The Danger of Believing Historical Myths: Hitler, the Stab in the Back and the United States

The are many times in history where leaders of nations and peoples embrace myths about their history even when historical, biographical and archeological evidence points to an entirely different record.  Myths are powerful in the way that they inspire and motivate people. They can provide a cultural continuity as a people celebrates the key events and people that shaped their past, even if they are not entirely true.  At the same time myths can be dangerous when they cause leaders and people to make bad choices and actually become destructive. Such was the case in Germany following the First World War.

After the war the belief that the German Army was not defeated but was betrayed by the German people, especially those of the political left.  Like all myths there was an element of truth in the “stab in the back” myth, there were revolts against the Monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and even mutiny on elements of the German High Seas Fleet and Army units stationed in Germany. However the crisis had been brought about by General Ludendorff who until the last month of the war refused to tell the truth about the gravity of Germany’s position to those in the German government.  So when everything came crashing down in late October and early November 1918 the debacle came as a surprise to most Germans.  The myth arose because the truth had not been told by Ludendorff who was arguably the most powerful figure in Germany from 1916-1918.  In the looming crisis which included Ludendorff’s collapse and relief, General Wilhelm Groener presented the facts to the Kaiser and insisted on his abdication.  The Republic that was proclaimed on the 9th of November was saddled with the defeat and endured revolution, civil war and threats from the extreme left and right.  When it signed the Treaty of Versailles it accepted the sole responsibility of Germany for the war and its damages. Ordered to dismantle its military, cede territory that had not been lost in battle and pay massive reparations the legend of the “stab in the back” gained widespread acceptance in Germany.

Hitler and Many in Germany Doubted the War making Potential of the United States

Hitler always believed that the defeat of Germany in the First World War was due to the efforts of internal enemies of the German Reich on the home front and not due to battlefield losses or the entry of the United States.  This was a fundamental belief for him and was expressed in his writings, speeches and actions.  The internal enemies of Germany for Hitler included the Jews, as well as the Socialists and Communists who he believed were at the heart of the collapse on the home front.  Gerhard Weinberg believes that the effect of this misguided belief on Hitler’s actions has “generally been ignored” by historians. (Germany, Hitler and World War II p. 196)

Hitler believed that those people and groups that perpetrated the “stab in the back” were “beguiled by the by the promises of President Wilson” (World in the Balance p.92) in his 14 Points.  Thus for him Americans were in part responsible for undermining the German home front, something that he would not allow to happen again.  In fact Hitler characterization of Wilson’s effect on the German people in speaking about South Tyrol.  It is representative of his belief about not only the loss of that region but the war: “South Tyrol was lost by those who, from within Germany, caused attrition at the front, and by the contamination of German thinking with the sham declarations of Woodrow Wilson.” (Hitler’s Second Book p.221)

While others will note Hitler’s lack of respect for the potential power of the United States, no other author that I am familiar with links Hitler’s actions and the reaction of the German political, military and diplomatic elites to the entry of the United States into the war to the underlying belief in the “stab in the back.”   Likewise Hitler had little regard for the military abilities or potential of the United States. Albert Speer notes that Hitler believed “the Americans had not played a very prominent role in the war of 1914-1918,” and that “they would certainly not withstand a great trial by fire, for their fighting qualities were low.” (Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer p.121)

Hitler not only dismissed the capabilities of the Americans but also emphasized the distance that they were from Germany and saw no reason to fear the United States when “he anticipated major victories on the Eastern Front.” (Germany Hitler and World War II p.92)   Hitler’s attitude was reflected by the majority of the military high command and high Nazi officials. Ribbentrop believed that the Americans would be unable to wage war if it broke out “as they would never get their armies across the Atlantic.” (History of the German General Staff, Walter Goerlitz, p.408).  General Walter Warlimont notes the “ecstasy of rejoicing” found at Hitler’s headquarters after Pearl Harbor and the fact that the he and Jodl at OKW caught by surprise by Hitler’s declaration of war. (Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945 pp.207-209) Kenneth Macksey notes Warlimont’s comments about Hitler’s beliefs; that Hitler “tended to dismiss American fighting qualities and industrial capability,” and that he “regarded anyone who tried to show him such information [about growing American strength] as defeatist.” (Why the Germans Lose at War, Kenneth Macksey, p.153.)

Others like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel record the disregard of senior Nazis toward American capabilities in weaponry.  Quoting Goering who when Rommel discussed 40mm anti-aircraft guns on aircraft that were devastating his armored forces Goering replied “That’s impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” (The Rommel Papers edited by B.H. Liddell-Hart p.295) Rommel was one of the few German commanders who recognized the folly of Hitler’s  declaration of war on the United States noting that “By declaring war on America, we had brought the entire American industrial potential into the service of Allied war production. We in Africa knew all about the quality of its achievements.” (The Rommel Papers p.296)

When one also takes into account the general disrespect of the German military for the fighting qualities of American soldiers though often with good reason (see Russell Weigley’s books Eisenhower’s Lieutenants and The American Way of War) one sees how the myth impacted German thought.  This is evidenced by the disparaging comments of the pre-war German military attaché to the United States; General Boeticher, on the American military, national character and capability. (See World in the Balance pp. 61-62)

The overall negative view held by many Germans in regard to the military and industrial power and potential of the United States reinforced other parts of the myth. Such false beliefs served to bolster belief in the stab-in-the back theory as certainly the Americans could not have played any important role in the German defeat save Wilson’s alleged demoralization of the German population.  This was true not only of Hitler, but by most of his retinue and the military, diplomatic and industrial leadership of the Reich. Hitler’s ultimate belief, shaped by the stab-in-the back and reinforced by his racial views which held the United States to be an inferior mongrel people. This led him to disregard the impact that the United States could have in the war and ultimately influenced his decision to declare war on the United States, a decision that would be a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Myth can have positive value, but myth which becomes toxic can and often does lead to tragic consequences. All societies have some degree of myth in relationship to their history including the United States.  The myths are not all the same, various subgroups within the society create their own myth surrounding historic events.  It is the duty of historians, philosophers and others in the society to ensure that myth does not override reality to the point that it moves policy both domestic and foreign in a manner that is ultimately detrimental to the nation.  The lesson of history demonstrated by myths surrounding the German defeat and role of the United States in that defeat shows just how myth can drive a nation to irrational, evil and ultimately tragic actions not only for that nation and its people, but for the world.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

7 Comments

Filed under History, Military, philosophy

7 responses to “The Danger of Believing Historical Myths: Hitler, the Stab in the Back and the United States

  1. joe shaffer

    How many German’s died or were handicapped by their ignorant beliefs and attitudes?

    A lesson to show that IGNORANT BELIEFS and also IGNORANCE as a whole can ruin your day. USMC!

  2. It seems to me that the German beliefs were all based in some way on what you may call self confidence. The Germans believed that they were superior, and that they could not lose against anyone else. Any German who might try to call attention to the fallacy of these myths could be accused of defeatism, or be called unpatriotic. Beliefs like this may be natural in almost any powerful nation that is on the brink of taking over the world.

    • padresteve

      Thank you for your comment, I do appreciate the feedback. However, the “Stab in the back” myth was promulgated when Germany’s fortunes were at the lowest ebb when they were trying to explain how they could have lost the war. The obvious explanation was that they did not lose on the battlefield when in fact the General Staff knew that they had lost the war so the defeat had to be the fault of traitors such as socialist and Jews. The myth was a way of explaining a defeat, not a statement of overconfidence. Now patriotism would play a part in the myth as the proponents of the myth claimed to be more patriotic than other Germans. The myth would have tragic consequences fcr Germany because even conservatives who detested Hitler and the NDSAP were afraid to oppose them for fear of being like those that they had blamed for the defeat in the First World War.

      Again thanks for your comments and God bless, Peace, Padre Steve+

  3. As you said, the “Back stab” was a way of explaining defeat. But the “stab in the back” was not the entire myth. I think the “stab in the back” was an addition to a myth predating WW1, which was “Germans can beat anyone because they are superior”. After WW1, it was necessary to add on the “stab in the back” explanation. After WW1, and with the help of Hitler, The myth became “Germans can beat anyone because they are superior, unless they are stabbed in the back by inferior traitors living within our country”.

    If the Germans did not already have that idea of superiority, there might not have even been WW1. Or at least when they lost in 1918, that might have been the end of it. But it took the second world war to prove that the Germans didn’t only lose because of the stab in the back.

    I may not be using the words exactly right, but I see a connection in all these concepts “the Master race” “German superiority” “weakness of other countries”, “overconfidence”, “super-patriotism”, “ultra nationalism”. All these ideas eventually can lead to disastrous foreign policies if you disregard reality.

  4. Peter Hill

    The interesting thing is that not only Germans believed (and in some cases, continue to) the Stab-in-the-Back theory but a number of British and American historians also believe in it. It became a trend amongst military historians from the 1960s onwards to assert that the German Army in WW1 remained essentially intact and undefeated when the Armistice was declared in Nov 1918 and that the surrender was motivated more by the political and economic unrest/chaos back home. English historians such as Denis Winter & John Keegan and Americans such as John Mosier assert that the German army could have easily continued to fight effectively after Nov 1918 if it had been allowed to.
    One factor that many historians don’t take into account is that when the war ended in Nov 1918, the American army in France had, in relative terms, barely begun to warm up. Had the Germans not given in and instead prolonged the war into 1919, they would have faced an extremely powerful enemy in the form of Pershing’s AEF which would have by then reached its full potential.
    A continuing war in 1919 (and thank heavens it didn’t!) would have seen the AEF shoulder the bulk of the burden of the fighting on the Western Front. By the end of 1918, the weary and battered French and British armies were at the end of their tether and even their best troops would have suffered severe battle-fatigue had the war gone on into 1919. One example is amongst the veteran Australian divisions, where self-inflicted wounds in 1918 were double those of 1917, proving my belief that there is no such thing as a ‘battle-hardened soldier’.
    I think that the German high-command was wise to seek the Armistice in November 1918 because they knew that to prolong the fighting would have seen their weary and depleted army facing a fully formed AEF in 1919 (with disastrous consequences for the former), mass starvation amongst the civilians back home, Spanish Flu playing havoc amidst the trenches and the fighting spreading onto German soil itself. It was only those that had no idea of the realities facing Germany that later came up with the stabbed in the back theory.

  5. Pingback: End Times Prophecy Headlines: August 28, 2014 | End Times Prophecy Report

  6. I see Woodrow Wilson at the head of a classroom, with a willing HItler learning how to use the fear of progressives, the left, the blacks, the socialists, the communists – to get what he wants.

    Allied with the backstabbing Gompers of the Business Unions and with the war chest of business behind it, Wilson went to war against the IWW, Industrial Unions, and working people, to curry the favor of business. Hitler learned how to vilify and destroy enemies of progress, people who would build a life that was good for all, in favor of a rich few.

    Adolph’s mistake was that he thought he could improve on it.

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