Stabbed in the Back 1918
Firstly let’s get the warning out of the way – this activity involves an element of physical combat – arm wrestling! Its inventor, Martin Spafford, is an extremely experienced and able teacher, but anyone relatively inexperienced as a teacher must first think carefully about both the class dynamics and their own relationship with the class. Have you got the kind of authority and trusting relationship with them to make this work? And remember to think about each and every class – what may well work with one group may not with another but that’s common to all activities.
Now – why try this activity?
In large measure it’s about the difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’. Students can know that many soldiers in Germany in 1918 felt that they had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by the politicians but this activity will help them understand those feelings more deeply. Understanding feelings and grievances is an important part of understanding motives and therefore why things happen – in another activity on the site on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, students are deliberately drawn in to feel dependent on the monastery so they feel outraged when it is closed. For all History’s claims to be an objective study we need to develop a strong sense of the feelings of people in the past to really understand their actions.
You’ll know if it’s worked from the howls of outrage at the end – a sense of “we woz robbed” – which became rooted in the German psyche after 1918. Now over to Martin to describe the activity.
This activity aims to help students understand the sense of betrayal felt by many German soldiers at the end of the Great War.
1. Get a general class consensus on who is the best arm-wrestler in the class. Perhaps have heats to decide.
2. Also agree on the second best. Keep him/her to one side. If (s)he feels fed up, all the better.
3. The best arm-wrestler is a team captain. Choose a volunteer to captain the other team. Each captain chooses two others to join their teams.
The best arm-wrestler is Germany and the others in the team are Austria-Hungary and Turkey. The other team consists of France, Russia and Britain. It might help if they wear labels with countries identified as this will help consolidate memory of who was in each alliance.
4. Announce the rules. There will be five group arm-wrestling bouts. The overall winning team will get a prize (something immediately gratifying like chocolates or a drink – something they want at an immediate basic level.) Hype up the excitement and the self-confidence of Germany’s team who have, after all, the best player.
The teams face each other across a table. One member of each team puts his/her elbow on the table and they lock hands as in a normal contest …. but are then joined by the rest of each team, also pushing their hands against their team-mates. At least one on each side must have elbow on table: all players must use one hand only.
Each bout represents a stage of the war:
1914. They wrestle. Hopefully Germany’s team win. One win to Germany!
1915. They wrestle. Germany’s team win again. Two wins to Germany!!
1916. They wrestle. Germany’s team win again. Three wins to Germany!!! You can see them drooling for the chocolate. The Allies are very fed up: it’s not fair! They have the best arm-wrestler etc etc Yes, but the war is not over yet.
1917. Remove Russia from the Allied team. They are down to two: Germany’s team win again!!!! The chocs are in the bag….
It’s 1918 and by now Austria-Hungary and Turkey are disintegrating – remove them from their team so only the German army is left. Then new fresh troops from the USA arrive and join the Allies. Bring in that second-best arm wrestler as USA, his arm still strong and fresh, while the German has worn out his arm in four bouts and is alone facing three opponents, one of them fit and strong.
In the final bout Germany loses. Give the chocs to the Allies with the lion’s share to the USA.
1. Focus on how Germany reacts?
It’s not fair! Exactly. But Germany won 4 bouts and the Allies only won one: ah, but in a war it’s who wins in the end that counts…
“We were cheated….” The point exactly. All the better if the USA hogs the chocs and Germany gets none.
2. Now your challenge is to get students thinking about where the blame is laid. Ask how the German army (ask other students to come up with adjectives or feelings – don’t just ask the student playing the German army) was feeling up to the very last bout – confident, expecting victory etc.
Now tell students about the changes that had taken place in the German government and ask them to think about how this might be seen by the German army – how the army might feel about the politicians at home. This is about steering them away from an objective assessment of the situation ( USA’s arrival etc) to a subjective one – who stabbed us in the back?
3. Now you’ve established this outline you’ll probably want to go back and fill in some of the details of the picture.
- How well did you handle the physical organization of the activity?
- Did the activity change or deepen students’ understanding of German army’s reaction to defeat in 1918? Was this the case with particular students?
- Are there other topics where developing a stronger sense of contemporary feelings would deepen understanding? Any thoughts on how you could engage those feelings through activity?