The legend echoed the epic poem Nibelungenlied in which the dragon-slaying hero Siegfried is stabbed in the back by Hagen von Tronje. Der Dolchstoß is cited as an important factor in Adolf Hitler's later rise to power, as the Nazi Party grew its original political base largely from embittered World War I veterans, and those who were sympathetic to the Dolchstoß interpretation of Germany's then-recent history.
Many were under the impression that the Triple Entente had ushered in the war, and as such saw the war as one in which Germany's cause was justified. Imperial Russia was seen to have expansionist ambitions and France's dissatisfaction due to the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War was widely known. Later, the Germans were shocked to learn that Great Britain had entered the war, and many felt their country was being "ganged up on"; the Germans felt that Britain was using the Belgian neutrality issue to enter the war and neutralize a Germany that was threatening its own commercial interests.
As the war dragged on, illusions of an easy victory were smashed, and Germans began to suffer tremendously from what would become a long and enormously costly war. With the initial Euphoria gone, old divisions resurfaced. Nationalist loyalties came into question once again as initial enthusiasms subsided. Subsequently, suspicion of Roman Catholics, Social Democrats and Jews grew. There was a considerable amount of political tension prior to the war, especially due to the growing presence of Social Democrats in the Reichstag. This was a great concern for aristocrats in power and the military; this contingent was particularly successful in denying Erich Ludendorff the funds for the German Army that he claimed were necessary and lobbied for.
On November 1, 1916, the German Military High Command administered the Judenzählung (German for "Jewish Census"). It was designed to confirm allegations of the lack of patriotism among German Jews, but the results of the census disproved the accusations and were not made public. A number of German Jews viewed "the Great War" as an opportunity to prove their commitment to the German homeland.
Civil disorder grew as a result of an inability to make ends meet, with or without the alleged "shortage of patriotism." While it is true that production slumped during the crucial years of 1917 and 1918, the nation had maximized its war effort and could take no more. Raw production figures confirm that Germany could not have possibly won a war of attrition against Britain, France and the United States combined. Despite its overwhelming individual power, Germany's industrial might and population were matched and outclassed by the Entente as a whole. Russia's exit in late 1917 did little to change the overall picture, as the United States had already joined the war on April 16th of that same year. American industrial capacity alone outweighed that of Germany.
Although the Germans were frequently depicted as "primordial aggressors responsible for the war", German peace proposals were all but rejected. Ludendorff was convinced that the Entente wanted little other than a Carthaginian peace. This was not the message most Germans heard coming from the other side. Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points were particularly popular among the German people. Socialists and liberals, especially the Social Democrats that formed the majority of the parliamentary body, were already known "agitators" for social change prior to 1914. When peace and full restoration were promised by the Allies, patriotic enthusiasm especially began to wane. Likewise, Germany's allies began to question the cause for the war as the conflict dragged on, and found their questions answered in the Allied propaganda.
When the armistice finally came in 1918, Ludendorff's prophecy appeared accurate almost immediately; although the fighting had ended, the British maintained their blockade of the European continent for a full year, leading to starvation and severe malnutrition. The non-negotiable peace agreed to by Weimar politicians in the Treaty of Versailles was certainly not what the German peace-seeking populace had expected.
Conservatives, nationalists and ex-military leaders began to speak critically about the peace and Weimar politicians, socialists, communists, and Jews were viewed with suspicion due to presumed extra-national loyalties. It was claimed that they had not supported the war and had played a role in selling out Germany to its enemies. These November Criminals, or those who seemed to benefit from the newly formed Weimar Republic, were seen to have "stabbed them in the back" on the home front, by either criticizing German nationalism, instigating unrest and strikes in the critical military industries or profiteering. In essence the accusation was that the accused committed treason against the "benevolent and righteous" common cause.
These theories were given credence by the fact that when Germany surrendered in November 1918, its armies were still in French and Belgian territory, Berlin remained 450 miles from the nearest front, and the German armies retired from the field of battle in good order. The Allies had been amply resupplied by the United States, which also had fresh armies ready for combat, but Britain and France were too war-weary to contemplate an invasion of Germany with its unknown consequences. No Allied army had penetrated the western German frontier, Western Front, and on the Eastern Front, Germany had already won the war against Russia, concluded with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the West, Germany had come close to winning the war with the Spring Offensive. Contributing to the Dolchstoßlegende, its failure was blamed on strikes in the arms industry at a critical moment of the offensive, leaving soldiers without an adequate supply of materiel. The strikes were seen to be instigated by treasonous elements, with the Jews taking most of the blame. This overlooked Germany's strategic position and ignored how the efforts of individuals were somewhat marginalized on the front, since the belligerents were engaged in a new kind of war. The industrialization of war had dehumanized the process, and made possible a new kind of defeat which the Germans suffered as a total war emerged.
The weakness of Germany's strategic position was exacerbated by the rapid collapse of its allies in late 1918, following allied victories on the Eastern and Italian fronts. Bulgaria was the first to sign an armistice on September 29 1918 at Saloniki. On October 30 the Ottoman Empire capitulated at Mudros. On November 3 Austria-Hungary sent a flag of truce to ask for an Armistice. The terms, arranged by telegraph with the Allied Authorities in Paris, were communicated to the Austrian Commander and accepted. The Armistice with Austria-Hungary was signed in the Villa Giusti, near Padua, on November 3. Austria and Hungary signed separate armistices following the overthrow of the Habsburg monarchy.
Nevertheless, this social mythos of domestic betrayal resonated among its audience, and its claims would codify the basis for public support for the emerging Nazi Party, under a racialist-based form of nationalism. The anti-Semitism was intensified by the Bavarian Soviet Republic, a Communist government which ruled the city of Munich for two weeks before being crushed by the Freikorps militia. Many of the Bavarian Soviet Republic's leaders were Jewish, a fact that allowed anti-Semitic propagandists to make the connection with "Communist treason".
I have asked His Excellency to now bring those circles to power which we have to thank for coming so far. We will therefore now bring those gentlemen into the ministries. They can now make the peace which has to be made. They can eat the broth which they have prepared for us!
On November 11, 1918, the representatives of the newly formed Weimar Republic signed an armistice with the Allies which would end World War I. The subsequent Treaty of Versailles led to further territorial and financial losses. As the Kaiser had been forced to abdicate and the military relinquished executive power, it was the temporary "civilian government" that sued for peace - the signature on the document was of the Catholic Centrist Matthias Erzberger, a civilian, who was later killed for his alleged treason. This led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Even though they publicly despised the treaty, it was most convenient for the generals — there were no war-crime tribunals, they were celebrated as undefeated heroes, and they could covertly prepare for removing the republic that they had helped to create.
The official birth of the term itself possibly can be dated to mid-1919, when Ludendorff was having lunch with British general Sir Neil Malcolm. Malcolm asked Ludendorff why it was that he thought Germany lost the war. Ludendorff replied with his list of excuses: the home front failed us, etc. Then Sir Neil Malcolm said that "it sounds like you were stabbed in the back, then?" The phrase was to Ludendorff's liking, and he let it be known among the general staff that this was the 'official' version, then disseminated throughout German society. This was picked up by right-wing political factions and used as a form of attack against the SPD-led early Weimar government, which had come to power in the German Revolution of November 1918.
In November 1919, the newly elected Weimar National Assembly initiated a Untersuchungsausschuß für Schuldfragen to investigate the causes of the World War and Germany's defeat. On November 18th, von Hindenburg testified in front of this parliamentary commission, and cited a December 17, 1918 Neue Zürcher Zeitung article that summarized two earlier articles in the Daily Mail by British General Frederick Barton Maurice with the phrase that the German army had been 'dagger-stabbed from behind by the civilian populace' ("von der Zivilbevölkerung von hinten erdolcht."). (Maurice later disavowed having used the term himself.). It was particularly this testimony of Hindenburg that led to the wide spread of the Dolchstoßlegende in post-WWI Germany.
Richard Steigmann-Gall says that the stab-in-the-back legend traces back to a sermon preached on February 3, 1918, by Protestant Court Chaplain Bruno Doehring, six months before the war had even ended. German scholar Boris Barth, in contrast to Steigmann-Gall, implies that Doehring did not actually use the term, but spoke only of 'betrayal.' Barth traces the first documented use to a centrist political meeting in the Munich Löwenbräu-Keller on November 2, 1918, in which Ernst Müller-Meiningen, a member of the Progressive coalition in the Reichstag, used the term to exhort his listeners to keep fighting:
As long as the front holds, we damned well have the duty to hold out in the homeland. We would have to be ashamed of ourselves in front of our children and grandchildren if we attacked the battle front from the rear and gave it a dagger-stab. (wenn wir der Front in den Rücken fielen und ihr den Dolchstoss versetzten.)
Barth also shows that the term was primarily popularized by the patriotic German newspaper Deutsche Tageszeitung that repeatedly quoted the Neue Zürcher article after Hindenburg had referred to it in front of the parliamentary inquiry commission.
Charges of a Jewish conspirational element in Germany's defeat drew heavily upon figures like Kurt Eisner, a Berlin-born German Jew who lived in Munich. He had written about the illegal nature of the war from 1916 onward, and he also had a large hand in the Munich revolution until he was assassinated in February 1919. The Weimar Republic under Friedrich Ebert violently suppressed workers' uprisings with the help of Gustav Noske and Reichswehr General Groener, and tolerated the paramilitary Freikorps forming all across Germany. In spite of such tolerance, the Republic's legitimacy was constantly attacked with claims such as the stab-in-the-back. Many of its representatives such as Matthias Erzberger and Walther Rathenau were assassinated, and the leaders were branded as "criminals" and Jews by the right-wing press dominated by Alfred Hugenberg.
German historian Friedrich Meinecke already attempted to trace the roots of the term in a June 11, 1922, article in the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse. In the 1924 national election, the Munich cultural journal Süddeutsche Monatshefte published a series of articles blaming the SPD and trade unions for Germany's defeat in World War I (the illustration on this page is the April 1924 title of that journal, which came out during the trial of Adolf Hitler and Ludendorff for high treason following the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The editor of an SPD newspaper sued the journal for defamation, giving rise to what is known as the Munich Dolchstossprozess from October 19 to November 20, 1924. Many prominent figures testified in that trial, including members of the parliamentary committee investigating the reasons for the defeat, so some of its results were made public long before the publication of the committee report in 1928.
The Dolchstoß was a central image in propaganda produced by the many right-wing and traditionally conservative political parties that sprang up in the early days of the Weimar Republic, including Hitler's NSDAP. For Hitler himself, this explanatory model for World War I was of crucial personal importance. He had learned of Germany's defeat while being treated for temporary blindness following a gas attack on the front. In Mein Kampf, he described a vision at this time which drove him to enter politics. Throughout his career, he railed against the "November criminals" of 1918, who had stabbed the German Army in the back.
Even provisional President Friedrich Ebert contributed to the myth when he saluted returning veterans with the oration that "no enemy has vanquished you" (kein Feind hat euch überwunden!) and "they returned undefeated from the battlefield (sie sind vom Schlachtfeld unbesiegt zurückgekehrt)" on November 10th, 1918. The latter quote was shortened to im Felde unbesiegt as a semi-official slogan of the Reichswehr. Ebert had meant these sayings as a tribute to the German soldier, but it only contributed to the prevailing feeling.