26 February 2021

Dolchstosslegende and the lack of a shared reality

The most interesting podcast I've heard this year was recently broadcast on This American Life.  In the segment There's a German Word for That, Ira Glass interviews journalist Jochan Bittner, whose op-ed about the topic was published in the New York Times.  Herewith some excerpts from the print version:
One hundred years ago, amid the implosions of Imperial Germany, powerful conservatives who led the country into war refused to accept that they had lost. Their denial gave birth to arguably the most potent and disastrous political lie of the 20th century — the Dolchstosslegende, or stab-in-the-back myth.

Its core claim was that Imperial Germany never lost World War I. Defeat, its proponents said, was declared but not warranted. It was a conspiracy, a con, a capitulation — a grave betrayal that forever stained the nation. That the claim was palpably false didn’t matter. Among a sizable number of Germans, it stirred resentment, humiliation and anger...

In 1918, Germany was staring at defeat. The entry of the United States into the war the year before, and a sequence of successful counterattacks by British and French forces, left German forces demoralized. Navy sailors went on strike. They had no appetite to be butchered in the hopeless yet supposedly holy mission of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the loyal aristocrats who made up the Supreme Army Command...

A starving population joined the strikes and demands for a republic grew. On Nov. 9, 1918, Wilhelm abdicated, and two days later the army leaders signed the armistice. It was too much to bear for many: Military officers, monarchists and right-wingers spread the myth that if it had not been for political sabotage by Social Democrats and Jews back home, the army would never have had to give in.

The deceit found willing supporters. “Im Felde unbesiegt” — “undefeated on the battlefield” — was the slogan with which returning soldiers were greeted. Newspapers and postcards depicted German soldiers being stabbed in the back by either evil figures carrying the red flag of socialism or grossly caricatured Jews...

The startling aspect about the Dolchstosslegende is this: It did not grow weaker after 1918 but stronger. In the face of humiliation and unable or unwilling to cope with the truth, many Germans embarked on a disastrous self-delusion: The nation had been betrayed, but its honor and greatness could never be lost...

Germany’s first democracy fell. Without a basic consensus built on a shared reality, society split into groups of ardent, uncompromising partisans. And in an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia, the notion that dissenters were threats to the nation steadily took hold.

Alarmingly, that seems to be exactly what is happening in the United States today... A staggering 88 percent of Trump voters believe that the election result is illegitimate, according to a YouGov poll. A myth of betrayal and injustice is well underway.
More at the NYT link.  I would also encourage those interested to click on the podcast link and listed to Ira Glass' interview with Jochan Bittner.


  1. Jeepers !
    The U.S.A. following in the boot steps of 1920s Germany.
    If that don't trump everything !

    Back then the world had the United States as the iron fist, these days we would have to put our money on China ..... oh wait, we've already given them our money ! ... never mind, I am sure they don't want to be the most powerful nation in the world ... again.

    Make America Great Again ... now what was that slogan the Nazis had ?

    1. The slogan was "One People, One Nation, One Leader." You asked...

  2. I thought the strongest proof of a lack of shared consensus was on Joe Biden’s first day in office, when he killed thousands of union jobs tied to the keystone XL pipeline while the professional class celebrated not being anxious reading the news

    1. That's an excellent example. And there are many more.

    2. And this week Biden saved over 10,000 jobs at United airlines, which is a legitimate business whereas the pipeline is a complete disaster on a dozen levels.

  3. The consistent dismissal of those 88% mentioned in the article as largely uneducated and ill-informed adds to the discontent. I am not smart enough to figure out how to acknowledge their sense of betrayal and injustice while at the same time providing an alternative to Trump, but I hope that some wise people are working on that. A lot of time and money has been spent bringing the worst of the capital insurgents to justice, but not much has been done to demonstrate, and prove, that America is for everybody. President Biden talks about unity, but has he really done anything in that direction? I honestly don't know.

    Warning sirens are being ignored, or scoffed at. Time to pay attention?

  4. Unity is a lie. A few thousand lost jobs, in a dying industry causing great planetary destruction, is a false conceit. (note: I work in this industry) What about the millions of jobs lost in the arts or the service industry?

    There has been a concerted effort for decades to create an ignorant population who do not know how to read for comprehension or investigate/research what they are being spoon-fed. Of course they're frustrated and discontent, but maintaining the great lie by pointing in the opposite direction of the truth won't help.

  5. Meanwhile Republicans refused to hold Trump accountable for the deaths that occurred on January 6th as a result of his actions. Which is worse: killing jobs or killing people?

  6. My opponent says there are no easy answers. I say he isn't looking hard enough.

    --Bart Simpson

  7. This comment section is a prime example of the real question -- you can recognize Dolchstosslegende, but how do you stop it short of massive conflict and/or decades of reappraisal? If there's one thing humanity has proven, is that people are willing to ride their beliefs into the fire as opposed to admitting they were wrong. Like, do people really think there's some magic phrase that will make people go "Oh, yeah, I guess that election was legit after all?"

    Somebody pointed out about Biden reaching out to the other side -- that presupposes the other side has somebody that can be reached out to. If you want to talk about immigration in the context of a modern society, or finding better balances between environmental and economic concerns, okay, we can talk. If your position is COVID is a lie, climate change is a lie, and the world was better with the racial standards of the 1850s -- that's not a conversation we can have.

    1. "If your position is COVID is a lie, climate change is a lie, and the world was better with the racial standards of the 1850s -- that's not a conversation we can have."

      That's not the position of the vast majority of Trump voters, and the sooner you realize that the better.

  8. The "thousands of jobs lost with the cancellation of the keystone pipeline" is a persistent falsehood that needs to stop.


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