Kriegstagebpcher von Bruno Wolff (1870–1918)

Bruno Wolff (1870–1918)

Diaries of the First World War

November 10, 2018, marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the death of Bruno Wolff, the professor and medical doctor who wrote extensive autobiographical documents about the period of Europe’s "seminal catastrophe." His diary notes, which we hold in our collections, are key sources from the history of German-Jewish education and attitudes. They provide valuable insight into the intellectual world of a broadly educated, assimilated German Jew who regarded himself as a member of the German nation in every way, but who repeatedly faced deep-seated anti-Semitism in his professional and private life.

Bruno Wolff was the son of Berlin University surgery professor Julius Wolff (1836–1902), after whom the Berlin Charité named one of its institutes. His maternal uncle was Carl Weigert (1845–1904), who directed the Institute of Pathological Anatomy at the Senckenberg Foundation in Frankfurt am Main.

Bruno Wolff’s professional development

Bruno Wolff studied medicine at the universities of Freiburg, Wurzburg, and Berlin. He took his doctorate in 1893 and did his residency under his uncle Carl Weigert in Frankfurt. Until 1911, he worked as a gynecologist in both Berlin and Charlottenburg, serving, among other things, as head physician in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the hospital run by the Jewish Community of Berlin. He then switched to pathological anatomy and was taken on as an assistant at the Pathological Institute in Rostock, directed by Ernst Schwalbe (1871–1920). In 1913, he completed his habilitation there and in 1915 he was awarded the title of professor.

War service

When the First World War broke out, Bruno Wolff was conscripted as a medical officer in the Landwehr in Danzig and sent to the East Prussian front. In late August 1914, he was transferred to the military hospital in the Danzig fortress and from April 1915 to June 1916, he directed an auxiliary hospital in the Hochstriess district of Danzig. This facility treated mainly epidemic cases. For this activity he was awarded the Iron Cross.

In July 1916, Wolff was appointed the physician of an infantry regiment at the Eastern Front, where he took part in the Battle of Baranovichi in present-day Belarus. This ended in a major victory for the Germans over the Russian troops. In September 1916, he was recalled to the fortress hospital in Danzig. In August 1917, he was transferred to the Rostock reserves hospital to work as the senior physician of a surgical department. This meant he could simultaneously resume his duties as first assistant at the Institute of Pathology in Rostock. From December 1917 to February 1918, he also served as the physician of a Rostock reserve battalion. In August 1917, in recognition of his services as a military doctor, he was awarded the Red Cross Medal, Third Class. On November 10, 1918, Wolff died of a streptococcal infection contracted during an operation at the Institute of Pathology in Rostock.

Diary notes

From the start of the First World War, in which Bruno Wolff served as a medical officer literally from the first day to the last, he made diary-like notes that in his own words were intended for his descendants. His writings survived in the estate of his son, the legal historian Hans Julius Wolff (1902–1983), in the form of six notebooks. His son’s daughter, Dr. Katherine Wolff, presented the collection to the Jewish Museum Frankfurt.

The first notebook describes the background to the outbreak of war, as well as mobilization and the events leading from Bruno Wolff’s assignment to the front in August 1914 to his transfer to Danzig. Although this notebook was not written until the period of May to July 1917, we can assume it is based on earlier notes due to its rich detail. Notebook 2 begins in May 1916 after a significant time gap of twenty months and describes how he was recalled from Hochstriess in Danzig and sent once again to the front near Baranovichi. From that point on, the notes were written much closer to actual events.

Confrontation with anti-Semitism

The diaries by Bruno Wolff are not mere descriptions of events. They contain detailed accounts of his medical work as well as political, philosophical, and ethical medical reflections. Some of his extensive private notes are devoted primarily to the upbringing of his two sons, whose historical and scientific talent is clear from a very young age. They also include quotations from letters sent by his wife, Käthe Wolff, née Pinner (1877–1960).

As a whole, the notes reveal the intellectual world of a broadly educated, assimilated German Jew who regarded himself as a member of the German nation in every way, but who repeatedly confronted deep-seated anti-Semitism in his professional and private life. Because of the discrimination that his sons had to endure, he and his wife even considered baptism, though Bruno Wolff ultimately decided against this step. The struggle with anti-Semitic attitudes in his circle of friends and acquaintances, as well as in German society as a whole, is a central theme in Bruno Wolff’s writings.

Patriotism or Nationalism?

Compared to other writings by German-Jewish authors from the First World War, what stands out in these is how steadfastly Bruno Wolff trusted Germany’s political and military leadership, and how long he maintained this trust. He did not begin changing his mind and hoping for “a better, a more liberal, and a more just Prussia” until Reich Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg was dismissed in July 1917, his friend and supervisor Ernst Schwalbe drifted into the pan-German movement in September 1917, and he held discussions with his considerably more critical brother-in-law, Paul Alexander (1870–1942), in Berlin. Gustav Stresemann (1878–1929), a Reichstag deputy for the National Liberal Party, aroused his political hopes, but due to Wolff’s early death, he no longer lived to see Stresemann’s commitment to establishing a lasting peace in Europe as Reich chancellor and foreign minister.

German-Jewish history of education and attitudes

The war diaries of Bruno Wolff have so far attracted the most interest as sources for medical history. They have been largely overlooked as documents shedding light on the German-Jewish history of education and attitudes. The excerpts from the extensive material that we are presenting here are intended to focus attention on these aspects. We wish to thank our longtime freelance associate Karola Nick for the transcription and commentary.