The word Dolchstosslegende is hard to pronounce but important to understand. It translates as “stab-in-the-back myth” and was a key element in the revival of German militarism in the Weimar years. Even modestly educated Germans know exactly what it denotes and the evil it entails.
Donald Trump and his legal team are now contriving their own Dolchstosslegende.
That’s true even as Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the election seems to descend from fantasy to farce. The main point of the exercise is no longer (if it ever seriously was) to find a judge, governor or other pliable instrument to deny Joe Biden the presidency. It is to deny the legitimacy of the Biden presidency, of the electoral system that gave him the office and of the federal and judicial systems that turned Trump’s legal challenges aside.
The point of the farce is farce. It is to make an obscene joke of the Biden administration and our constitutional system of government.
This was also the point of the Dolchstosslegende, which claimed that the German army, though in retreat in the fall of 1918, could have kept up the fight had it not been betrayed by defeatist and scheming politicians who agreed to an armistice that November.
This was, of course, a self-serving lie: Germany’s armies were being routed, its strategic situation was hopeless, its sailors were mutinying, its people were approaching starvation and only the armistice (which the kaiser’s generals asked for) spared it from a much more painful defeat.
But the nature of the myth wasn’t that it should be believable. It’s that it should be believed.
There’s a difference. The success of the first rests on a plausible interpretation of facts. The success of the second requires a psychologically astute understanding of the people to whom the lie is peddled. The Dolchstosslegende may have been a transparent falsehood, but it had the double advantage of bucking up a humiliated nation’s pride and playing to its gut prejudices. Translated into the bigoted vernacular, “defeatist” and “scheming” almost always meant socialists, communists and Jews.
In this sense, it doesn’t matter that Rudy Giuliani’s legal case is being laughed out of court. What matters is that the district judge who did so is an Obama appointee (despite being a conservative Republican), and therefore can be dismissed as part of the deep-state conspiracy seeking to bring Trump down.
Nor does it matter that lawyer Sidney Powell painted an anti-Trump conspiracy so vast that it seems to have embarrassed Giuliani and would have made the ghost of Joe McCarthy proud. What matters is that Powell’s list of enemies — from the director of the CIA to former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez — hit all the right notes for the president’s die-hards.
And there are a lot of them: 52% of Republicans think the president “rightfully won” reelection, at least according to a Reuters Ipsos poll from last week. In other words, a majority of Republicans will believe literally anything Trump says.
Here again the comparison to Germany rings loud. In a famous passage of “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt noted how “Mass Propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”
The Dolchstosslegende worked because so many Germans were happy to believe what, at some level, they also knew wasn’t true. But it also worked because it had a clear aim that a growing number of Germans shared, which was to overthrow the struggling Weimar Republic by claiming that it was founded on treason. In other words, it wasn’t just a conspiracy theory. It was a political weapon with the revolutionary aim of destroying democracy itself.
What Trump and his minions are now attempting is of a piece. It is rich that many of the same people who spent years claiming that Robert Mueller’s lawful and constrained investigation was a deep-state coup are now happy to entertain a sitting president’s preposterous claims of electoral fraud.
But the aim is clear: to treat the Biden presidency as a product of treachery by a political order that is so comprehensively corrupt that it will require far tougher means than the ones Trump employed to root out.
In case certain readers think I’m making a comparison between Trump supporters and Nazis, let me emphasize that I am not. What I am saying is that this modern-day Dolchstosslegende, like surf pounding against a bluff, abets future demagogues by eroding public confidence in democratic institutions, until, unprotected, they collapse.
No comparison with the Weimar years is complete without noting that the republic wasn’t just done in. It did a lot to do itself in, too, mostly through economic mismanagement. All the more reason to wish the Biden administration well as it navigates crises that now include some of the most disreputable opponents our own republic has ever known.
Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.