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Review of:
Boris Barth, Dolchstosslegenden und politische Desintegration: Das Trauma der deutschen Niederlage im Ersten Weltkrieg, 1914-1933
(Düsseldorf: Droste, 2003)

by Harold Marcuse
professor of German history at UC Santa Barbara
(Homepage, Reviews Page, Publications Page, CV/Publications)

submitted to H-German, Sept. 12, 2006, posted 12/4/06
uploaded 9/26/06, links added 9/10/08, 10/5/10

note: the text as submitted, below, may differ slightly from the published version; links section below

Text of Review
Stab in the Back Images
Links
section

Harold Marcuse, review for H-German, (2006), e-mailed to list Dec. 4, 2006; H-Net archive copy

Boris Barth, Dolchstosslegenden und politische Desintegration: Das Trauma der deutschen Niederlage im Ersten Weltkrieg, 1914-1933. (Düsseldorf: Droste, 2003). ISBN 3770016157, 625 Seiten, 49,80 EUR.

More a History of Political Fragmentation than of a Symbol

I agreed to review this book thinking that I would read a detailed reception history of a potent propaganda "legend" that destabilized the Weimar republic and mobilized enmity against Jews and Communists. This book is both more and less. Boris Barth's _Habilitation_ at the University of Konstanz, a massive tome of 560 densely printed text pages including 3340 well-researched footnotes, draws on a wide array of primary and secondary sources to recapitulate and reassess our understanding of the transition from the _Kaiserreich_ to the Weimar Republic. The stab-in-the-back legends (note the plural) of the title is used as a metaphor for the fragmentation of society into antagonistic groups blaming each other for the catastrophe of the Great War. The bulk of the book is devoted to a narrative of the deterioration of the military situation during the war, and then of the group discourses that developed from 1918 to 1921. Explicit discussions of various groups' stab-in-the-back allegations resurface periodically, with the general historical narrative serving admirably as a background foil against which readers can assess the veracity of those "legends."

My main criticisms of the book are that it is so difficult to extract important interpretative points from the densenarrative, and that the title is somewhat misleading. Aside from the book's primary scope of 1917-1921, it has little to say about _Dolchstosslegenden_.
[1] Joachim Petzold, _Die Dolchstosslegende: Eine Geschichtsfaelschung im Dienste des deutschen Imperialismus und Militarismus_ (Berlin, 1963); Friedrich Freiherr Hiller von Gaertringen, "'Dolchstoss'-Diskussion und 'Dolchstosslegende' im Wandel von vier Jahrzehnten," in: Waldemar Besson and F. Frhr. Hiller v. Gaertringen (eds.), _Geschichte und Gegenwartsbewusstsein: Festschrift fuer Hans Rothfels zum 70. Geburtstag_ (Goettingen 1963), 122-160. (to note 4)
The bulk of Barth's material about that political catchphrase is openly taken from the secondary literature, adding little of substance to results already published in Joachim Petzold's 1961 East German dissertation or Friedrich Freiherr Hiller von Gaertringen's 1963 article.[1] Barth only summarily mentions the parliamentary subcommittee formed in October 1919 to investigate the reasons for the loss of the war (499-506), and he mentions only in passing Hindenburg's November 19, 1919 prepared statement to that subcommittee, which was crucial for the national dissemination of the _Dolchstoss_ image (336f).

However, rather than belaboring what this book does not do, let me attempt summarize and assess its main interpretative points, a couple of which are truly innovative.

The first four of nine chapters examine the last two years of the war. First Barth retraces in detail how a discursive dichotomy developed between the 'battle front' and the 'homeland' (_Front_ and _Heimat_). He argues that the latter, which by 1918 was referred to as the "_Heimatfront_", finally collapsed in the summer of 1918. This terminological dichotomy enabled army leaders to conceptualize their failure to completely harness the resources of civilian society to the war effort. Chapters two through four narrate: 1) the deterioration of the military situation, 2) how patriotic cultural trend-setters (the _Bildungsbuergertum_, represented primarily by the professoriate and the Protestant clergy) rhetorically deluded themselves about the possibility of defeat, and 3) how the structure of society adapted to the exigencies of war mobilization by morphing from an imperial monarchy into a populist parliamentary democracy with monarchist symbolic trappings. This is all just prelude to what many groups later conceptualized (or misconceptualized) as stabs-in-the-back.

A brief passage in chapter three is key for those interested in the first use of the term "_Dolchstoss_" (144-148). Barth discusses three key sources:
[2] On the proposed levée en masse, see Michael Geyer, "Insurrectionary Warfare: The German Debate about a _Levée en Masse_ in October 1918," _Journal of Modern History_ 73(2001), 459-527.

  1. Friedrich Meinecke's October-November 1918 writings on the idea of a levée en masse[2];
  2. a June 11, 1922 newspaper article, in which Meinecke attempted to trace the roots of the _Dolchstosslegende_;
  3. and a liberal _Volksversammlung_ in the Munich Loewenbraeu-Keller on November 2, 1918, in which Ernst Mueller-Meiningen, a member of the Progressives in the Reichstag, used the term to exhort his listeners to keep fighting:
    'As long as the front holds, we damn well have the duty to hold out in the homeland. We would have to be ashamed of ourselves in front of our children and grandchildren if we attacked the battlefront from the rear and gave it a dagger-stab.'
    ("_Solange die aeussere Front aushaelt, haben wir die verdammte Pflicht zum Aushalten in der Heimat. Wir muessten uns vor unseren Kindern und Kindeskindern schaemen, wenn wir der Front in den Ruecken fielen und ihr den Dolchstoss versetzten._")

This statement was greeted by sustained, thunderous applause, in contrast to the speech by Kurt Eisner of the radical socialists, who was booed and had to leave the beer hall.

In the second half of the book Barth documents how various stab-in-the-back legends developed independently within different groups and "submilieus" during and after the November 1918 revolution. Ultimately, he argues, these legends merged into a unifying symbol for the right wing after 1925.

Chapter five documents the emergence of two "stereotypes" during the demobilization and transition in November-December 1918. On the one hand the returning troops were welcomed home with slogans about being "undefeated in the field"--a notion brought to national prominence by Friedrich Ebert in his December 10, 1918 speech to the returning troops at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (214f):

'Be welcomed wholeheartedly, soldier-comrades, worker-comrades, citizens [_Kameraden, Genossen, Buerger_]. No enemy overcame you. Only when the opponent's superiority in people and materiel became ever more oppressive did we give up the fight. And especially in the face of your heroism it was [our] duty not to demand senseless additional sacrifices from you. ... With heads held high you can return.'

Ebert's unknowingly loaded use of "we" and "you" was duly noted in the Sueddeutsche Monatshefte, May 1924 cover: Dolchstossnewspaper reports--a crucial fact for which Barth surprisingly relies on the secondary literature. On top of Ebert's unintentional self-inculpation, some members of the radical left, most notably Emil Barth of the USPD, claimed hyperbolically that their long-standing opposition to the war and systematic preparation of revolution had caused the fall of what we would today call the military-industrial complex. Emil Barth's claim resurfaced prominently in the 1925 Munich Stab-in-the-Back Trial (223), in which the editor of the bourgeois-nationalist _Sueddeutsche Monatshefte_ successfully sued an SPD newspaper editor who had called him a history-falsifier because the _Monatshefte_ blamed the SPD for the loss of the Great War (510-517). In addition to Emil Barth's proud claim of responsibility for bringing the imperial system down, another variant of the legend propagated by the far left blamed the SPD for having betrayed the working class by supporting the war.

The preceding paragraph's information density reflects a characteristic of Barth's book: It revels in detail to the point of obfuscation. A key event such as the Munich Stab-in-the-Back Trial is casually mentioned in chapter five, but not explained until 300 pages later. Similarly, the book features a huge cast of characters, sprinkled throughout with abandon, but rarely characterized or reintroduced.

Chapter six convincingly presents several important new interpretations, which, however, are only tangentially related to the _Dolchstoss_ concept. Barth's overarching argument is that various stab-in-the-back legends developed independently in the army officer corps, among Free Corps in the 1920 Ruhr battles, and among Free Corps trying to hold the Baltic region for Germany. The officer corps 'had no mental categories' with which to understand why their troops simply went home once the demobilization trains crossed the border, so they attributed this behavior to the corrosive influence of the revolutionary _Heimat_ (231). Then Barth notably reinterprets the Ruhr war following the January 1920 Kapp-Putsch as resistance not by revolutionary workers, but by fed-up combat veterans against their former military establishment attempting to return to power (279-283).

1919 "Komissarerlass" in RigaThe striking brutality of the Baltic _Landwehren_, who felt back-stabbed when the Ebert government cut off their supplies and ordered them to withdraw under the Versailles terms, prefigured the ferocity with which Jews in the region were hunted two decades later. An April 1919 order by the _Landwehr_ commander in Riga stated that: any red 'bandit' could be killed by anyone, a 100 rubel reward would be paid for each killing or for information leading to capture, and anyone failing to report any information about such 'riff-raff' would be executed (260, ill. p. 296). Over 3000 men were killed in Riga in a matter of weeks, with massacres of 500 and 200 documented in other towns (265f). Once back in the Reich, many of these troops exhibited 'nihilistic' and politically 'autistic' behavior, in spite of Defense Minister Noske's generous efforts to reintegrate them.

Chapter seven offers an intellectual history of early 1920s right-wing _Vergangenheitsbewältigung_ (my term) among conservative monarchists, army generals, Protestant clergy, and voelkisch and pan-German groups. Barth concludes that the latter two submilieus 'autistically' (one of his favorite adjectives) adopted the justifications of the former three multipliers. Thus in the stable phase of the Republic they espoused a nihilism directed against the new social order, without offering any vision to supplant it.

Chapter eight continues in this vein by looking more closely at the educated bourgeoisie (primarily professors in various disciplines), showing how revanchist stab-in-the-back ideas gained traction, especially among student activists, while liberal voices remained ineffectual. By the late 1920s, Barth argues, professors who had served at the front came into conflict with frustrated students who saw themselves as warriors. Such students bought into the stab-in-the-back rhetoric of the older university establishment, which had not experienced war, but only dissolution in the _Heimat_.

Chapter nine, finally, begins to take the narrative into the later 1920s. It begins with the argument that there were no consensual symbols to memorialize the war, drawing cursorily on a curious mix of primary materials from the _Bundesarchiv_ and the already rich secondary literature on the topic. The next section, on the 'judicial fights about memory,' covers some of the most crucial events that undergird Barth's central thesis about how allegations of blame for defeat led to the political fragmentation of society. However, especially in comparison to the lavish detail of earlier chapters, the narrative here is tantalizingly brief, but the interpretations quite explicit. The third section covers the evolving relationships to stab-in-the-back legends by organizations such as the _Stahlhelm_, _Reichsbanner_, and _Jungdeutscher Orden_, as well as in the war literature generally and by various writers such as Juenger, Remarque, Zweig and Brecht. A separate section is devoted the Hitler and the Nazis' use of _Dolchstoss_ vocabulary (such as 'November criminals'), first to justify 'cleaning up' internal German dissent, then to vilify specific groups such as Bolsheviks and Jews.[3]

[3] Indicative of Barth's reliance on secondary materials about the _Dolchstoss_ itself is his discussion of _Mein Kampf_. On pp. 543f, notes 343 and 344, Barth misunderstands Petzold, who actually argues that Siegfried Kaehler's 1946 claims about _Mein Kampf_ are utter distortions.

Barth did a prodigious amount of primary research in the papers of organizations, political and intellectual figures, and periodical literature, as well as in published primary and secondary material. While his inclusion of even tangential examples in the main text give the book great evidentiary weight, Barth is not especially successful in drawing out the broader implications of his research. For instance, although he explicitly disavows the thesis of a Weimar democracy doomed to failure from the start (4), seen through this book's lens of inexorably blossoming stab-in-the-back legends, there is no indication of how the Republic might have withstood the agitation from both right and left. The book would also have benefited from a more explicit discussion of the extent to which the stab-in-the-back myth was a crucial link between Germany's defeat in the Great War and its pursuit of another European war. Hitler was undoubtedly personally shaped by the one-two punch of Germany's defeat and revolution, but he was also driven by positive visions that went well beyond trying to overcome the trauma of defeat in the Great War.

[4] Namely the works cited in note 1.

[5] Patrick Krassnitzer, Rezension zu: Barth, Boris: _Dolchstosslegenden und politische Desintegration_, in: H-Soz-u-Kult, 14.05.2004, <http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/rezensionen/2004-2-105>.

This point about links between the two world wars leads me to the first of two unusual lapses in this otherwise exhaustively researched work. First, in spite of the obvious importance of German war aims for the war guilt/responsibility discussion, there is nary a mention of Fritz Fischer, his students, or the debate Fischer's _Griff nach der Weltmacht_ triggered after1961. This omission is especially striking in Barth's discussion of the War Guilt Department (499ff). I am at a loss to explain it, especially in light of the fact that the foundational secondary works on the _Dolchstosslegende_ were both published in 1963 during the Fischer debate.[4] Second, as Patrick Krassnitzer pointed out in his review for H-Soz-u-Kult, in spite of Barth's emphasis on the symbolic importance of the _Dolchstoss_, Barth makes no mention of the gendered aspect of its symbolism.[5]

[6] Gerd Krumeich, "Die Dolchstoss-Legende," in: Etienne Francois and Hagen Schulze (eds.), _Deutsche Erinnerungsorte I_ (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2000), 585-599.

[7] Bernd Seiler, "'Dolchstoss' und 'Dolchstosslegende'" in: _Zeitschrift fuer Deutsche Sprache_ 22(1966), 1-20.

In sum, this extremely erudite work is of far greater importance to historians of the 1917-1921 transitional period in German history, than to those with a more focused interest in the various incarnations of the _Dolchstosslegende_. Shorter essays, such as Gerd Krumeich's "Die Dolchstoss-Legende" (2000),[6] offer far more information and interpretative points about the stab-in-the-back myth, including a discussion of Bernd Seiler's seminal 1966 analysis of the virtually exclusive use of the epithet "legend" today.[7] In contrast to "lie" or "fairy tale," both used in the 1920s, "legend" leaves open the possibility of a kernel of explanatory, albeit undocumentable, truth. Indeed, after reading this exhaustive study, it is easy to understand why contemporaries conceived of the widespread fragmentation of their society since 1917 as a series of back-stabs, even while the historical record makes clear that the core stab-in-the-back, that between home and battle fronts, was a bold and utter lie. The question begged by Barth's thesis is to what extent stab-in-the-back reproaches helped to effect the disintegration of Weimar society, as he argues, instead of merely reflecting existing fractures.

Harold Marcuse
University of California,
Santa Barbara


Stab-In-The-Back Images (back to top)
except for 2 (as noted: Krumeich & web), these are from Barth, or Rainer Sammet, "Dolchstoss:" Deutschland ... (Berlin, trafo, 2003)

Reichstag as snake attacking soldier
Punch, 1918, British back-stab Dolchstoss cartoon: 1919 Hindenburg-Ausschuss Dolchstoss memorial in Schwerin, 1923
Sketch by a Korvettenkapitän,
undated, in his diary
The Reichstag as a serpent
Punch, "The Traitor"
October 2, 1918
British striker stabs a soldier
Simplicissimus cartoon about Hindenburg's commission testimony, Nov. 1919
Landwehrregiment 76 Memorial
in Schwerin, 1923
"Unseren Gefallenen ..."
Dolchstoss image, SD Monatshefte, 1924
Dolchstoss, 1924 SPD poster
Dolchstoss, 1924 DNVP poster
Dolchstoss: Ebert stabs worker
Süddeutsche Monatshefte cover, May 1924
The generic dagger
SPD election poster,
probably 1924
"Peace, Work, Education"
Deutschnationale Volkspartei Election Poster, 1924
Bolsheviks attack the Army
Rote Tribune (Communist)
Caricature, Nov. 9, 1925
Ebert stabs a Communist
dolchstoss in Oct. 1925 Vorwaerts title
Vorwaerts, Nov. 1925 cartoon
Dolchstoss sentences in newspaper headline Scheidemann stabs soldiers
Vorwärts (SPD newspaper)
October 30, 1925
'Dolchstoss lie in the Dock'
Vorwärts
November 9, 1925
'The End of a Legend'
Berlin Kreuz-Zeitung,
December 9, 1925
'Ruling in the Dolchstoss Trial'
Vorwärts, May 3, 1924
reproduction of a right-wing
cartoon of Scheidemann stabbing
1928 SPD float
1919 Dolchstoss: Jew stabs soldier
Dolchstoss, 1942 anti-Jewish
Socialist float in a Berlin parade on the 50th anniversary
of Bismarck's anti-socialist laws of Oct. 22, 1878
Slogans: 'We have to win' / 'Persevere'
1919 antisemitic cartoon
in: March 26, 1919 Vienna Arbeiterzeitung--from web
1942 Nazi antisemitic cartoon
(from Krumeich essay)
Jews attack the Wehrmacht

Links & References (back to top)Dolchstoss version of Deutschlandlied

Stab in the Back Legend Links


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