The German Army in 1918

Is this where the stab in the back myth began? When Ludendorff, the effective commander of the German army and military dictator of Germany, recommended that the kaiser appoint a new civilian government under the moderate Prince Max von Baden, he was making a de facto admission that Germany had lost the war. The new government, created on October 3rd 1918 was really there to negotiate peace: one of the allies’ conditions was that the would only make peace with a civilian government.

By the armistice, the German army was defeated, but not destroyed. In fact, they managed to keep fighting, even if with increasing ineffectiveness, right up to the end, and the peace meant that the fighting remained outside of Germany. If you wanted to put a comforting gloss on things, you could argue that the German army came home undefeated. This remarkable film, showing German troops parading upon coming home, looks almost like a victory parade. Such parades, and footage, perhaps helped convince some German soldiers, some f their families and some of the public that the German army were, in fact, undefeated.

It also served some people’s political purposes. To the likes of Hindenburg, pillars of the old Kaiserreich, it enabled them to claim that the old order had not led Germany to defeat. Most of all, therefore, it suited Ludendorff. The old guard soon began to peddle a second idea. If Germany had not been defeated militarily, how then had it lost? The initial answer was simple: the home front had lost the war, and the army was stabbed in the back. As early as December the phrase was first reported. The official commission of enquiry rejected the idea, but did blame the German Revolution of 1918 for the sudden collapse of morale.

Within the year, that had become the notion that the civilian politicians like Prince Max, or Walther Rathenau, or most of all the leaders of the SPD (the moderate left wing party who were the largest in pre-war Germany) had betrayed their nation, and stabbed the army the back, had gained currency on the German Right. They were, in short, the November Criminals. For the likes of Ludendorff, they would serve as a handy scapegoat.

A myth was born. One German soldier, away from the front recovering from wounds in late 1918 believed in it fervently. Democracy was unGerman, it had betrayed Germany. For Adolf Hitler, the stab in the back was a very real wrong to the avenged. The myth, for myth it was, as so often would prove more palpable, and arguably at least as politically important, as uncomfortable historical reality. This film is a fascinating glimpse into that myth’s birth pangs.

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