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Stab in the Back (Dolchstoss Legende)

To stab (someone) in the back is to harm (someone) by treachery or betrayal of trust. The "German White Paper on the Responsibility of the Instigators of the War"1, which was published in 1919 with the permission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in particular the speeches of Count Brockdorff-Rantzau of May 7 and May 13, 1919, is known to have appeared to the legion of German historians a signal to portray the military disaster of 1918 in the spirit of Ludendorff's fabricated "stab in the back" legend and to promote military revenge and its goals.

The "stab in the back" legend asserted that Germany's fate was caused, not an overwhelming military defeat, but by treacherous internal forces. The famous legend of the stab in the back (Dolchstoss Legende / Dolch-stoß-Legende, literally "dagger stab") made its debut in public political discourse in the Autumn of 1919. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg told a committee of the the National Assembly investigating the defeat of Germany that an English general had said that "The German army was stabbed from behind."

In his memoirs Out of My Life , Hindenburg wrote that "Just as Siegfried fell to the treacherous spear of terrible Hagen, so did our exhausted front line collapse. They tried in vain to draw new life from the dried-up well spring of the home front."

The Nibelungen music-dramas are great dramatic poems set to music. "From the womb of night and of death," said Richard Wagner, allowing his mystical fancy free play, "there sprang a race who dwelt in Nibelheim (Nebelheim, the place of mists), that is, in dim subterranean chasms and caves. They were called Nibelungen. Among them Alberich gained possession of the bright and beautiful gold of the Rhine-the Rheingold - drew it up out of the depths of the waters, and made from it, with great and cunning art, a ring, which gave him power over all his race, the Nibelungen."

The "Nibelungenlied" is the greatest and most complete of all the German popular epics. The historical basis of the poem is found in the fifth and sixth centuries of the Christian era. The present form of the poem is undoubtedly the work of a single author, who, with a soundness of judgment and felicity of genius rarely equaled, combined the separate songs, sagas, and traditions relating to Attila and the Huns, and their connexions with the Burgundian tribe, into one beautiful and harmonious whole.

The Nibelungen are best known from the 13th century German Nibelungenlied, but there are Scandinavian poems of their deeds. One source of this tale is the Volsunga Saga, a translation of which was made by Eirikr Magnusson and the poet, William Morris. It relates the marvelous exploits of Sigurd [Siegfried]. In Scandinavian poems, Siegfried meets Brunhild before marrying Grimhild. They may (or may not) exchange marriage-vows. On arriving at the Nibelungen-court, Siegfried is administered a love philter making him forget Brunhild and love Grimhild, whom he marries. The Nibelungenlied [Song of the Nibelungen] relates that the Nibelungen, a race of dwarfs, married their sister Grimhild to the Great Hero Siegfried. Gunther, king of the Nibelungen, is helped by Siegfried to conquer his bride, Brunhild. The Nibelungenlied tells of the conquest of the Nibelungen, the possession of the hoard, or treasure, the magic cap, and the bathing in the dragon's blood, which rendered him invulnerable save in a spot between his shoulders, where a leaf fell upon him as he bathed. Brunnhilde did not make Siegfried's back invulnerable, knowing that he would never turn it on a foe [a pervasive theme, witness the vulnerable heal of Achilles]. Siegfried is murdered by Hagen, uncle to the Nibelungen.

This story, as well as the others employed to form a ground-work for the Nibelungen Tetralogy, Wagner has modified to suit his own purposes, but without changing the ethical conditions leading to the " Gotterdammerung," or final decline of the gods. In Richard Wagner's Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods), first produced at Bayreuth, August 16, 1876, Hagen promises Brunnhilde revenge, and she tells him that he must stab Siegfried in the back, his only vulnerable point. Siegfried, under the memory-waking spell of a herb Hagen has put in his drink, tells the whole story of his life, and how he came to lean the language of birds, and how he won Brunnhilde. The sacred ravens fly past, Siegfried starts up and looks after them. Hagen thrusts his spear into his back. Siegfried turning, swings his shield high to crush Hagen, but with sudden weakness, drops it, and falls on it. Hagen stalks away. Siegfried, seeing Brunnhilde in a vision welcoming him, dies in a rapturous delirium. His body is raised and carried homeward.

The political decline of the German empire became apparent at the end of 1916. The peace offensive and the negotiations with President Wilson revealed a political incompetency scarcely equaled in the annals of modern Europe. In January, 1917, only a portion of the government was convinced of the necessity of a peace of reconciliation. At the very moment when President Wilson was working for "a peace without victory", a settlement which would have maintained the integrity of the German empire, German statesmen through their foreign policy were destroying the moral credit of the nation abroad. On 29 January 1917, the German Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg, with the approval of Ludendorff and Hindenburg, telegraphed the German terms of peace, together with the note concerning unrestricted submarine warfare, to President Wilson. These peace terms provided for German annexations on the eastern and western fronts and for an enlargement of the German colonial empire. They were supported by the German political parties, including the Social Democrats.

Developing from a group of Social Democrats who in 1914 opposed the voting of the war credits by the party, the Independent Socialists became an organization which regarded the war as ruinous for Germany. Since the summer of 1917 their leaders had planned to overthrow the empire by a revolution. In November, 1917, the working masses of Russia seized power. The great strike wave spread over the whole capitalist world. In January, 1918, there were mass strikes in Germany. The leaders of the party were active in the great general strike of January 1918. Owing to the breakdown of transportation, difficulties in supplying the population with coal became universal. There was lack of electric light and power in the cities and a scarcity of petroleum in the country. In 1918 the government established the meatless weeks, which heightened the effect of food control. To add to the general bitterness, contraband trade flourished, and, although the imperial currency depreciated, the wealthy class and the bureaucrats of the cities secured butter, eggs, and flour from the country. Hatred of the rich developed from month to month.

After three years of successful but indecisive warfare, the German empire at the close of the campaigns of 1917 was confronted with a new enemy, America, which hastened to the aid of England, France, Italy, and Belgium. The sudden collapse of Russia appeared, however, to give Germany the means of ending the war in the west before the arrival of large American forces. The disastrous defeat of the Italian army by the central powers in the autumn of 1917 seemed the prelude to Germany's final military victory. Propaganda against defeatists, profiteers, and agitators was carried on in the interior of Germany, while morale officers and civilian speakers and workers, all organized under the Fatherland Instruction System, were used to strengthen the morale of the army and the will to victory.

The fourth and last phase of the war was ushered in by the failure of the German Champagne-Marne attack of 15 July 1918 and the success of the Allied counter-attack at Soissons on 18 July 1918, the results and far-reaching consequences of which came as a surprise to German and Allied commanders alike. On 15 June 1918 the Germans commenced their decisive offensive on the western front by striking at Rheims and the Marne. In the second battle of the Marne the German empire put forth its utmost strength. The allied line, despite local reverses, held. When the German attack of July 15 failed, the French army showed itself anything but a beaten force. Marshal Foch swiftly and secretly prepared for a counter offensive, which, opening on 18 July 1918, marked the turning of the tide. When the supposedly nonexistent Americans established alike their presence and their fighting ability by marching through the German lines South of Soissons in a fashion which compelled the evacuation of the whole Marne salient, the scales dropped from the eyes of the German soldier. To him the war was now lost; it was time to go home. Von Hertling, the German Chancellor, has written: "We expected grave events in Paris for the end of July. That was on the 15th. On the 18th even the most optimistic among us understood that all was lost." After four years of war the German empire was confronted with inevitable military defeat.

On 13 August 1918 the Emperor of Austria appeared at German General Headquarters and discussed the terrible situation of the dual monarchy, which was unable to continue the war. Ludendorff states in his memoirs that after the successful English offensive on the eighth of August, he realized that the front of his armies might be broken at any time. From this day he traces the beginning of the final collapse.

Certain groups of Independent Socialists had struggled to undermine the righting power of the army. Since the failure of the general strike in Germany in January 1918, these groups worked systematically for the overthrow of German militarism. Thousands of strikers who were sent to the fighting lines helped to spread this propaganda among the troops. The grievances of the German soldiers against their officers were of course heightened both by enemy and Socialist propaganda until the hatred of their leaders became by November, 1918, one of the characteristic features of the German army.

More acute than the gradual political and military degeneration of the empire was the collapse of the economic life. Moltke, in emphasizing the importance of agriculture, said: "The German empire will perish without a shot being fired if German agriculture collapses." Despite rigorous laws and the organization of a central food control, the food supply of Germany gradually declined, although it was supplemented by contributions from the occupied territory. Contrary to official reports, the allied blockade and insufficient harvests reduced Mittel Europa to the verge of starvation. The individuals of whom the field army was composed were constantly changing. The food situation in Germany was thus quite unlike that in contemporary Russia. The under-feeding was, on the average, less serious in Germany than in Russia, but it was more general, much more equally distributed.

The General Staff by September 28, 1918, came to regard the struggle as hopeless. Ludendorff, fearing that his front would be broken at any moment and the entire army involved in the disaster, suddenly dispatched an ultimatum to Berlin demanding that the civil government of Germany request an immediate armistice of the Allies. On the afternoon of 03 October 1918 Hindenburg appeared before Prince Max and explained the precarious condition of the front. Ludendorff demanded peace because he no longer trusted the powers of resistance of his armies. Frantically the ministers asked for time, but the emphatic answer of the military party was: "No." Under the pressure of the army solely, the German civil government began the armistice negotiations.

As soon as the imminent collapse of the western front became known to the party leaders, the downfall of the old monarchical system in Germany was certain. The destruction of the military dictatorship of General Headquarters, and the parliamentarization of the empire and the federal states became the program late in September 1918 of the Liberals and Catholics. These parties invited the Socialists to join them and to assume a share of the burden of government. On November 4 the revolt of the German navy began at Kiel. Soon tidings of revolts in southern Germany, the Rhineland and the Hanseatic towns indicated that the empire was doomed.

The "stab-in-the-back" legend held that the collapse of German civilian morale had caused Germany's defeat in 1918. Colonel von Thaer's Diary Notes from October 1, 1918, describe the scene "Terrible and appalling! It is so! Indeed! As we were gathered together, Ludendorff stood up in our presence, his face was pale and filled with deep worry, but his head was still held high. A truly handsome Germanic hero figure. I had to think of Siegfried with the mortal wound in his back from Hagen's spear .... he [Ludendorff] had answered that the Supreme Army Command and the German Army were at an end; the war could no longer be won, but rather an unavoidable and conclusive defeat awaited .... Our own Army had unfortunately also been heavily contaminated with the poison of Spartacus-socialist ideas, and the troops were, he said, no longer reliable."

After the armistice a great controversy arose in Germany over the causes of the imperial military collapse and the outbreak of the revolution. Ludendorff and many militarists, as well as a great group of Pan-Germans, attempted to explain away the military debacle. It was a remarkable characteristic of German militarism, that, in the very hour of its final defeat, it raised the cry that the army had been betrayed in the rear and stabbed in the back. The Pan-Germans audaciously informed the nation that the demand of Ludendorff for negotiations with President Wilson was made because of the terrible political situation of Germany.

During the period of the armistice German public opinion was profoundly concerned with the expected allied proposals for peace. The questions of the war-guilty, cessions of territory, reparations, military occupation, and future reorganization were freely debated. On 08 May 1919 the terms of peace of the allied and associated powers were received in Berlin. Scarcely had the German press disseminated the principal allied demands than a wave of protest arose from the entire nation. Had the Allies destroyed Prussia, reestablished the kingdoms of Westphalia and Hannover, and restored the confederation of 1815, they could not have added to the crushing effect of the peace terms upon the German people. German statesmen and publicists united in denouncing the treaty.

On 18 November 1919, Paul Von Hindenburg, Field Marshal of the German Army, alluded to this popular belief during his testimony before a parliamentary committee. "An English general said with justice:`The German Army was stabbed in the back.' No guilt applies to the good core of the army. Its achievements are just as admirable as those of the officer corps. Where the guilt lies is clearly demonstrated."11 Hindenburg was alluding to the politicians, Social Democrats and others, who founded the Weimar Republic and signed the Treaty of Versailles. During his campaign for the presidency in 1925, Hindenburg continued to employ the "stab in the back" logic to justify his and Erich Ludendorff's decisions late in the First World War.

The greater the defeat, the greater the legends that grow up around it, the more eager the public is for scapegoats, the less fussy about evidence. One has only to think of the "stab in the back" legend that grew up in Germany after World War I. Post-war Germany, had a politician whose fortunes demanded an account of defeat in which he was blameless: Ludendorff. When Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg told the National Assembly, "As an English general has very truly said, the German army was 'stabbed in the back.'" Hindenburg biographer John Wheeler-Bennett wrote . "Ludendorff's eyes lit up, and he leapt upon the phrase like a dog on a bone... 'Stabbed in the back?' he repeated. 'Yes, that's it exactly. We were stabbed in the back.'"

Ludendorff (Hitler's quondam colleague in the comic opera Beer Hall Putsch) later wrote that "Germany, lacking any firm hand, bereft of all will, robbed of her princes, collapsed like a house of cards. All that we had lived for, all that we had bled four long years to maintain, was gone ... The new rulers and their camp-followers abandoned all resistance, and without any authority signed our unconditional capitulation to a merciless enemy ... The authorities at home, who had not fought against the enemy, could not hurry fast enough to pardon deserters and other military criminals, including in part among these themselves and their nearest friends. They and the soldiers' councils worked with zeal, determination, and purpose to destroy everything military. This was the gratitude of the newly formed homeland to the German soldiers who had bled and died for it in millions. The destruction of the German power, achieved by these Germans, was the most tragic crime the world has witnessed. A tidal wave had broken over Germany, not by the force of nature, but through the weakness of the Government represented by the Chancellor and the crippling of a leaderless people."

In the summer of 1919 the German government finally published a White Book on the events leading to the armistice, in order to combat the conservative and monarchist propaganda and to justify the action of the revolutionary government in admitting its defeat by signing the armistice. These documents reveal the utter helplessness of the German High Command in the face of the continuous allied advances, and they show clearly that only the armistice saved the wreck of the imperial army from a disaster which would have been unparalleled in history.

As the powers of resistance and the morale of the German armies on the western front collapsed in the autumn of 1918 before the steady blows of the allied armies, so the internal front crumbled when the German nation gave up the unequal struggle after four years of false hopes, privations, and social, economic, and moral decay. This collapse was all the more dramatic since the nation had entered upon the war with universal enthusiasm because of its belief that it had been attacked. From the Socialists who voted the war credits, to the Pan-Germans who joyously shouted, "Vae victis", the entire nation had united about the person of the last emperor to conquer a place in the world which would be worthy of Germany's imperial destiny.

Nazi propaganda later made the "stab in the back" (the theory that Germany had not been defeated in 1918 on the battlefield but had collapsed as a result of treason and weakness on the home front) an article of German faith, with the Fuehrer its leading proponent.Adolf Hitler would use the myth to encourage collaboration between his National Socialist Party (NSDAP) and the conservative elements of the National Party (DVNP). By perpetuating the myth and blaming individuals he labeled "Jewish-Marxist revolutionaries", Hitler further hardened a large sector of the German population against the Soviet Union.

In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote that "It required the whole bottomless falsehood of the Jews and their Marxist fighting organization to lay the blame for the collapse on that very man who alone, with superhuman energy and will power, tried to prevent the catastrophe he foresaw and save the nation from its time of deepest humiliation and disgrace .. branding Ludendorff as guilty for the loss of the World War ... ... If we pass all the causes of the German collapse in review, the ultimate and most decisive remains the failure to recognize the racial problem and especially the Jewish menace. The defeats on the battlefield in August, 1918, would have been child's play to bear. They stood in no proportion to the victories of our people. It was not they that caused our downfall; no, it was brought about by that power which prepared these defeats by systematically over many decades robbing our people of the political and moral instincts and forces which alone make nations capable and hence worthy of existence." Hitler echoed the anti-Semitic and anti-Communist rhetoric: "Kaiser William II was the first German Emperor to hold out a conciliatory hand to the leaders of Marxism, without suspecting that scoundrels have no honor. There is no making pacts with Jews; .... "

For the countries that lost the war, the carnage of the battlefield seemed a sacrifice made in vain, inexplicable except by insidious internal betrayal. The stab-in-the-back legend attributed the German and Austrian defeat in World War I to internal traitors working for foreign interests, primarily Jews and communists. The prominence of individual communists of Jewish descent in revolutionary regimes (Leon Trotsky in the Soviet Union, Béla Kun in Hungary, and Ernst Toller in Bavaria) confirmed to anti-semites the "natural" attraction of Jews and international communism. This legend was widely believed and deliberately disseminated by the defeated German military leadership, seeking to avoid personal consequences for their policies. Like other negative stereotypes about Jews, the stab-in-the-back legend was believed despite the fact that it was entirely untrue: German Jews had served in the German armed forces loyally and bravely. The prominence of the "stab in the back" myth is unquestioned, and its effect in undermining the Weimar Republic was significant.

Although imperialist and militaristic Germany was also utterly defeated militarily in the First World War of 1914-1918, the country was not then occupied by the victorious powers and was not split into two states with a different social structure; then there was also no Nuremberg and the main war criminals were not punished, were not sentenced to death. Although in 1918 the bloodless German army suffered a severe military and moral defeat, after the armistice it returned to its homeland from the occupied enemy countries, retaining overall order and organization; only in connection with this, of course, in the Weimar Republic and in the "Third Empire" could, moreover, with success, well-known legends about the preserved “brilliance of weapons”, about an army “not defeated by the enemy”, and the so-called legend about “stab in the back with a dagger” are being spread. With the help of these legends, the imperialists and militarists tried to absolve themselves of the blame for the defeat of Germany and shift the blame on the German working class.

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Page last modified: 02-06-2023 13:32:07 ZULU