German army’s ‘stab in the back’ was a myth. They had to settle for peace after WWI

Kaiser Wilhelm II (centre) with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg (left) and General Erich Ludendorff
Kaiser Wilhelm II (centre) with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg (left) and General Erich Ludendorff

Historian Gordon Lucy examines why General Ludendorff asked for a truce with Allied powers on October 3,1918

In June 1918 Richard von Kühlmann, Germany’s secretary of state for foreign affairs, told the Reichstag: “An absolute end to the war can hardly be expected through purely military decisions alone, unaccompanied by diplomatic negotiations.”  

By this he meant that the war could not be ended by arms alone, implying that it would require diplomacy to secure peace.

His realism was disregarded and, at the prompting of the German High Command, earned him the sack.

The Allied counter-attack at Chateau-Thierry (often referred to as the Second Battle of the Marne) on July 18 by the 1st and 2nd US Divisions and the French Army’s Moroccan Division which dislodged the Germans from very strongly entrenched positions underscored the validity of Kühlmann’s analysis.

At the beginning of August General Erich Ludendorff still thought it was possible to stabilise their front but he was disabused of that on August 8 when the Germans were completely surprised at Amiens.

Nine divisions of the British Fourth Army and 10 divisions of the French army attacked the great Picardy salient created by the huge German offensive of March 1918.

Six or seven German divisions, which Ludendorff believed to be battle-worthy, were broken. Of 27,000 German casualties, 12,000 had surrendered.

For Ludendorff this was the ‘black day in the history of the German Army’.

It was the psychological turning point in the war. Ludendorff started cracking up. On a very short fuse, his relations with subordinates and Hindenburg, his nominal superior, were strained, he could not sleep, and he started drinking too much.

He sought the advice of an old friend who was a psychiatrist. He advised going for walks and taking more rest and for a brief period these steps worked.

The Habsburg Empire was visibly disintegrating. On September 14 the Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary was openly exploring terms for peace. The Austrians were on the cusp of being routed by the Italians at Vitorio Veneto.

On September 28 Ludendorff broke down in response to Allied military successes on the western front and news that Bulgaria was suing for peace.

According to some accounts, and a level of scepticism may be appropriate here, he fell to the floor foaming at the mouth.

The next day, Ludendorff personally informed the Kaiser that Germany could no longer win the war.

On October 3, the Germans asked for an armistice on the basis of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

Wilson made it clear that he regarded the Kaiser as an obstacle to peace and that he would only deal with a democratic Germany but, apart from the Independent Socialists (the USPD) and the Spartacists (the radical socialists led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht), there was no great clamour within Germany for a republic. It took more than a month for the terms of the armistice to be agreed.

Although 385,000 German troops surrendered on the western front in the last four months of the war – more than in the rest of the war put together – a great many front-line German troops continued to fight with grim determination until the armistice came into force.

Ludendorff was insistent that there must be a new government in Germany to take responsibility for the armistice so as to leave the army with the unsullied reputation that it had not been defeated but rather ‘stabbed in the back’ by civilian politicians.

Ludendorff advised the Kaiser ‘to bring those circles into government (meaning the Liberals and the Socialists) to whom we mainly owe it that we are in this position. They are now to make the peace which must now be made. They shall now eat the soup they have brewed for us.’

Herein lies the origins of the potent and poisonous myth of the ‘Dolchstosslegende‘ (‘the stab in the back‘) assiduously propagated by right- wing circles in the inter-war years. The German army, according to extreme nationalists, did not lose the First World War on the battlefield but was betrayed by civilians.

They denounced the politicians who signed the Armistice as the ‘November criminals‘.

The actual phrase – ‘the stab in the back‘ – may have been crystallised a year later over a dinner between Ludendorff and Major-General Sir Neill Malcom, head of the British Military Commission in Berlin. Luddendorf whined that the German Army could have won the war but for the ‘revolutionaries, subversives and defeatists back home‘.

Malcolm neatly summarised this as ‘a stab in the back‘, a description with which Ludendorff was immediately taken.

The concept rapidly acquired widespread currency. In a hearing before the Committee on Inquiry of the National Assembly (investigating the causes of the World War and Germany’s defeat) on November 18, 1919, Field Marshal Hindenburg declared: “As an English general has very truly said, the German Army was stabbed in the back’.”

The English general whom Hindenburg was ‘quoting’ was Major-General F B Maurice (who was actually born in Dublin). The ‘quotation’ is best regarded as a self-serving distortion or misrepresentation of Maurice’s book entitled ‘The Last Four Months’.

Friedrich Ebert, the provisional president of the Weimar Republic, inadvertently contributed to the myth, in telling homecoming veterans that ‘no enemy has vanquished you’.

The truth of course was otherwise. The German army had run out of reserves and was being overwhelmed by the Allies after the strategic failure of Ludendorff’s offensives between March and July 1918.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazis made the myth an integral part of their bogus version of history. They contended that the Weimar Republic, the German regime between 1919 and 1933, was the creation of the ‘November criminals’ who had ‘stabbed the army in the back’ and betrayed Germany in order to seize power.

In the Second World War the Allied policy of ‘unconditional surrender’ formulated by President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in January 1943 was a conscious decision to ensure that the Germans could not play ‘the stab-in- the-back’ card for a second time.