside the chain of command, he believes.
Meanwhile, in another sign of the times, the German military is also preparing to appoint Muslim chaplains to minister to the three thousand Muslims in the Bundeswehr.
“Especially in times when anti-Semitism, religious polarization and bigotry are on the march, this is an important signal,” von der Leyen said. “We want to oppose that together decisively.”