;



Kevin Baker: Stabbed in the Back!

Roundup: Historians' Take




Every state must have its enemies. Great powers must have especially monstrous foes. Above all, these foes must arise from within, for national pride does not admit that a great nation can be defeated by any outside force. That is why, though its origins are elsewhere, the stab in the back has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism. Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.

As the United States staggers past the third anniversary of its misadventure in Iraq, the dagger is already poised, the myth is already being perpetuated. To understand just how this strategy is likely to unfold—and why this time it may well fail—we must return to the birth of a legend.

* * *

The stab in the back first gained currency in Germany, as a means of explaining the nation’s stunning defeat in World War I. It was Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg himself, the leading German hero of the war, who told the National Assembly, “As an English general has very truly said, the German army was ‘stabbed in the back.’”

Like everything else associated with the stab-in-the-back myth, this claim was disingenuous. The “English general” in question was one Maj. Gen. Neill Malcolm, head of the British Military Mission in Berlin after the war, who put forward this suggestion merely to politely summarize how Field Marshal Erich von Ludendorff—the force behind Hindenburg—was characterizing the German army’s alleged lack of support from its civilian government.

“Ludendorff’s eyes lit up, and he leapt upon the phrase like a dog on a bone,” wrote Hindenburg biographer John Wheeler-Bennett. “‘Stabbed in the back?’ he repeated. ‘Yes, that’s it exactly. We were stabbed in the back.’”

Ludendorff’s enthusiasm was understandable, for, as he must have known, the phrase already had great resonance in Germany. The word dolchstoss—“dagger thrust”—had been popularized almost fifty years before in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. After swallowing a potion that causes him to reveal a shocking truth, the invincible Teutonic hero, Siegfried, is fatally stabbed in the back by Hagen, son of the archvillain, Alberich....

... Jerry Lembcke, in his brilliant work, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, writes of how the Nazis fostered the dolchstosslegende in ways that eerily foreshadowed returning veteran mythologies in the United States. Hermann Göring, the most charismatic of the Nazi leaders after Hitler, liked to speak of how “very young boys, degenerate deserters, and prostitutes tore the insignia off our best front line soldiers and spat on their field gray uniforms.” As Lembcke points out, any insignia ripping had actually been done by the mutinous soldiers and sailors who would launch a socialist uprising shortly after the war, tearing them off their own shoulders or those of their officers. Göring’s instant revisionism both covered up this embarrassing reality and created a whole new class of villains who were—in his barely coded language—homosexuals, sexually threatening women, and other “deviants.” All such individuals would be dealt with in the new, Nazi order....

The dolchstosslegende first came to the United States following not a war that had been lost but our own greatest triumph. Here, the motivating defeat was suffered not by the nation but by a faction. In the years immediately following World War II, the American right was facing oblivion. Domestically, the reforms of the New Deal had been largely embraced by the American people. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations—supported by many liberal Republicans—had led the nation successfully through the worst war in human history, and we had emerged as the most powerful nation on earth.

Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow liberal internationalists had sounded the first alarms about Hitler, but conservatives had stubbornly—even suicidally—maintained their isolationism right into the postwar era. Senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” and the right’s enduring presidential hope, had not only been a prominent member of the leading isolationist organization, America First, and opposed the nation’s first peacetime draft in 1940, but also appeared to be as naive about the Soviet Union as he had been about the Axis powers. Like many on the right, he was much more concerned about Chiang Kai-shek’s worm-eaten Nationalist regime in China than U.S. allies in Europe. “The whole Atlantic Pact, certainly the arming of Germany, is an incentive for Russia to enter the war before the army is built up,” Taft warned. He was against any U.S. military presence in Europe even in 1951.

This sort of determined naiveté had Taft and his movement teetering on the brink of political irrelevance. They saved themselves by grabbing at an unlikely rope—America’s very own dolchstosslegende, the myth of Yalta. No reasonable observer would have predicted in the immediate wake of the Yalta conference that it would become an enduring symbol of Democratic perfidy. Yalta was, in fact, originally considered the apogee of the Roosevelt Administration’s accomplishments, ensuring that the hard-won peace at the end of World War II would not soon dissolve into an even worse conflict, just as the botched peace of Versailles had led only to renewed hostilities in the years after World War I. The conference, which took place in the Soviet Crimea in February 1945, was the last time “the Big Three” of the war—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—would meet face-to-face. The U.S. negotiating team went with specific goals and was widely perceived at the time as having achieved them. Agreements were reached on the occupation of the soon-to-be-defeated German Reich, the liberation of those Eastern European countries occupied by or allied with Germany, the Soviet entrance into the war against Japan, and, most significantly in Roosevelt’s eyes, on the structure of a workable, international body designed to keep world peace, the United Nations.

FDR’s presentation of these agreements before a joint session of Congress that March met with almost universal acclaim.

[Editor: This is a long article. This excerpt merely gives the reader a taste of one key theme, among many.]
Read entire article at Harper's

comments powered by Disqus