Magazine title from 1924, example of a propaganda illustration in support of the legend
On November 11, 1918, the civilian representatives of the newly formed Weimar Republic of Germany signed an armistice with the Allies which would end World War I. The war itself had killed 1,770,000 German soldiers and 760,000 German civilians and devastated the economy. The subsequent Treaty of Versailles led to further territorial and financial losses. People were looking for a scapegoat, and the German military found it in communists, republican politicians and "international Jewry", together called the "November criminals". They, the commanders alleged, had "stabbed them in the back" on the home front. This Dolchsto▀legende, literally dagger-blow legend, would play an important role in inter-war Germany.
In the latter part of the war, Germany was practically governed as 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 Emperor. After the last German offensive on the western front failed in 1918, the German war effort was doomed. In response, OHL arranged for a rapid change to a civilian government. General Erich 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 soup which they have prepared for us!"
As the Emperor had been forced to abdicate and the military relinquished executive power, it was then the temporary, civilian government which "had to" sue for peace. This led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Even though they publicly despised the treaty, it was most convenient for the generals - there were no war crime tribunals, they were celebrated as undefeated heroes, and they could covertly prepare for removing the republic which they had helped to create.
Indeed, in 1919 the Reichswehr (National Militia) already began "educating" an impressionable Adolf Hitler about the causes of the war and the defeat, firmly placing the Dolchsto▀legende in his mind; it was Ludendorff who would lead the unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch on November 8, 1923 together with Hitler; it was the Reichswehr which provided early funding to the Nazi Party; and it was an 85-year-old Paul von Hindenburg who would appoint Hitler as chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.
The official birth of the legend can be dated to November 1919, when Hindenburg attempted to exonerate himself and the German army as a whole by placing blame specifically on a Dolchsto▀ by troops stationed within Germany who joined soldiers' and sailors' unions during the Spartacist uprisings. The term "November criminals" refers both to the statesmen who signed the Treaty of Versailles and to a vast Jewish-Marxist conspiracy that was often interpereted as including Germans who were not considered sufficiently patriotic or militaristic. It was also applied to those who participated in the revolution that overthrew the imperial government and instituted the Weimar Republic.
Since no Allied soldiers had stepped foot on German soil, many who believed in the utter invincibility of the army asserted that the statesmen who had signed the Treaty of Versailles were traitors, and that victory would have eventually come otherwise. As a result of the treaty, Germany's territory was reduced, the Rhineland was demilitarized and Allied troops were to patrol the area. There were also war reparations to be paid. From a propaganda perspective, perhaps the most important aspect of the treaty was the War Guilt Clause, which forced Germany to accept complete responsibility for the war.
The treaty became enormously unpopular in Germany, in no small part because it impinged extensively on internal German affairs. However, the Allies were willing to gradually scale down the treaty in the coming years to counter the anti-capitalist Soviet Union. Moreover, the Weimar Republic under Friedrich Ebert violently suppressed workers' uprisings with the help of the Reichswehr and tolerated the terror of the paramilitary Freikorps forming all across Germany. In spite or because of this tolerance of the extreme right, the republic was viciously attacked, many of its representatives such as Walther Rathenau were assassinated, and the leaders were branded as "criminals" and Jews by the right-wing press dominated by Alfred Hugenberg.
The well-funded Dolchsto▀ propaganda managed to conceal the key facts about the armistice and the Weimar Republic, so the meme of the stab in the back would prove to be highly effective in building a strong nationalist movement in Germany. Its emotional effectiveness stemmed from the manner in which it addressed the anger and confusion felt not only by the average German, but also by soldiers returning from the front. Many of these men, feeling detached from civilian society as a whole because of their experiences at the front, were only too willing to join the Freikorps to exact some sort of revenge. Latent anti-Semitism, intensified by the Jewish dominance of the short-lived Munich Soviet Republic, could be easily exploited and built upon to create a powerful ideology of racism.
As such, the Dolchsto▀ quickly became a central image in propaganda produced by the many right-wing and traditionally conservative political parties that sprung up in the early days of the Weimar Republic, including Hitler's NSDAP. For Hitler himself, having an 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. He alleged to have had a vision at this time which drove him to enter politics and "redress these dreadful wrongs," (Spielvogel) "liberate the Germans from their bondage and make Germany great." Throughout his career he successfully railed against the "November criminals".
"Stab in the back" outside of Weimar Germany
Due to the highly potent imagery of a "stab in the back", and the common perception amongst political conservatives that politically hostile homefronts defeat otherwise winnable wars, the stab in the back legend is a common legend in a number of modern societies. In particular, the stab in the back legend is often used by conservatives to explain the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam war. In the context of the US involvement in the Vietnam War the stab in the back legend is part of the Vietnam Syndrome complex.
- Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History. New Jersey, Prentice Hall: 2001.
- OSS Psychological Profile of Hitler, Part Five (http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/h/hitler-adolf/oss-papers/text/oss-profile-05-04.html)