With the possible exception of the Kaiser himself, no German leader was as popular during World War One as Paul von Hindenburg. Recalled from retirement in the crises of 1914, he met his challenges successfully. With the help of his chief of Staff, Erich Ludendorff, he rose to the highest level of leadership in Germany. He could not stave off disaster, but he was not blamed for it; indeed, Germany would again place him at the head of the country in 1925, with consequences that none would have expected at the time.
Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg was born in 1847. Both of his parents came from military families. Life began in Posen, but the family moved often while his father remained on active duty. Young Hindenburg undertook officer cadet training in his turn, gaining a prestigious transfer to Berlin in 1863.
Too young to participate in the war with Denmark in 1864, he gained a commission in a Guards regiment in 1865, and was in a good position to draw attention during the 1866 war with Austria and the 1870 war with France. In 1871, he was one of the officers sent to the Palace of Versailles to attend the coronation of King Wilhelm of Prussia as Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.
Thereafter he remained a professional soldier in a country at peace for more than forty years. He served in the General Staff for eight years, and then he was assigned command of a regiment. In 1905, he was promoted to the rank of General; higher ranks were not given in times of peace. He commanded his corps for six years, and then in 1911, he retired. He was 64, and he was near the true beginning of his career.
The situation on the Eastern Front looked grim when he was given command of Eighth Army in August 1914. He met his new chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff, at the train station in Hannover. As different as they were, they found a common vision. Ludendorff’s brilliance complemented Hindenburg’s resolute nature; their four and a half years of collaboration would soon eclipse the teamwork of Bluecher and Gneisenau as the ideal representation of the partnership between the commander and his chief of staff.
Their plans squared nicely with some early orders given by a local staff officer, Max Hoffmann, and together their efforts resulted in an astonishing victory at Tannenberg. Solid follow-up victories at the Masurian Lakes ensured that Hindenburg and Ludendorff would enjoy the confidence of the high command. Hindenburg was given overall command of the Eastern Front in November, along with the Field Marshal’s baton.
Confidence did not always carry with it a sufficient level of material support, however, and shortages limited the extent to which Hindenburg could take advantage of his successes in the east. His demands for more men and resources created tensions with the new Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, but stagnation in the west in 1915 did translate into transfers for Hindenburg’s benefit. It was never enough, however. Hindenburg was increasingly compelled to compensate for the shortcomings of his Austrian ally, and even more so after Italy joined the war on the side of the Entente.
Falkenhayn’s military failure at Verdun and his diplomatic misreading of Rumania’s intentions in 1916 resulted in the end of his tenure as Chief of the General Staff. The Kaiser offered that title to Hindenburg, while creating the position of Quartermaster General for Ludendorff. This was not necessarily an easy decision for the Kaiser; he did not appreciate the manner of either man, and he surely felt some jealousy over the popularity that Hindenburg inspired in the nation as a whole. Still, Hindenburg and Ludendorff achieved results, while the same popularity that bothered the Kaiser privately offered substantial gains in the country’s morale.
By 1916, the latter was as much an issue as military ability. Long, inconclusive battles like Verdun and the Somme tested the perseverance of all of the belligerents in World War I. In his appearance and bearing, Hindenburg seemed like the very personification of German martial virtues. He seemed to radiate strength, stability and confidence, and his image was widely used for morale building and fundraising.
With Ludendorff at his side, Hindenburg’s power grew during his first year as Chief of Staff. In July 1917, they precipitated the end of Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg’s tenure as Chancellor; Georg Michaelis succeeded him, but this only served to underscore the power of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. In practical terms, it was generally Ludendorff who made the plans and Hindenburg who approved them, but this was entirely in keeping with the dynamics of their collaboration and with the norms of the German staff system. It is generally accepted that Ludendorff became the de facto dictator of Germany during the last year and a half of the war, and it is often questioned to what degree Hindenburg was really involved in policymaking.
Hindenburg likely left the details to Ludendorff, but in general terms, he still made his opinions known. As early as January, 1917, he concluded that America would eventually join the war on the side of the Entente; taking American belligerency for a given, he argued for a return to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, hoping to deal the British a critical blow before American reinforcements could be brought to the front. In the same year, he returned to the policy of holding in the west while pressing the advantage in the east, and by the end of 1917, this policy proved successful. The end of the Eastern Front allowed Germany to return a substantial amount of manpower to the West.
Finally, Hindenburg seems to participated fully in the policy of returning to the offensive in the west in 1918. Specifically, the Germans returned to the September 1914 objective of capturing the Channel ports. They made several connected offensives in the summer, but failed to achieve the desired breakthrough, and the end of summer brought renewed Allied offensives.
By this point, both Hindenburg and Ludendorff accepted that the war could not be won, although Hindenburg seems to have believed that it was possible to press for favorable terms. Ludendorff lost the confidence of the Kaiser and resigned at the end of October, but Hindenburg remained, as stolid as ever. When the Kaiser himself abdicated, Hindenburg became the official supreme head of the army.
He was shut out of participation in the armistice talks, however, at the insistence of American President Woodrow Wilson, who wished to deal only with civilian leaders. This decision contributed in the long run to the belief in Germany that the Army had not been beaten, and so it helped to foster the myth of the Stab in the Back. Although events were largely passing him by at this point, Hindenburg continued to serve until after the 1919 reorganization of the Army as the Reichswehr. Having ensured some continuity, he retired in July.
In his private thoughts, he dreamed of seeing the monarchy restored; he allowed himself, however, to be persuaded to stand for election as President in 1925. He won, and served as President until his death in 1934. Constitutionally, it was mainly a ceremonial position, but the President did have considerable power in the creation of governments and in emergency rule. Hindenburg’s tenure extended deeply into the Great Depression, and in 1933, he was persuaded against his own better judgment to appoint Adolf Hitler the new Chancellor of Germany. He died the following year, five years before another major war gripped Europe.
The consequences of this appointment were dismal, but Hindenburg had no way of knowing them. His real legacy lay in the First World War. Fittingly, he was buried at Tannenberg, the site of his greatest victory. It was also, however, his first and his most straightforward victory, achieved at an early point in the war when hopes of a decisive victory could be found everywhere in Europe. This choice of burial site was a nostalgic effort hearkening back to a simpler time; Hindenburg himself had played a substantial role, however, in the ways that Europe had changed in the two decades that followed.
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. Arms & Armour, 1996
Moyer, Laurence V. Victory Must Be Ours: Germany in the Great War 1914-1918. Pen & Sword, 1995
Pawly, Ronald. The Kaiser’s Warlords. Osprey, 2003
Von Hindenburg, Paul. The Great War. Greenhill, 2006
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