Over the years, I have visited numerous World War I and II battlefields in Europe and their accompanying military cemeteries — American, British and German. The immaculately ordered American cemeteries stand out for their stark beauty and order, with graves laid out in strict military precision. British cemeteries have a certain poignancy about them with their individual flower plantings on most graves.
While the Allied burial grounds are in a way awe inspiring, German military cemeteries from World War II are dark, somber places, leaving no doubt as to which side lost the war. I learned that many World War II German grave plots have up to four or five sets of remains in them. As one cemetery caretaker told me, “A soldier should never be alone. He should be with his comrades, especially for eternity.”
Going from grave to grave, you see the final resting places of young men and boys from all regions of Germany. Most were members of the German army, the Wehrmacht, but many had served in the dreaded SS, the elite, fanatical shock troops of Hitler’s. All were buried under Christian crosses. Unlike American and British World War II cemeteries, not a single grave is marked with a Star of David.
Go to a German cemetery from World War I, however, and you will find Star of David headstones with Jewish names on them scattered throughout. These were the final resting places of German Jews who had fought and died for their country.
Some 100,000 Jews served in the German army during World War I, and more than 12,000 died in combat. More than 18,000 received the Iron Cross, of which about 1,000 received the Iron Cross First Class for exceptional gallantry in action. Most German Jews supported Kaiser Wilhelm and his decision to invade Belgium and France. Of course, none of them would have suspected that their country would begin one of the most despicable mass crimes in history by attempting to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population.
In the post-World War I years, anti-Semitism, which had long simmered underneath the surface in Germany, became intensely virulent especially after Hitler rose to power. Jews became the target of blame for the country’s post-war problems. They were accused of betraying Germany for self-gain. In 1935, the new Nazi regime under Adolph Hitler announced that henceforth, it was “forbidden to list the names of fallen Jews on Memorials of the World War.” Jewish veterans were removed from civil service jobs, and Jews were no longer allowed to serve in the military. Nazi doctrine basically held that Jews were not real Germans.
Germany’s treatment of Jewish veterans in denying their military service makes me think in some ways of the immigrants who want to serve our country in uniform. Today recent immigrants serve in the American armed forces in large numbers — some 80,000 in all branches of the military, including the Coast Guard. The U.S. has had a long-standing tradition of allowing immigrants to serve in its military as a path to gaining citizenship. But immigrants serving in uniform are being denied citizenship at a much higher rate than in previous years, according to recent government sources. Stricter policies by the Trump administration explain most of this reversal. Major General Paul Eaton, U.S. Army retired, notes, “To have this [reversal], where they are actually taking a back seat to the civilian population, strikes me as a bizarre turn of events.”
Eaton also questions why the Defense Department is willing to make it more difficult to recruit eligible immigrants, particularly with the challenges recruiters face today. The rush to the colors immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks has long lost its momentum as the subsequent conflict enters its 19th year. As reported last fall in the Army Times, the army missed its annual recruiting goal by more than 6,000, its worst record in years. The Coast Guard fell short on its recruiting goal as well. The remaining three service branches met their respective goals, although barely.
It is impossible to accept everyone wanting to serve in the military, but why deny immigrants who are willing and able to put their lives on the line for this country in exchange for citizenship? Such a policy is shortsighted because it denies a place for those who deserve it for the sacrifices they have made and will continue to make on our behalf. At least their plight is not as consequential as that of the German Jews who had fought bravely and sacrificed in great numbers during World War I, yet were persecuted and killed en masse simply because of their religion and ethnicity.