The stab-in-the-back myth: a powerful weapon to attack Weimar’s legitimacy
The foundation of the Weimar Republic was a direct consequence of Germany’s loss in the First World War. How did the war’s ending contribute to the stab-in-the-back myth and, consequently, affect Weimar’s legitimacy?
In the fall of 1918, the end of the First World War was approaching fast. Whereas the war on the east front had already been ended in January of the same year when the peace of Brest-Litovsk was signed, it now became clear that Germany and its allies stood defenceless against a growing Allied supremacy on the west front. By that time, Germany was formally still an Empire which was led by Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Reich’s chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. However, during the war, Germany had de facto become a military dictatorship: field marshals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff had become the heads of state.
When they acknowledged that the war would soon be over, these field marshals laid the foundations of the so-called ‘stab-in-the-back myth’. They set out a strategy: a civil government had to be installed. The reasons for this were twofold. On the one hand, the chance of a favourable peace would be more likely if the Allies could negotiate with a civil government (this claim was supported by the United States’ President Woodroow Wilson’s Fourteen Points). On the other hand, this civil government would probably be held responsible by the German population for the loss of the war and the resulting consequences. In this way, the field marshals could shift their own responsibility on to this new government and, consequently, be purified from any blame.
Then on 3 October 1918, Prince Max von Baden was appointed chancellor and started, as the head of the newly installed civil government, peace negotiations with the Allies. This resulted in a truce which was signed on 11 November 1918. In the meantime, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had convinced Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate. As a result, on 9 November 1918, social democrat Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the Republic in Berlin and, in turn, Friedrich Ebert became its new chancellor. And so the Weimar Republic was founded. These events of November 1918 would later be referred to as the ‘November Revolution’.
As the affairs outlined above make clear, the November Revolution and the establishment of the Weimar Republic were a direct consequence of Germany’s loss in the First World War. From the very start, this put a huge burden on the democratic government which was formed after the elections of 13 February 1919. One of the first tasks of this government was to turn the truce of 11 November into a definitive peace treaty. This resulted in the Treaty of Versailles which came into force on 10 January 1920. This Treaty was hated among most of Germany’s population. It was regarded as a dictated peace and cynically called ‘diktat of Versailles’. The so-called ‘war guilt clause’ of Article 231 was particularly detested. According to this Article, Germany and its allies were responsible for the war breaking out and, consequently, had to compensate the damage – an amount of 136,000 mark – that had been caused during the war. Although this was a substantial amount of money, the real damage caused by this clause was political and moral. Many people did not realize that the war had been lost until they faced the disgracing terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
As Hindenburg and Ludendorff had already predicted, the leaders of the democratic government were held responsible for the humiliating terms of the peace settlement. This strengthened the myth that Germany had been betrayed and that its honour had been affected only because leftist, democratic revolutionaries obstructed the war’s victory by commanding the withdrawal of troops. Clearly, this was not true. However, the combination of the stab-in-the-back myth and the terms of the Treaty of Versailles gave the opponents of the Weimar Republic a powerful weapon to attack it from its very birth and onwards.