The November Criminals

The November Criminals cartoon

 Wikimedia Commons

The nickname "November Criminals" was given to the German politicians who negotiated and signed the armistice which ended World War I in November of 1918. The November Criminals were named so by German political opponents who thought the German army had enough strength to continue and that surrendering was a betrayal or crime, that the German army had not actually lost on the battlefront.

These political 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 maneuvered the situation so the civilians would be blamed for conceding a war that the generals also felt couldn’t be won, but which they didn’t wish to admit.

Many of the November Criminals were a part of the early resistance members who eventually spearheaded the German Revolution of 1918 - 1919, several of which went on to serve as heads of the Weimar Republic which would serve as the basis for the post-war German reconstruction in the years to come.

The Politicians Who Ended World War I

In early 1918, World War One was raging and German forces on the western front were still holding conquered territory but their forces were finite and being pushed to exhaustion while the enemies were benefitting from millions of fresh United States troops. While Germany might have won in the east, many troops were tied down holding their gains.

The German commander Eric 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, and 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 in enemy territory.

As Germany went through a transition from imperial military command to a socialist revolution that led to 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, and the Treaty of Versailles’ harsh terms did nothing to prevent the "criminals" idea festering. In all of this, the military escaped the blame and was seen as exceptional while the emerging socialists were held falsely at fault.

Exploitation: From Soldiers to Hitler's Revisionist History

Conservative politicians against the quasi-socialist reform and restoration efforts of the Weimar Republic capitalized on this myth and spread it through much of the 1920s, targeting those that agreed with former soldiers who felt they had wrongfully been told to cease fighting, which led to much civic unrest from right-wing groups at the time.

When Adolf Hitler emerged in the German political scene later that decade, he recruited these ex-soldiers, military elites, and disaffect men who believed those in power had rolled over for the Allied Armies, taking their dictation instead of negotiating a proper treaty.

Hitler wielded the stab in the back myth and the November Criminals surgically to enhance his own power and plans. He used this narrative that Marxists, Socialists, Jews, and traitors had caused the failure of Germany in the Great War (in which Hitler had fought and been injured) and found widespread followers of the lie in the post-war German population.

This played a key and direct role in Hitler's rise to power, capitalizing on the egos and fears of the citizenry, and it's ultimately why people should still be wary of what they regard as "real history" — after all, it's the victors of wars that write the history books, so people like Hitler most certainly tried to rewrite some history!

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "The November Criminals." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 27). The November Criminals. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The November Criminals." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).