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The Oberste Heeresleitung or OHL (Supreme Army Command) was Germany's highest echelon of command of the German Army (Heer) in World War I. In the later phase of the war, the so-called "Third OHL" assumed dictatorial powers and was de-facto in control of German government policies.
Formation and operation
Even after the formation of the German Empire in 1871, the Prussian, Saxon, Württemberg and Bavarian Armies remained largely separate in peacetime, with each Kingdom maintaining a separate War Ministry and General Staff to administer their forces. In wartime however, the Imperial Constitution made the Emperor Commander-in-Chief of the combined armies (Oberster Kriegsherr literally "Supreme Warlord").
Upon mobilizing in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, the Großer Generalstab formed the core of the Supreme Army Command, becoming the "General Staff of the Field Army". The Emperor's role as Commander-in-Chief was largely ceremonial, and real authority lay with the Chief of the General Staff, who had the authority to issue orders in the Emperor's name. The pre-war Chief of the General Staff was Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke. The Oberste Heeresleitung was the staff led by Moltke as Chief of the General Staff of the Army.:180
For most of the war, the "Great Headquarter" was located at Spa in Belgium. In addition to the "General Staff of the Field Army", the Supreme Army Command consisted of the Emperor's Military Cabinet, the Intendant General (responsible for logistics), senior advisors in various specialist fields (Artillery, Engineers, Medicine, Telegraphy, Munitions and Railways), and representatives from the four German War Ministries and the various other Central Powers. The Emperor was also Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial German Navy, which was led by the Admiralty Staff, from August 1918 by the Seekriegsleitung (Naval Warfare Command, SKL). Co-ordination was poor at the beginning of the war between OHL and SKL: the Imperial Navy did not even know about the Schlieffen Plan, an initial attack on France through Belgium.
Moltke suffered a health breakdown during the Marne offensive and was replaced by the Prussian Minister of War and General of Infantry Erich von Falkenhayn, first informally in August and then officially on 25 October 1914.:179
After the failure of Falkenhayn's strategy at the Battle of Verdun and the entry into the war of the Kingdom of Romania on the Allies' side in August 1916, Falkenhayn was replaced on 29 August by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg.:451
Hindenburg's command became known as the Dritte OHL or "Third OHL". However, Hindenburg was "neither the intellectual centre of the strategic planning [...] nor of the new war economy",:513 as proposed in the Hindenburg Programme of 31 August 1916. He was mostly a symbolic figurehead and a representative of the military command to the public. Control was mainly exercised by his deputy, General of Infantry Erich Ludendorff, who held the title Generalquartiermeister (First Quartermaster General).[a]:513-514
As the war progressed, the duumvirate increasingly dominated decision making on the German war effort to an extent that they are sometimes described as de facto military dictators, supplanting the Emperor and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, whom they managed to have replaced in the summer of 1917.:19–20
The OHL, through the Hindenburg Programme, a total war strategy, sought victory at all costs. Ludendorff ordered the resumption of the U-boat Campaign, which, along with the Zimmermann Telegram, provoked the United States' entry in to the war. The OHL ensured safe passage for Vladimir Lenin and his accomplices from Switzerland to Russia. After the October Revolution, the OHL negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to free up troops for the Western Front's 1918 Spring Offensive.
As the tide of the war turned decisively against Germany with the Allied Hundred Days' Offensive, in late September 1918 Ludendorff called for the "parliamentisation" of the German government and immediate armistice negotiations. When he reversed course and demanded the fight to be resumed in October, Ludendorff was replaced in late October 1918 by Lieutenant General Wilhelm Groener. Hindenburg remained in office until his resignation from the armed forces in the summer of 1919.
Armistice and dissolution
With the war effectively over, in November 1918 the OHL was moved from Spa to Schloss Wilhelmshöhe in Kassel, in order to supervise the withdrawal of the German armies from enemy territory. As the German Revolution began, Hindenburg and Groener advised the Emperor to abdicate. Groener subsequently came to an agreement with the Social Democrat leader Friedrich Ebert known as the Ebert–Groener pact under which the Army's leadership would back the embryonic republican government.
In July 1919, the Supreme Army Command and Great General Staff were disbanded by order of the Treaty of Versailles. For a few days, Groener had replaced Hindenburg as Chief of the General Staff after the latter resigned in late June. He himself resigned from his position as head of Kommandostelle Kolberg (as the staff had become on the formal dissolution of the OHL) in September 1919.
- Unlike in other armies, the German Generalquartiermeister was not responsible for logistics, but instead was the deputy to the Chief of Staff
- Leonhard, Jörg (2014). Die Büchse der Pandora - Geschichte des Ersten Weltkriegs(German). C.H. Beck. ISBN 978-3-406-66191-4.
- Haffner, Sebastian (2002). Die deutsche Revolution 1918/19 (German). Kindler. ISBN 3-463-40423-0.
- "Biografie Wilhelm Groener (German)". Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
- "Biografie Wilhelm Groener (German)". Deutsches Historisches Museum. Retrieved 22 May 2013.