Jeffrey Herf, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, recently wrote in The Washington Post that President Trump’s refusal to accept the election results is reminiscent of the “stabbed in the back” narrative that arose in Germany post-World War I and fueled the rise of the Nazis.
His efforts to deny the reality of defeat and threaten democracy recall the most famous comparable episode in modern European history — the claims by the German military and diplomatic establishment that Germany had not been defeated militarily in World War I. Instead, they argued, Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by liberals, socialists, communists and Jews who somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
This falsehood — in German, it had the name Dolchstosslegende — did not begin with Adolf Hitler, but he and the Nazis made good use of it when they attacked the leaders of the Weimar Republic as “November criminals” because they signed the armistice with the victorious Allies in the fall of 1918.
Herf wrote that the “Dolchstosslegende played a significant role in the destruction of the first German democracy,” and given Trump and Republicans’ behavior surrounding the 2020 election, it is timely to recall.
Today, as Trump and, even more perniciously, Republican officials and voices in the conservative media amplify the lie that Trump’s rightful victory was “stolen” from him, we should revisit the roots of the German denial of the country’s defeat at the end of World War I to understand just how dangerous Trump’s actions are in this moment.
Historians agree that “Imperial Germany bore responsibility for escalating a conflict in the Balkans into a Europe-wide war,” Herf wrote. They refused to relent, even as the quick victory they anticipated failed to take shape and the German army lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
That year, a coalition of liberals, social democrats and the Catholic Center Party emerged in the German parliament, the Reichstag, to urge Kaiser Wilhelm II and the military leadership of Gens. Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff to negotiate a compromise peace. They urged leaders to reject calls for unlimited submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean and to abandon plans for further offensives on Germany’s Western Front.
Those pleas were rejected, and Wilhelm and the military leaders sent the German submarine fleet into the merchant shipping lanes of the Atlantic, ultimately drawing the United States into the war.
Still, Germany soldiered on, until it soon became clear that the war would soon reach Germany itself. “Yet, despite this unfolding catastrophe, the hard core of the German army in France did not break,” Herf wrote.
There was no stab in the back. The war was being lost because of the superiority of the Allied military and the refusal of the German leadership to accept a compromise peace in 1916 or the following year.
At the end of September 1918, Ludendorff realized that the war was lost and that its continuation would serve only to bring it home to Germany itself. He and Hindenburg pushed for the establishment of a parliamentary government. Ludendorff’s call for a “revolution from above,” though, did not stem from an epiphany about the virtues of democracy.
Rather, he wanted those civilian leaders to bear the consequences of the war that the Kaiser and the military leadership had unleashed, escalated and refused to settle with an earlier compromise peace. The future leaders of Germany’s first democracy would become his scapegoats — figures who could be blamed for the disaster he, Hindenburg and others had wrought.
This was one origin of the stab-in-the-back legend, Herf wrote. And “The fact that the German army remained in trenches in France when the truce was finally announced in November nourished the illusions of soldiers — including Hitler and other early members of the Nazi Party — that the war had not, in fact, been lost on the battlefield.”
Even though the German monarchy ended and the first democratic government in German history was in the works, “the stab-in-the-back legend was the parting shot of the authoritarian regime that sought to shift blame for the lost war from those who had waged it onto liberals, social democrats, radical leftists and, of course, Germany’s very small Jewish community.”
The lie that German democracy, not the earlier authoritarian regime, was responsible for the disaster of World War I figured prominently in the right-wing propaganda assault on the Weimar Republic. It contributed to the decision by leaders of the German conservative establishment to invite Hitler into power in January 1933.
From its origins, the stab-in-the-back legend was never only an expression of disagreement. Rather, it was always designed to exclude the opposition from the body politic; the opponents were “criminals” and “traitors.”
Despite being a lie, the stab-in-the-back legend was accepted by millions of Germans — and many of those same people went on to accept the next big lie: “that there was an international Jewish conspiracy intended to exterminate ‘the Aryan race.’”
The refusal to accept defeat, and instead to point at scapegoats, voice conspiracy theories and avoid responsibility, indicates that the spirit of Erich Ludendorff is alive and well in Trump and the Republican Party. That spirit undermined democracy then and does so today.
Image credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead / Public Domain