The First World War was, without a doubt, the costliest mistake ever made by world leaders. It dragged on for four years and claimed an estimated 10 million military combatants and another 10 million civilians. In at least seven countries, more than 10 per cent of military-aged men were killed.
It also destroyed the European political order, bringing four dynasties to their knees, as the Austro-Hungarian, German, and tsarist Russian empires all collapsed, along with the Ottoman Empire.
Into the vacuum that emerged came something terrible: the triumph of vicious ideologies that made a second conflagration inevitable.
In Russia, Bolshevik leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin ushered in a totalitarian Communist regime that would last until almost the end of the twentieth century.
Elsewhere, racists and anti-Semites would eventually take power in Italy, Germany, and smaller states, as democracy collapsed across the continent. Foremost among these leaders were Benito Mussolini in Italy and, of course, Germany’s Adolf Hitler.
When the armistice that ended the shooting was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, no Allied troops had entered Germany; the front lines were still in Belgium and France.
Berlin remained 725 kilometres from the nearest front, and the German armies retired from the field of battle in good order.
This would give birth to what has become known as the stab-in-the-back myth. This was the notion, widely believed and promoted in right-wing circles in Germany after 1918, that the German Army did not lose the war on the battlefield but was instead betrayed by civilians on the home front.
Blame would be placed on those republicans, Marxists, social democrats, and Jews, who overthrew the monarchy in the German Revolution of 1918 and signed the armistice ending the fighting. They would become known as the “November criminals.”
It was claimed that they had not supported the war and had played a role in selling out Germany to its enemies by criticizing the war effort, instigating unrest and strikes in critical military industries, and engaging in profiteering.
A typical example of this kind of propaganda was a 1924 right-wing German political cartoon showing Philipp Scheidemann, the Social Democrat who proclaimed the post-war Weimar Republic two days before the armistice, and was its second chancellor, and Matthias Erzberger, an anti-war politician from the Centre Party, stabbing the German Army in the back.
By 1924, Hitler, a former private in the Army and now head of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, known as the Nazis, had already tried to overthrow the government in the Munch “Beer Hall putsch.”
When the Nazis finally came to power in 1933, they made the legend an integral part of their official narrative. Nazi propaganda depicted Weimar as a morass of corruption, degeneracy, and national humiliation -- fourteen years of rule by Jews, Marxists, and “cultural” Bolsheviks, who had at last been swept away by the National Socialist movement.
German Jews, of course, denied the charge. A leaflet published in 1920 by German Jewish veterans in response to accusations of the lack of patriotism pointed out that “12,000 Jewish soldiers died on the field of honour for the fatherland.” It did little to stop the spread of this big lie.
“In truth, the Armistice was really a German surrender,” writes military historian J.L. Granatstein, author of The Greatest Victory: Canada’s Hundred Days.
“There was no ‘stab in the back’ as Adolf Hitler and others in Germany would proclaim. The German army had been defeated on the field of battle by the Allies.”
From Aug. 8, 1918, beginning with the Battle of Amiens, to the signing of the Armistice, the so-called Hundred Days campaign defeated the German Army on the Western Front, as Allied troops smashed through German lines at great speed.
The Germans were forced to abandon increasingly large amounts of heavy equipment and supplies, further reducing their morale and capacity to resist. This collapse forced the German High Command to accept that the war had to be ended.
The stab-in-the-back legend may have been the most pernicious example of “fake news” in history. It would be part of the Nazi arsenal of myths that led to the Holocaust.