Saturday 18 May 2013

The Myth of Betrayal in post-war Germany

This selection could not be included in the final editing of  That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, (Encompass Editions, 2013) for reasons of space.

The stab-in-the-back myth
The tumultuous aftermath of the Great War lent support to the conspiracy theories and demagogic politics that emerged as a response to the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and of the military defeat in Germany. It reinforced the paranoia of the times and created a receptive mood for “the canonical text of the Jewish conspiracy theorists, Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The joint heads of the German war effort, Paul Hindenburg and Eric Ludendorff, recognized by late September 1918 that Germany could not win the war. The German public long deceived into believing that their sacrifices would lead to German victory were enraged. To deflect anger from their failure to deliver that victory, both generals circulated the lie the Germany Army had not be militarily defeated but had been stabbed in the back by an unpatriotic public and from sabotage undertaken by Jews, socialists and Bolsheviks. 

This canard was their cowardly attempt to cover themselves for losing the gamble when they launched a massive all-out spring offensive in 1918. And they had concealed all knowledge of the war’s developments, especially bad news, not only from the German people but also from the government and the Kaiser. The lie seemed to have some plausibility since German troops were more than one hundred miles inside enemy territory and, with the exception of the Rhineland, no Allied troops were stationed on German soil and since early 1918 the public had grown increasingly restive even rebellious. But despite the circulation of the dolchstoss (dagger thrust) legend by the radical right and a future staple in the Nazi propaganda armoury, the reality was that the unrest was a product of military failure not a cause. In the wake of some of the heaviest losses since the war began, especially among the officers, 1.75 million German soldiers succumbing to the influenza epidemic and an estimated million men ducking duty, a sense of war weariness led to a collapse in morale and scattered outbreaks of rebelliousness among the military itself motivated more by self-preservation than any political ideology.  A mutiny broke out among sailors in the North Sea port city of Kiel, motivated by a desire to end the carnage, one that spread to soldiers and workers in other cities.

The response of Ludendorff to this crisis did not distinguish him as a senior officer of honour. In order to avoid being held accountable for defeat and to maintain the prestige of the officer corps, he foisted responsibility on civilians by demanding that Kaiser Wilhelm request an immediate armistice and that a new government negotiate with the Allies. With the public facing a winter of starvation and the press calling for the abdication of the increasingly marginalized Kaiser, a team of mostly civilians led by Centre Party leader, Mathias Erzberger, agreed to accept a tough but not unrealistic armistice. Germany would return Alsace-Lorraine to France, surrender all conquered territory and repair the damage it had inflicted on Belgium and northern France, and cede the territory acquired in the East. Relieved of responsibility for the disaster, the military leadership despicably maligned civilian politicians, socialists and Jews as the traitors, who had robbed Germany of its rightful victory. In a society that traditionally revered the military, not a hint of suspicion surfaced to suggest that Ludendorff and Hindenburg had lied. They were fortunate that allied restraint in not crossing the Rhineland enabled the lie to become an enduring myth.

The military commanders’ ploy effectively scapegoated civilians on the home front, particularly their critics on the left, and exonerated themselves from responsibility for losing the war. Conservative sectors of the public continued to revere Hindenburg, who, as a personification of the guileless German Siegfried had not been defeated on the battlefield but had been stabbed in the back by Hagen from the Nibelung underworld, who symbolized the treacherous domestic enemies on the home front. True, widespread opposition to the war existed in the later stages and strikes in January 1918 were mounted to demand a fair distribution of food. But it was a grotesque misrepresentation that the worm at the core, the red and Jewish enemies of the Fatherland, treacherously sabotaged the war effort by refusing to enlist, and then profiting from it in order to gain power. A census taken in 1916, and not made public during the war, revealed that eighty percent of eligible Jews, higher than Gentiles, served on the front lines. Had Ludendorff and Hindenburg been forced to account for their prosecution of the war in negotiating the armistice with the Allies, the lie never might have taken hold.

The myth that the German armed forces had never been defeated on the battlefield extended to the civilian leadership. The National Assembly’s newly-elected Social Democratic President, Friedrich Ebert, welcomed home dispirited troops by cynically pronouncing them unconquered thereby reinforcing the lie. Despite the facade of a festive reception in which returning soldiers were greeted with flowers and cheers, the reality was that since tens of thousands abandoned their units before official demobilization, they did not even show up for festivals in their honour. Veterans often turned surly, tore the insignia from their uniforms, and disarmed their officers in the weeks that followed the Armistice. In the mythology promulgated by the radical right, soldiers were scorned or ignored. In Hermann Goring’s later version described how degenerate deserters and prostitutes tore off the insignia of front line soldiers. What this mythology ignores is that the overall tone of the November Revolution (1918) was initially more democratic than Bolshevik since the majority of the population welcomed both the abdication of Wilhelm and the dissolution of the political and social privileges of the traditional elites.  But a combination of anger and humiliation at the conditions of the Armistice, and the outbreak of revolutionary uprisings rendered a large swathe of the public susceptible to the stab-in-the-back falsehood. It was understandable that they accepted this perception given that during the war, they were told they were winning, and then without warning, an armistice was arranged by civilian leaders, when no Allied troops, apart from the Rhineland, occupied Germany. In a society that revered its military, there could be no suggestion that their military commanders had lied to its people. With the advantage of hindsight, it would have been better had Allied troops marched victoriously into Berlin; instead, German troops marched home to cheering crowds to be welcomed by the new president, Friedrich Ebert, with the disingenuous words: “No enemy has conquered you.” A socialist president had sanctioned the ‘stab-in-the-back’ lie.

Rosa Luxemburg
The turbulent political climate left a fertile breeding ground for social unrest that polarized German society. The far-left independent socialists and communists, who labelled themselves Spartacists, staged in early January 1919 a disorganized attack on the Ebert government in Berlin one that sparked violent repression by the newly recruited Freikorps. Among their 1200 victims were the vicious murders of Spartacists’ leaders, Rosa Luxembourg, who particularly abhorred the war and the cruelty of the Bolsheviks, and Karl Liebknecht.  Meantime, as strikes and insurgency spread to other parts of Germany, the ultra-nationalists – the land-owning aristocracy, military elite industrialists – exacerbated the divisiveness by fabricating the fantasy that the civilian Republican officials dubbed the November criminals were responsible for the revolutionary disorders and the humiliating disaster of 1918. For those who ascribed to this phantasmagorical worldview, the uprisings in Berlin and Munich offered further confirmation that the Protocols were playing themselves out.
Max Beckmann Night
Max Beckmann painted the powerful allegory Night that depicts a scene of unmitigated brutality where a pipe-smoking intellectual and two thugs lynch a man and a woman in a crowded room. The tableau evokes a chilling Gothic vision of martyrdom and crucifixion that reflects an underlying truth that Luxembourg and Liebknecht acquired in death a resonance for their followers and ideological sympathizers that they never possessed in life. Had Luxembourg lived, she would have likely clashed with Lenin and Stalin’s line that German and other non-Russian communists must submit to Moscow’s authority.

The clearest so-called proof for the ultra-conservative fantasy was the towering presence of Walter Rathenau: scion and inheritor of a huge electrical complex, industrialist and financier whose knowledge of finance surpassed that of almost everyone else, a writer with philosophical inclinations, and a multilingual, German Jew. Despite his extraordinary talents, in the cross-hairs of German anti-Semitism, he struggled to establish his identity, deeply sensitive to the reality that, owing to his being a Jew, he was never allowed to be an officer in the German army.  This denial, consequently, deprived him of associating with the virile, courageous Nordic men, with whom he felt a strong and perhaps an erotic attachment. That pain prompted him to write in 1911: “In the youth of every German Jew, there comes a moment when he comes fully conscious of the fact that he has entered the world as a second-class citizen, and that no amount of ability or merit can rid him of that status.”  

The outbreak of war, to which Rathenau had been opposed to the last moment because he foresaw its potential cataclysmic consequences, secured for him a major appointment in the War Ministry as head of the Raw Materials Section, which enabled him to establish the first planned economy in Europe. Had it not been for Rathenau and the scientists, economists and managers that he engaged, Germany might have fallen within a few months. Recognizing that nitrates had been imported from Latin America and were needed for fertilizers and therefore bread and gunpowder, he found ways to replace them through the tight control and distribution of local compounds and plundered raw materials from Poland and Belgium. After alienating his military colleagues who were suspicious of his schemes, and his fellow industrialists, who resented his intrusions into the free market, Rathenau resigned in 1915. Remaining in close contact with military and civilian leaders, he quietly became a restless critic of the war on topics ranging from unrestricted submarine warfare to misleading the public with lies. 

With a talent for alienating people by giving advice that frequently turned out to be right, he became, after receiving a covetous ministerial post at the end of the war, a convenient scapegoat for military defeat. For example, Ludendorff insinuated that “the Jewish Prince” had sabotaged the war effort, a ploy to divert attention from his own wartime conduct. In one instance, in order to avoid an ignominious retreat, he had insisted that his civilian superiors arrange an early armistice with President Wilson. Comments made by Rathenau at the beginning of the war were deliberately distorted when disclosed by the nationalist anti-Semitic commander to suggest that the industrialist was a defeatist and unpatriotic when in reality he had questioned the competence of German leaders. At a time when the stab-in-the-back by defeatist and alien elements was the byword of the nationalists and by the general population, who could not accept military defeat, the “King of the Jews,” Rathenau was vilified as a traitor. Despite his reformist ideas for a more progressive tax structure, recommendations for a more democratic educational system and the need to end the unregulated free market, Rathenau was the target of suspicion also by the left since they believed unjustifiably that he wanted to prolong the war. 

Walther Rathenau
The Weimar Republic, with its more liberal and cosmopolitan ethos, permitted Rathenau to receive some of the recognition he sought even though it carried the supreme price. Appointed in 1920 to be a member of the commission to negotiate reparations, he advised compromise with the goal of seeking rapprochement with the West when colleagues insisted on paying no restitution to the allies and resented Rathenau for his moderate position. The following year he was finally appointed to a ministerial position, first in Reconstruction and by 1922 the visible and contentious position as Foreign Minister. When assassinations were a common instrument of the extreme right, the presence of this cultured, aristocratic reformer aroused irrational, savage hatred among the diehard nationalists. In this kind of rancorous atmosphere, thugs among the disbanded paramilitary Freikorps bellowed: “Shoot down Walter Rathenau/ The Goddammed Jewish swine”! 
After signing a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, that guaranteed that the Soviets could never impose reparation demands on Germany, Rathenau was the inevitable recipient of opprobrium by the politicians and press on the extreme Right. Allegedly acting in the interests of international finance, he was perceived to be an agent of the Bolsheviks and consequently, was accused of treason by Karl Helfferich, an apoplectic nationalist-conservative member of the Reichstag. For this cohort of fanatics, Rathenau symbolized everything they despised about the Weimar Republic: cosmopolitanism, liberalism, bourgeois capitalism and a foreign policy based on compromise. The Chancellor warned Rathenau that his life was in danger but the fatalist Foreign Minister refused to take any security precautions. Six months after his appointment, the almost inevitable occurred on June 24, 1922 when rightist thugs, mostly war veterans, murdered him in an open car on his way to work.

Although genuine revulsion and national mourning followed the assassination of a man whose charisma has been compared with that of Hitler’s, conservative fanatics rejoiced in the deed, and believed, as one of the accomplices admitted at the trial, that Rathenau was one of the Elders of Zion. To those who declared that Rathenau loved the German people, one extreme nationalist replied in language that describes the ancestry of the murdered victim as vampiric: 
Of course any Jew loves the German people. It draws him to itself in its very being, its spiritual nature, the physicality if its daughters and sons. He seeks to restore himself with blood that is virginal and fresh.…What moves us to flee from Jewry, no matter how much love we may harbour for individual Jews, is the repugnance we feel in the face of degeneracy personified. 
The tragic irony was that this brilliant polymath, who abhorred mediocrity, genuinely wanted to possess power in order to serve his country and at the same time harboured a psychic affinity for the same blond blue-eyed Teutonic warriors as the fanatics who assassinated him. By failing to take any safety precautions, it is possible that he courted martyrdom in the belief that he would achieve the recognition denied him in life. If he did, his identification with the Nordic warrior would link him with enemies, the Nazis, who most detested him. A substantial part of their appeal was their glorification of martyrs who died for the cause. The spirit behind the powerful words spoken by the judge at the trial of Rathenau’s murderers could equally apply to the martyrs celebrated by the Nazis: “May the sacrificial death of Rathenau…serve to purify the infected air of Germany and to lead Germany, now sinking in mortal sickness in this moral barbarism, towards its cure.” Indeed, when the Nazis acceded to power, two of Rathenau’s murderers, one killed by the police, the other committed suicide in the aftermath, were eulogized as martyrs. Himmler interpreted their deaths in terms that could only be described as a surreal fantasy: “Without the deed of these two, Germany today would be living under a Bolshevik regime.” The sober reality was that the lives of Jews had become fraught with tension; “more than a handicap or a social embarrassment; it was a danger and, not impossibly, a sentence to death.…The unthinkable had become thinkable. Kristallnacht was only sixteen years away.”

Freikorps May 1919
The post-war atmosphere bristled with sensibilities coarsened by the war and with the inability of Germans to recognize that they had been defeated in the field. Demagoguery and extremist rhetoric spewed forth from a cauldron of hatred that existed between socialist and communist deputies on the left and nationalists on the right. These tensions mirrored the bellicose sentiments of the paramilitaries outside the Reichstag, whose belief in purification served to rationalize the culture of violence committed by both ideological extremes. Communists inspired by the Bolshevik revolution believed that a similar proletarian uprising could transpire in Germany. The more formidable ultraconservatives, justifying their loathing of the Republic itself with a fear inspired by the Protocols, imagined Jewish domination and Bolshevism. In 1921, a Freikorps officer penned lines that exemplify this conspiratorial mindset: “The country is full of loafers and cheats, of men whom the turmoil of revolution has whirled to the top, into ministers’ seats, who muddle and ‘lead’ us ever downward, farther down the slippery slope, immediately into the morass…while Bolshevism stands and sneers.” As these perceptions represented a large constituency who had retreated to irresponsible political demagoguery, it is not surprising that during the Weimar years, more than 350 political murders were committed by ultra-right-wing terrorists. They were often assisted in their escape by the police or treated sympathetically by anti-republican judges, particularly in Bavaria, which was prone to this kind of ideologically driven extremism. After the banning of the Freikorps, other extreme nationalistic paramilitary organizations sprouted such as the Shahlhelm (steel helmet) founded by a veteran that had fought at the Somme that demanded an authoritarian government to punish its internal enemies and a war of liberation against France. In this atmosphere, adversaries were regarded as enemies and difference could not be respected or rationally debated, but was perceived as being equated with treason. The vibrant spirit of a democracy, therefore, could not exist, even though it hobbled on in an increasingly tattered form until January 1933 when its passing was mourned by virtually no one.

Economic difficulties, owing partly to German government decisionslow taxes during the war and social spending afterward that inflated the deficit to account for two thirds of its budget in 1921also contributed to its demise. In the early 1920s, the German people staggered under the weight of a vertiginous hyperinflation that caused not only tremendous economic hardship but also psychological degradation. While those on fixed incomes were driven to desperation and beggary, not everyone suffered; those with foreign exchange were rich. The country was invaded by profiteers: like “birds of prey…swooping down from all directions,” they fed, in the words of one contemporary, “on Germany [that] was a rapidly decomposing corpse.” One Hamburg housewife recalled to the writer Pearl Buck that in those days “everybody saw an enemy in everyone else.”

In 1923, Fritz Lang, who believed that his films captured the spirit of the time, released Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler in which the director explores the evil genius of a criminal mind. Through his hypnotic power, Mabuse is able to bend people to his will, manipulate the stock market to drive up or down the value of stocks and is able to employ blind people to print counterfeit money. Lang shows us a secret clubwhose motto is everything that is pleasurable is permissiblethat is operated by an inflation profiteer. Through myriad disguises, Mabuse preys on and destroys the idle and restless rich who crave sensation and seem powerless to resist the speculative fever and gambling mania.  

 Economic insecurity and anger were compounded by the influx of 70,000 Jews during the war and by the post-war refugees from the pogroms that rocked Eastern Europe. The brutalization of political life fomented hatred toward the liberal establishment, the Jewish press and the rich Jews who assisted the refugees. Behind them all was the spectre of Rathenau who personified most conspicuously the misfortunes that had befallen Germany. The nationalist right fastened onto their scapegoat and found a vicarious outlet for their witches’ Sabbath in Rathenau’s assassination. Commenting on the allegation that Conservative Nationalists bore some responsibility for the slaying of Rathenau, a Centre Party politician remarked, “The enemy stands on the Right, trickling his poison into the nation’s wounds.” It was a portent of a virus that would saturate the body politic, as the once inconceivable became probable.  

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