Jewish Military Experience in the Habsburg Monarchy (1788-1820)

One of the decisive moments at the two-day battle of Deutsch-Wagram was the successful counterattack of the 42nd Line Infantry Regiment Erbach on the first evening of the combat. As with almost all other Austrian army formations during the 1809 War, Jewish soldiers fought in that regiment. Among them was the 23 year-old conscript Isack Böhm who came from the hamlet Glum, in the Luditz Manor, in western Bohemia (today Chlum and Žlutice in the Czech Republic). Isack was drafted on 21st April, about ten days after the outbreak of the war against Napoleon. After a short training period in the Reserve Battalion, he was transferred to the main field army. On 5th July, Isack survived unscathed in the famous charge of his regiment, but on the second day of the battle, he was shot through the upper right arm. The wound did not heal well and resulted in chronic weakness so that in autumn 1810, a medical committee pronounced Isack unfit for service and awarded him a lifelong pension as a disabled war veteran. Rather than moving to the House of Invalids in Prague, Isack chose to take an out-pension and was formally discharged from the army to return home. His case is but one of thousands of individual life stories on which this research project rests.

Although few remember this today, the Habsburg Monarchy was the first state in modern history to draft Jews into the army. By the middle of the 1790s, Jewish conscripts became an integral part of the Monarchy’s German regiments. After 1800, Jews living in the Kingdom of Hungary also came under the draft. The total number of Jewish soldiers who served from the last Habsburg-Ottoman War to the final defeat of Napoleon numbered at least 40,000. Based on the original service records of several thousands of Jewish soldiers, non-commissioned officers and officers, this project is the first attempt to reconstruct and analyze their personal experiences. Where did they come from? How did they enter the military? Which branches of the army, and in which roles and ranks did they serve? How and to what extent did their service differ from those of their non-Jewish comrades? To what extent did the official policy of the military authorities towards its Jewish soldiers was implemented in practice in individual regiments? The experience of Jewish soldiers in that period offers an illuminating perspective upon the actual functioning of the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional army of the Habsburg Monarchy.

As with its sister project Mobilising for Modernity, datasets produced as part of this project are regularly uploaded to the open repository Zenodo. Individual datasets usually cover specific army formations and trace their Jewish soldiers over a period of several years. The reconstruction of full service itineraries reveals a wealth of information which goes beyond military matters, from changing naming patterns to the distribution of Jewish population within the Habsburg Monarchy. Enlistment papers from Hungary are particularly good, tracing instances of internal migration. When cross referenced against the years and places of birth, the height of individual soldiers reveals evidence for nutritional standards in different Habsburg provinces. Everyone is welcome to consult these open-access research aids for their own scholarly interests. This Community Webpage also hosts miscellaneous publications and essays stemming from the project.