By the end of September 1918, the Germans were beaten. Earlier that year Chief-of-Staff Erich Ludendorff commanded the “Kaiserschlacht” offensive that briefly seemed to turn the tide, but the Germans lacked the resources to support the effort. Ludendorff himself told the Kaiser and Germany’s Chancellor to ask for a ceasefire on September 29th.
But the myth that Germany’s civilian leaders betrayed their military started to spread before the Treaty of Versailles was completed. It said that the army had won but was forced to surrender by Jews, or Bolsheviks, or Socialists. This story later became known as the Dolchstoßlegende, the “stab-in-the-back myth,” after Ludendorff said that the civilian government in Germany “stabbed him in the back”. Despite the fact that he had admitted defeat, and later recommended accepting the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles.
This myth is no small thing. It’s not “spiders eggs in Bubble-Yum” or “Paul is dead”. Even “FDR knew Pearl Harbor was coming” is trivial compared to this one. It was a central belief of the Nazi Party, and I’m sure you noticed the part about Jews being behind it. Ludendorff himself, who obviously knew it was false, went on to support Hitler.
The myth is strong enough that still around today. I’m not going to link to the sites, but a search yields a few “truther” sites that blame it for just about everything bad that’s happened since 1918. Which of course means that, you guessed it, the Jews are responsible. Think about it: if you believe this myth you can draw a straight line from the end of World War I to 9/11. Or, if you believe 9/11 was a conspiracy than this myth is a no-brainer. (Literally.) I’m sure there are more than a few people that hang out at Trump rallies that are very familiar with the Dolchstoßlegende.
There is, of course, absolutely no historical basis for it. I’m not going to bother debunking it any further. It’s just bullshit.
The stab-in-the-back myth is hardly the first big lie, and it’s certainly not the last. Today we have Muslims celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City, Benghazi, Obama the Muslim, and the murder of Vince Foster, to just name a few. There’s even a modern variation of the stab-in-the-back myth for Vietnam.
My book deals directly with the stab-in-the-back myth. The antagonists are right wingers that will eventually become prominent members of the Nazi Party. They believe the myth, or at least contribute heavily to spreading it. Even though I based the characters on real people, I’ve struggled a bit with bringing them to life. It’s tough to write someone who believes these things without making them seem like a cartoon character.
But today’s current events remind me that sometimes cartoon characters come to life. I can usually pick up some inspiration by checking the day’s current events.
As of right now my book opens with a young boy harassing another because he is Jewish.
I’m writing about a time in Germany where Antisemitism was not yet the law of the land, but was still widespread. The story is set in a place where it is historically documented to be very deeply felt, and almost undoubtedly on public display. I’ll need to portray several characters that display varying degrees of bigotry and hate, and they’ll need to be more than just cardboard and slogans.
But even as I write the book, I wonder: since it will be labeled fiction, will I be criticized for this? I don’t really care: there’s a story to tell, and bigoted and hateful people played a tremendous part in it. That’s a fact, and telling the whole story (or even an approximation) means portraying those people.
The battle over “political correctness” and the right to never be offended is marked by two very extreme sides. On one side we have Trump and his ilk who proudly parade their bigotry and wear any criticism as a badge of courage and validation. On the other we have those who want to decorate the world with rounded edges and padded walls to protect everyone from contrary opinions and “microaggressions.”
My grandfather’s story starts in his home town, Liedolsheim, moves to France for World War I, and then returns to Liedolsheim until he is forced to leave before members of the NSDAP (Nazis) try to kill him. Again.
So of course, writing about this involves a lot of research about Liedolsheim. Liedolsheim has always been present: pictures of the Village Church were always visible in my grandparent’s home, and I heard the name many times in my childhood. I visited there a few times in the 80’s when I was in Germany too.
But writing about it, and especially writing what I want to be more historical fiction than just fiction, is a different story. Especially when the story starts in 1914 and ends in 1928.
There’s a lot of information easily available about this period in Germany. The transition from the German Empire before the war, to what was effectively a military dictatorship by the end of the war, to the doomed Weimar Republic, has been studied quite thoroughly, and the information is readily available.
But how do you learn what it was like to live in a small village 30 kilometers from “the city” before cars and trucks were common? Before even radio was readily available? This has been my challenge the last few weeks. I should have started this project 30 years ago…but too late for that now.
Fortunately I have family still there, and the process of reaching out has begun. But there’s still that but that’s hard to quantify: thinking like a man born and raised at the turn of the last century.
In case you’ve been under a rock for the past 36 hours or so, Donald Trump has won his second primary.
This blog is not about politics. It’s supposed to be about my writing. But current events have taken an eerie, and actually quite frightening, parallel trajectory to my most important writing project.
When I was very young my father told me a story about my grandfather. In the late 1920’s, before he brought his family to the United States, my grandfather opposed the NSDAP (the Nazi party) in an election. My grandfather wasn’t running for office himself, he just spoke out against them.
My grandfather’s word was important because he was respected as a hero from World War I as well as someone educated because he had traveled outside of the village to learn a trade as a machinist.
This led to one of them trying to kill my grandfather (with a scythe) while he was working in the families’ fields outside the village. (Despite his learning a trade, my grandfather ended up responsible for the family farm because his older brother was killed in the war, leaving him the eldest.)
To be honest, even as a kid I found this a little hard to believe. I knew my grandfather as a quiet man, who disliked talking about the war, liked to tell jokes, and work in his garden at home.
A few years later I was in Germany serving in the U.S. Army. A cousin picked me up where I was stationed and took me to Liedolsheim (our family’s “home town”) to meet the family. When he introduced me to some older gentlemen I stopped being “Cousin Eric aus America” and became “Emil’s Enkel” (grandson.) The men treated me like a visiting dignitary. I heard a different version of the story, with my grandfather as a hero and his actions being important and consequential enough to still talk about 56 years later.
But I was 19, and drunk on Campari (which I only drank to be polite) and the story still seemed unreal to me. While I never really forgot it, I spent several decades not looking into it and not thinking about it much.
Over Christmas I visited my Aunt. I was finally considering trying to write a book about my grandfather’s experience’s at the Somme and in Liedolsheim, but wanted to make sure there was enough there to write about.
It turns out my grandfather’s disagreement with the Nazis was not isolated to a single election, and that the incident with the scythe was only the last in a series of clashes. His opposition to them lasted years, and the incident in the fields was the one that finally led to our family getting him out of the country before he was killed.
Apparently “opposing the Nazis” in the mid/late 1920’s in Liedolsheim meant opposing them in what in the capital of NSDAP activity in that part of the country. My grandfather was the vocal minority, and a troublemaker.
(It’s like we’re not even related.)
The details there, and why I misunderstood the incident when I was younger, is another post. I only shared this to set the scene for what I have been researching of late, and why.
Trump is frequently compared to Hitler. But comparisons to Hitler and Nazis happen often enough online that it has spawned the oft-cited Godwin’s Law. As a matter of fact one of Godwin’s corollaries (often misidentified as the law) is that the mention of Hitler or Nazis in an online forum ends the discussion. Comparisons to Hitler have been overdone to the point of diminishing the understanding of his evil and impact on the world. It’s hard to take someone being called a “Nazi” seriously anymore.
The real similarity between Trump and the NSDAP is not about building walls and racism. It’s about Trump’s willingness and his ability to tap into and harness anger and dissatisfaction, regardless of the consequences. It’s about the consequences of his campaign, whether he wins or loses.
It’s about the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, too. And it’s even about the success of Bernie Sanders.
All of these things have one thing in common: anger.
The NSDAP (and several other nationalist groups) surfed a tide of anger in Germany from the end of World War I right up to 1932 when they were suddenly the majority party in the democracy that they then dismantled.
They waxed and waned in the time between WWI and 1932. They were made fun of. (“Nazi” is a pun based on a Bavarian insult.) They were outlawed (as were several other nationalist parties) and then allowed to reform after promising to not rebuild their paramilitary wing.
The NSDAP was not the first right-wing nationalist group, they were just the most successful. The end of World War I did more than set the stage for the great Depression to start early and hit hard in Germany. The formation of the immediately doomed Weimar Republic put a powerful ruling class out in the cold, and they were not pleased. Some of them formed their own parties and paramilitary groups, using connections still in the government to acquire weapons.
While Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch was the most bold and memorable attempt at fighting the Republic by force, it was not the only one. There were several very dangerous groups that engaged in attacks, assassinations, and attempted takeovers.
We would call these people “domestic terrorists.”
Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918. Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor just over 15 years later. Less than the time it takes us to hold 2 presidential elections.
During these 15 years the right wing groups surfed a tide of anger that raged over the Treaty of Versailles, the poor treatment of the outgoing German royalty, cultural change brought on during the Weimar Republic’s brief period of prosperity, and finally the double-tap to the back of the German economy’s head delivered by the Great Depression.
In 1928, the year my grandfather had to leave Germany, the Nazis lost 2 of their 14 seats in Parliament. Even before they lost those 2 seats they were a distant minority. The 9th of 9 parties.
But they harnessed that anger, and when the other 8 parties, stymied by gridlock, failed to govern, the NSDAP won 107 seats in 1930. Parliament failed again, and the NDSAP won 123 more in 1932, and suddenly they were the majority.
People were tired of government that didn’t work. They were tired of high unemployment and runaway inflation. When someone told them it wasn’t their fault and gave them an enemy (really several enemies) they believed it and, in the words of Newt Gingrich just this past Saturday night, voted for the guy that will “kick over the kitchen table.”
You know what happened next. He kicked over the table.
People are angry right now. But we are not in the same shape Germany was in after they lost WWI. You might think we are after hearing the stump speeches of Trump, Cruz, or Rubio. You might think we are headed that way listening to Sanders.
But empirically, we are not even close. After severe economic hardships in the early 1920s, Germany saw relatively good times for a brief period. Then the Great Depression hit and their economy collapsed. The government collapsed soon after. Repeatedly. We’re not, by any measure, in such dire straits.
But people are still angry, and that matters. We do have structural problems. People are being left behind by what is a very strange economic recovery. So much so that they have rightly asked: “What recovery?”
So it’s easy for the other party to do what they need to do to win: paint a dire picture of a country in ruins. (Even when they hold both houses of Congress.)
You’re not the first person to watch a video of Hitler and say “Who the hell voted for that guy?” Nor are you the first person to say it about Trump.
The answer to both is: someone who is mad as hell and wants change. Unfortunately those people don’t always make rational decisions. You’re a laughingstock right up until you stop being one.
I thought Trump stopped being funny just before the Iowa caucuses. By that point, after watching his ineffectual opposition adopt some of his more hateful positions, it was apparent to me that he had stirred up enough anger and ill will that we would still be paying for it 8 years from now.
His escapades since then have done nothing to change my mind. I’m convinced that win or lose, his imprint on this country will outlive him.
Writing my grandfather’s story is going to mean writing about the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1920’s.
The word “Nazi” is loaded — for good reason. It’s what call the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP.) The Nazis are responsible for the murder of over 6 million Jews, a war that killed another 50 to 80 million people, and shaped the world in ways that still affect us today. It’s hard to list all the bad they caused because it’s easy to leave something out and offend someone. We should think twice when we refer to them and when we use their name to describe others.
The word has been in very heavy use the past couple of years to describe our current President, political opponents from both parties, and at least of two of the current candidates.
In none of these cases is the word deserved. It’s pure hyperbole. Doing and saying things you don’t like doesn’t make someone a genocidal fascist (or even a non-genocidal fascist) it’s makes them someone who does things you don’t like.
Yes, Trump seems to have the potential, but right now that’s all it is. He’s still just a reality TV star that knows how to work an audience. That is a little scary but he’s not a dictator yet, and there is a difference between a garden-variety racist and a genocidal dictator.
My dilemma is this: I’m going to have to refer to members of the NSDAP and their party affiliation. Sometimes it will be in a character’s dialogue and the word “Nazi” will fit: it was still used as a word to insult NSDAP members then. Other times I will need to refer to the party in “neutral narration” or in this blog. What name do I use?
Which terms fits? Does the work Nazi generate more heat than light? What do you think?
If you look back at the picture of grandfather in my post in December you can see the “109” on his helmet. He was the in the 109th Reserve Regiment, part of the 28th Reserve Infantry Division. (You can a listing of military units at the Somme here.) Unlike the United States, which entered the war much later, both Britain and Germany built units from communities. (I am not sure if France and Canada did the same.) Both sides paid a terrible cost for this during the war when entire units were devastated, leading to the devastation of the corresponding communities.
The 109th consisted of draftees from the area surrounding Karlsruhe in Baden. (Now Baden-Württemberg.) My family is from Liedolsheim, now Dettenheim. That article about Dettenheim contains some interesting facts about Liedolsheim after World War I, which will be a big part of my story later.
The 109th was at Montauban, one of the places where the German lines fell during the bloodbath of July 1, 1916. July 1, 1916 is colloquially (and somewhat confusingly) referred to as “The First Day on the Somme.” It was the first day that the British and French attacked the German trenches. For the most part that day was a terrible failure for the Allies, and their losses were terrible.
As mentioned in the Wikipedia article, when the lines broke many members of the 109th retreated back behind their own artillery. My grandfather was one of the leaders of that retreat because he knew the way, and he was considered hero because of the many lives he saved. The German trenches were, by design, a baffling maze 2 or 3 kilometers deep depending on where you were. He knew the way because he maintained the telephone lines between the trenches and the artillery.
For seven straight days prior to July 1, British and French artillery pounded the German trenches, in an attempt to soften them up. This strategy failed, and other than a few small pockets like Montauban, the German lines held and July 1 was the first day in a long and bloody battle.
At some point after July 1 my grandfather was captured and held as a POW of the French. That’s one of my next research projects.
I wrote a few weeks back about my grandfather and his experience in World War I on the Somme. There’s more to my grandfather’s story: quite a bit more. I’ve been engaged in quite a bit of research and plan on writing a book.
I’ll be posting bits and pieces here as I go along.
This week is a couple of Youtube videos with footage from the Somme. It’s not much. I promise much more to follow.
There are many photo and even some video from the Somme available, but most of it is from the British perspective. What’s universal however, are the terrible conditions the soldiers on all sides had to deal with.
What really interesting is the footage of the British soldiers handling the German POWs in the first video.
More to come.
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