The Stab in the Back: Hitler’s Explanation for Germany’s Loss in World War I

This post examines the hypothesis that Germany lost World War I (WWI), not through defeat on the battlefield, but because certain Germans actively undermined the war effort. That hypothesis is often called the stab-in-the-back legend (or myth). In German, it is the Dolchstoßlegende or Dolchstosslegende.

As detailed in another post, that hypothesis is relevant to discussions of the Jewish Holocaust. This post presents my understanding of that hypothesis and its critics. The post is subject to revision with further information and insight.

Key Issues

The stab-in-the-back story was most prominently initiated by former Field Marshal (and future German president) Paul von Hindenburg in testimony before Germany’s Parliamentary Committee on November 18, 1919, about one year after the Armistice that ended WWI. Hindenburg’s testimony included these words (emphasis in original):

The concern as to whether the homeland would remain resolute until the war was won, from this moment on, never left us. . . . [T]he secret intentional mutilation of the fleet and the army began . . . . The intentions of the command could no longer be executed. . . . An English general said with justice: “The German army was stabbed in the back.” . . . That is the general trajectory of the tragic development of the war for Germany, after a series of brilliant, unsurpassed successes on many fronts . . . .

Wikipedia traces that statement’s reference to backstabbing to a conversation between British General Neill Malcolm and German Field Marshal Erich Ludendorff earlier in the fall of 1919, and also to a Swiss newspaper article (December 17, 1918) summarizing previous newspaper articles by British General Frederick Maurice. Hindenburg’s concept, at any rate, was that actions by certain civilians had made it impossible for the army to continue its series of brilliant successes.

Hindenburg was partly correct: the German army had indeed enjoyed some major successes. Most recently, on March 3, 1918 Germany and Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, ratifying a Russian surrender of enormous territory to Germany and freeing up hundreds of thousands of German soldiers for transfer to the western front. But the consequent German surge in the west failed to achieve a dramatic breakthrough. Thenceforth the German military situation grew steadily more dismal. The Allies, enjoying increasingly superior numbers, resources, and command capabilities with the entrance of American troops and materiél (Nowowiejski, 2013), captured more than a quarter-million German soldiers within the first six weeks of the Hundred Days Offensive in late summer and early fall 1918 (Wasserstein, 2007) — although at enormous cost to both sides. In addition, influenza had killed up to a million German soldiers, and considerable numbers continued to surrender or desert (Doerr, 2002, p. 100). Maurice (1919, p. 218) cites numerous indicia of German military difficulty and near-defeat at the time of the Armistice.

Similarly, in an official German government report titled “The Causes of the German Collapse in 1918” (Lutz, 1934), German General Hermann von Kuhl provides his own report on “The Stab-in-the-Back Question” (pp. 132-175). (According to Wikipedia, Kuhl was one of Germany’s most competent officers and the author of numerous critically acclaimed essays on the war.) Kuhl (pp. 133-134) cites multiple factors leading up to the German defeat. These include the naval blockade, enemy propaganda, a shortage and exhaustion of troops, the entry of America on the side of the Allies, the collapse of Germany’s allies (i.e., Bulgaria, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary), military mistakes, problems in the command structure, and the loss of Romania as a source of fuel and oil.

And yet Hindenburg was also partly correct in implying that the German army was ready to fight on. It had not suffered conclusive defeat on the battlefield; it had not been driven back onto German territory; it still held substantial captured territory. Fears that German soldiers might break and flee wholesale seem to have been exaggerated. Scholars appear increasingly convinced that, right up until talk of the Armistice sapped morale, troops remained substantially (indeed, remarkably) resilient and committed to fight (Boff, 2014, p. 874; 2012, pp. 121-122; Zroka, 2014, p. 14; Bruendel, n.d.). This mentality may have been reinforced by propaganda suggesting that the Americans executed their war prisoners, making surrender seem unwise (see Martin, 1918). It appears that, while the army was deteriorating badly, the Allies and many German soldiers mistakenly believed it remained in decent fighting condition (Goemans, 2000, p. 314). Hence, following the cessation of hostilities, there were scenes like those described by Maurice (1919, pp. 217-218):

The reception of the German troops by the German people, their march into the German towns through triumphal arches and beflagged streets with their helmets crowned with laurels, and the insistent statements in Germany that the German armies had not been defeated, that the Armistice had been accepted to save bloodshed, and to put an end to the sufferings of the women and children aroused amazement and disgust in the victors.

Maurice’s disgust notwithstanding, those views were not per se false. The Armistice did prevent suffering and bloodshed, on both sides. And it is not as though the Allies were finding the war easy. Britain had informed France’s Marshal Foch that it would not be able to supply the manpower that Foch considered necessary for a “supreme effort” to defeat the Germans in spring 1919 (Lowry, 1999, p. 15). Thanks in part to interference by German artillery, the Allies were reportedly experiencing growing difficulties in keeping their front lines supplied, and in managing the semi-chaotic conditions of the territories they were liberating (Beach, 2013, pp. 318-319; Kuhl, 1934, p. 88). There was also a possibility of some reduction in combat during the winter of 1918-1919, potentially giving German forces several months to regroup (Boff, 2014, p. 874).

It appears to have been disingenuous of Hindenburg to suggest that unspecified others had derailed the German army. According to Doerr (2002, pp. 101-102), Paul von Hintze developed a scheme in which Hindenburg and Ludendorff, leaders of the German war effort, would persuade Kaiser Wilhelm to appoint a new, liberal chancellor. Such a chancellor would predictably seek a prompt end to the war. The military command, headed by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, would then reject the idea of peace talks, arguing that the army was prepared to fight on. Hindenburg et al. would lose that argument, and the war would be ended. Then the German public would blame the liberals for any unpopular aspects of the resulting armistice. Hintze’s plan worked: this is substantially what happened. Thus Hindenburg, blaming others for the decision to quit, seems to have been a key contributor to that decision.

Hindenburg (as quoted above) was partly correct in his “concern as to whether the homeland would remain resolute until the war was won.” There was indeed some irresolution. But the implicit claim that the war could be won was, again, disingenuous: he and Ludendorff had concluded, months earlier, that it could not, and had thus begun to seek an armistice (e.g., Deist, 2007, p. 299; Simonds, 1920, p. 322). One could hardly expect the homeland to remain resolute until victory, if no victory was expected.

Yet therein lies a quandary. Explanations of the stab-in-the-back story commonly emphasize a gap between the reality of recurrent battlefield defeats and the official government accounts of glowing victories (see Diehl, 1989, p. 397; Badsey, n.d.; Maurice, 1919, pp. 198-199). According to these explanations, members of the public were supposedly bamboozled into thinking that everything was going fine until the last minute, when all at once the reality of an armistice amounting to surrender was sprung upon them.

In their more extreme forms, such explanations do not seem plausible. Consider, for example, the rather fantastic language offered by Maurice (1919, pp. 198-199):

With rare skill the German Government and its military advisers had hitherto managed to obliterate the effect of their failure to obtain their chief aims by dazzling victories in secondary theatres of war. They had not succeeded in conquering France in 1914 according to plan, but this had been forgotten . . . . The conquest of Roumania had obliterated the memories of Verdun . . . . Now, however, there was no carrot to dangle in front of the donkey’s nose. . . . [T]he German people knew in October, 1918, that the victory which had been promised to them could never be obtained.

That is not very believable. Millions of German men had been coming home wounded or dead, over a span of several years, from a war that was still just grinding on, long after the early promises of quick victory. It is not likely that the German public had simply “forgotten” Verdun or the invasion of France, a hostile great power located immediately to the west. With this indication that the German people knew the army was defeated in October 1918, Maurice sheds light on his own statement (above) regarding the soldiers’ homecoming in November. Indeed, the public knew the situation two years earlier, as Watson (2014) reports:

The food shortages were . . . the decisive influence on the popular mood by the end of 1916. Weakness and hunger sapped strength and support for the war. . . . It was no coincidence that in December 1916 the German Chancellor made the Reich’s most sincere offer of peace yet to the Entente. . . . [I]t appeared highly questionable how long their war efforts would endure. Hindenburg and Ludendorff . . . were, however, set on a course of total and absolute victory.

Writing shortly after war’s end, Maurice (1919, p. 232) further predicted that, once the German troops returned home and began to tell the truth, the German people would see how badly they had been deceived. But that didn’t happen. Obvious propaganda notwithstanding, the entire German public did not conclude that it had been grossly deceived. It seems rather that the soldiers went home and, in some mix of truth and living up to their own legend, reported that they had not been ready to quit, much less to accept the abject surrender of land, materiél, and money that the Armistice demanded. Rather than conclude that the propaganda had been false and that the army had been soundly defeated, the public appears to have concluded that the propaganda overstated the possibility of victory, but that giving up was going too far to the opposite extreme.

As another example of implausible portrayals, consider Deist’s (2007, p. 311) rendition:

The sudden and chaotic collapse of a system hitherto opposed in principle only by a small political minority . . . prepared fertile ground for wild hypotheses and attempts at explanation, all of which served the purpose of suppressing or making tolerable the bitter and repugnant reality. The stab-in-the-back myth perfectly met this requirement. . . . At the very moment of defeat the formula was discovered which helped to obscure among large sections of the population the recognition of the causes of collapse.

That account is possible, but not too likely, not with its beliefs that large sections of the population formed an enduring attachment to “wild hypotheses” and that, miraculously, the stab-in-the-back hypothesis appeared at the moment when it was needed, and that all these people immediately seized on it to satisfy a psychological need for suppression of the truth.

What seems more likely is that the propaganda was fooling some, that many had more or less figured out the reality of the situation but considered it important to remain supportive of the war effort, and that reliable news was hard to find — but that, as the years (especially 1918) passed, there was a growing public sense that the war was ending, and that it should end. This reading is consistent with a variety of sources, including these:

  • The Grolier Society (1921, pp. 1307-1308) quotes Ludendorff as claiming, “[T]he homeland itself was completely under the influence of hostile propaganda and of speeches made by enemy statesmen [with] ever-increasing evidence of the creeping growth of Bolshevism” in summer 1918.
  • Mommsen (1990, p. 287) says that, in October 1918, “[G]reat numbers of the German people [were] weary and apathetic, longing for peace at any price . . . even at the price of dissolving the Reich.” Similarly, according to Doerr (2002, p. 103), “There can be little doubt that the majority of Germans, especially members of the working class, had lost confidence in the Imperial government by 1918.”
  • According to Welch (2000, p. 237), in mid-1918 the Berlin police warned that the public was unwilling to suffer another winter of war.
  • The government report cited above (Lutz, 1934, p. v) says, “[T]he gravity of the military situation on the Western front in the late summer of 1918 was understood by millions of thinking Germans.”
  • Ther (2014, p. 8) says this:

[I]t became increasingly evident that the war would not be “over by Christmas” . . . and the population began to doubt official propaganda . . . . [R]ecognition that promises of war propaganda were untrue contributed to the fact that attempts to instill war enthusiasm eventually fell on rather infertile ground. . . . [T]he most severe blow to the credibility of German war propaganda was the lack of military success.

Finally, Hindenburg was partly correct in his references to “secret intentional mutilation of the fleet and the army” and to impairment of military command. In support of this view, Kuhl’s report (Lutz, 1934) blames “[h]undreds of thousands of shirkers” who “gathered behind the front at the railway termini and in the larger towns” — who declined, that is, to rejoin their units at the front after returning from leave (p. 133), and “pacifist, international efforts, anti-militarism, vague ideas of international reconciliation and perpetual peace, and above all, the revolutionary undermining of the Army” (p. 134, emphasis in original).

I was not confident that hundreds of thousands of unattached soldiers would be able to remain indefinitely in the locations stated by Kuhl, without being rounded up and without running out of food. But in support of the point about revolutionary undermining of the Army, Kuhl (p. 136) cites several publications, each apparently offering numerous examples of activities that would seem to undermine support for the war effort. An illustration: one source reportedly says, “We at least in Munich wanted to start the revolution as early as January [1918].” In Wasserstein’s (2007) words,

The roots of the German revolution can be traced back to the grim winter of 1917/18. At that time Bolshevik hopes of avoiding an imposed peace were concentrated on the prospect of a revolution in Germany, home of the oldest and strongest Social Democratic Party in Europe and of a large and politically conscious proletariat. . . . With food, fuel, and clothing in short supply, the German working class became increasingly discontented. This mood was exploited by the Independent Socialist Party . . . . Mass strikes in many German cities in January 1918, demanding the Bolshevik formula of a ‘peace without annexations or indemnities’, were soon snuffed out by a firm government response. . . . [T]he deterioration of the military position in the summer and early autumn brought renewed unrest . . . . [On October 29, 1918] a naval mutiny broke out at Wilhelmshaven, quickly spreading to Kiel and other naval bases. The sailors’ basic demand was for peace. They were soon joined by shipyard workers. By 7 November virtually the entire fleet had mutinied. Meanwhile the spirit of revolt had infected the army.

And so forth, with unrest continuing into 1919. But Hindenburg seems to have had it backwards, when he attributed the German surrender to these elements. Rather, the antiwar movement did not really get traction until the army’s weakness became increasingly obvious.

Hitler (1925/1941, pp. 253-255) would later argue that German military morale had vastly improved with the defeat of Russia — but that, he said, was undermined by the munitions strike of January 1918. That strike, he said, discouraged the German troops and encouraged the Allies. Hitler was perhaps not the best judge of morale in that setting, given the seeming contrast between his own feelings and those of his fellow soldiers (e.g., Shirer, 1990, pp. 30-31). In any event, as noted above, morale was perhaps the least of the problems besetting the German army in mid- to late 1918.

November Criminals

By 1925, Hitler and others had begun to get some mileage from Hindenburg’s vague allusion (above) to a secret scheme to undermine the war effort. The general idea, held at that point by a substantial number of conservative Germans, was that political leftists (e.g., socialists, pacifists) had administered the “stab in the back,” ending Germany’s participation in the war, through various actions that were not in the best interests of the German nation (see Tucker, 2014, “Adolf Hitler” entry, p. 763). These actions included not only strikes and other signs of rebellion against Germany’s military leadership (above) but also certain measures taken by leading leftists upon gaining control of the government in late 1918. Those measures included Germany’s commitment to the harsh terms of the Armistice and the the Treaty of Versailles, along with other aspects of the country’s transition into what became known as the Weimar Republic of 1918-1933.

An unexplained appendix to Hitler’s (1925/1941, p. 558) Mein Kampf comments, “On this day was coined the phrase ‘November Criminals’ which since has become a by-word.” The date in question was January 11, 1923. The text does not make clear who inserted that comment. My search did not find any other indication of where or how the term originated. Whatever its origin, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the “November Criminals” were held most directly to blame for the stab in the back. Some appear to have considered Jews especially prominent if not controlling, both in the political left generally and among the November Criminals in particular.

The preceding section of this post has summarized the substantial and persuasive evidence that Germany could not, in fact, have “fought on to realize the victory that [in the conservative view] was hers” (Berkowitz, 2007, p.  15). There remains the question of whether the so-called November Criminals were acting in the best interests of Germany and its people, or were instead “traitors” (Hitler, 1922) guilty of selling out Germany, for the sake of their own interests or the interests of some other group or entity (e.g., world Jewry, international capital).

I did not find any authoritative statement (by e.g., Hitler) specifying the names of the November Criminals. Hitler did condemn various individuals — for example, he characterizes “Messrs. Ebert, Scheidemann, Barth, Liebknecht, etc.” as “shirkers” (1925/1941, p. 261) — but it is not clear how broadly he intended the “November Criminals” label to reach at that point. In other sources, individuals commonly associated with the Armistice, Versailles, and the transition to the Weimar Republic, and named in discussions of the November Criminals, include Walther Rathenau, Matthias Erzberger, Friedrich Ebert, and Philipp Scheidemann (see Barry, 2012, p. 74; Berkowitz, 2007, pp.  15-18). Vincent’s Historical Dictionary (1997, pp. 345-346) offers this definition:

NOVEMBER CRIMINALS (Novemberverbrecher); conceived by the antirepublican Right (the DNVP and other unrepentant monarchists), the term was first used to identify any German who had a hand in either the Armistice* or the Versailles Treaty,* but it was soon applied to those prepared to fulfill the terms of Versailles (e.g., Walther Rathenau* and Gustav Stresemann*). Linked to the Dolchstosslegende,* it cast an ominous shadow on the Weimar Constitution* and the existence of the Republic.

Although chief among the ‘‘November Criminals’’ were Matthias Erzberger,* Philipp Scheidemann,* and Friedrich Ebert,* anyone who gave immoderate support to the Republic could be tagged a Novemberverbrecher. While leading Party officials from the Weimar Coalition* were chiefly suspect, Theodor Wolff* (a newspaper editor) was the premier example of the nonpolitical Novemberverbrecher. From 1915 Wolff had attacked radical annexations in the pages of the Berliner Tageblatt; accordingly, he was cast increasingly in the 1920s as the traitor who had sabotaged national solidarity and had thereby subverted Germany’s war effort.

The NSDAP [i.e., Nazi Party] usurped ‘‘November Criminal’’ as a Party slogan. Applying it broadly to social, political, cultural, and economic issues, the Nazis ultimately turned it against anyone associated with the ‘‘Weimar system.’’

Vincent (p. 528) indicates that the Weimar Coalition was “a parliamentary alliance comprising the SPD, the DDP, and the Center Party” (below). Roughly speaking, then, it appears that a November Criminal was someone who had played a highly visible role in transitioning from the imperial to the republican system, or in running the Weimar Republic. The focus of the November Criminal accusation thus seems to be oriented toward the perceived initial sellout (in the Armistice and at Versailles) and the subsequent pursuit of what Hitler’s sympathizers considered an undesirable form of government. It goes without saying that the Nazis would be especially unhappy with November Criminals who also happened to be linked with Judaism. A companion post examines that issue.

Generally, the notion of a sellout at Versailles does not seem highly plausible. My reading, including sources cited in the preceding section, suggests that the Allies were planning to fight on into 1919, their confidence and capabilities growing with massive and continuing American inputs. Allied negotiators evidently found it easy to brush aside German attempts to negotiate terms of the Armistice. This is not surprising: Hindenburg and Ludendorff had failed to negotiate when Germany held a relatively strong position, waiting instead until “we didn’t have a thing left in our hand” (Schuker, 2014, p. 582; see Stevenson, 1991, p.  86). It appears that the Allied terms were shaped, not primarily by concerns as to what the German negotiators would accept, but rather by considerations of the desirable postwar order (e.g., Lowry, 1999, p. 136).

Under those circumstances, the question is not whether the November Criminals gave away the victory Hitler imagined. It is whether they failed to negotiate defeat effectively. Negotiation will obviously not be very effective if one does not believe in one’s own side — if, as seems to have been somewhat the case among the leftists representing Germany at the Armistice, there is considerable agreement with the Allied perspective. But negotiation will also not be very effective if Germany’s representative is a Hitler, more equipped with militaristic ideals than with an accurate and realistic sense of Germany’s fading ability to fight.

It seems that Germany might have been best represented, in Armistice negotiations, by someone who could convincingly mix pragmatism with an ability to jeopardize Allied interests. On the right end of the political spectrum, the extremely popular Hindenburg (see Goltz, 2009) might have made a believable claim that the German army could and would fight to the end, and on home territory would be supported by members of an armed public (see references to the levée en masse in Geyer, 2001, and Lutz, 1967, p. 128). It may have been feasible to project a credible willingness to drag out the fight past the winter (see Boff, 2014, p. 874).

Alternately, on the left, in a very different strategy spearheaded by a believable Bolshevik, Germany’s negotiators might have risked making sure that the Allies understood the true degree of present and potential upheaval in Germany — evoking, that is, an image of growing internal disorder, anticipating possibilities like the Spartacist revolt that did commence in Germany later that year, drawing Germany’s true believers into a guerrilla force willing to fight to the end, and generally presenting a Pandora’s box. Since the nation’s actual negotiators accomplished very little, it does seem that any negotiators of conviction, right or left, had some chance of achieving a more balanced cessation of hostilities.

Ultimately, the Armistice sellout was not what conservatives imagined. Following Hintze’s plan (above), it seems, Hindenburg and Ludendorff abandoned leadership of the war effort to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), knowing that the SPD would seek a prompt peace in order to avoid the risk of complete defeat (Lutz, 1967, p. 258). According to Doerr (2002, pp. 100-101), “These officers manipulated the politics of surrender,” by letting the SPD take the blame for the terms of the Armistice, in order to preserve the respected and “privileged position of the army in German society.”

In other words, Hindenburg et al. prioritized their niche over their country’s future. Some may have genuinely believed that the best interests of the military coincided with those of the country as a whole. But in terms of results achieved, in both the Armistice negotiations and the longer-term future, the path taken by Hindenburg et al. proved to be the real November sellout.

Failures of the Socialists

In the republic’s first elections, on January 19, 1919, the parties drawing more than 5% of the vote were the SPD (38%), Center Party (20%), German Democratic Party (DDP) (18%), German National People’s Party (DNVP) (10%), and Independent Social Democrats (USPD) (7%). According to the Bundestag (2006), the Center Party, representing Catholics, typically drew about 15% of the vote, incorporating a spectrum of positions from left to right. The DNVP favored a conservative monarchy, opposed both democracy and substantial aspects of the Treaty of Versailles, and became increasingly aligned with the Nazi party. Hence the Weimar Republic began as a substantially leftist enterprise: its Weimar Coalition (SPD, Center Party, and DDP) had 76% of the vote, and then there were the USPD and others to the left.

On the face of it, the leftists did not do too well. Without denying some successes, the Weimar Republic struggled throughout the 1920s, faded with the onset of the Great Depression, and died giving birth to dictatorship and the Nazi era in the early 1930s. The Bundestag (2006, p. 2) summarizes the SPD as initially being “the strongest political force” in Parliament while “arousing the hostility of Right and Left on account of its conciliatory approach,” dropping from nearly 40% of the vote in 1919 to less than 20% in 1933. Elsewhere on the left, the DDP nearly vanished during that period, dropping from its initial 18% to just 1% by the early 1930s. The Marxist USPD became fragmented, with its left wing merging into the Communist Party (KPD). The Communists were among the few leftist parties to grow during the Weimar era, reaching 13% of the vote in the 1930 elections before being completely eclipsed by the popularity of the Nazi party.

In short, Hitler said that the leftists did not offer what Germany wanted, and he demonstrated it, not only at the ballot box, but in a series of stunning successes upon gaining power — as if to make Yeats (1919) a predictor: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Being a moderate liberal in Weimar Germany may have been the right thing to do; it may have been the best thing that a reasonable person could do; and yet somehow, in the end, it failed. Even if one treats the Weimar Republic as a forerunner of modern democratic Germany, it did nonetheless lead to a colossal, world-class catastrophe: a Nazi regime whose horrors may still be remembered a thousand years from now.

That, however, is not precisely the question. Granting arguendo that aspects of Weimar government may have deserved something approaching Hitler’s disdain (although the better reading is surely that Weimar struggled to handle impossible challenges, see Diehl, 1989, p. 403), is there substantial evidence that those in power at the start — notably, the November Criminals named above — did stab Germany in the back, with actions at least as cynical and self-serving as those of Hindenburg?

The foregoing discussion demonstrates that there was not a single, glaring event, no Watergate or Hiroshima or Reichstag fire, to which all haters of the November Criminals could point and say, This! This is exactly what we’re talking about! There was the Armistice, of course, and Versailles — but then, what can you expect? Germany had lost the war. Yes, the negotiations could perhaps have been pursued more shrewdly. But as noted above, Germany got a bad deal because it had put itself in a bad position, remaining too long in the war, due to trust that Hindenburg and other war leaders and propagandists did not deserve.

Weimar’s predominantly leftist leaders made the best of a bad situation where the Treaty of Versailles was concerned — dodging the reparations obligation, evading some of the disarmament provisions, disavowing border settlements. But none of this earned much credit in the Nazi camp. Nor, evidently, was the general public satisfied. The accusation against the November Criminals remained focused on the initial termination of the war without victory; the rest of the decade’s floundering seems to have been taken, increasingly, as evidence supporting the Nazis’ perception that the various leftist leaders didn’t belong in power in the first place.

In a sense, one could conclude that the Nazis were right about that. Hitler’s words, and his leadership in World War II, suggest that if the Nazi party had existed and had replaced Hindenburg in 1918, there would indeed have been a fight to the finish in 1919. Then the Nazis would have been the party drawing calumny for leading the nation to its destruction; then the subsequent rule by leftists would have unfolded without much public interest in what Hitler had to say. It is as if Germany had to get that out of its system. That would have been much more easily and affordably achieved in 1918-1919 than it was in the WWII era: the end was already quite near.

While the leftist leaders of 1918-1919 set themselves up as a foil for Nazi propaganda throughout the Weimar era, they do seem at least to have bought the nation time to decide against communism. The drift toward Hitler was surely aided by disillusionment with the new Soviet Union — with, for example, Wikipedia‘s remarks that the USSR’s “first Five Year Plan [1928-1933] was extremely harsh on industrial workers, quotas were difficult to fulfill, requiring that miners put in 16 to 18-hour workdays. Failure to fulfill quotas could result in treason charges” and that agricultural “collectivization led to a catastrophic drop in farm productivity . . . . Not until the 1980s would Soviet livestock numbers return to their 1928 level.”


This post has looked at the claim that Germany was stabbed in the back by leftist leaders who committed Germany to a very bad settlement of World War I, in the Armistice and then in the Treaty of Versailles, and who proceeded to take Germany down the wrong path in the Weimar Republic. It appears that the Armistice, substantially binding Germany to the worst of the terms later formalized and detailed at Versailles, may have been poorly negotiated, by leftists who could not and would not put up a convincing alternative to the capitulation demanded by the Allies. But it also appears that the blame for that belongs primarily to the wartime leaders on the right, who failed to negotiate a peace when Germany was in a strong position — and who declined, moreover, to retain negotiating responsibility when they, however weakened, may still have been the best negotiators on Germany’s behalf. As such, the wartime leaders appear to have contributed to the already daunting challenges that would have faced any wartime regime.

The Weimar Republic appears to have functioned as a properly working democracy, and yet to have failed to surmount its challenges. Hence the military leadership appears to have calculated correctly: the center-left parties dominating the political landscape at war’s end discredited themselves in their failed attempt to lead the country into better times. The far left was meanwhile being discredited by the example of the Soviet Union. In Versailles, Weimar, and Moscow, the Nazis found powerful evidence that Germany’s future properly lay on the right end of the political spectrum. The November Armistice does not seem to have entailed actual criminality on the left; the “November Criminals” and “stab in the back” labels appear to have been distortions, and to have placed the blame on those who were not primarily responsible for the condition in which Germany found itself circa 1919.

One response to “The Stab in the Back: Hitler’s Explanation for Germany’s Loss in World War I

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