Matthias Erzberger passed an army in retreat on his way to a train carriage in Compiègne, France. There he signed the armistice that ended four years of fighting in World War I.
The Allies, with a fresh influx of American troops, had pierced the Hindenburg line and reversed gains Germany made during a spring offensive. Sailors mutinied in Kiel. The Kaiser fled to the Netherlands. Starving, war-weary citizens rioted in Hamburg and Bremen.
The task of signing the document fell to Erzberger, a government minister in Berlin. Germany’s military leaders authorized an armistice commission but knew better than to sign the actual document. Erzberger was assassinated three years later.
In the following years, a legend grew that the German army had not been defeated at all, despite the chaotic retreat that Erzberger witnessed and despite the 7 million casualties. The Dolchstosslegende, or stab-in-the-back theory, held that the Germany army was undefeated but betrayed by feckless politicians and civilians back home.
In those years after the war, it must have provided some solace for the military to believe that all that sacrifice wasn’t in vain. Surely the population enjoyed hearing that everything it was told about its invincibility was still true.
The problem was that it wasn’t true. A little daydreaming isn’t a bad thing — everyone does that now and then — but its consequences can be disastrous if it continues to the extreme. At best, a society avoids dealing with real, more pressing problems while it travels down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory. At worst, someone emerges who is able to galvanize this sense of grievance for truly sinister purposes.
In our country, there are some who will never believe that Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. This despite certification of results from all 50 states, despite Trump actually losing ground in Wisconsin’s recount, despite a hand recount and voter signature audit that affirmed Biden’s win in Georgia, despite Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the Trump-endorsing New York Post — the newspaper that was willing to run with the Hunter Biden story — saying it’s over.
To say that Trump actually won isn’t the big lie. The big lie is to say that this doesn’t matter because the partisan math in Congress leads us to a preordained outcome on inauguration day. What’s the harm of a little showmanship, triple-checking what’s been double-checked or winning favor with Trump voters prior to a 2024 run for president?
Myth has a way of becoming reality, if it’s repeated often enough. The trouble is, where does it end? This new stab-in-the-back theory is a dangerous game. It needs to stop.