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An illustration from an 1919 Austrian postcard showing a caricatured Jew stabbing the German Army in the back. Along with Socialists, Bolsheviks, the Weimar Republic and the general German populace, Jews were frequently blamed for the defeat of Germany in World War I.
A 1924 right-wing German political cartoon showing Philipp Scheidemann, the German Social Democratic politician who proclaimed the Weimar Republic and was its second Chancellor, and Matthias Erzberger, an anti-war politician from the Centre Party, who signed the armistice with the Allies, as stabbing the German Army in the back. It translates, "Germans, consider this!"

The Stab-in-the-Back Legend (German: About this sound Dolchstoßlegende , literally "Dagger stab legend") was a social theory popular in Germany in the period after World War I and before World War II, which attributed Germany's losing the war not to its inability to continue fighting, but to the public's failure to respond to its "patriotic calling" and the intentional sabotaging of the war effort, particularly by Jews, Socialists and Bolsheviks. The legend echoes the epic poem Nibelungenlied; in which the dragon-slaying hero Siegfried is stabbed in the back by Hagen von Tronje.

Der Dolchstoß is cited as an important factor in Adolf Hitler's later rise to power, as the Nazi Party grew its original political base largely from embittered World War I veterans, and those who were sympathetic to the Dolchstoß interpretation of Germany's then-recent history. Hence in Der Dolchstoß is an encapsulation of most of what would become Nazi Germany's ideology regarding the persecution and murder of Jews, Communists, Socialists, intellectuals, and German dissidents.



Views of the war, Spirit of 1914

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 appeared to erase many of the political divisions that had existed in German Imperial society previously; jubilant crowds of all social, political and religious groups gathered to hear the news of the War and a strong wave of euphoria known to historians as the Spirit of 1914 took hold in the midst of public celebration. National pride showed its potential as a force of cohesion and there was a belief in a new age; but there was general ignorance of the horrors of war which resulted in the expectation of a quick and relatively bloodless victory.

Many were under the impression that the Triple Entente had ushered in the war, and as such saw the war as one in which Germany's cause was morally justified. Imperial Russia was seen to have expansionist, Pan-Slavic ambitions and France's dissatisfaction due to the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War was widely known. Later, many were shocked to learn that Great Britain had declared war on Germany; the Germans felt that Britain was using the Belgian neutrality issue to enter the war and neutralise a Germany that was threatening its own foreign imperial commercial interests.

As the war progressed, illusions of an easy victory were smashed, and Germans began to suffer tremendously from what would become a long and enormously costly war. With the initial euphoria gone, old divisions resurfaced. Nationalist loyalties came into question once again as initial enthusiasms subsided. Subsequently, suspicion of Catholics, Social Democrats and especially of Jews grew. There was a considerable amount of political tension prior to the War, aided by the growing presence of Social Democrats in the Reichstag. This was a great concern for aristocrats in power and the military; this contingent was particularly successful in denying Erich Ludendorff the funds for the German Army that he claimed were necessary.


On November 1, 1916, the German Military High Command administered the Judenzählung (German for "Jewish Census"). It was designed to explore allegations of the lack of patriotism among German Jews, but the results of the census disproved the accusations and were not made public.[1][2] A number of German Jews viewed the Great War as an opportunity to prove their commitment to the German homeland.

Civil unrest and allegations of profiteering

Those who were profiting from the war were also subject to criticism. Krupp, the steel manufacturer company, actively marketed and sold arms to potential combatants, playing one against the other — an extremely profitable practice. Individual interests took precedence in other sectors. As administrators intervened in the wartime economy by introducing price ceilings and other measures, producers often responded by switching goods, which created shortages. This led to great tensions between the cities and the countryside and, more importantly, exacerbated hardships and bred discord. By 1917, labour strikes had become common across Germany, and the industrial workers who took part in these events were also looked upon with scorn. By 1917, there were roughly five hundred strikes across Germany, resulting in over 2,000,000 total work hours lost.

Civil disorder grew as a result of increased poverty. While it is true that production slumped during the crucial years of 1917 and 1918, the nation had maximized its war effort. Despite its overwhelming individual power, Germany's industrial might and population were matched by the Entente as a whole. Russia's exit in late 1917 did little to change the overall picture, as the United States had already joined the War on April 6 of that same year. U.S. industrial capacity alone outweighed that of Germany.

Allied propaganda

In his memoirs, Erich Ludendorff consistently points out that the Hohenzollern leadership failed to acknowledge the power of Allied propaganda and conduct a successful campaign of its own. British and U.S. presses were particularly successful with their leaflet and tabloid campaign. With their help, the view that the German autocracy was an exporter of "Prussian militarism" and also guilty of crimes against humanity even resonated within German society. After Russia's February Revolution, all members of the Entente had nominally democratic governments. The claimed contrast between the "free world" that wanted peace versus the "barbaric" autocratic-led Germany that supposedly wanted war became a frequent theme.

Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points were particularly popular among the German people. Socialists and liberals, especially the Social Democrats that formed the majority of the parliamentary body, were already known as advocates of social change prior to 1914. When peace and full restoration were promised by the Allies, patriotic enthusiasm began to wane. Likewise, Germany's allies began to question the cause for the war, and found their questions answered in the Allied propaganda.

When the Armistice finally came in 1918, Ludendorff's prophecy appeared accurate almost immediately; although the fighting had ended, the British maintained their blockade of the European continent for a full year, causing severe malnutrition and mass starvation throughout Germany. Upwards of 1,000,000 people died from British blockade after the peace was made. This coincided with the gutting of the German military leaving no hope for a physical response. The non-negotiable peace agreed to by Weimar politicians in the Treaty of Versailles was certainly not what the German peace-seeking populace had expected.

The Treaty of Versailles

As a result of the Treaty, Germany's territory was reduced by about 13%, the Rhineland was demilitarized and Allied troops occupied several areas. There were also enormous war reparations to be paid over a period of 70 years, although they ended in 1931. The most important aspect of the Treaty relating to the Dolchstoßlegende was the War Guilt Clause, which forced Germany to accept complete responsibility for the hostilities and the Treaty was enormously unpopular in Germany. The Dolchstoßlegende was the accepted antithesis of the War Guilt Clause, as the latter was in stark contrast to what the population found to be factual.

Post-war reactions and reflections

"12,000 Jewish soldiers died on the field of honor for the fatherland." A leaflet published in 1920 by German Jewish veterans in response to accusations of the lack of patriotism

Conservatives, nationalists and ex-military leaders began to speak critically about the peace and Weimar politicians, socialists, communists, and Jews were viewed with suspicion due to presumed extra-national loyalties. It was claimed that they had not supported the war and had played a role in selling out Germany to its enemies. These November Criminals, or those who seemed to benefit from the newly formed Weimar Republic, were seen to have "stabbed them in the back" on the home front, by either criticizing German nationalism, instigating unrest and strikes in the critical military industries or profiteering. In essence the accusation was that the accused committed treason against the "benevolent and righteous" common cause. These theories were given credence by the fact that when Germany surrendered in November 1918, its armies were still in French and Belgian territory, Berlin remained 450 miles from the nearest front, and the German armies retired from the field of battle in good order.

The Allies had been amply resupplied by the United States, which also had fresh armies ready for combat, but Britain and France were too war-weary to contemplate an invasion of Germany with its unknown consequences. On the Western Front, no Allied army had penetrated the western German frontier, and on the Eastern Front, Germany had already won the war against Russia, concluded with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the West, Germany had come close to winning the war with the Spring Offensive. Contributing to the Dolchstoßlegende, its failure was blamed on strikes in the arms industry at a critical moment of the offensive, leaving soldiers without an adequate supply of materiel. The strikes were seen to be instigated by treasonous elements, with the Jews taking most of the blame. This overlooked Germany's strategic position and ignored how the efforts of individuals were somewhat marginalized on the front, since the belligerents were engaged in a new kind of war. The industrialization of war had dehumanized the process, and made possible a new kind of defeat which the Germans suffered as a total war emerged.

The weakness of Germany's strategic position was exacerbated by the rapid collapse of other central powers in late 1918, following Allied victories on the Eastern and Italian fronts. Bulgaria was the first to sign an armistice on September 29, 1918 at Saloniki.[3] On October 30 the Ottoman Empire capitulated at Mudros.[3] On November 3 Austria-Hungary sent a flag of truce to ask for an Armistice. The terms, arranged by telegraph with the Allied Authorities in Paris, were communicated to the Austrian commander and accepted. The Armistice with Austria-Hungary was signed in the Villa Giusti, near Padua, on November 3. Austria and Hungary signed separate armistices following the overthrow of the Habsburg monarchy.

Nevertheless, the idea of domestic betrayal resonated among its audience, and its claims would provide some basis for public support for the emerging National Socialist Party, under an autocratic form of nationalism. Anti Jewish sentiment was intensified by the Bavarian Soviet Republic, a Communist government which ruled the city of Munich for two weeks before being crushed by the Freikorps militia. Many of the Bavarian Soviet Republic's leaders were Jewish, allowing anti-Jewish propagandists to connect Jews with Communism (and thus treason).


Friedrich Ebert (shown in 1923) contributed to the myth when as provisional president of the Weimar Republic he told returning veterans in 1919 that "no enemy has vanquished you" on the field of battle.

In the latter part of the War, Germany was practically a military dictatorship, with the Supreme High Command (German: OHL, "Oberste Heeresleitung") and General Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg as commander-in-chief advising the Kaiser. After the last German offensive on the Western Front failed in 1918, the war effort was doomed. In response, OHL arranged for a rapid change to a civilian government. General Ludendorff, Germany's Chief of Staff, said:

I have asked His Excellency to now bring those circles to power which we have to thank for coming so far. We will therefore now bring those gentlemen into the ministries. They can now make the peace which has to be made. They can eat the broth which they have prepared for us!

On November 11, 1918, the representatives of the newly formed Weimar Republic signed an armistice with the Allies which would end World War I. The subsequent Treaty of Versailles led to further territorial and financial losses. As the Kaiser had been forced to abdicate and the military relinquished executive power, it was the temporary "civilian government" that sued for peace - the signature on the document was of Matthias Erzberger, a civilian, who was later murdered for his alleged treason; this led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

The official birth of the term "stab-in-the back" itself possibly can be dated to mid-1919, when Ludendorff was having lunch with British general Sir Neil Malcolm. Malcolm asked Ludendorff why it was that he thought Germany lost the war. Ludendorff replied with his list of excuses: the home front failed us, etc. Then Sir Neil Malcolm said that "it sounds like you were stabbed in the back, then?" The phrase was to Ludendorff's liking, and he let it be known among the general staff that this was the 'official' version, then disseminated throughout German society. This was picked up by right-wing political factions and used as a form of attack against the SPD-led early Weimar government, which had come to power in the German Revolution of November 1918.

In 1919 Deutschvölkischer Schutz und Trutzbund leader Alfred Roth, writing under the pseudonym Otto Arnim, published the book The Jew in the Army which he said was based on evidence gathered during his participation on the Judenzählung. Roth's work claimed that most Jews involved in the war were only taking part as profiteers and spies, whilst he also blamed Jewish officers on fostering a defeatist mentality which impacted negatively on their soldiers. As such the book offered one of the earliest published versions of the Stab-in-the-back legend.[4]

In November 1919, the newly elected Weimar National Assembly initiated a Untersuchungsausschuß für Schuldfragen to investigate the causes of the World War and Germany's defeat. On November 18, von Hindenburg testified in front of this parliamentary commission, and cited a December 17, 1918 Neue Zürcher Zeitung article that summarized two earlier articles in the Daily Mail by British General Frederick Barton Maurice with the phrase that the German army had been 'dagger-stabbed from behind by the civilian populace' ("von der Zivilbevölkerung von hinten erdolcht."). (Maurice later disavowed having used the term himself.). It was particularly this testimony of Hindenburg that led to the wide spread of the Dolchstoßlegende in post-WWI Germany.

Richard Steigmann-Gall says that the stab-in-the-back legend traces back to a sermon preached on February 3, 1918, by Protestant Court Chaplain Bruno Doehring, six months before the war had even ended.[5] German scholar Boris Barth, in contrast to Steigmann-Gall, implies that Doehring did not actually use the term, but spoke only of 'betrayal'.[6] Barth traces the first documented use to a centrist political meeting in the Munich Löwenbräu-Keller on November 2, 1918, in which Ernst Müller-Meiningen, a member of the Progressive coalition in the Reichstag, used the term to exhort his listeners to keep fighting:

As long as the front holds, we damned well have the duty to hold out in the homeland. We would have to be ashamed of ourselves in front of our children and grandchildren if we attacked the battle front from the rear and gave it a dagger-stab. (wenn wir der Front in den Rücken fielen und ihr den Dolchstoss versetzten.)

Barth also shows that the term was primarily popularized by the patriotic German newspaper Deutsche Tageszeitung that repeatedly quoted the Neue Zürcher article after Hindenburg had referred to it in front of the parliamentary inquiry commission.

Charges of a Jewish conspirational element in Germany's defeat drew heavily upon figures like Kurt Eisner, a Berlin-born German Jew who lived in Munich. He had written about the illegal nature of the war from 1916 onward, and he also had a large hand in the Munich revolution until he was assassinated in February 1919. The Weimar Republic under Friedrich Ebert violently suppressed workers' uprisings with the help of Gustav Noske and Reichswehr General Groener, and tolerated the paramilitary Freikorps forming all across Germany. In spite of such tolerance, the Republic's legitimacy was constantly attacked with claims such as the stab-in-the-back. Many of its representatives such as Matthias Erzberger and Walther Rathenau were assassinated, and the leaders were branded as "criminals" and Jews by the right-wing press dominated by Alfred Hugenberg.

German historian Friedrich Meinecke already attempted to trace the roots of the term in a June 11, 1922, article in the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse. In the 1924 national election, the Munich cultural journal Süddeutsche Monatshefte published a series of articles blaming the SPD and trade unions for Germany's defeat in World War I, which came out during the trial of Adolf Hitler and Ludendorff for high treason following the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The editor of an SPD newspaper sued the journal for defamation, giving rise to what is known as the Munich Dolchstossprozess from October 19 to November 20, 1924. Many prominent figures testified in that trial, including members of the parliamentary committee investigating the reasons for the defeat, so some of its results were made public long before the publication of the committee report in 1928.

The Dolchstoß was a central image in propaganda produced by the many right-wing and traditionally conservative political parties that sprang up in the early days of the Weimar Republic, including Hitler's NSDAP. For Hitler himself, this explanatory model for World War I was of crucial personal importance. He had learned of Germany's defeat while being treated for temporary blindness following a gas attack on the front. In Mein Kampf, he described a vision at this time which drove him to enter politics. Throughout his career, he railed against the "November criminals" of 1918, who had stabbed the German Army in the back.

Even provisional President Friedrich Ebert contributed to the myth when he saluted returning veterans with the oration that "no enemy has vanquished you" (kein Feind hat euch überwunden!) and "they returned undefeated from the battlefield (sie sind vom Schlachtfeld unbesiegt zurückgekehrt)" on November 10, 1918. The latter quote was shortened to im Felde unbesiegt as a semi-official slogan of the Reichswehr. Ebert had meant these sayings as a tribute to the German soldier, but it only contributed to the prevailing feeling.

Use in American context

In June 2006, in an article published in Harper's Magazine, journalist Kevin Baker extended the use of the phrase and applied it to the right-wing in politics in the United States:

Every state must have its enemies. Great powers must have especially monstrous foes. Above all, these foes must arise from within, for national pride does not admit that a great nation can be defeated by any outside force. That is why, though its origins are elsewhere, the stab in the back has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism. Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.[7]

Baker claims that the American right-wing has invoked the stab-in-the-back myth on numerous occasions, most recently in the War in Iraq, but also notably at the end of the Vietnam War as well, when the homefront anti-war movement and their sympathizers in the mass media were frequently blamed for the U.S. losing the will to win the war. An early version of the stab-in-the-back theory in American politics was the "Loss of China thesis", which accused the Truman administration and the State Department of willfully allowing the victory of Mao Zedong's Communists in the Chinese Civil War.

See also



  • Joseph A. Fry, Debating Vietnam: Fulbright, Stennis, and Their Senate Hearings. Rowman & Littlefield: 2006 Pp. 74–75.
  • Baker, Kevin "Stabbed in the Back! The past and future of a right-wing myth" Harper's Magazine, June 2006
  • Chickering, Rodger, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2004
  • Feldman, Gerald D., Die Massenbewegungen der Arbeiterschaft in Deutschland am Ende des Ersten Weltkrieges 1917-1920 Politische Vierteljahrschrift: 1972
  • Fleming, Thomas J., The New Dealers' War: FDR and the War Within World War II New York, Basic Books: 2001
  • "OSS Psychological Profile of Hitler, Part Five"
  • Schivelbusch,Wolfgang (trans. Jefferson Chase), The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery. New York, Picador: 2001
  • Spielvogel, Jackson J., Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History. New Jersey, Prentice Hall: 2001
  • Steninger, Rolf, The German Question: The Stalin Note of 1952 and the Problem of Reunification. New York, Columbia University: 1990. ISBN 0-231-07216-3


  1. ^ "Deutsche Jüdische Soldaten” Bavarian National Exhibition
  2. ^ "In October 1916, when almost three thousand Jews had already died on the battlefield and more than seven thousand had been decorated, War Minister Wild von Hohenborn saw fit to sanction the growing prejudices. He ordered a "Jew census" in the army to determine the actual number of Jews on the front lines as opposed to those serving in the rear. Ignoring protests in the Reichstag and the press, he proceeded with his head count. The results were not made public, ostensibly to "spare Jewish feelings." The truth was that the census disproved the accusations: 80 percent served on the front lines." (Elon, Amos (2002): The Pity of It All. Metropolitan Books. p.338. Jews, in fact, enlisted at a higher percentage than non-Jews, served in combat units at a higher percentage, and died at a higher percentage. The Judenzählung has since served as an example of how researchers must accept the results of their work even if the results do not support the researchers' hypothesis.
  3. ^ a b "1918 Timeline".  
  4. ^ Richard S. Levy, Antisemitism, 2005, pp. 623-4
  5. ^ Richard Steigmann–Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 16
  6. ^ Boris Barth, Dolchstosslegenden und politische Disintegration: Das Trauma der deutschen Niederlage im Ersten Weltkrieg, 1914-1933 (Düsseldorf: Droste, 2003), 167 and 340f. Barth says Doehring was an army chaplain, not a court chaplain. The following references to Barth are on pages 148 (Müller-Meiningen), and 324 (NZZ article, with a discussion of the Ludendorff-Malcolm conversation).
  7. ^ Kevin Baker, "Stabbed in the Back! The past and future of a right-wing myth", Harper's Magazine, June 2006

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