Stabbed at the Front

After 1918 the myth was created that the German army only lost the war because it had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by defeatists and revolutionaries on the Home Front. Alexander Watson reviews the clear evidence that in reality it simply lost the will to go on fighting.

To generations familiar with the total defeat of Hitler’s Reich in 1945, the Allied victory over the Germans in the First World War appears curiously incomplete. When the armistice came into force on November 11th, 1918, the German Field Army in the west numbered 2,500,000 and was still in position mainly on foreign soil.  Between the wars, right-wing advocates of the ‘stab in the back’  legend seized on these facts to argue that Germany had remained undefeated in the field, putting the blame instead on the outbreak of revolution at home in early November for the humiliating capitulation.

Yet the fact is that on September 29th, a full month before the beginning of the unrest at home, Germany’s military leaders, General Erich Ludendorff and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, had urgently demanded that an immediate armistice be organized. Their desperate desire for peace derived not from any domestic considerations nor even the weakness of Germany’s allies; it was due principally to the parlous state of their army. The war had been above all a contest of endurance and, during the course of 1918, the accumulated strain and the hopelessness of its situation had broken the army’s will to continue fighting. A psychological crisis, experienced first by the fighting soldiers and their officers but then spreading up through the ranks to the top levels of the High Command, caused a disastrous deterioration in combat motivation and fighting efficiency, ultimately forcing Germany’s ignominious exit from the war.

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