Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg
( listen (help·info)), known generally as Paul von
Hindenburg (German: [ˈpaʊl fɔn
ˈhɪndn̩bʊʁk] ( listen); 2 October 1847 – 2 August
1934) was a
Generalfeldmarschall and statesman who commanded the
German military during the second half of
World War I
World War I before later
being elected President of the German Reich in 1925. He played the key
role in the Nazi "Seizure of Power" in January 1933 when, under
pressure, he appointed
Adolf Hitler chancellor of a "Government of
National Concentration", even though the Nazis were a minority in
Hindenburg retired from the army for the first time in 1911, but was
recalled shortly after the outbreak of
World War I
World War I in 1914. He first
came to national attention at the age of 66 as the victor of the
Battle of Tannenberg
Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914. Upon being named
Germany's Chief of the General Staff in August 1916, his popularity
among the German public increased exponentially to the point of giving
rise to an enormous personality cult. As Kaiser Wilhelm II
increasingly delegated his power as Supreme Warlord to the German high
command, Hindenburg and his deputy
Erich Ludendorff ultimately formed
a de facto military dictatorship that dominated German policymaking
for the rest of the war.
Hindenburg retired again in 1919, but returned to public life in 1925
to be elected the second President of Germany. In 1932, Hindenburg was
persuaded to run for re-election as German President, although 84
years old and in poor health, because he was considered the only
candidate who could defeat Hitler. Hindenburg was re-elected in a
runoff. He was opposed to Hitler and was a major player in the
increasing political instability in the
Weimar Republic that ended
with Hitler's rise to power. He dissolved the Reichstag twice in 1932
and finally, under pressure, agreed to appoint Hitler Chancellor of
Germany in January 1933. Hindenburg did this to satisfy Hitler's
demands that he should play a part in the Weimar Government, since
Hitler was the leader of the Nazi party which had won the largest
plurality in the November 1932 elections (no party achieved a
majority). In February, he signed off on the Reichstag Fire Decree,
which suspended various civil liberties, and in March he signed the
Enabling Act of 1933, which gave Hitler's regime arbitrary powers.
Hindenburg died the following year, after which Hitler declared
himself Fuhrer, or supreme leader, which superseded both the President
1 Early life
2 In the German Army
2.1 Action in two wars
2.2 General Staff
2.3 Field commands and retirement
3 World War I
3.1 Recalled to the army
3.1.3 Defending Silesia
3.1.4 Public Image
3.2.1 East or West?
3.2.2 Counterattacks in East
Prussia & Poland
3.2.3 Evacuation of Poland
3.3.1 Russians resurgent
3.3.2 Commander of the Eastern Front
3.3.3 Supreme commander
3.3.5 Bolstering defense
3.3.6 Headquarters routine
3.3.7 The Hindenburg program
3.3.8 The extent of his command
3.4.1 Submarine warfare
3.4.2 The great withdrawal and defending the Western Front
3.4.3 The Ottoman and Eastern Fronts
3.4.4 The Reichstag peace resolution
3.4.5 Victory in Italy
3.4.6 The treaty with Russia
3.5.1 Opting for a decision in the west
3.5.2 Breaking the trench stalemate
3.5.3 Ludendorff's breakdown
3.5.4 Defeat and revolution
3.6 His military reputation
4 In the Republic
4.1 Second retirement
5 1925 election
6 Parliamentary governments
7 Presidential governments
8 Second presidency
9 Hitler becomes chancellor
11 Historical assessment as president
12 Decorations and awards
13 See also
15.1 Historiography and memory
15.2 In German
16 External links
Paul von Hindenburg
Paul von Hindenburg as a cadet in
Paul von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg was born in Posen, Prussia
(Polish: Poznań; until 1793 and since 1919 part of Poland), the
son of Prussian aristocrat Robert von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg
(1816–1902) and his wife Luise Schwickart (1825–1893), the
daughter of medical doctor Karl Ludwig Schwickart and wife Julie
Moennich. His paternal grandparents were Otto Ludwig Fady von
Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (1778–18 July 1855), through whom
he was remotely descended from the illegitimate daughter of Count
Heinrich VI of Waldeck, and his wife Eleonore von Brederfady (died
1863).[clarification needed] Hindenburg was also a direct descendant
Martin Luther and his wife Katharina von Bora, through their
daughter Margareta Luther. Hindenburg's younger brothers and sister
were Otto, born 24 August 1849, Ida, born 19 December 1851 and
Bernhard, born 17 January 1859. One of his first-cousins was the
IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad. His family were all
Protestants in the Evangelical Church of Prussia, which since
1817 included both
Paul was proud of his family and could trace ancestors back to
1289. The dual surname was adopted in 1789 to secure an inheritance
and appeared in formal documents, but in everyday life they were von
Beneckendorffs. True to family tradition his father supported his
family as an infantry officer, he retired as a major. In the summer
they visited his grandfather at the Hindenburg estate of Neudeck in
East Prussia. At age 11 Paul entered the Cadet Corps School at
Wahlstatt (now Legnickie Pole, Poland). At 16 he was transferred to
the School in Berlin, and at 18 he served as a page to the widow of
King Frederick William IV of Prussia. Graduates entering the army were
presented to King William I, who asked for their father’s name and
rank. He became a second lieutenant in the Third Regiment of Foot
In the German Army
Hindenburg as a lieutenant in the 3rd Garderegiment in 1870
Action in two wars
Austro-Prussian War of 1866 broke out Hindenburg wrote his
parents: "I rejoice in this bright-coloured future. For the soldier
war is the normal state of things…If I fall, it is the most
honorable and beautiful death". During the decisive battle at
Königgrätz he was knocked unconscious by a bullet that pierced his
helmet and creased the top of his skull. Wrapping his head in a towel,
he continued to lead his men, winning a decoration. He was
battalion adjutant when the
Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) broke
out. After weeks of marching, the Guards attacked the village of Saint
Privat (near Metz). Climbing a gentle slope, they came under heavy
fire from the superior French rifles. After four hours the Prussian
artillery came up to blast the French lines while the infantry, filled
with the "holy lust of battle, " swept through the French lines.
His regiment suffered 1096 casualties, and he became regimental
adjutant. The Guards were spectators at the
Battle of Sedan
Battle of Sedan and for
the following months sat in the siege lines surrounding Paris. He was
his regiment’s elected representative at the Palace of Versailles
German Empire was proclaimed on 18 January 1871; he was an
impressive figure: 6 feet 5 inches tall with a muscular frame and
striking blue eyes. After the French surrender he watched from afar
the suppression of the Paris Commune.
In 1873 he passed in the highly competitive entrance examination for
admission to the Kriegsakademie in Berlin After three years study
his grades were high enough for appointment to the General Staff. He
was promoted to captain in 1878 and assigned to the staff of the
Second Army Corps. He married the intelligent and accomplished Gertrud
von Sperling (1860–1921) by whom he had two daughters, Irmengard
Pauline (1880) and Annemaria (1891) and one son, Oskar (1883). Next he
commanded an infantry company, in which his men were ethnic Poles.
Hindenburg as a Major General of the General Staff in 1897
He was transferred in 1885 to the General Staff and was promoted to
major. His section was led by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, a noted
student of encirclement battles like Cannae, whose famous Schlieffen
Plan proposed to pocket the French Army. For five years Hindenburg
also taught tactics at the Krieg-akademie. At the maneuvers of 1885 he
met the future kaiser; they met again at the next year’s war game in
which Hindenburg commanded the “Russian army”. He learned the
topography of the lakes and sand barrens of East
Prussia during the
annual Great General Staff’s ride in 1888. The following year he
moved to the War Ministry, to write the field service regulations on
field-engineering and on the use of heavy artillery in field
engagements — both were used during the First World War. He became a
lieutenant-colonel in 1891 and two year later was promoted to colonel
commanding an infantry regiment. He became chief of staff of the Eight
Army Corps in 1896.
Field commands and retirement
He was given command of a division in 1897 as a major-general
(equivalent to a British and US brigadier general) in 1897; in 1900 he
was promoted to lieutenant general (major-general). Five years later
he was made commander of the Fourth Army Corps based in Magdeburg as a
General of the Infantry (lieutenant-general). (The German equivalent
to four-star rank was Colonel-General). The annual maneuvers taught
him how to maneuver a large force; in 1908 he defeated a corps
commanded by the kaiser. In 1909 Schlieffen recommended him as
Chief of the General Staff, but he lost out to Helmuth von Moltke.
He retired in 1911 “to make way for younger men.” He had been
in the army for 46 years, including 14 years in General Staff
World War I
Recalled to the army
Field Marshal Hindenburg in 1914
When the war broke out, Hindenburg was retired in Hanover. On 22
August, out of the blue, he was selected by the War Cabinet and the
German high command (Oberste Heeresleitung) to command the German
Eighth Army in East
Prussia with General
Erich Ludendorff as his chief
of staff. After the Eighth Army was defeated by the Russian 1st Army
at Gumbinnen, it found itself in danger of encirclement as the Russian
2nd Army under General
Alexander Samsonov advanced from the south
Vistula River. Momentarily panicked, the Eighth Army's
Maximilian von Prittwitz
Maximilian von Prittwitz notified OHL of his intent to
withdraw his forces into Western Prussia. The Chief of the German
Generaloberst Helmuth von Moltke, responded by
relieving Prittwitz and replacing him with Hindenburg.
Upon arriving at
Marienberg in 23 August, Hindenburg and Ludendorff
were met by members of Eighth Army's staff led by Lieutenant Colonel
Max Hoffmann, an expert on the Russian army. Hoffman informed them of
his plans to shift part of the 8th Army south  to attack the
exposed left flank of the advancing Russian Second Army. Agreeing
with Hoffman's strategy, Hindenburg authorized Ludendorff to transfer
most of the 8th Army south while leaving behind only two cavalry
brigades to face the Russian First Army in the north. In Hindenburg's
words, the line of soldiers currently defending Germany's border
against the advancing Second Army were "thin, but not weak", because
the men were defending their homes.. If pushed too hard, he
believed they would cede ground only gradually as German
reinforcements continued to mass on the advancing Russians' flanks
before ultimately encircling and annihilating them.. On the eve of
the ensuing battle, Hindenburg reportedly strolled close to the
decaying walls of the fortress of the Knights of Prussia, recalling
how the Knights of
Prussia were defeated by the Slavs in 1410 at
Hindenburg and Ludendorff at Tannenberg (painting by Hugo Vogel)
On the night of 25 August Hindenburg told his anxious staff,
"Gentlemen, our preparations are so well in hand that we can sleep
soundly tonight”. On the day of the battle, Hindenburg
reportedly watched from a hilltop as his forces' weak center gradually
gave ground until the sudden roar of German guns to his right heralded
the surprise attack on the Russians' flanks. Ultimately, Russian
losses amounted to the capture of 92,000 Russians and another 78,000
killed or wounded while German casualties numbered only 14,000.
According to British
Field Marshal Edmund Ironside it was the
"greatest defeat suffered by any of the combatants during the
war". Hindenburg realized that he would become a national hero and
acted swiftly to fit that part, asking the kaiser to name the victory
the Battle of Tannenberg.
After this decisive victory Hindenburg repositioned the Eighth Army to
face the Russian First Army. Hindenburg's tactics spurned head-on
attacks all along the front in favor of schwerpunkts, sharp, localized
hammer blows. Two schwerpunkts struck in the First Battle of the
Masurian Lakes, from these breakthrough points two columns drove east
to pocket the Russians who managed to retreat 100 km (62 mi)
with heavy losses. In the first six weeks of the war the Russians lost
more than 310,000 men. Eight hundred thousand refugees were able
to return to their East Prussian homes, thanks to victories that
strikingly contrasted with the bloody deadlock that characterized the
Western Front following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan.
Hindenburg saw his job clearly: "The commander in the field should
only lay down the broad lines, leaving the details to his
subordinates." He and Ludendorff would discuss what to do and then
their staff would issue precise instructions. Despite their strikingly
dissimilar temperaments, Ludendorff was a perfect fit; as Hindenburg
wrote to the kaiser a few months later: "He has become my faithful
adviser and a friend who has my complete confidence and cannot be
replaced by anyone." Ludendorff’s weakness was nerves; twice
during Tannenberg, fearful that they were about to be attacked in
their rear, he proposed to shift troops from the left pincer to face
the Vilnius Army; both times Hindenburg talked to him privately and
they did not waver.
On the east bank of the
Poland the Russians were mobilizing
new armies which were shielded from attack by the river; once
assembled they would cross the river to march west into German
Silesia. To counter this threat, the supreme commander and Prussian
War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn, who had superseded Moltke, formed a
new Ninth Army, which joined Hindenburg’s command. He set up
headquarters at Posen in West Prussia, accompanied by Ludendorff and
Hoffmann. Although his 16 divisions faced 60 Russian, he advanced into
Poland to occupy the west bank of the Vistula. The
Austro-Hungarians guarded the river shore on the German right flank.
When the Russians attempted to cross the Vistula, the Germans held
firm, but the Russians were able to cross in the Austro-Hungarian
sector. Hindenburg retreated, destroying all railways and bridges,
sure that the pursuing Russians must stop when they were 120 km
(75 mi) west of their railheads — well short of the German
frontier. The Russians celebrated a victory, but the retreat
gained the Germans vital weeks. Hindenburg faced adversity with "God
be with us, I can do no more!". On 1 November 1914 he was
Ober Ost (commander in the east) and was promoted to field
marshal. Once the Russians repaired the railways they would be in
position to push into Silesia, so Hindenburg re-positioned to strike
their flank by moving Ninth Army by rail north to Thorn and
reinforcing it with two corps from Eighth Army. On 11 November in a
raging snowstorm they surprised the Russian flank in the fierce Battle
of Łódź, which ended the immediate Russian threat to
also captured Poland’s second largest city.
Postcard of the wooden statue of Hindenburg erected in Berlin for the
first anniversary of Tannenberg
The most celebrated tribute to Hindenburg during the war was a 12m
tall wooden likeness erected in Berlin. What admirers paid to drive in
nails — ultimately 30 tons of them —went to war widows. Smaller
versions were erected throughout Germany. The wooden images and
his photographs, which invariably show the resolute, indomitable
warrior, give a deceptively stern likeness. He reportedly had a good
sense of humor and often made jokes at his own expense.”
Visitors found that his headquarters seemed like a family. He had
a prodigious memory for names and faces, asking colleagues about their
sons in the army, even recalling their ranks and units. Despite
this bonhomie he kept his own counsel. According to the kaiser
"Hindenburg never said more than half of what he really thought".
When Professor Hugo Vogel, commissioned to immortalize the victorious
Tannenberg commanders in paint, arrived at headquarters most of his
subjects begrudged posing, Hindenburg visited most days, often
staying for hours, which his staff attributed to ego, having no
inkling that he and his wife collected paintings of the Virgin nor
that he was an amateur artist nor that he liked to discuss books —
Schiller was his favorite author. After a painting was completed
Hindenburg would periodically check on how many printed reproductions
had been sold. Vogel was with him throughout the war and did his last
portrait in 1934. To protect his warrior image, Hindenburg’s memoir
contends that "the artists were a distraction [with which] we would
have preferred to dispense".
East or West?
Hindenburg argued that the still miserably equipped Russians — some
only carried spears — in the huge Polish salient were in a trap in
which they could be snared in a cauldron by a southward pincer from
Prussia and a northward pincer from Galicia, using motor vehicles
for speed, even though the Russians outnumbered the Germans by
three to one. From Hindenburg's point of view, such an overwhelming
triumph could end the war in the Eastern Front. Falkenhayn
rejected his plan as a pipe dream. Nevertheless, urged on by
Ludendorff and Hoffman, Hindenburg spent the winter fighting for his
strategy by badgering the Kaiser while his press officer recruited
notables like the Kaiserin and the Crown Prince to “stab the kaiser
in the back”. The kaiser compromised by keeping Falkenhayn in
supreme command, but replacing him as Prussian war minister. In
retaliation, Falkenhayn reassigned some of Hindenburg’s forces to a
new army group under
Prince Leopold of Bavaria
Prince Leopold of Bavaria and transferring
Ludendorff to a new joint German and Austro-Hungarian Southern Army.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff reacted by threatening to resign thereby
resulting in Ludendorff's reinstatement under Hindenburg's command.
Counterattacks in East
Prussia & Poland
Following his return, Ludendorff provided Hindenburg with a depressing
evaluation of their allies’ army, which already had lost many of
their professional officers and had been driven out of much of
Galicia, their part of what once had been Poland. Meanwhile, the
Russians were inexorably pushing from Galicia toward Hungary through
the Carpathian passes.Under orders from Falkenhayn to contain the
resurgent Russians, Hindenburg mounted an unsuccessful attack in
Poland with his Ninth Army as well as an offensive by his newly formed
Tenth Army which made only local gains. Following these setbacks, he
set up temporary headquarters at Insterburg, and made plans to
eliminate the Russians' remaining toehold in East Prussia. In the
ensuing assault, the Germans would ensnare the Russians in a pincer
movement between the Tenth Army in the north and Eighth Army in the
south between his Tenth Army in the north and Eighth Army in the
south. The attack was launched on 7 February, they encircled an entire
corps and captured more than 100,000 men in the Second Battle of the
Masurian Lakes, afterwards pulling back to strong defensible
positions, against which still more Russians were sacrificed.
The Austro-Hungarian fortress city of Przemyśl in Galicia, which had
been besieged for months, surrendered on 23 March with the loss of
117,000 men. To drive the Russians out of the Carpathian passes the
Austro-Hungarians proposed a joint strike on the Russian right flank.
Falkenhayn agreed, so he moved OHL east to the castle of Pless and
formed Army Group von Mackensen from a new German Eleventh Army and
the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army. German heavy artillery was brought
east: Mackensen had more than 200 heavy guns, while his foes had 4
—the Russian's heavy guns were immobilized in fortresses. In
April Mackensen broke through the Russian front between Gorlice and
Tarnów. For weeks he continued to steamroller forward, his entire
front stepping forward shoulder to shoulder eastward across Galicia,
his guns smashing through hastily constructed Russian lines.
Hindenburg was to pressure the Russians in the north. He moved
headquarters to Lötzen, near the eastern boundary of East Prussia.
Three cavalry divisions swept east into Courland, the barren, sandy
region near the Baltic coast, in one of the war’s most successful
cavalry actions. The cavalry’s gains were held by Hindenburg’s new
Nieman army, named after the river.
In June OHL ordered Hindenburg to attack frontally in
Poland north of
Warsaw, steamrollering toward the
Narew River. Ludendorff, furious
with dictated tactics and because they were prohibited from pressing
on in Courland, sat on his hands. Hindenburg created Army Group
Gallwitz—named after its commander—which when Berlin approved
became Twelfth Army (Von Gallwitz is one of many able commanders
selected by Hindenburg), who stayed at the new army’s headquarters
to be available if needed. They broke through the Russian lines after
a brief, but intense bombardment directed by Lieutenant Colonel Georg
Bruchmüller, an artillery genius recalled from medical retirement.
One-third of the opposing Russian First Army were casualties in the
first five hours. From then on Hindenburg often called on
Bruchmüller. The Russians withdrew until they sheltered behind the
Narev River. However, steamroller frontal attacks cost dearly: by 20
August Gallwitz had lost 60,000 men.
Evacuation of Poland
After the Russians abandoned Warsaw, it was occupied on 5 August by a
new OHL Army Group under Prince Leopold of Bavaria. Eighty thousand
Russians remained in the great fortress that guarded the city,
Novogeorgievsk, expecting to hold out for months, but Falkenhayn
brought up heavy artillery and they capitulated in days, losing 700
guns. Step by step the Russians withdrew from the Polish salient:
scorching the earth and herding out a million inhabitants — Jews
were treated especially harshly. Falkenhayn insisted on a head-on
pursuit of the retreating Russians into Lithuania, according to
Hindenburg “a pursuit in which the pursuer gets more exhausted than
the pursued”. He wanted to do more than push them back. On 1
July both the Nieman and Tenth Armies thrust spear heads into
Courland, attempting to pocket the defenders, but they were foiled by
the prudent commander of the Fifth Russian Army who defied orders by
pulling back into defensible positions shielding Riga. The German
Tenth Army besieged Kovno, a Lithuanian city on the Nieman River
defended by a circle of forts. It fell on 17 August, along with 1,300
guns and almost 1 million shells. On 5 August his forces were
consolidated into Army Group Hindenburg, which took the city of Grodno
after bitter street fighting, but the retreating defenders could not
be trapped because the wretched rail lines lacked the capacity to
bring up the needed men. They occupied
Vilnus on 18 September, then
halted on ground favorable for a defensive line.
On 7 October Austro-Hungarian and German troops in Army Group
Mackensen invaded Serbia, capturing Belgrade, and then eastern Serbia
was invaded by the Bulgarians, who were promised substantial
territorial gains; they had fine men but had lost many officers in the
Balkan Wars. Falkenhayn had rejected advice that the Bulgarians should
attack further south, to try to encircle the Serbs. By 4 December the
remaining Serbian troops had escaped into Albania.
In October Hindenburg moved headquarters to Kovno. They were
responsible for 108,800 km2 (42,000 mi2) of conquered
Russian territory, which was home to three million people and became
known as Ober Ost. The troops built fortifications on the eastern
border while Ludendorff “with his ruthless energy” headed the
civil government, using forced labor to repair the war damages and to
dispatch useful products, like hogs, to Germany. A Hindenburg
son-in-law, who was a reserve officer and a legal expert, joined the
staff to write a new legal code.[better source needed]
Baltic Germans who owned vast estates feted Hindenburg and he hunted
their game preserves.
Hindenburg judged their operations in 1915 as “unsatisfactory”,
“The Russian bear had escaped our clutches” and abandoning the
Polish salient had shortened their lines substantially. Contrariwise
victorious Falkenhayn believed that “The Russian Army has been so
weakened by the blows it has suffered that Russia need not be
seriously considered a danger in the foreseeable future”. The
Russians replaced their experienced supreme commander, Grand Duke
Nicholas Nikolaevich, who Hindenburg regarded as skillful, with
the amateurish Tsar. During 1915, 264,000 Germans were killed in the
east, 169,000 in the west.
Hindenburg in 1916
Russia rebounded by adding two million men to their army. They were
equipped with three million rifles, 6,000 machine guns, and 6,356
pieces of field artillery. Now 66 German battalions faced 400
Russian, who attacked on 18 March near Lake Naroch, bombarding with
982 guns each stocked with 1,000 shells. Their infantry advanced
despite heavy snow on the date promised to their allies, day after day
failing to breach the defenses, while the battlefield thawed into a
marsh in which they lost nearly 100,000 soldiers.
The next Russian onslaughts were along 480 km (300 mi) of
the southwestern front in present-day western Ukraine. Four armies
commanded by General
Aleksei Brusilov on 4 June attacked entrenchments
that the Austro-Hungarians regarded as impregnable. Probing
assault troops located three weak spots which then were struck in
force. In nine days they captured more than 200,000 men and 200 guns,
and pushed into open country. Austro-Hungarian troops were rushed back
from the Italian Front. Every man was needed in the west, so German
troops on the Eastern Front had to be shifted south to plug the gap.
Then on 19 June the Russians struck further north near
Kovel on a
front of 7 km (4.3 mi) defended by Austro-Hungarian and
German troops, beginning with a bombardment from 1,000 guns. Ober Ost
desperately shored up weak points with defenders stripped from less
threatened positions. Ludendorff was so distraught on the phone to OHL
Wilhelm Groener (who directed the army’s railroads and
had been a competitor with Ludendorff on the General Staff) was sent
to evaluate his nerves, which were judged satisfactory. For a week
the Russians kept attacking: they lost 80,000 men; the defenders
16,000. On 16 July the Russians attacked the German lines west of
Riga, where again they were thwarted by a stout defense.
Commander of the Eastern Front
On 27 July the Austro-Hungarians accepted Hindenburg as the commander
of the Eastern Front (except for the Archdukes Karl’s Army Group in
southeast Galicia, in which the German
Hans von Seeckt
Hans von Seeckt was chief of
staff). General von Eichhorn took over Army Group Hindenburg, while
Hindenburg and Ludendorff, on a staff train equipped with the most
advanced communication apparatus, visited their new forces. At
threatened points they formed mixed German and Austro-Hungarian units
and other Austro-Hungarian formations were bolstered by a sprinkling
of German officers. The derelict citadel of the
Brest Fortress was
refurbished as their headquarters. Their front was almost
1,000 km (620 mi) and their only reserves were a cavalry
brigade plus some artillery and machine gunners. The Ottomans sent
a corps to reinforce the German Southern Army, which had to hold
Galicia because it was a major source of petroleum. The Russians then
struck on Brusilov’s right with their best troops, the Guards Army,
and the heaviest artillery concentration yet seen on the Eastern
Front. Their military maps were sketchy, because they had never
planned to fight so deep in their own territory, so the Guards were
sent to advance through a swamp; in a week they lost 80 percent of
their men. Further south Brusilov did better, penetrating a few
kilometers into Hungary, but when the front stabilized the Russians
faced new fortifications dug and wired on the German pattern. Officers
were exchanged between the German and Austro-Hungarian armies for
Hindenburg drawn by his friend Hugo Vogel
In the west, the Germans were hemorrhaging in the battles of Verdun
and the Somme. Influential OHL officers, led by the artillery expert
Lieutenant Colonel Max Bauer, a friend of Ludendorff’s, lobbied
against Falkenhayn, deploring his futile steamroller at Verdun and his
inflexible defense along the Somme, where he packed troops into the
front-line to be battered by the hail of shells and sacked commanders
who lost their front-line trench. German leaders contrasted
Falkenhayn’s bludgeon with Hindenburg’s deft parrying. The
tipping point came after Falkenhayn ordered a Bulgarian spoiling
attack on the Entente lines in Macedonia, which failed with heavy
losses. Thus emboldened, Romania declared war against Austro-Hungary
on 27 August, adding 650,000 trained enemies who invaded Hungarian
Transylvania. Falkenhayn had been adamant that Romania would remain
neutral. During the kaiser’s deliberations about who should command
Falkenhayn said “Well, if the Herr Field Marshall has the desire and
the courage to take the post”. Hindenburg replied “The desire, no,
but the courage—yes”. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg favored
Hindenburg, supposing him amenable to moderate peace terms,
mistaking his amiability as tractability and unaware that he was
intent on enlarging Prussia.
Hindenburg was summoned to Pless on 29 August where he was named Chief
of the General Staff. Ludendorff demanded joint responsibility for all
decisions”; Hindenburg did not demur. Henceforth, Ludendorff
became the public face of OHL: signing most orders, directives and the
daily press reports. The eastern front was commanded by Leopold of
Bavaria, with Hoffmann as his chief of staff. Hindenburg was also
appointed as Supreme War Commander of the armies of the Central
Powers, with nominal control of six million men. The British were
unimpressed: General Charteris, Haig’s intelligence chief, wrote to
his to wife “poor old Hindenburg is sixty-four years of age, and
will not do very much.” Contrary-wise, the German War Cabinet
was impressed by his swift decisions. "Old man Hindenburg” ended the
“Verdun folly“ and set in motion the "brilliant campaign" in
Hindenburg and Ludendorff visited the Western Front in September,
meeting the Army commanders and their staffs as well as their leaders:
Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria,
Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg
Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg and
Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia. Both crown princes, with Prussian
chiefs of staff, commanded Army Groups. Rupprecht and Albrecht were
presented with field marshal's batons. Hindenburg told them that they
must stand on the defensive until Romania was dealt with, meanwhile
defensive tactics must be improved — ideas were welcome. A
backup defensive line, which the Entente called the Hindenburg Line,
would be constructed immediately. Ludendorff promised more arms.
Rupprecht was delighted that two such competent men had “replaced
the dilettante ′Falkenhayn.” Bauer was impressed that
Hindenburg “saw everything only with the eye of the soldier.”
Northern Bulgaria was defended by Germans, Austro-Hungarians,
Bulgarians, and Ottomans formed as Army Group Mackensen, German
heavy artillery from Verdun was sent east. The Entente supported
Romania by attacking from Macedonia, but were repelled. Mackensen
seized the Romanian forts on the right bank of the Danube, while
infantry and cavalry from the Western Front reinforced the Ninth Army
in Hungarian Transylvania, which now was commanded by Falkenhayn
(another of Hindenburg's prudent selections). In a month, he defeated
the Romanian invaders at Hermannstadt and then in November thrust into
Romania through passes in the Carpathian Mountains, while Mackensen
crossed the Danube to cut off their retreat, but the Romanians moved
swiftly, they and their Russian reinforcements formed a defensive line
in Moldova after Bucharest fell on 6 December 1916. British saboteurs
had time enough to burn the oil stores and to plug most of the wells.
During the last months of the year the Russians continued vain
assaults in the Ukraine. In 1916 there were three Russian casualties
on the Eastern Front for every two from the Central Powers and Russian
morale was crumbling: “More than a dozen Russian regiments mutinied
in the last weeks of 1916.” About 12% of the German casualties
that year were on the Eastern Front. In the autumn, the Entente began
to push the Bulgarians back in Macedonia. On 11 October Army Group
Otto von Below
Otto von Below was formed there from the Bulgarians, twenty German
battalions and an Ottoman corps; their new line held.
OHL issued a Textbook of Defensive Warfare that recommended fewer
defenders in the front line relying on light machine guns, if pushed
too hard they were permitted to pull back. Attackers who penetrated
the front line entered a battle zone, in which they were machine
gunned from scattered emplacements and shelled by the German
artillery, who knew the ranges and location of their own strong
points. Then infantry counterattacked, while the attacker’s
artillery was blind because they were unsure where their own men were.
A reserve division was positioned immediately behind the line, if it
entered the battle it was commanded by the division whose position had
been penetrated. (Mobile defense was also used in World War II.)
Responsibilities were reassigned to implement the new tactics:
front-line commanders took over reserves ordered into the battle and
for flexibility infantry platoons were subdivided into eight man units
under a noncom.
Field officers who visited headquarters often were invited to speak
with Hindenburg, who inquired about their problems and
recommendations. At this time he was especially curious about the
eight man units, which he regarded as " the greatest evidence of
the confidence which we placed in the moral and mental powers of our
army, down to its smallest unit." Revised Infantry Field
Regulations were published and taught to all ranks, including at a
school for division commanders, where they maneuvered a practice
division. A monthly periodical informed artillery officers about new
developments. In the last months of 1916 the British battering along
the Somme produced fewer German casualties. Overall, “In a fierce
and obstinate conflict on the Somme, which lasted five months, the
enemy pressed us back to a depth of about six miles on a stretch of
nearly twenty-five miles” Thirteen new divisions were created by
reducing the number of men in infantry battalions, and divisions now
had an artillery commander. Every regiment on the western front
created an assault unit of storm troopers selected from their fittest
and most aggressive men. An air arm under Lieutenant General Ernst
von Höppner was responsible for both aerial and antiaircraft forces;
the army’s vulnerable zeppelins went to the navy. Most cavalry
regiments were dismounted and the artillery received their badly
In October General
Philippe Pétain began a series of limited attacks
at Verdun, each starting with an intense bombardment coordinated by
his artillery commander General Robert Nivelle. Then a double creeping
barrage led the infantry into the shattered first German lines, where
the attackers stopped to repel counterattacks. With repeated
nibbles by mid-December 1916 the French retook all the ground the
Germans had paid for so dearly. Nivelle was given command of the
Hindenburg’s day at OHL began at 09:00 when he and Ludendorff
discussed the reports — usually quickly agreeing on what was to be
done. Ludendorff would give their staff of about 40 officers their
assignments, while Hindenburg walked for an hour or so, thinking or
chatting with guests. After conferring again with Ludendorff, he heard
reports from his departmental heads, met with visitors and worked on
correspondence. At noon Ludendorff gave the situation report to the
kaiser, unless an important decision was required when Hindenburg took
over. He lunched with his personal staff, which included a son-in-law
who was an Army officer.[better source needed] Dinner at
20:00 was with the general staff officers of all ranks and guests —
crowned heads, allied leaders, politicians, industrialists and
scientists. They left the table to subdivide into informal chatting
groups. At 21:30 Ludendorff announced that time was up and they
returned to work. After a junior officer summarized the daily reports,
he might confer with Ludendorff again before retiring.
The Hindenburg program
Ludendorff and Bauer, who knew all the industrialists, set ambitious
goals for arms production, in what was called the Hindenburg
Programme, which was directed from the War Office by General Groener.
Major goals included a new light machine gun, updated artillery, and
motor transport, but no tanks because they considered them too
vulnerable to artillery. To increase output they needed skilled
workers. The army released a million men. For total war, OHL
wanted all German men and women from 15 to 60 enrolled for national
service. Hindenburg also wanted the universities closed, except for
medical training, so that empty places would not be filled by women.
To swell the next generation of soldiers he wanted contraceptives
banned and bachelors taxed. When a Polish army was being formed he
wanted Jews excluded. Few of these ideas were adopted, because
their political maneuvering was vigorous but inept, as Admiral Müller
of the Military Cabinet observed “Old Hindenburg, like Ludendorff,
is no politician, and the latter is at the same time a hothead.”
For example, women were not included in the service law that
ultimately passed, because in fact more women were already seeking
employment than there were openings.
The extent of his command
The Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph died on 21 November. At the
funeral Hindenburg met his successor Charles, who was frank about
hoping to stop fighting. Hindenburg’s Eastern Front ran south from
the Baltic to the Black Sea through what now are the Baltic States,
Ukraine, and Romania. In Italy, the line ran from the Swiss border on
the west to the Adriatic east of Venice. The Macedonian front extended
along the Greek border from the Adriatic to the Aegean. The line
contested by the Russians and Ottomans between the Black and Caspian
Sea ran along the heights of the
Caucasus mountains. He urged the
Ottomans to pull their men off the heights before winter, but they did
not, he believed this was because of their "policy of massacre of the
Armenians" and many froze. The front in Palestine ran from the
Mediterranean to the southern end of the Dead Sea, and the defenders
of Bagdad had a flank on the Tigris River. The Western Front ran
southward from Belgium until near Laon, where it turned east to pass
Verdun before again turning south to end at the Swiss Border. The
remaining German enclaves in Africa were beyond his reach; an attempt
to resupply them by dirigible failed. The Central Powers were
surrounded and outnumbered.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff
Strengthening their army would take time: by the second quarter of
1917 the field army would have 680,000 more men in 53 new
divisions and the supply of the new light machine guns would be
adequate. Field guns would have increased from 5,300 to 6,700 and
heavies from 3,700 to 4,340. They tried to foster fighting spirit by
'patriotic instruction’ with lectures and films to “ensure
that a fight is kept up against all agitators, croakers and
weaklings”. Meanwhile, they were sure to be attacked before
their buildup was complete. In the interim the pressure might be
reduced if the Navy waged unrestricted submarine warfare, which they
claimed would defeat the British in six months. The chancellor and his
camp were opposed, not wanting to bring the United States and other
neutrals into the war. After securing the Dutch and Danish borders,
Hindenburg announced that unrestricted submarine warfare was
imperative and Ludendorff added his shrill voice. On 9 January the
chancellor bowed to their unsound military judgments: underrating the
United States and overrating their own navy.
OHL moved west to the pleasant spa town of
Bad Kreuznach in southwest
Germany, which was on a main rail line. The Kaiser’s quarters were
in the spa building, staff offices were in the orange court, and the
others lived in the hotel buildings. In February a third Army Group
was formed on the Western Front to cover the front in Alsace-Lorraine,
it was commanded by Archduke Albrecht of Württemberg. Some effective
divisions from the east were exchanged for less competent divisions
from the west. Since their disasters of the previous year the Russian
infantry had shown no fight and in March the revolution erupted in
Russia. Shunning opportunity, the Central Powers stayed put —
Hindenburg feared that invaders would resurrect the heroic resistance
The great withdrawal and defending the Western Front
On the Western Front their huge salient between the valley of the
Somme and Laon obviously was vulnerable to a pincer attack, which
indeed the French were planning. The new Hindenburg line ran across
its base. On 16 March they began Operation Alberich: moving out
able-bodied inhabitants and portable possessions, destroying every
building, all roads and bridges, cutting down every tree, fouling
every well, and burning every combustible. In 39 days the Germans
withdrew from a 1000 mi² (2,590 km²) area, more ground
than they had lost to all Allied offensives since 1914. The
cautiously following Allies also had to cope with booby traps, some
exploding a month later. The new front was 42 km (26 mi)
shorter freeing-up 14 German divisions.
On 9 April the British attacked. At Arras led by tanks and a creeping
barrage, they took the German first and second lines and occupied part
of their third while the Canadians swept the Germans completely off
the Vimy Ridge.. There was consternation at OHL, their new defense had
failed. It was Ludendorff’s birthday but he refused to come to the
celebratory dinner. Hindenburg “pressed the hand of my First
Quartermaster-General with the words, ‘We have lived through more
critical times than to-day together’” The British tried to
exploit their opening with a futile cavalry charge but did not press
further, because their attack was a diversion for coming French
operations. In fact, their new defensive tactics had not been tested,
because Sixth Army commander
Ludwig von Falkenhausen
Ludwig von Falkenhausen had packed men in
the front line and kept counterattack divisions too far back. He was
A week later the anticipated French offensive began, driving northward
from the Aisne River, after six days of intensive shelling their
infantry was led forward by 128 tanks, the first attack by massed
tanks. Neville knew that the Germans had captured his detailed
plans several weeks before, but followed them nonetheless. The first
two German lines were taken at heavy cost and the French slowly
advanced 4 km (2.5 mi) as the defense fell back to their
main line of resistance — it was far from Nivelle's promise of a
first day's advance of 10 km (6.2 mi). The attacks ended in
early May when many French regiments refused to attack. The Germans
never learned the extent of their enemy’s demoralization. Nivelle
was replaced by Pétain.
The Ottoman and Eastern Fronts
The British captured Baghdad on 11 March. The Ottomans had been
promised that their empire would be defended, so all their troops in
Europe returned home and in May Falkenhayn was appointed to command
Army group F comprising two Ottoman armies along with three German
infantry battalions with some artillery; to impress the enemy it was
called The Asiatic Corps. Falkenhayn realized it would be difficult to
retake Baghdad, so he took over the defense of the Gaza line in
Palestine, which the British broke through in November. To spare the
city OHL ordered him not to defend Jerusalem, which was occupied in
The revolutionary Russian government led by Alexander Kerensky
remained at war, attacking and pushing back the Austro-Hungarians in
Galicia on 1 July. To counter this success, on 18 July after a
hurricane bombardment by 136 batteries directed by Bruchmüller a
Schwerpunkt of six German divisions from the west broke a gap in the
Russian front, through which they sliced southward toward Tarnopol,
thereby threatening to pocket the Russian attackers, who fled to save
themselves; many of the demoralized Russian units elected committees
to replaced their officers. At the end of August the advancing Central
Powers stopped at the frontier of Moldavia. To keep up the pressure
and to seize ground he intended to keep, Hindenburg shifted north to
the heavily fortified city of
Riga (today in Latvia) which has the
broad Dvina River as a moat. On 1 September the Eighth Army, led by
Oskar von Hutier, attacked; Bruchmüller’s bombardment, which
included gas and smoke shells, drove the defenders from the far bank
east of the city, the Germans crossed in barges and then bridged the
river, immediately pressing forward to the Baltic coast, pocketing the
defenders of the
Riga salient. Next a joint operation with the navy
seized Oesel and two smaller islands in the Gulf of Riga. The
Bolshevik revolution took Russia out of the war, an armistice was
signed on 16 December.
The Reichstag peace resolution
Wilhelm II and Hindenburg
Hindenburg detested Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg for dragging his feet
about total and submarine warfare. Then in July the chancellor
permitted the Reichstag to debate a resolution for peace without
“annexations or indemnities”. Colonel Bauer and the Crown Prince
rushed to Berlin to block this peril. The minister of war urged
Hindenburg and Ludendorff to join them, but when they arrived the
kaiser told them that “there could be no justification for their
presence in Berlin”. They should “return in haste to Headquarters
where they certainly would be much better occupied.” They
returned as ordered and then immediately telegraphed their
resignations, which the kaiser declined. The crisis was resolved when
the monarchist parties voted no confidence in Bethmann-Hollweg, who
resigned. Ludendorff and Bauer wanted to replace both the kaiser and
chancellor by a dictator, but Hindenburg would not agree. Many
historians believe that in fact Ludendorff assumed that role. The
Reichstag passed a modified resolution calling for “conciliation”
on 19 July, which the new chancellor
Georg Michaelis agreed to
The resolution became advantageous in August when the Pope called for
peace. The German response cited the resolution to finesse specific
questions like those about the future of Belgium. The industrialists
opposed Groener’s advocacy of an excess profits tax and insistence
that workers take a part in company management. Ludendorff
relieved Groener by telegram and sent him off to command a division.
Hindenburg's 70th birthday was celebrated lavishly all over Germany, 2
October was a public holiday, an honor that until then had been
reserved only for the Kaiser. Hindenburg published a birthday
manifesto, which ended with the words:
With God's help our German strength has withstood the tremendous
attack of our enemies, because we were one, because each gave his all
gladly. So it must stay to the end. ‘Now thank we all our God’ on
the bloody battlefield! Take no thought for what is to be after the
war! This only brings despondency into our ranks and strengthens the
hopes of the enemy. Trust that Germany will achieve what she needs to
stand there safe for all time, trust that the German oak will be given
air and light for its free growth. Muscles tensed, nerves steeled,
eyes front! We see before us the aim: Germany honored, free and great!
God will be with us to the end!"
Victory in Italy
Bavarian mountain warfare expert von Dellmensingen was sent to assess
the Austro-Hungarian defenses in Italy, which he found poor. Then he
scouted for a site from which an attack could be mounted against the
Italians. Hindenburg created a new Fourteenth Army with ten
Austro-Hungarian and seven German divisions and enough airplanes to
control the air, commanded by Otto von Below. The attackers slipped
undetected into the mountains opposite to the opening of the Soča
valley. The attack began during the night when the defender’s
trenches in the valley were abruptly shrouded in a dense cloud of
poison gas released from 894 canisters fired simultaneously from
simple mortars. The defenders fled before their masks would fail. The
artillery opened fire several hours later, hitting the Italian
reinforcements hastening up to fill the gap. The attackers swept over
the almost empty defenses and marched through the pass, while mountain
troops cleared the heights on either side. The Italians fled west, too
fast to be cut off. Entente divisions were rushed to Italy to stem the
retreat by holding a line on the Piave River. Below's Army was
dissolved and the German divisions returned to the Western Front,
where in October Pétain had directed a successful limited objective
attack in which six days of carefully planned bombardment left
crater-free pathways for 68 tanks to lead the infantry forward on the
Lassaux plateau south of Laon, which forced the Germans off of the
entire ridge — the French Army had recovered.
The treaty with Russia
In the negotiations with the Soviet Government, Hindenburg wanted to
retain control of all Russian territory that the Central Powers
occupied, with German grand dukes ruling
Courland and Lithuania, as
well as a large slice of Poland. Their Polish plan was opposed by
Foreign Minister Richard von Kühlmann, who encouraged the kaiser to
listen to the views of Max Hoffmann, chief of staff on the Eastern
Front. Hoffmann demurred but when ordered argued that it would be a
mistake bring so many Slavs into Germany, when only a small slice of
Poland was needed to improve defenses. Ludendorff was outraged that
the kaiser had consulted a subordinate, while Hindenburg complained
that the kaiser “disregards our opinion in a matter of vital
importance.” The kaiser backed off, but would not approve
Ludendorff’s order removing Hoffmann, who is not even mentioned in
Hindenburg’s memoir. When the Soviets refused the terms offered at
Brest-Litovsk the Germans repudiated the armistice and in a week
occupied the Baltic States,
Belarus and the Ukraine, which had signed
the treaty as a separate entity. Now the Russians signed also.
Hindenburg helped to force Kühlmann out in July 1918.
In January more than half a million workers went on strike, among
their demands was a peace without annexations. The strike collapsed
when its leaders were arrested, the labor press suppressed, strikers
in the reserve called for active duty, and seven great industrial
concerns were taken under military control, which put their workers
under martial law. On 16 January Hindenburg demanded the
replacement of Count von Valentini, the chief of the Civil Cabinet.
The Kaiser bridled “I do not need your parental advice”, but
nonetheless fired his old friend. The Germans were unable to tender a
plausible peace offer because OHL insisted on controlling Belgium and
retaining the French coalfields. All of the Central Power's cities
were on the brink of starvation and their armies were on short
rations, Hindenburg realized that "empty stomachs prejudiced all
higher impulses and tended to make men indifferent.” He blamed
his allies' hunger on poor organization and transportation, not
realizing that the Germans would have enough to eat if they collected
their harvest efficiently and rationed its distribution
Opting for a decision in the west
Map of the Michael offensive showing in red the section of the British
front that was not assaulted frontally, its defenders were to be
encircled by the attackers on their flanks.
German troops were in Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, Belarus,
Ukraine, much of Romania, the Crimea, and in a salient east of the
Ukraine extending east almost to the Volga and south into Georgia and
Armenia. Hundreds of thousands of men were needed to hold and police
these conquests. More Germans were in Macedonia and in Palestine,
where the British were driving north; Falkenhayn was replaced by Otto
Liman von Sanders, who had led the defense of Gallipoli. All
Hindenburg required was that these fronts stand firm while the Germans
won in the west, where now they outnumbered their opponents. He firmly
believed that his opponents could be crushed by battlefield defeats
regardless of their far superior resources.
Offensive tactics were tailored to the defense. Their opponents were
adopting defense in depth. He would attack the British because they
were less skillful than the French. The crucial blow would be in
Flanders, along the River Lys, where the line was held by the
Portuguese Army. However, winter mud prevented action there until
April. Consequently, their first attack, named Michael, was on the
southern part of the British line, at a projecting British salient
near Saint-Quentin. Schwerpunkts would hit on either side of the
salient’s apex to pocket its defenders, the V Corps, as an
overwhelming display of German power.
Additional troops and skilled commanders, like von Hutier, were
shifted from the east, Army Group von Gallwitz was formed in the west
on 1 February. One quarter of the western divisions were designated
for attack; to counter the elastic defense during the winter each of
them attended a four-week course on infiltration tactics. Storm
troops would slip through weak points in the front line and slice
through the battle zone, bypassing strong points that would be mopped
up by the mortars, flamethrowers and manhandled field guns of the next
wave. As always surprise was essential, so the artillery was slipped
into attack positions at night, relying on camouflage for concealment;
the British aerial photographers were allowed free rein before D-day.
There would be no preliminary registration fire, the gunners were
trained for map firing in schools established by Bruchmüller. In the
short, intense bombardment each gun fired in a precise sequence,
shifting back and forth between different targets, using many gas
shells to keep defenders immersed in a toxic cloud. On D-day, the air
force would establish air supremacy and machine gun enemy strong
points, also updating commanders on how far the attackers had
penetrated. Signal lamps were used for messaging on the ground.
Headquarters moved close to the front and as soon as possible would
advance to pre-selected positions in newly occupied ground. OHL moved
Spa, Belgium while Hindenburg and Ludendorff were closer to the
attack at Avesnes, France, which re-awoke his memories of occupied
France 41 years before.
Breaking the trench stalemate
Operation Michael struck on 21 March. The first day's reports were
inconclusive, but by day two they knew they had broken through some of
the enemy artillery lines. But the encirclement failed because British
stoutness gave V Corps time to slip out of the targeted salient. On
day four they were moving on into open country when the kaiser
prematurely celebrated by pinning the iron cross with sun’s rays on
Hindenburg’s tunic, the first recipient since the medal was created
for von Blücher. As usual Hindenburg set objectives as the
situation evolved. South of the salient they had almost destroyed the
British Fifth Army, so they pushed west to cut between the French and
British Armies, but did not succeed because they advanced too slowly
through the thrashed terrain of the former Somme battlefields and the
ground devastated when withdrawing the year before and because troops
stopped to loot food and clothing — hence they never broke through
the Entente’s fluid defensive line, manned by troops brought up and
supplied by rail and motor transport. Then he hoped to get close
Amiens to bombard the railways with heavy artillery — they
were stopped just short, after having advanced a maximum of 65 km
(40 mi). Hindenburg also hoped that civilian morale would crumble
because Paris was being shelled from by naval guns mounted on rail
carriages 120 km (75 mi) away, but he underestimated French
The Allied command was dismayed. French headquarters realized: "This
much became clear from the terrible adventure, that our enemies were
masters of a new method of warfare. ... What was even more serious was
that it was perceived that the enemy's power was due to a thing that
cannot be improvised, the training of officers and men."
Prolonging Michael with the drive west delayed and weakened the attack
in Flanders. Again they broke through, smashing the Portuguese
defenders and forcing the British from all of the ground they had paid
so dearly for in 1917. However French support enabled the British to
save Hazebrouck, the rail junction that was the German goal. To draw
the French reserves away from Flanders, the next attack was along the
Aisne River where Nivelle had attacked the year before. Their success
was dazzling. The defender's front was immersed in a gas cloud fired
from simple mortars, within hours they had reoccupied all the
ground the French had taken by weeks of grinding, and they continued
to sweep south through Champagne until they halted for resupply at the
Hindenburg had lost 977,555 of his best men between March and the end
of July, while their foe’s ranks were swelling with Americans. His
dwindling stock of horses were on the verge of starvation and his
ragged men thought continually of food. One of the most effective
propaganda handbills the British showered on the German lines listed
the rations received by prisoners of war. His troops bridled at their
officer's rations and reports of the ample meals at headquarters, in
his memoirs Ludendorff devotes six pages to defending officer's
rations and perks. After an attack the survivors needed at least
six weeks to recuperate, but now crack divisions were recommitted much
sooner. Tens of thousands of men were skulking behind the lines.
Determined to win, he decided to expand the salient pointing toward
Paris to strip more defenders from Flanders. The attack on General
Henri Gouraud’s French Fourth Army followed the now familiar
scenario but was met by a deceptive elastic defense and was decisively
repelled at the French main line of resistance. Hindenburg still
intended to try the conclusive strike in Flanders, but before he could
strike French and Americans led by light tanks smashed through the
right flank of the German salient on the Marne. The German defense was
halfhearted.They had lost. Hindenburg went on the defensive,
withdrawing one by one from the salients created by their victories,
evacuating their wounded and supplies and retiring to shortened lines.
He hoped to hold a line until their enemies were ready to bargain.
Since their retreat from the Marne Ludendorff had been distraught:
shrieking orders and often in tears. At dinner on 19 July he responded
to a suggestion of Hindenburg’s by shouting "I have already told you
that is impossible” — Hindenburg led him from the room. On 8
August the British completely surprised them with a well-coordinated
attack at Amiens, breaking well into the German lines. Most
disquieting was that some German commanders surrendered their units
and that reserves arriving at the front were taunted for prolonging
the war. For Ludendorff
Amiens was the "black day in the history of
the German Army". Bauer and others wanted Ludendorff replaced,
but Hindenburg stuck by his friend, he knew that “Many a time has
the soldier's calling exhausted strong characters". A sympathetic
physician who was a friend of Ludendorff's persuaded him to leave
headquarters temporarily to recuperate. (His breakdown is not
mentioned in Hindenburg's or Ludendorff's memoirs.) On 12 August Army
Group von Boehn was created to firm up the defenses in the Somme
sector. On 29 September Hindenburg and Ludendorff told the incredulous
kaiser that the war was lost and that they must have an immediate
Defeat and revolution
A new chancellor, Prince Maximilian of Baden, opened negotiations with
President Woodrow Wilson, who would deal only with a democratic
Germany. Prince Max told the kaiser that he would resign unless
Ludendorff was dismissed, but that Hindenburg was indispensable to
hold the army together. On 26 October the kaiser slated Ludendorff
before curtly accepting his resignation — then rejecting
Hindenburg’s. Afterwards, Ludendorff refused to share Hindenburg’s
limousine. Colonel Bauer was retired. Hindenburg promptly
replaced Ludendorff with Groener, now chief of staff of Army Group
Kiev, which was assisting a breakaway Ukrainian government to fend off
the Bolsheviks while expropriating food and oil. Another brilliant
appointment — a topnotch soldier who had worked with the social
democratic politicians who were coming to the fore.
They were losing their allies. In June the Austro-Hungarians in Italy
attacked the Entente lines along the Piave River but were repelled
decisively. On 24 October the Italians crossed the river in the Battle
of Vittorio Veneto, after a few days of resolute resistance the
defense collapsed, weakened by the defection of men from the empire's
subject nations and starvation: the men in their Sixth Army had an
average weight of 120 lb (54 kg). On 14 October The
Austro-Hungarians asked for an armistice in Italy, but the fighting
went on. In September the Entente and their Greek allies attacked in
Macedonia. The Bulgarians begged for more Germans to stiffen their
troops, but Hindenburg had none to spare. Many Bulgarian soldiers
deserted as they retreated toward home, opening the road to
Constantinople. The Austro-Hungarians were pushed back in Serbia,
Albania and Montenegro, signing an armistice on 3 November. The
Ottomans were overextended, trying to defend Syria while exploiting
the Russian collapse to move into the Caucasus, advancing through
Armenia and Georgia intending to take over Muslim lands, despite
Hindenburg's urging them to defend what they had. The British and
Arabs broke through in September, capturing Damascus. The Armistice of
Mudros was signed on 30 October.
Wilson insisted that the kaiser must go, but he refused to abdicate,
he was determined to lead the
Prussian Army home to suppress the
growing rebellion, which had started with large demonstrations in
major cities and then, when the navy ordered a sortie to battle the
British, mutineers led by workers' and soldiers' councils took control
of the navy, these councils spread rapidly throughout Germany. They
stripped officers of their badges of rank and decorations, if
necessary forcibly. On 8 November Hindenburg told the kaiser that 39
regimental officers had been brought to Spa; where he delivered a
situation report and answered questions. Then Hindenburg left and
Goerner asked them to confidentially answer two questions about
whether their troops would follow the kaiser. The answers were
decisive: the army would not. The kaiser gave in, superfluously
because in Berlin Prince Max had already publicly announced his
abdication, his own resignation, and that the Social Democrat leader
Friedrich Ebert was now chancellor. Democracy came abruptly and almost
bloodlessly. That evening Groener telephoned Ebert, who he knew and
trusted, to tell him that if the new government would fight Bolshevism
and support the Army then the field marshal would lead a disciplined
army home. Hindenburg's remaining in command bolstered the new
The Hindenburg villa in Hanover
The withdrawal became more fraught when the armistice obliged all
German troops to leave Belgium, France and Alsace Lorraine in 14 days
and to be behind the Rhine in 30 days. Stragglers would become
prisoners. When the seven men from the executive committee of the
soldier's council formed at Spa arrived at OHL they were greeted
politely by a lieutenant colonel, who acknowledged their leadership.
When they broached the march home he took them to the map room,
explaining allocation of roads, scheduling unit departures, billeting
and feeding. They agreed that the existing staffs should make these
arrangements. To oversee the withdrawals OHL transferred
headquarters from Belgium to
Kassel in Germany, unsure how their
officers would be received by the revolutionaries. They were greeted
by the chairman of the workers' and soldiers' council's who proclaimed
that: "Hindenburg belongs to the German nation." His staff
intended to billet him in the kaiser's palace there, Wilhelmshöhe.
Hindenburg refused because they did not have the kaiser's permission,
instead settling into a humble inn, thereby pleasing both his
monarchist staff and the revolutionary masses. In the west 1.25
million men and 0.5 million horses were brought home in the time
allotted. A brilliant display of the army's competence.
Hindenburg did not want to involve the army in the defense of the new
government against their civil enemies. Instead they manned
Freikorps (modeled on formations used in the Napoleonic
wars), supplying them with weapons and equipment. In February 1919 OHL
moved east to Kolberg to mount an offensive against impinging Soviet
troops, but they were restrained by the Allied occupation
administration, which in May 1919 ordered all German troops in the
east home. Hindenburg retired to
Hanover once again on 25 June 1919 to
a splendid new villa, which was a gift of the city, despite admittedly
having "lost the greatest war in history".
His military reputation
“Victory comes from movement” was Schlieffen’s principle for
war. His disciple Hindenburg expounded his ideas as an instructor
of tactics and then applied them on
World War I
World War I battlefields: his
retreats and mobile defenses were as skillful and daring as his
slashing Schwerpunkt attacks, which even broke through the trench
barrier on the Western Front. He failed to win because once through
they were too slow—legs could not move quite fast enough. (With
engines, German movement overwhelmed western Europe in World War II.)
Surprisingly, Hindenburg has undergone a historical metamorphosis: his
teaching of tactics and years on the General Staff forgotten while he
is remembered as a commander as an appendage to Ludendorff's genius.
Winston Churchill in his influential history of the war, published in
1923, depicts Hindenburg as a figurehead awed by the mystique of the
General Staff, concluding that “Ludendorff throughout appears as the
uncontested master.” Churchill led the way: later he is
Parkinson’s “beloved figurehead”, while to Stallings he is
"an old military booby.” These distortions stemmed from
Ludendorff, who strutted in the limelight during the war and
immediately thereafter wrote his comprehensive memoir with himself
center stage. Hindenburg’s far less detailed memoir never
disputed his valued colleague's claims, military decisions were made
by “we” not “I”, and it is less useful to historians because
it was written for general readers. Ludendorff continued touting
his preeminence in print, which, typically, Hindenburg never
Others did. The OHL officers who testified before the Reichstag
committee investigating the collapse of 1918 agreed that Hindenburg
was always in command. He managed by setting objectives
and appointing talented men to do their jobs, for instance "giving
full scope to the intellectual powers" of Ludendorff. Naturally
these subordinates often felt that he did little, even though he was
setting the course. In addition Ludendorff overrated himself,
repressing repeated demonstrations that he lacked the backbone
essential to command. Postwar he displayed extraordinarily poor
judgment and a penchant for bizarre ideas, contrasting sharply with
his former commander's surefooted adaptations to changing times.
Hindenburg's record as a commander starting in the field at
Tannenberg, then leading four national armies, culminating with
breaking the trench deadlock in the west, and then holding his
defeated army together, is unmatched by any other soldier in World War
However, military skill should not mask the other component of their
record: "... in general, the maladroit politics of Hindenburg and
Ludendorff led directly to the collapse of 1918...
In the Republic
The new republic held its first election on 19 January 1919. Parties
representing a broad range of different constituencies ran candidates
and voting was with proportional representation, so inevitably
governments were formed by coalitions of parties: this time Social
Democrats, Democrats, and Centrists. Ebert was elected as provisional
chancellor; then the elected representatives assembled in Weimar to
write a constitution. It was based on the Constitution of the German
Empire written in 1871, with many of the kaiser's powers now given to
a president elected for a term of seven years. The president selected
the chancellor and the members of the cabinet, but with the crucial
stipulation that his nominees had to be ratified by the Reichstag,
which because of proportional representation required support from
several parties. The constitution was adopted on 11 August 1919. Ebert
was elected as provisional president.
Early in 1919 the Allies ordered the German Army to keep troops in
Lithuania to assist in repelling the Bolsheviks.
The terms of the
Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles were written in secret. It was
unveiled on 7 May 1919, on the fourth anniversary of the sinking of
the Lusitania. It was followed by an ultimatum: either ratify the
Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles or the war would be resumed. President Ebert
asked Hindenburg whether the army was prepared to renew the fighting.
To avoid further discussion of his decisions, Hindenburg routinely
responded through his chief of staff, so Groener told the president
that this was impossible. With just 19 minutes to spare, Ebert
informed French Premier
Georges Clemenceau that Germany would ratify
the Treaty, which was signed on 28 June 1919 (the fifth anniversary of
the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand). The dates reflect the
intensity of the victor's hatred and fear.
Back in Hanover, as a field marshal he was provided with a staff who
helped with his still extensive correspondence. He made few formal
public appearances, but the streets around his house often were
crowded with admirers when he took his afternoon walk. During the war
he had left the newspaper reporters to Ludendorff, now he was
available. He hunted locally and elsewhere, including an annual
chamois hunt in Bavaria. The yearly Tannenberg memorial celebration
kept him in the public eye.
A Berlin publisher urged him to produce his memoirs which could
educate and inspire by emphasizing his ethical and spiritual values;
his story and ideas could be put on paper by a team of anonymous
collaborators and the book would be translated immediately for the
worldwide market. Mein Leben (My Life) was a huge bestseller,
presenting to the world his carefully crafted image as a staunch,
steadfast, uncomplicated soldier. Major themes were the need for
Germany to maintain a strong military as the school teaching young
German men moral values and the need to restore the monarchy, because
only under the leadership of the House of Hohenzollern could Germany
become great again, with "The conviction that the subordination of the
individual to the good of the community was not only a necessity, but
a positive blessing ...". Throughout the kaiser is treated with
great respect. He concealed his cultural interests and assured his
readers: "It was against my inclination to take any interest in
current politics." (Despite what his intimates knew of his "deep
knowledge of Prussian political life".) Mein Leben was dismissed
by many military historians and critics as a boring apologia that
skipped over the controversial issues, but it painted for the German
public precisely the image he sought.
Hindenburg's son and two son-in-laws came though the war unscathed —
Ludendorff had lost two beloved stepsons and Ebert two sons. The
Treaty required the German army to have no more than 100,000 men and
abolished the General Staff. Therefore, in March 1919 The Reichswehr
was organized. The 430,000 armed men in Germany competed for the
limited places. Both Major Oskar Hindenburg and his army officer
brother-in-law were selected. The chief of staff was Seeckt,
camouflaged as Chief of the Troop Office. He favored staff officers
above line officers and the proportion of nobles was the same as
In 1919, Hindenburg was subpoenaed to appear before the parliamentary
commission investigating the responsibility for the outbreak of war in
1914 and for the defeat in 1918. He was wary, as hehad written:
"The only existing idol of the nation, undeservedly my humble self,
runs the risk of being torn from its pedestal once it becomes the
target of criticism.". Ludendorff was summoned also. They had
been strangers since Ludendorff's dismissal, but they prepared and
arrived together on 18 November 1919. Hindenburg refused to take the
oath until Ludendorff was permitted to read a statement that they were
under no obligation to testify since their answers might expose them
to criminal prosecution, but they were waving their right of refusal.
On the stand Hindenburg read through a prepared statement, ignoring
the chairman's repeated demands that he answer questions. He testified
that the German Army had been on the verge of winning the war in the
autumn of 1918 and that the defeat had been precipitated by a
Dolchstoß ("stab in the back") by disloyal elements on the home front
and unpatriotic politicians, quoting an unnamed British general: "The
German Army was stabbed in the back." When his reading was finished
Hindenburg walked out of the hearings, despite being threatened with
contempt, sure that they would not dare charge a war hero. His
testimony introduced the Dolchstoßlegende, which was adopted by
nationalist and conservative politicians who sought to blame the
socialist founders of the
Weimar Republic for losing the war. Reviews
in the German press that grossly misrepresented General Frederick
Barton Maurice's book about the last months of the war firmed-up this
myth. Ludendorff had used these reviews to convince
Paul and Gertrud von Hindenburg
The first presidential election was scheduled for 6 June 1920.
Hindenburg wrote to Wilhelm II, in exile in the Netherlands, for
permission to run. Wilhelm approved, so on 8 March Hindenburg
announced his intention to seek the presidency. Five days later Berlin
was seized by regular and Freicorp troops led by General Lüttwitz,
the commander of the Berlin garrison, who proclaimed a prominent civil
servant, Wolfgang Kapp, president in a new government. Ludendorff and
Max Bauer stood by Kapp's side. The legal government fled without
attempting any forceful response; a general strike paralyzed the
nation so after six days the putsch collapsed. It was followed by a
Bolshevik uprising that was put down forcefully. Kapp died in prison
while awaiting trial, Ludendorff fled to Bavaria where he was shielded
by his fame, Bauer went into exile. The Reichstag canceled the
election and extended Ebert's term of office until 25 June 1925.
Hindenburg cut back on public appearances.
His serenity was shattered by the illness of his wife Gertrud, who
died of cancer on 14 May 1921. He kept close to his three children,
their spouses and his nine grandchildren. His son Oskar was at his
side as the field marshal's liaison officer.
Germany's travails seemed unending. The national resources were
drained by reparations payments, while tax income did not match
expenditures. The gap was met by printing money without backing. In
1923 inflation began to accelerate, the fall in value became
exponential. Savings were wiped away, wage earners survived with daily
payments of more and more marks, which they rushed to spend before
prices shot up further. Landowners paid off mortgages for a song and
clever entrepreneurs with assets borrowed money to buy property from
those who had to sell to survive. Hindenburg was sustained by a fund
set up by a group of admiring industrialists.
On 8 November 1923 Hitler, with Ludendorff at his side, launched the
Beer Hall Putsch
Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, which was bloodily suppressed by the
police. Hindenburg was not involved but inevitably was prominent in
newspaper reports. He issued a statement urging national unity.
On 16 November the
Reichsbank introduced the Rentenmark, which was
indexed to gold bonds. Twelve zeros were cut from prices, which
stabilized. The political divisions in the nation began to ease. The
foreign minister was Gustav Stresemann, the leader of the German
People's Party. His goal was to restore Germany to its prewar status,
but as a master of diplomacy he worked quietly a step at a time, first
gaining Allied trust by ending the passive resistance to their
occupation of the Ruhr. In 1924 the economy was shored up by the
reduction in reparation payments in the
Dawes Plan with loans from
American banks. At Tannenberg in August before a crowd of 50,000
Hindenburg laid the headstone for an imposing memorial for the crucial
Reichpräsident Ebert died on 28 February 1925 following an
appendectomy. A new election had to be held within a month. None of
the candidates attained the required majority, Ludendorff was last
with a paltry 280,000 votes. By law there had to be another election.
The Social Democrats, the Catholic Centre and other democratic parties
united to support the Centre's Wilhelm Marx, who had twice served as
chancellor and was now Minister President of Prussia. The Communists
insisted on running their own candidate. The parties on the right
established a committee to select their strongest candidate. After a
week's indecision they decided on Hindenburg, despite his advanced age
and fear, notably by Foreign Minister Stresemann, of unfavorable
reactions by their former enemies. A delegation came to his home on 1
April. He stated his reservations but concluded "If you feel that my
election is necessary for the sake of the Fatherland, I'll run in
God's name." However some parties on the right still opposed him.
Not willing to be humiliated like Ludendorff he drafted a telegram
declining the nomination, but before it was sent Admiral Alfred von
Tirpitz and a young leader of the East German agrarian nobility
Hanover to persuade him to wait until the strength of his
support was clearer. His conservative opponents gave way so he
consented on 9 April. Again he obtained Wilhelm II's approval. His
campaign stressed his devotion to "social justice, religious equality,
genuine peace at home and abroad." "No war, no internal uprising,
can emancipate our chained nation, which is, unfortunately, split by
dissension." He addressed only one public meeting, held in Hanover,
and gave one radio address on 11 April calling for a Volksgemeinschaft
(national community) under his leadership. The second election,
held on 26 April 1925, required only a plurality, which he obtained
thanks to the support of the
Bavarian People's Party
Bavarian People's Party (BVP), which had
switched from Marx, and by the refusal of the Communists to withdraw
their candidate Ernst Thälmann. In Britain and France the
victory of the aged field marshal was accepted with
The presidential palace
He took office on 12 May 1925, "... offering my hand in this hour to
every German". He moved into the elegant Presidential Palace on
the Wilhelmstrasse, accompanied by Oskar — his military liaison
officer— and Oskar's wife and three children. Always a stickler
about uniforms, soon the servants had new regalia with the shoe
buckles appropriate for a court. Nearby was the chancellery,
which during Hindenburg's tenure would have seven residents. The
president also enjoyed a shooting preserve. He notified Chancellor
Hans Luther that he would replace the head of Ebert's Presidential
staff, Dr Otto Meissner, with his own man, because the cabinet would
have to consent. Meissner was kept on temporarily. He proved
invaluable and was Hindenburg's right hand throughout his presidency.
Foreign Minister Stresemann had vacationed during the campaign so as
not to tarnish his reputation with the victors by supporting the field
marshal. The far right detested Stresemann for promoting friendly
relations with the victors. At their first meeting Hindenburg listened
attentively and was persuaded that Stresemann's strategy was
correct. He was cooler at their next, reacting to rightist
backlash. Nonetheless he supported the government's policy, so on
1 December 1925 the
Locarno Treaties were signed, a significant step
in restoring Germany's position in Europe. The right was infuriated
because the Treaty accepted the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, though it
mandated the withdrawal of the Allied troops occupying the Rhineland.
The president always was lobbied intensely by visitors and letter
writers. Hindenburg countered demands to restore the monarchy by
arguing that restoring a Hohenzollern would block progress in revising
Versailles. He accepted the republic as the mechanism for
restoring Germany's position in Europe, though Hindenburg was no
Vernunftrepublikaner (republican by reason) because democracy was
incompatible with the militaristic volksgemeinschaft (national
community) that would unite the people into one for future
The Treaty ended Luther's government, so Hindenburg had to assemble
its replacement. The president could not command, but had to practice
politics in the raw: painstakingly listening to and negotiating with
party leaders to put together a bloc with a majority. Occasionally he
was able to seal a deal as the revered, old field marshal by appealing
to patriotism. After weeks of negotiations, Luther formed a new
government with a cabinet drawn from the middle-of-the road parties,
retaining Stresemann, which the Reichstag approved when threatened
that otherwise the president would call new elections. That government
was toppled by dispute over flying the old imperial flag alongside of
the Weimar colors, which symbolically downgraded the republic. Marx
was recalled as chancellor in a government that continued the dual
flag policy. The next major issue was the properties of the former
kings now held by the states: the question was whether former rulers
should receive some compensation or none. More than 12 million voters
petitioned for a referendum on this issue, meanwhile the Reichstag was
debating an expropriation bill. Hindenburg's impulse was to resign so
that he might express his opposition, but instead Meissner persuaded
him to write a personal letter, which appeared in the newspapers,
opposing expropriation. The referendum on 20 June 1926 rejected
expropriation. Hindenburg urged the states to reach fair settlements
promptly, otherwise he would resign. Stresemann's position in
successive governments was solidified when he shared the Nobel Peace
Prize for 1926.
The next crisis came in the autumn of 1926 when
Seeckt, without consulting the
Reichswehr minister, invited the eldest
son of the ex-crown prince to attend maneuvers. To keep the government
in office, Hindenburg pressured Seeckt to resign. His successor was
Wilhelm Heye. The Social Democrats shifted their stance and were
willing to join a centrist government, which would strengthen it.
Hindenburg was agreeable. But then the socialists demanded a
completely new cabinet, which the government rejected, consequently
the Reichstag voted no confidence after oratory that made much of the
secret collaboration between the
Reichswehr and the Red Army, which
had been revealed in British newspapers. To counter these attacks the
Reichswehr relied on Colonel Kurt von Schleicher, who had served with
Oskar in the Third Guards and was often a guest at the Palace. He
assiduously strove to improve relations with the Republic. Again
Hindenburg was saddled with finding a new government. He asked Marx to
bring in more parties. The German Nationals agreed to join, and a new
government was in place on 31 January 1927. It legislated the eight
hour day and unemployment insurance.
On 18 September 1927 Hindenburg spoke at the dedication of the massive
memorial at Tannenberg, outraging international opinion by denying
Germany's responsibility for initiating World War I, thereby
repudiating Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. He declared that
Germany entered the war as "the means of self-assertion against a
world full of enemies. Pure in heart we set off to the defence of the
fatherland and with clean hands the German army carried the
sword." His words were much stronger than in the draft approved
by Stresemann. The Allied governments retaliated by not congratulating
him on his eightieth birthday. (He was more upset by Ludendorff's
refusal to have any contact at the ceremony.) Most Germans did
celebrate his birthday, his present was Neudeck, the ancestral East
Prussian estate of the Hindenburgs, purchased with funds from a public
subscription. Later it became known that the title was in Oskar's
name, to avoid potential inheritance tax.
A financial scandal in the navy led to the resignation of the defense
minister. As his replacement, Schleicher wanted Groener, whose
chief-of-staff he had been late in the war. The right strongly opposed
him, but the Reichstag approved. Groener in turn enhanced Schleicher's
role in the army. The Reichstag's four-year term was coming to an end,
so Hindenburg pressed them to promptly pass needed legislation and
then dissolved them on 31 March 1928. His leadership was widely
applauded. The election on 20 May 1928 produced a shift to the
left, although a handful of Nazis were elected. However it was
difficult to assemble a new government because several parties were
reluctant to participate. Finally there was sufficient support for the
Social Democrat Hermann Müller who Hindenburg found clever and
agreeable, later telling Groener that Müller was his best
The next crisis followed Stresemann's negotiation of the Young Plan,
which rescheduled reparations payments and opened the way for needed
American loans. In addition, the French promised to leave the
Rhineland in 1930, five years before schedule. The right formed a
committee to block adoption, they started by intensively lobbying
Hindenburg, using such powerful voices as Turpitz. Hindenburg did not
budge. For the first time the committee brought conservatives, like
the powerful newspaper owner Alfred Hugenberg, into alliance with the
Nazis. They submitted the issues to a national plebiscite, in which
they obtained only one-fifth of the vote. In his open letter when he
promulgated the required legislation, Hindenburg pointed out that
their major problem was the economic turmoil and growing unemployment
stemming from the worldwide depression.
The per cent of German workers unemployed 1920-1935
His close advisers were Oskar, Groener, Meissner, and Schleicher,
known as the Kamarilla. The younger Hindenburg, "the constitutionally
unforeseen son of the President", controlled access to the
President. Hindenburg tried to assemble the next government by
obtaining enough support from political parties while retaining
essential ministers such as Groener and Stresemann, but was unable to
form a working combination, the parties were too diverse and divided.
A new election would only reinforce these bitter divisions. Schliecher
proposed a solution: a government in which the chancellor would be
responsible to the president rather than the Reichstag, based on the
so-called "25/48/53 formula"., named for the three articles of
the Constitution that could make such a "Presidential government"
Article 25 allowed the President to dissolve the Reichstag.
Article 48 allowed the president to sign emergency bills into law
without the consent of the Reichstag. However, the Reichstag could
cancel any law passed by Article 48 by a simple majority vote within
sixty days of its passage.
Article 53 allowed the president to appoint the chancellor.
Schleicher suggested that in such a presidential government the
trained economist and leader of the
Catholic Center Party
Catholic Center Party (Zentrum)
Heinrich Brüning would make an excellent chancellor. Hindenburg first
talked with Brüning in February 1930. He was impressed by his probity
and by his outstanding combat record as a machine gun officer; and was
reconciled to his being a catholic. In January 1930, Meissner told
Kuno von Westarp that soon Muller's "Grand Coalition" would replaced
by a "presidential government" that would exclude the Social
Democrats, adding that the coming "Hindenburg government" would be
"anti-Marxist" and "anti-parliamentarian", serving as a transition to
a dictatorship. Schleicher maneuvered to exacerbate a bitter
dispute within Müller's coalition which was divided over whether the
unemployment insurance rate should be raised by a half percentage
point or a full percentage point. With the Grand Coalition
government lacking support in the Reichstag, Müller asked Hindenburg
to have his budget approved under Article 48, but Schleicher persuaded
Hindenburg to refuse. Müller's government fell on 27 March 1930
and Brüning became chancellor. Brüning had hesitated because he
lacked parliamentary support, but Hindenburg appealed to his sense of
duty and threatened to resign himself. Only the four Social
Democrats in the previous cabinet were replaced, forming what the
press labeled the "Hindenburg Cabinet", which Dorpalen argues "failed
to produce the hoped for turn of events. The depression grew
worse, unemployment was soaring, and now the constitutional system had
been drastically shaken.
President Hindenburg as painted by Max Liebermann
Urged on by the president, the Reichstag passed a bill supporting
agriculture by raising tariffs and providing subsidies. Faced with
declining tax revenues and mounting costs for unemployment insurance,
Brüning introduced an austerity budget with steep spending cuts and
steep tax increases. The
Young Plan required such a balanced
budget. Nonetheless, his budget was defeated in the Reichstag in July
1930, so Hindenburg signed it into law by invoking Article 48. The
Reichstag voted to repeal the budget, so Hindenburg dissolved it just
two years into its mandate, and re-approved the budget with Article
48. Unemployment was still soaring. Hindenburg took no part in the
campaign, in the September 1930 elections the Nazis achieved an
electoral breakthrough, gaining 17 percent of the vote to become the
second strongest party in the Reichstag. The Communists also made
striking gains, albeit not so great.
After the elections, Brüning continued to govern largely through
Article 48; his government was kept afloat by the Social Democrats who
voted against canceling his Article 48 bills in order to avoid another
election that could only benefit the Nazis and the Communists. The
Eberhard Jäckel concluded that presidential
government was within the letter of the constitution, but violated its
spirit as Article 54 stated the Chancellor and his cabinet were
responsible to the Reichstag, and thus presidential government was an
end-run around the constitution. Hindenburg for his part grew
increasingly annoyed with Brüning, complaining that he was growing
tired of using Article 48 all the time to pass bills. Hindenburg found
the detailed notes that Brüning submitted explaining the economic
necessity of each of his bills to be incomprehensible. Brüning
continued with austerity, A decree in December 1930 once again cut the
wages of public employees and the budget. Modest, withdrawn Brüning
was completely unable to explain his measures to the voters, or even
to the president, who relied on explanations from the Kamarilla. The
Nazis and German Nationals marched out of the Reichstag in opposition
to a procedural rule. Then the 1931 budget was passed easily and the
Reichstag adjourned until October after only increasing the military
budget and the subsidies for Junkers in the so-called Osthilfe
(Eastern Aid) program. In June 1931 there was a banking crisis in
which the funds on deposit plummeted. Complete disaster was averted by
United States President
Herbert Hoover obtaining a temporary
moratorium on reparation payments.
In the summer of 1931, Hindenburg complained in a letter to his
daughter: "What pains and angers me the most is being misunderstood by
part of the political right". He met
Adolf Hitler for the first
time in October 1931, at a high-level conference in Berlin. Everyone
present saw that they took an immediate dislike to each other.
Afterwards Hindenburg in private often disparagingly referred to
Hitler as "that Austrian corporal", "that Bohemian corporal" or
sometimes simply as "the corporal" and also derided Hitler's Austrian
dialect. For his part, Hitler often labeled Hindenburg as "that
old fool" or "that old reactionary". On 26 January 1933, Hindenburg
privately told a group of his friends: "Gentlemen, I hope you will not
hold me capable of appointing this Austrian corporal to be Reich
Chancellor". Hindenburg made it clear that he saw himself as the
leader of the "national" forces and expected Hitler to follow his
Election poster for Hindenburg in 1932 (translation: "With him")
By January 1932, at age 84, Hindenburg was vacillating about running
for a second term. Some authors have pointed out that uncertainty is
suggestive of early senile dementia, which includes: restricted
memory, especially of recent events and people, decrease in willed
actions which may become apathy, and reduced problem solving
ability. Brüning recalled that once the president came to meet
him at the railway station, but failed to recognize him. On the
other hand, Franz von Papen, a later chancellor, found that despite
minor lapses the president remained competent until his last
days. Hindenburg was persuaded to run by the Kamarilla, and
supported by the Centre Party, the DVP and the Social Democratic Party
of Germany (SPD), which regarded him as the only hope of defeating
Hitler. His fighting spirit was evoked by Nazi taunts when he
appeared in public and in a few weeks three million Germans signed a
petition urging him to carry on. His intentions were not to "abandon
my efforts for a healthy move to the Right". Brüning proposed to
the Reichstag that in light of the still escalating economic disaster
— now some of the largest banks had failed — the election should
be postponed for two years. That required a two-thirds assent, and the
Nazis would not agree. Hitler would be one of his opponents.
Hindenburg left most campaigning to others, in his single radio
address he stressed the need for unity, "I recall the spirit of 1914,
and the mood at the front, which asked about the man, and not about
his class or party". Hitler campaigned vigorously throughout
Hindenburg, aged 84, at a radio microphone in 1932 during the election
campaign in which he defeated Hitler.
In the first round of voting in March 1932, Hindenburg was
front-runner, but failed to gain the required majority. In the
runoff the following month Hindenburg won with 53 percent of the vote.
However he was disappointed because he lost voters from the right,
only winning by the support of those who had strongly opposed him
seven years before. He wrote "Despite all the blows in the neck I have
taken, I will not abandon my efforts for a healthy move to the
Right". He called in the party leaders for advice, during the
meetings Meissner led the discussions while Hindenburg would only
speak briefly on crucial points. Schleicher took the lead in choosing
the cabinet, in which he was
Reichswehr Minister. Groener was now even
more unpopular to the right because he had banned wearing party
uniforms in public. On 13 May 1932 Schleicher told Groener that he had
"lost the confidence of the Army" and must resign at once. Once
Groener was gone the ban was lifted and the Nazi brown shirts were
back battling on the streets.
To cope with mounting unemployment, Brüning desperately wanted an
emergency decree to launch a program in which bankrupt estates would
be carved up into small farms and turned over to unemployed settlers.
When they met, Hindenburg read a statement that there would be no
further decrees and insisted that the cabinet resign, there must be a
turn to the right. Brüning resigned on 1 June 1932. He was succeeded
by Papen from the Centre Party, who was Schleicher's choice,
Hindenburg did not even ask the party leaders for advice. He was
delighted with Papen, a rich, smooth aristocrat who had been a famous
equestrian and a general staff officer; he soon became a Hindenburg
family friend (Schleicher was no longer welcomed because he had
quarreled with Oscar). The president was delighted to find that eight
members of the new cabinet had served as officers during the war.
Thanks to the previous government, reparations were phased out at the
Lausanne Conference, but without progress on other issues, so it was
attacked by the German right. The Social Democratic government of the
Prussia was a care-taker, because they had lost their mandate
in the preceding election. Papen accused them of failing to maintain
public order and removed them on 20 July. The national elections came
eleven days later. Eight parties received substantial numbers of
votes, but those supporting the government lost strength, while
opponents on the right and left gained. The Nazis polled almost the
same 37 percent they had in the presidential election, making them the
largest party in the Reichstag. Schleicher negotiated with them,
proposing that Hitler become vice-chancellor. Hitler demanded the
chancellorship along with five cabinet positions and important posts
in the state governments. Additionally the Reichstag must pass an
Enabling act giving a new government all needed powers, otherwise it
would be dissolved. Around the country Nazi storm-troopers were
running riot, attacking their political opponents. Hindenburg refused
to make Hitler chancellor, so he met with Hitler to explain that he
was unwilling to bring a single party to power, concluding with "I
want to extend my hand to you as a fellow soldier." The following
morning he left for Neudeck; most of the newspapers praised his
defense of the constitution. The constitution mandated a new election
within sixty days, but owing to the crisis Hindenburg postponed it.
Papen published an economic recovery plan that almost all of the
parties and the labor unions lambasted. His scant support crumbled
To add enough votes to gain a parliamentary mandate Schleicher tried
to persuade some of the Nazi leaders, like the war hero Hermann
Göring, to defect and to take a position in his government. None of
them would, so he became another presidential chancellor, still
courting prominent Nazis — otherwise his days as chancellor were
numbered. Papen continued to negotiate with Hitler, who moderated his
conditions: he would settle for the chancellorship, the Reich
Prussia and two cabinet positions: interior and a new
slot for aviation. He also promised that he would respect the rights
of the president, the Reichstag and the press, and Papen would be
vice-chancellor. On these terms, Hindenburg allowed Oskar and Meissner
to meet secretly with Hitler, culminating in an hour's tête-á-těte
between Hitler and Oskar. Schleicher learned of the secret meeting and
following morning met with the president to demand emergency powers
and the dissolution of the Reichstag. Hindenburg refused the powers
but agreed to the election. Before a new government could be formed
Hindenburg called General Werner von Blomberg, an opponent of
Schleicher, back from a disarmament conference and appointed him
Reichswehr minister, perhaps unaware that he was a Nazi sympathizer.
Hitler becomes chancellor
To break the stalemate the president proposed Hitler as chancellor,
Papen as vice-chancellor and Reich commissioner of Prussia, and
Göring as Prussian interior minister (who controlled the police), two
other cabinet ministers would be Nazis, the remaining eight would be
from other parties. When the president met with Hitler, Papen would
always be present. There would be new elections and the next Reichstag
would pass a comprehensive
Enabling act permitting the executive to
make laws, which could not be rejected by the Reichstag. The cabinet
included Blomberg as
Reichswehr minister, Hugenberg had both economics
and agriculture, Seldte (the leader of the right wing Stahlhelm party)
headed labor, Göring without portfolio, and
Wilhelm Frick interior;
the remaining members were holdovers. Critically, Göring was also
Prussian interior minister, controlling the largest police force in
which he promoted Nazis as commanders. Hindenburg then signed a decree
for a new election and another for the "protection of the German
People", which controlled political meetings, demonstrations and the
The Nazi election campaign was boosted by anti-red hysteria that
Reichstag fire which was fanned by reports of Communist
conspiracies from Göring's Prussian police and promoted by the
issuing of a decree favored by the right that suspended most
constitutional liberties and permitted the takeover of State
Governments. Nonetheless the Nazis received only 43.9 percent of the
vote, though with supporting parties they had a majority in the
Reichstag. Another decree made both the swastika and black-white-red
the national colors.
Hitler and Hindenburg at the Garrison Church in Potsdam
Hitler soon obtained Hindenburg's confidence, promising that after
Germany regained full sovereignty the monarchy would be restored —
after a few weeks Hindenburg no longer asked Papen to join their
meetings. The opening of the new Reichstag was celebrated with a Nazi
extravaganza: Hindenburg descended into the crypt of the old garrison
Potsdam to commune with the spirit of
Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great at
his grave, attended by Hitler who saluted the president as "the
custodian of the new rise of our people." An
Enabling act was
prepared that transferred law-making from the Reichstag to the
government, even if the new laws violated the constitution. The
Reichstag, whose Communist deputies were now in prison (in violation
of Articles 36 and 37 of the constitution), passed the Act with well
more than the needed two-thirds majority, effectively ending the
Tannenberg Memorial where Hindenburg and his wife were buried.
Economic austerity was dumped, Hitler poured money into new programs
hiring the unemployed, buying armaments, and building infrastructure
— especially roads and autobahns. Within a year unemployment
fell by almost forty percent. Hitler gained the support of the armed
forces by promising to rebuild their strength. The German states were
taken over by the national government, the labor unions were
suppressed, political opponents were imprisoned, and Jews were ejected
from the civil service, which included the universities. Hindenburg
only objected about the Jews, he wanted war veterans retained, to
which Hitler acceded. When Hitler moved to eject Hugenberg from the
cabinet and to suppress the political parties, a trusted colleague of
Hugenberg's was sent to Neudeck to appeal for assistance but only met
with Oskar. The president did delay the appointment of one Nazi
Gauleiter, but failed to obtain the installation of a
he favored. The honor guard at Neudeck now were storm troopers. On 27
August at the stirring ceremonies at Tannenberg the president was
presented with two large East Prussian properties near Neudeck. On the
night before the plebiscite on Nazi rule scheduled for 11 November
1933, Hindenburg appealed to the voters to support their president and
their chancellor, 95.1 percent of those voting did so. When a new
commander of the army was to be appointed the president's choice won
out over the chancellor's, but Hindenburg accepted a change in the
military oath that eliminated obedience to the president and placed
the swastika on military uniforms. By summer 1934 Hindenburg was dying
of metastasized bladder cancer and his correspondence was dominated by
complaints of Nazi storm troopers running amok, so Hindenburg asked
Hitler to rein them in. Immediately after the storm trooper's
leaders were murdered during the
Night of the Long Knives
Night of the Long Knives Hindenburg
thanked Hitler for his firm measures. A day later he learned that
Schleicher and his wife had been gunned down in their home; Hitler
apologized, claiming that Schleicher had drawn a pistol.
Hindenburg died on 2 August 1934. Hitler appointed himself as
President, ending the possibility that he could be dismissed as
Chancellor. Contrary to his will, he was interred with his wife
in a magnificent ceremony at the Tannenberg Memorial. A plebiscite was
held to transfer the presidency to Fūhrer and Reich Chancellor
Hitler, Oskar broadcast his late father's support for the transition,
which was approved by 90 percent of those voting. In 1944 as the
Russians approached Generalleutnant
Oskar von Hindenburg
Oskar von Hindenburg moved his
parent's remains to western Germany. After World War II the Poles
Tannenberg Memorial to the ground.
The remains of Hindenburg and his wife nowadays lie buried in St.
Elizabeth's Church, Marburg.
Silver 5 mark commemorative coin of Paul von Hindenburg, struck 1936
Obverse: Paul von Hindenburg, 1847–1934
Reverse: (German) Deutsches Reich, 5 RM
The famed zeppelin Hindenburg that was destroyed by fire in 1937 was
named in his honor, as was the Hindenburgdamm, a causeway joining the
Sylt to mainland
Schleswig-Holstein that was built during
his time in office. The previously Upper Silesian town of Zabrze
(German: Hindenburg O.S.) was also renamed after him in 1915, as well
as the SMS Hindenburg, a battlecruiser commissioned in the Imperial
German Navy in 1917 and the last capital ship to enter service in the
Imperial Navy. The
Hindenburg Range in New Guinea, which includes
perhaps one of the world's largest cliffs, the Hindenburg Wall, also
bears his name.
Historical assessment as president
Christopher Clark has criticized Hindenburg in his role as
head of state for:
″…withdrawing his solemn constitutional oaths of 1925 and 1932 to
make common cause with the sworn enemies of the Republic. And then,
having publicly declared that he would never consent to appoint Hitler
to any post…levered the Nazi leader into the German Chancellery in
January 1933. The
Field Marshal had a high opinion of himself, and he
doubtless sincerely believed that he personified a Prussian
‘tradition" of selfless service. But he was not, in truth, a man of
tradition…As a military commander and later as Germany's head of
state, Hindenburg broke virtually every bond he entered into. He was
not the man of dogged, faithful service, but the man of image,
manipulation and betrayal.″
Decorations and awards
Kingdom of Prussia:
Knight of the Order of the Black Eagle
Grand Commander of the Royal
House Order of Hohenzollern
House Order of Hohenzollern with Swords
Pour le Mérite
Pour le Mérite (2 September 1914); Oak Leaves added on 23 February
Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd class
Grand Cross of the
Iron Cross (9 December 1916); Golden Star added on
25 March 1918 (Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross)
Kingdom of Bavaria: Knight Grand Cross of the Military Order of
Kingdom of Saxony: Knight Grand Cross of the Military Order of
Kingdom of Württemberg: Knight of the Order of Military Merit
Oldenburg: Knight Grand Cross with Crown, Swords and Laurel of
the House and Merit Order of Peter Frederick Louis
Mecklenburg-Schwerin: Military Merit Cross, 1st class
Anhalt: Friedrich Cross, 1st class
Honorary Commander of the Order of Saint John (Bailiwick of
Grand Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresa
Cross of Military Merit, 1st class with war decoration
Gold Medal of Military Merit ("Signum Laudis")
Kingdom of Spain: Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece
Military of Germany portal
World War I
World War I portal
German presidential election, 1925
German presidential election, 1932
German Reichsmark, coin.
List of people on the cover of Time Magazine: 1920s − 22 March 1926
^ Mapa.szukacz.pl – Mapa Polski z planami miast at mapa.szukacz.pl
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^ Awarded in 1931 as German head of state.
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Ludendorff Conduct World War I. New York, New York: W. Morrow.
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the Nazis. Oxford, England, UK; New York, New York, USA: Oxford
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Historiography and memory
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Nazis (Oxford University Press, 2009)
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eine Studie zum Problem des Machtverfalls in der Demokratie.
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Görlitz, Walter (1935). Hindenburg, eine Auswahl aus Selbstzeugnissen
des Generalfeldmarschalls und Reichpräsidenten. Bielefeld: Velhagen
Hiss, O.C. (1931). Hindenburg: Eine Kleine Streitschrift. Potsdam:
Sans Souci Press.
Maser, Werner (1990). Hindenburg: Eine politische Biographie. Rastatt:
Rauscher, Walter: Hindenburg. Feldmarschall und Reichspräsident.
Ueberreuter, Wien 1997, ISBN 3-8000-3657-6.
Paul von Hindenburg
Paul von Hindenburg und die deutsche Außenpolitik
1925–1934. Böhlau (zugleich Dissertation, Köln 1998)
Köln/Weimar/Wien 1999, ISBN 3-412-11198-8.
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Hindenburg-Mythos (1914–1934.) Böhlau, Köln 2007,
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Hitler. Siedler, München, 2007, ISBN 978-3-88680-865-6.
Wikisource has the text of a 1922
Encyclopædia Britannica article
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Paul von Hindenburg
Hans von Seeckt
Presidents of Germany (1919–34) and heads of state of Nazi Germany
Weimar Republic (1919–1933)
Paul von Hindenburg
Third Reich (1933–1945)
Paul von Hindenburg
Adolf Hitler (Führer)
Recipients of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross
1813 Grand Cross
Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher
Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron
Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bülow
Crown Prince Charles John of Sweden
Bogislav Friedrich Emanuel von Tauentzien
Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg
1870 Grand Cross
Albert of Saxony
August Karl von Goeben
Edwin Freiherr von Manteuffel
Helmuth Graf von Moltke the Elder
Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia
Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia
August Graf von Werder
Kaiser Wilhelm I
Frederick Francis II
1914 Grand Cross
Kaiser Wilhelm II
Paul von Hindenburg
Paul von Hindenburg (Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross)
Prince Leopold of Bavaria
August von Mackensen
1939 Grand Cross
ISNI: 0000 0001 0927 2529
BNF: cb13981007f (data)