There 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 inGermanyfollowing the First World War.
While today I am writing about Germany it is important to know that historical myths can become powerful and terribly destructive forces when unleashed in troubled times. This is in fact a lot of what we are seeing in the American body politic at this time as the most extreme views on the political right and left now define the major parties in this country. Some of these myths are no more than appeals to patriotism and times that Americans assume had to be better than they are now. Others are defined by ideology and still others by lies, deceit and hatred directed upon those that the purveyors of such use to demonize and dehumanize those that oppose their agendas. The scary part that I see as a historian, military officer and Priest is that what is happening now especially on the extreme political right could lead us as a nation down paths that others have gone down before, paths that only lead to destruction. The really scary part is that many people who are in no way extreme often fall for the lies of extremists on both sides of the political spectrum and suffer later for their complicity in allowing extremists to run roughshod.
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 Germanyfrom 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 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 Germanyand saw no reason to fear the United Stateswhen “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 theUnited Statesreinforced 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 saveWilson’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 theUnited Statesto be an inferior mongrel people. This led him to disregard the impact that theUnited Statescould have in the war and ultimately influenced his decision to declare war on theUnited States, a decision that would be a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany.
The myths popularized by the extreme political right in Germany after the First World War led to a greater tragedy for the world when Hitler’s Nazi Party used myths, lies and distortion to demonize, marginalize and ultimately murder large segments of its own population and bring destruction to all of Europe.
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, ethicists, moral theologians 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. One can only hope that the American political leadership as well as media will be wiser than the leaders of Germany in the last few years of the Weimar Republic. One has to be very careful when allowing overheated rhetoric and the use of myths, lies and distortion by political figures, pundits and even preachers no matter what political extreme they belong and just how much we may agree with their politics.