The November Criminals

1924 Cartoon Portraying the Stab in the Back by the November Criminals
1924 Cartoon Portraying the Stab in the Back by the November Criminals. Wikimedia Commons

The nickname ‘November Criminals’ was given to the German politicians who negotiated and signed the armistice which ended World War One, and was given by their opponents, who felt the army had enough strength to continue and that surrendering was a betrayal, a crime. Many of the November Criminals were leading members of the early Weimar Republic, and targets for their enemies throughout, including Hitler.

November was used because their actions occurred in November 1918.

These opponents were chiefly right wingers, and the idea that the November Criminals had ‘stabbed Germany in the back’ by engineering surrender was partly created by the German military itself, who manoeuvred the situation so the civilians would be blamed for conceding a war generals also felt couldn’t be won, but which they didn’t wish to admit.

Origin of the November Criminals

In early 1918, World War One was raging and German forces on the western front were still holding conquered territory but faced a problem. Their forces were finite and being pushed to exhaustion, while their enemies were benefitting from millions of fresh US troops being on their way. A French breakdown in morale a few months before had been saved by the thought other people were coming to help. While Germany might have won in the east, many troops were tied down holding their gains.

The German commander Ludendorff, therefore decided to make one final great attack to try and break the western front open before the US arrived in strength. The attack made large gains at first but petered out and was pushed back; the allies followed this up by inflicting ‘The Black Day of the German Army’ when they started to push the Germans back beyond their defenses.

Ludendorff suffered a mental breakdown.

When he recovered, Ludendorff decided Germany could not win and would need to seek an armistice. But he also knew the military would be blamed, and decided to move this blame elsewhere.  Power was transferred to a civilian government, who had to go surrender and negotiate a peace, allowing the military to stand back and claim they could have carried on: after all, Germans forces were still on enemy territory. As Germany went through a transition from imperial military command through socialist upheaval and then a democratic government, the old soldiers blamed these ‘November Criminals’ for abandoning the war effort. Hindenburg, Ludendorff’s notional superior, said the Germans had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by these civilians. The Treaty of Versailles’ harsh terms did nothing to prevent the ‘criminals’ idea festering. The military escaped the blame and was seen to stand apart. Socialists were ‘at fault’.

Exploitation

The men of the new civilian government had a hard time negotiating with their enemies, who felt they had completely won. Not only did the November Criminals sign the armistice to end the war, but they went on to be involved in the settlement negotiations that produced the Treaty of Versailles.

These weren't negotiations with the Germans, but amongst the allies and then dictated to their enemies. It looked a disaster for Germany, and the new, democratic Weimar government was tarred with it.

Then came Hitler, a man who recruited disaffected ex-soldiers and military elites, who wielded the stab in the back myth and the November Criminals surgically to enhance his own power and plans. Hitler believed Marxists, Socialists, Jews and traitors had caused the failure of Germany in the Great War (in which he’d fought and been injured) and found widespread belief in this claim. The lie of the November Criminals played a key and direct role in Hitler's rise to power and had been deliberately fostered by the commanders of World War One (although, it's important to remember those latter commanders had no way to predict Hitler's rise to power.)