The poisonous myth: Democratic Germany’s ‘stab in the back’ legend

Knowledge of the perilous condition of war front was kept secret from German people

1919: Germans take war machines apart outside Berlin. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles Germany was required to disarm. This tank is in fact a British tank, captured and put into service by the Germans. Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1919: Germans take war machines apart outside Berlin. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles Germany was required to disarm. This tank is in fact a British tank, captured and put into service by the Germans. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

“German economic life is to be annihilated . . . It amounts to the denial of the people’s right to existence.” (German foreign minister Count Brockdorff-Rantzau’s response to the draft peace treaty, May 1919.)

Germany lost the war. It is easy to lose sight of this basic fact. The peace treaties imposed by the victorious nations on Germany and its allies resulted from their defeat and capitulation.

The Treaty of Versailles, signed by Germany on June 28th, 1919 (the others being the treaties of St. Germain with Austria, Trianon with Hungary, Neuilly with Bulgaria, and Sèvres with Turkey), did not result from negotiations between equals, as some German politicians naively hoped.

In fact it flowed directly from the armistice of November 1918, a term that implied a temporary pause in fighting. Over the summer of 1918 Allied offensives were driving the German troops back through France and Belgium towards the German border; increasing numbers of German soldiers, with their combat officers, were surrendering en masse – a sure symptom of the army’s loss of cohesion. To German commanders it was becoming clear that defeat loomed large and imminent.

Strict censorship and the army’s daily false news bulletins meant that news of the armistice came as a shock

Armies, as organisations of violence based on values of bravery and endurance, find it hard to admit defeat. The more thoughtful German officers could read the signs by summer 1918, but the de facto commander-in-chief, General Eric Ludendorff, kept lying to the civilian government about non-existent victories, masses of reserves, and the great losses of the enemy.

Only on September 29th did Ludendorff finally admit to the army leadership that the war was lost. He demanded the formation of a new democratically-based government that must call for an “armistice”. If not the army would completely collapse.

Capitulation

The armistice that resulted was in reality a capitulation. It prefigured Versailles in every essential: all occupied territory and Alsace-Lorraine were to be returned to the Allies immediately; Germany had to surrender its heavy weapons, warships and U-boats, thousands of trucks and railway rolling-stock; it agreed to pay reparations; and the Allies would occupy the left bank and large zones on the right bank of the Rhine.

The army was thus rendered incapable of resuming the struggle, but in any case its disintegration was already in full swing as millions of soldiers took the first opportunity to cross the Rhine and go home.

However, knowledge of the perilous condition of the front had been kept secret from the German people. Strict censorship and the army’s daily false news bulletins meant that news of the armistice came as a shock.

1919: German soldiers destroying rifles in accordance with the requirement for Germany to disarm, as laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. Photograph: Three Lions/Getty Images
1919: German soldiers destroying rifles in accordance with the requirement for Germany to disarm, as laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. Photograph: Three Lions/Getty Images

This too was important to bear in mind. With minor exceptions in 1914, the war had not been fought on German territory. Unlike the devastation visited on its enemies, the German population was spared direct violence and destruction, and had the benefit of the exploitation of the resources of occupied northern France, Belgium, Poland, Serbia, Romania, northern Italy and the Ukraine, though most of that was enjoyed by the army. The German people had no “ocular proof” of defeat.

This cognitive dissonance produced the “repressed defeat”: the denial of the fact of the military debacle. German politicians colluded in this, against their better knowledge.

As one exhausted, tattered division returned to Berlin on December 10th, the Chancellor, leading social-democrat Friedrich Ebert, greeted the troops with the words: “No enemy has vanquished you.”

Ebert’s intention was understandable: to welcome troops home, thank them for their sacrifice, and try to ensure their loyalty to the weak new state. Unwittingly, however, he helped launch one of the two most poisonous myths in the history of democratic Germany: the “stab in the back” legend. For if the army had not been defeated in the field, someone must have betrayed it.

German armed forces

The other myth concerns the peace treaty, from which all Germany’s ills flowed, according to nationalists and later the Nazis. But what was the alternative?

1919: War & Peace

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No matter how “humiliated” German nationalists pretended to feel at the terms of the peace treaty, there was no way the German armed forces could resume fighting against the Allies. General Groener, first quartermaster-general, concluded on May 14th, 1919: “These reports [from generals in the west] made clear our total military impotence in a war against the west.”

In the days of high tension before the Allied ultimatum was due to expire, the German government unwisely subscribed to nationalist myth-making when chancellor Philipp Scheidemann announced: “May the hand wither that binds us in such shackles.”

The territorial and economic terms of the Treaty of Versailles were lenient by comparison with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

The majority of the German population agreed the treaty was harsh, but fatalistically accepted the need to sign since the alternative was invasion and the destruction of German towns and countryside.

Many generals, however, believed that the army should resist: it would be impossible to defend western Germany, but the army would ensure that “the kernel of the old Prussian state remained intact in the east”.

This was a romantic, self-destructive illusion. It would have meant the dismemberment of Germany, Groener warned, followed by “the total capitulation of the German people”. But even the foreign minister, the imperious Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, demanded rejection. He too expected Allied invasion, a catastrophe, but it would lead to mutiny among Allied troops, to revolutions, as in Russia, and thus produce a new world order in which Germany could re-write the script – another fantasy, another illusion.

The harsh reality was a “dictated peace”, as German nationalists never tired of claiming. In this case they were right: the Allies, as victors, dictated terms to the losers. But were the terms of the treaty really harsh? And to whom?

Expectations

On two counts – Germany’s expectations of its own victorious peace treaty and the comparison with other peace treaties of 1918-20 – Versailles was a moderate peace that allowed Germany considerable freedom to develop. The draconian peace Germany expected to impose if it had won the war – and did impose on Soviet Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 – entailed continued ruthless exploitation, occupation, annexation of territory, the extraction of reparations, and the establishment of a German-dominated continental European bloc.

The territorial and economic terms of the Treaty of Versailles were lenient by comparison: Brest-Litovsk deprived Russia of a third of its European land, the richest third. Hungary lost half its territory through Trianon. Germany lost 13 per cent of its area, with 10 per cent of its population. Most of these territories contained a majority who were not German (above all Poles and Danes) or did not want to be part of the Reich (Alsace-Lorraine). To the one million German refugees and expellees from Alsace-Lorraine and Poland, the treaty undoubtedly meant hardship and loss. Their integration was, incidentally, one of the unsung successes of the Weimar Republic.

A German cartoon from 1919 illustrates the bitterness many felt in Germany about the Treaty of Versailles and the reparations the country had to pay to the victorious Allies
A German cartoon from 1919 illustrates the bitterness many felt in Germany about the Treaty of Versailles and the reparations the country had to pay to the victorious Allies

Clearly any attempt to redraw the map of Europe along ethnic lines and reflect the new movements for national independence would create new perceived injustices: Poland, which had not existed as a state since the late 18th century, was promised its independence not only by the Allies but also by Germany; Versailles allocated West Prussia, with its German majority, to Poland to provide access to the sea, thus cutting off East Prussia from Germany. Germans formed a beleaguered minority in Poland; German speakers (who had never been German but rather Habsburg subjects) were to be found in the new Czechoslovakia, just as there were ethnic Germans in Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy and Romania. The potential to destabilise the weak new states in eastern Europe was not lost on the German foreign ministry, which assiduously cultivated links and secretly financed agitation in the inter-war years.

Conscription

Restricting the army to 100,000 men and banning conscription came as a relief to the vast majority of Germans: the predominant mood in the 1920s and even the 1930s was “never again war!” Objectively it was an infringement of German sovereignty, but given its neighbours’s fear of a revived, vengeful German militarism, it was understandable.

It angered that small minority of professional officers and violent militarists for whom war had become a way of life, for whom the military was a home and a refuge from the complex realities of peace, work, family and a democratic polity. Their refusal to accept the knowledge of defeat and to engage in mental demobilisation proved to be fatal to the political culture of the democratic republic.

Violent rhetoric by irresponsible nationalist politicians inflamed the mood. Long after 1919, Count Brockdorff-Rantzau repeatedly condemned the “rape of a people of 60 million”; Germany “would not allow its body to be torn to pieces”, and he accused Clemenceau of treating the German people like a dog under vivisection.

The anger of German politicians was directed above all at the “honour” paragraphs, articles 231 (which nationalists disingenuously depicted as the “sole German war guilt” article), and articles 227 to 230, which provided for the extradition of officers accused of committing war crimes to face trial.

After Hitler emerged from his lenient, short prison term and began to rebuild the Nazi party, the denunciation of Versailles featured as a constant element

Was the treaty a “humiliation”, as generations of schoolchildren have been led to believe? A career officer, his identity tied to the profession of violent nationalism, with a feudal sense of “honour”, who refused to accept the reality of military power, may have felt humiliation at the defeat. Army commanders, such as Hindenburg and Ludendorff, should have felt humiliated at having sent two million young Germans to be killed for no good cause, but there is no evidence that they felt any shame.

Three world powers

In economic terms the treaty in fact left Germany more industrialised than before (the lost territories being mainly agrarian), and Germany was still potentially the most powerful state in Europe. It took three world powers to defeat resurgent Germany in the second World War.

Reparation payments, for which article 231 provided the legal basis, were a real burden on the German economy. Rather, they can be considered as a form of international debt that most countries at the time carried, as they do today, and they were payable. Moreover, the post-war inflation which the government allowed to turn into hyperinflation effectively wiped out the state’s internal war debt. Even the restrictions on the German army amounted to a peace dividend, while France and Britain continued to shoulder a high level of military spending.

By 1928 the German economy had recovered from the war and the inflation; most Germans had settled in and accepted the Weimar Republic and the post-war world order. Reparations were being paid smoothly, and even the director of the Reichsbank, Hjalmar Schacht, who later served as Hitler’s finance minister, admitted that they were payable.

Yet a well-oiled campaign machine, secretly funded by the foreign ministry, manufactured propaganda inside and outside Germany to keep attacking the central planks of the peace treaty: reparations, “sole war guilt”, and the “German” minority question.

After Hitler emerged from his lenient, short prison term for high treason and began to rebuild the Nazi party, the denunciation of Versailles featured as a constant element. A Nazi attempt to mobilise public hatred of Versailles and Weimar democracy in a plebiscite against the Young Plan (which aimed to reschedule reparations) failed miserably in 1929, with 85 per cent of Germans showing no interest.

Violent rhetoric

Nevertheless the Nazis had established themselves as the most radical opponents of democracy and Versailles, prepared to use violent rhetoric and physical violence to challenge the “system”. A growing mass basis of angry young men soon made the Nazis the only party whose political goals coincided with those of the conservative establishment – the army, President Hindenburg and his camarilla, and traditional nationalists.

Destroying parliamentary democracy and the modern welfare state, coupled with rearmament and breaking the fetters of Versailles, were the common ground on which Hindenburg took the fatal decision to appoint Hitler as chancellor on January 30th, 1933.

Were the Allies therefore responsible for the rise of Hitler through the “flawed” Treaty of Versailles?

With the knowledge of hindsight, one could say the Allies devoted insufficient attention to enforcement, and made little attempt to understand German politics. In the 1920s, brave German pacifists informed the world about secret German rearmament, but the former Allies preferred not to intervene despite the obvious breach of the treaty.

From the viewpoint of German nationalists, almost any peace written by the victors was going to be unsatisfactory because it stood for defeat. A balanced view would be that the Allies did their best to recognise the realities of the new Europe and resolve conflicting interests.

The League of Nations, which emerged from the treaty, had more success than it is usually credited with in resolving conflict. Yet the new order, which offered Germany the chance of reintegration into the community of nations – Germany was allowed to join the league in 1926 – was never going to be acceptable to those who were bent on vengeance.

The decision-makers of 1919 can hardly be blamed for failing to predict the improbable rise of an Austrian deserter to the highest office in Germany.

Alan Kramer is professor of European history, Trinity College Dublin

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