'Someone has stabbed Germany in the back'

How Hitler used Jews’ failed WWI-era idealism to feed the world’s worst genocide

Scholar Tim Grady studies the nuanced politics of a soon-to-be devastated community in ‘A Deadly Legacy: German Jews and the Great War’

  • Austrian and German Jewish troops at services during WWI. (public domain)
    Austrian and German Jewish troops at services during WWI. (public domain)
  • In this Dec. 5, 1931 file photo, Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialists, is saluted as he leaves the party's Munich headquarters.  (AP, File)
    In this Dec. 5, 1931 file photo, Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialists, is saluted as he leaves the party's Munich headquarters. (AP, File)
  • General Paul von Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and General Erich Ludendorff in German headquarters, January 1917. (Public domain)
    General Paul von Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and General Erich Ludendorff in German headquarters, January 1917. (Public domain)
  • Adolf Hitler (seated, far left) posed with fellow soldiers during their World War I service for Germany (Public domain)
    Adolf Hitler (seated, far left) posed with fellow soldiers during their World War I service for Germany (Public domain)
  • Spartacist irregulars holding a street in Berlin during the uprising in 1919. (Public domain)
    Spartacist irregulars holding a street in Berlin during the uprising in 1919. (Public domain)

During World War I, almost 100,000 German Jews proudly served in military uniform as soldiers, sailors, airmen and administrators. But far from a better public opinion of Germany’s Jewish citizens, after Germany’s crushing loss there was instead a subsequent rise in anti-Semitic narratives.

Among the common myths circulated at the time were assertions — based on real-life examples — that Jews were war profiteering at home. On top of that, it was rumored that Jews were “war shirking” — a term used to describe avoiding military responsibilities at the front lines.

The potent mix of prejudices and stereotypes quickly led a battered post-WWI German people to pin all their troubles on a ready-made scapegoat: the Jews.

“If we want to clearly understand how the Nazis came to power, we need to see it was the events of WWI that were fundamental to their rise,” says British historian Tim Grady, whose latest book is “A Deadly Legacy: German Jews and the Great War.”

Tim Grady, author of ‘A Deadly Legacy: German Jews and the Great War.’ (Courtesy)

“The legacies that come out of WWI — such as total war and a culture of destruction — are extremely important,” says Grady. “These remain after 1919, into the Weimar Republic, which never really becomes a proper postwar society. And so the Nazis build and develop out of this defeat and legacy.”

Therefore, while the wartime experience of German Jews “was almost the same as other Germans,” says Grady, the instability and chaos that resulted from some prominent Jews’ legacies were eventually exploited by the National Socialists as the party made its bid for power.

Through the figure of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi party became what Grady calls “the personification of WWI.”

“They are the party that will avenge Germany’s defeat,” says Grady, “and part of their legacy of WWI involves targeting Jews.”

Adolf Hitler, far right, with his war comrades of the Bavarian Reserve Infantry 16th Regiment, in 1914. (Bundesarchiv bild)

WWI, when Jews were leaders in German society

Grady believes there is an understandable inclination to approach the history of Jewish life in Germany from the perspective of what he calls a “vanishing point” — whether it’s 1933, 1938 or 1941. However, the historian says it’s important to trace the WWI culture that Jews, as well as other Germans, helped to define.

One crucial step toward scapegoating the Jews is the “stab in the back” myth, which originated in 1917 in the wake of German parliament’s peace resolution that sought to quickly end WWI. Major-General Hans von Seeckt complained that the “home [front] has stabbed [Germany] in the back.”

“For the Nazis, the ‘stab-in-the-back theory’ is the crucial legacy of WWI,” says Grady.

The myth really began to gain momentum, however, when Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff testified to the National Assembly in the new Weimar Republic in 1919.

“They suggest that someone has stabbed Germany in the back,” the historian explains. “And while they don’t identify anybody in particular, they certainly hint that some Jews could have been responsible for this.”

General Paul von Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and General Erich Ludendorff in German headquarters, January 1917. (Public domain)

This mythology gained even more traction in the Weimar Republic throughout the 1920s. Grady’s book recalls how in April 1924 an infamous image appeared on the cover of the front page of a German magazine called Süddeutsche Monatshefte, which had a Jewish editor, Paul Nikolaus Cossmann.

It depicted an oversized dagger protruding from the neck of an incapacitated soldier, presenting a clear image that the German army had been betrayed at the very point when victory seemed just within grasp.

The stab in the back legend played a crucial role in the rise of both anti-Semitism and the popularity of the Nazi party in postwar Germany.

“In the Nazi world view, then, Jews are responsible for this stab in the back, and so need to be removed if Germany is to ever become strong again,” Grady adds.

The influence of Jewish post-WWI revolutionaries

A crucial factor enabling this paranoid anti-Semitic narrative to flourish was the Spartacist uprising of January 1919 in Germany. The Spartacists were communists led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

Spartacist irregulars holding a street in Berlin during the uprising in 1919. (Public domain)

Their main aim was to replicate the Russian Revolution of 1917 in Germany, believing that power and wealth should be shared equally among the working classes, who should run German society.

The extreme right in Germany grasped at this immediately, says Grady, calling the revolution “nothing more than a dictatorship of the Jews.”

Luxemburg, who was co-head of the Spartacist movement, was indeed Jewish. So too were other prominent members, such as Leo Jogiches and Paul Levi.

But as Grady’s book makes clear, the politics of the extreme left found little traction with most German Jews during this period, predominantly because most of them sympathized with the moderates.

However, because a number of prominent Jews were involved in the revolution in both Germany and Russia, a narrative of connection became hard to reverse once two key words became inextricably linked: revolution and Jew.

“That narrative is very hard to shift once it starts, especially in an increasingly divisive society after the war,” says Grady.

The Jewish ‘opportunist’

“As the suffering of German society increases during the war, a story surfaces that Jews seem to be doing better than the rest of Germans,” Grady says. “That discourse rises as the war goes on, too.”

Walter Rathenau, foreign minister for the Weimar Republic and assassinated the same year he was appointed. (Bundesarchiv bild)

“Walter Rathenau and his business interests are also important for the rise of this anti-Jewish [sentiment],” he adds.

Rathenau is a figure who features prominently in Grady’s book. He was a Jewish politician, diplomat, industrialist, author, man of letters, and art collector. Born in 1867 in Berlin into a wealthy Jewish family, his father, Emil Rathenau, founded Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG), an electrical engineering company.

Due to the company’s centrality in the Germany economy, Rathenau was appointed to supervise resources and raw materials in the war industry. In January 1922, he was appointed foreign minister of the Weimar Republic — the only Jew hitherto to attain such a high rank.

In June of that same year Rathenau was murdered by Ernst Werner Techow and Hermann Fischer, who believed the foreign minister was one of the Elders of Zion, the mythical cabal of Jews who — according to the notorious “Protocols” forgery — were secretly conspiring to rule the world.

“Rathenau was an early proponent of German expansionism — the idea that Germany could dominate economically and expand Central Europe,” says Grady.

“He was effectively collectivizing raw materials and then directed them to where they were most needed, through state control. But there were also his political links to AEG,” Grady adds.

The right-wing press in Germany criticized the moves by Rathenau, pointing out that he was making large profits from the war. That criticism continued when he took on his ministerial role in the Weimar Republic later on, says Grady.

“This then grows into a narrative of ‘The Jews have benefited from Germany’s defeat.’ And that narrative develops further — it’s Jewish businessmen and Jewish politicians leading this Jewish republic,” Grady says.

The Jewish expansionists

Rathenau, however, wasn’t exceptional in the fact that he was a German Jew looking to expand into Central and Eastern Europe during WWI. As Grady’s book documents with rigorous analysis, Jewish annexationists could find plenty of reasons for fixing their territorial gaze eastward. For starters, Eastern Europe offered a vast expanse of land ripe for agricultural settlement.

Willi Ermann, a German Jewish soldier in WWI who was murdered at Auschwitz in the Holocaust. (Public domain)

And, perhaps more importantly, the region the Jewish German annexationists had their eyes on was home to the majority of Russia’s 4.9 million Jews living in the Pale of Settlement. It was an area that stretched from Ukraine in the south through Russian Poland and up to the Baltic states in the north.

Given the tragedy that lay in store for 6 million European Jews in Eastern Europe, there is just a small dose of historical irony that many German Jews would actively push the case for annexations and territorial expansion in that same area between 1914 and 1918.

“The eastern front becomes really important during WWI,” says Grady, “because it sowed the seeds for the idea that Eastern Europe really is this place of expansion of annexation.”

“These ideas are discussed through to the 1920s and 1930s. And then later it’s settled on in Nazi ideology — this is the place for expansionism,” the historian continues.

A 1917 German map of the Ober Ost region with territories in modern-day Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Poland. (Public domain)

During WWI German occupation in Eastern Europe, the Ober Ost (German for the Supreme Commander of All German Forces in the East) administration used two tactics in its attempt to try and expand eastwards: full-on military domination and efforts to bind the local population by mutual agreement.

Grady says that like other German soldiers working in the Ober Ost administration, German Jews enjoyed being part of what they saw as a colonial mission: to bring order and civilization to what they viewed as an underdeveloped part of the world.

Jewish culture and custom played a role too, as Grady points out: “For [German] Jews, this expansionism in WWI is also about trying to learn more about Eastern European Jewish culture, to almost revel in this pure form of Jewishness that hasn’t been destroyed by Western culture. So this gives German Jews a huge interest in these Eastern European Jews.”

Unintentional collusion, with 20-20 hindsight

Grady’s book places enormous importance on the fact that both German Jews and other Germans jointly shaped the defining ideology that arose out of Germany from this historical epoch.

In the concluding chapter of Grady’s book, he recalls how in 1949, Ernst Kantorowicz reflected on his military service in the German army during WWI. The German-Jewish medieval historian arrived at the conclusion that, ironically, his personal wartime efforts helped Hitler rise to power.

‘A Deadly Legacy: German Jews and the Great War’ by Tim Grady. (Courtesy)

“Fighting actively, with rifle and gun,” Kantorowicz wrote at the time, had “prepared, if indirectly, and against my intention, the road leading to National Socialism.”

Grady provides some historical context in his own book, writing how “Kantorowicz was all too aware [that] the inability of the Weimar Republic to move beyond WWI stemmed from the way in which Jews and other Germans had originally approached the conflict.”

Kantorowicz, of course, was not suggesting that Jewish soldiers such as himself, who had fought for Germany between 1914 and 1918, had purposely provided the foundations for the emergence of the National Socialist movement.

But he was eager to express that WWI had shaped the fortunes of the Weimar Republic, a weak democratic state that came into being after the fighting subsided.

With the hindsight of history before him, Kantorowicz was able to see that the weak German state provided a vacuum in which Nazism flourished, leaving Hitler’s grasp at power in 1933 all the more easy.

The British historian claims that after World War II many Jews had what he calls a “tricky relationship” with their past legacy of fighting in WWI, “especially because these Jews had been involved with the German military that later turned on them.”

“What Kantorowicz was saying in 1949 would have been shared with German Jews, who at that point had survived the Holocaust,” the historian notes.

Austrian and German Jewish troops at services during WWI. (public domain)

“There are lots of records in 1949 of German Jews discarding iron crosses and trying to forget their military record of WWI. Not all German Jews agreed, however. Some were quite proud of their German war record,” he says.

Grady says that Hitler’s thinking on WWI would later continually come back to one single point — how Germany could avoid repeating the same mistakes in a second world war.

“For Hitler, the stab in the back myth brought WWI to a sudden and undignified end, primarily because of what he called Germany’s ‘failure to recognize the problem of race and in particular the Jewish danger,’” explains Grady.

“This lead the far right in Germany during the 1920s to begin seizing on existing narratives of Jewish betrayal and increasingly Jews become a [targeted] group,” the historian concludes.

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