Paul von Hindenburg

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Paul von Hindenburg
An old photograph of a man with a moustache in military uniform.
President of the German Reich
 Weimar Republic
In office
12 May 1925 – 2 August 1934
Preceded by Friedrich Ebert
Succeeded by Adolf Hitler (Führer of Germany)
Chief of the German General Staff
 Imperial German Army
In office
29 August 1916 – 3 July 1919
Monarch Wilhelm II
President Friedrich Ebert
Preceded by Erich von Falkenhayn
Succeeded by Wilhelm Groener
Personal details
Born Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg
(1847-10-02)2 October 1847
Posen, Duchy of Posen, Prussia (now Poznań, Poland)
Died 2 August 1934(1934-08-02) (aged 86)
Neudeck, East Prussia, German Reich (now Ogrodzieniec, Poland)
Political party Independent
Spouse(s) Gertrud von Hindenburg
Awards Pour le Mérite
Military service
Years of service
  • 1866–1911
  • 1914–1919
Rank Mariscal prussià Generalfeldmarschall

Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (About this sound listen ), known generally as Paul von Hindenburg (German: [ˈpaʊl fɔn ˈhɪndn̩bʊɐ̯k]; 2 October 1847 – 2 August 1934) was a German military officer, statesman, and politician who largely controlled German policy in the second half of World War I and served as the elected President of Germany from 1925 until his death in 1934. He played the key role in the Nazi "Seizure of Power" in January 1933 by appointing Hitler chancellor of a "Government of National Concentration", even though the Nazis were a plurality in cabinet.

Hindenburg retired from the army for the first time in 1911, but was recalled shortly after the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He first came to national attention at the age of 66 as the victor of the decisive Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914. As Germany's Chief of the General Staff from August 1916, Hindenburg's reputation rose greatly in German public esteem. He and his deputy Erich Ludendorff then led Germany in a de facto military dictatorship throughout the remainder of the war, marginalizing German Emperor Wilhelm II as well as the German Reichstag (Parliament.)

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 Adolf 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 despite losing the election. 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 the office of President vacant and made himself head of state.

Early life[edit]

Paul von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg was born in Posen, Prussia (Polish: Poznań; until 1793 and since 1919 part of Poland[1]), the son of Prussian aristocrat Robert (1816–1902) and 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). Hindenburg was also a direct descendant of 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.

Paul was proud of his family tree, tracing ancestors back to 1289.[2] 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 father supported his family as an infantry officer, he retired as a major. In the summer they visited 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, 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 Guards.

In the German Army[edit]

Paul von Hindenburg as a cadet in Wahlstatt (1860)

Action in two wars[edit]

When the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 broke out Hindenburg wrote his parents: "I rejoice in this bright-colored future. For the soldier war is the normal state of things…If I fall, it is the most honorable and beautiful death".[3] 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.[4] 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. The grenadiers clung to the ground, but their officers stayed on horseback. After four hours the Prussian artillery came up to blast the French lines while the infantry filled with the “holy lust of battle “[5] swept through the French lines. His regiment suffered 1096 casualties. He became regimental adjutant. The Guards were spectators at the 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 when the 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.[6] After the French surrender he watched from afar the suppression of the Paris Commune.

Hindenburg as a Lieutenant in the 3rd Garderegiment in 1870

The General Staff[edit]

In 1873 he passed in the highly competitive entrance examination for admission to the Kriegsakademie in Berlin[7] 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.

He was transferred in 1885 to the Great General Staff and was promoted to major. His section was led by Count 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 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.

Hindenburg as a Major General of the General Staff in 1897

Field commands and retirement[edit]

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.[8] In 1909 Schlieffen recommended him as Chief of the General Staff, but he lost out to Helmuth von Moltke.[9] He retired in 1911 “to make way for younger men.”[10] He had been in the army for 46 years, including 14 years in General Staff positions. The Prussian Army was subdivided into twenty-one corps, so their commanders were at the top of their profession; nonetheless to his biographer Berman his was “by no means an exceptional career”;[11] other biographers make a similar evaluation.[12]

World War I[edit]

Recalled to the army[edit]

Field Marshal Hindenburg in 1914

When the war came he was retired in Hanover. On 22 August, out of the blue, he was appointed to command the Eighth Army in East Prussia with General Erich Ludendorff as his chief of staff. The commander was selected by the War Cabinet and the chief of staff by OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung, supreme headquarters) — the Eighth Army was in mortal danger so it seems unlikely that Hindenburg was selected by junior staff officers as a "figure-head", as suggested by his biographer Wheeler-Bennett.[13] Their first meeting was when a special train arrived at the Hanover railway station at 04:00. The Eighth was the only German Army facing the Russians. The Schlieffen Plan anticipated that East Prussia — a salient protruding into Russian territory — would be invaded as soon as the Russians were mobilized, after four weeks of war; but they had started to mobilize secretly on 25 July,[14] so on 17 August a Russian army based in Vilnius advanced into eastern East Prussia. The Eighth Army blocked their way, but were pushed back. Then an army based in Warsaw crossed the southern border, threatening to trap Eighth Army by advancing to the Vistula River, which formed the base of the salient. Momentarily panicked, the commander Maximilian von Prittwitz notified OHL that he might withdraw behind the Vistula. He and his chief of staff were summarily dismissed by Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke.[15]


Prittwitz had already issued orders to shift the bulk of his army west to block the Warsaw Russian army from reaching the Vistula. Ludendorff, not aware of this decision, sent almost identical movement orders to the corps. On 23 August their train pulled into Marienberg where they were met by the Eighth Army staff led by Lieutenant Colonel Max Hoffman, an expert on the Russian army and an old acquaintance of Ludendorff’s. He had planned the shift of part of the 8th Army to the south, and recommended attacking with the increased force in the event of a Russian advance.[16] Agreeing, Hindenburg's written orders altered Prittwitz's plans, the invading Warsaw Army would be opposed only by the German troops already in position, a line that in Hindenburg's words would be "thin, but not weak", because the men were defending their homes.[17] If pushed too hard they would give way slowly, while the reinforcements that Hoffman had sent by rail massed on the Russian left flank and those coming westward on foot on the Russian right; they would encircle and annihilate these interlopers before the Vilnius Army intervened.[18] Ludendorff, with unbounded energy, led the staff in planning the execution of this. He later claimed he was an expert on moving troops, and that on the Great General Staff he had prepared the orders to mobilize and move the army to their strike positions when war broke out; a perfect fit to Hindenburg’s expertise in tactics and in commanding large bodies of men. Hoffman later complained about this taking credit for his work. That evening Hindenburg strolled close to the decaying walls of the fortress of the Knights of Prussia, recalling the twenty-three von Beneckendorfs who had died in battle and the defeat of the Knights of Prussia by the Slavs at nearby Tannenberg in 1410 — one of their fallen was a von Hindenburg.[19]

Hindenburg and Ludendorff at Tannenberg (painting by Hugo Vogel)

Technology was transforming war. The new commanders motored along the front to meet their subordinates, using the local telephone network to keep current on reports from Eighth Army, intelligence from their airmen, telegrams from OHL and the latest helpful intercepts from the Russian army wireless. When their flanking forces arrived, they adjusted their movements daily to close the pincers on the slowly advancing enemy. On the night of 25 August Hindenburg told his staff, angst-ridden by the risk they were taking with the Vilnius Army in their rear, "Gentlemen, our preparations are so well in hand that we can sleep soundly tonight”.[20] On the climactic day Hindenburg watched from a hilltop, like a general from the past but in reach of a telephone, as his weak center gradually gave ground until the sudden roar of guns to his right heralded the surprise attack on that flank. Two corps were encircled, 92,000 Russians were captured and another 78,000 killed or wounded.[21] German casualties were about 14,000. Two Russian corps commanders were captured and their army commander shot himself. According to British Field Marshal Ironside it was the “Greatest defeat suffered by any of the combatants during the war.”[22] Hindenburg realized that he would become a national hero and acted swiftly to fit that part, asking the kaiser to name the battle Tannenberg (which naming both Ludendorff and Hoffman later claimed credit for).

The Eighth Army then re-positioned to face the Vilnius Army. Hindenburg's tactics spurned head-on attacks all along a front in favor of sharp, localized hammer blows, Schwerpunkts, to him "An attack without a Schwerpunkt is like a man without character".[23] Two Schwerpunkts struck in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, from these breakthrough points two columns drove east to pocket the Russians, who saw their danger and retreated 100 km (62 mi) with heavy losses. In the first six weeks of the war the Russians lost more than 310,000 men.[24] Eight hundred thousand refugees were able to return to their East Prussian homes, thanks to victories that strikingly contrasted with events in the west where the Schlieffen plan failed when the Germans retreated during the battle of the Marne.


Hindenburg saw his job clearly: “The commander in the field should only lay down the broad lines, leaving the details to his subordinates.”[25] He and Ludendorff would discuss what to do and then their staff would issue precise instructions. Despite 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.”.[26] 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.[27]

Defending Silesia[edit]

On the east bank of the Vistula in 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.[28] 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.[29] 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!".[30] On 1 November 1914 he was appointed 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 Selesia, 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 Silesia and also captured Poland’s second largest city.

Postcard of the wooden statue of Hindenburg erected in Berlin for the first anniversary of Tannenberg

A wooden titan?[edit]

His most celebrated tribute was a 12m tall wooden likeness erected in Berlin; admirers paid to drive in nails — ultimately 30 tons of them — the proceeds went to war widows. Smaller versions were erected throughout Germany.[31] The wooden images and his photographs, which invariably show the resolute, indomitable warrior, give a deceptively stern likeness. He enjoyed a joke, his own were often self-deprecating: for instance when hailed by a massive civilian crowd ”he was the largest elephant in the Zoo on Sunday.”[32] Visitors found that his headquarters seemed like a family.[33] He had a prodigious memory for names and faces, asking colleagues about their sons in the army, even recalling their ranks and units.[34] Despite this bonhomie he kept his own counsel. According to the kaiser "Hindenburg never said more than half of what he really thought".[35] When Professor Hugo Vogel, commissioned to immortalize the victorious Tannenberg commanders in paint, arrived at headquarters most of his subjects begrudged posing,[36][37] 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[38] 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 we would have preferred to dispense”.[39]


East or west?[edit]

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 East Prussia and a northward pincer from Galicia, using motor vehicles for speed,[40] even though the Russians outnumbered the Germans by three to one. Such an overwhelming triumph could end the war in the east[41] Falkenhayn rejected his plan as a pipe dream. 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”.[42] The kaiser compromised by keeping Falkenhayn in supreme command, but replacing him as Prussian war minister. Falkenhayn retaliated by reassigning some of Hindenburg’s forces to a new army group under Prince Leopold of Bavaria — an experienced soldier who Hindenburg had once served under— and transferring Ludendorff to a new joint German and Austro-Hungarian Southern Army. Hindenburg and Ludendorff threatened to resign, so Ludendorff was returned, with a depressing evaluation of their allies’ army, which already had lost many of their professional officers[43] and had been driven out of much of Galicia, their part of what once had been Poland. The Russians were inexorably pushing from Galicia toward Hungary through the Carpathian passes.

Falkenhayn ordered Ober Ost to press the Russians, so Hindenburg's Ninth Army attacked unsuccessfully in Poland with gas, which did not vaporize in the cold. An attack by his newly formed Tenth Army made only local gains. For his next try he set up temporary headquarters at Insterburg, intending to snare the Russians in their remaining toehold in East Prussia between pincers formed by the 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.[44] 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.

The Italians declared war against Austro-Hungary on 4 May, adding 840,000 new foes.

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.[45] 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.[46] 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.

The evacuation of Poland[edit]

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”.[47] 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.[48] 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”[49] 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.[50] 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”[51] 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”.[52] The Russians replaced their experienced supreme commander, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, who Hindenburg regarded as skillful,[53] with the amateurish Tsar. During 1915, 264,000 Germans were killed in the east, 169,000 in the west.


Hindenburg in 1916

The resurgent Russians[edit]

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.[54] 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.[55] 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 that General 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.[56] 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[edit]

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 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.[57] 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 per cent 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 training.

Supreme commander[edit]

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.[58] 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”.[59] Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg favored Hindenburg, supposing him amenable to moderate peace terms,[60] 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”;[61] 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.”[62] 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 Romania.[63]

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 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.[64] 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.”[65] Bauer was impressed that Hindenburg “saw everything only with the eye of the soldier.”[66]


Northern Bulgaria was defended by Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Ottomans formed as Army Group Mackensen,[67] 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.”[68] 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 was formed there from the Bulgarians, twenty German battalions and an Ottoman corps; their new line held.

Bolstering defense[edit]

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,[69] 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."[70] 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”[71] 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.[72] 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 needed horses.[73]

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.[74] 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 French Army.

Headquarters routine[edit]

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.[75] 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.[76] 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.[77] 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[edit]

Ludendorff and Bauer, who knew all the industrialists, set ambitious goals for arms production, in what was called the Hindenburg Programme, which was directed by 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.[78] 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.[79] When a Polish army was being formed he wanted Jews excluded.[80] 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.”[81] 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[edit]

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"[82] 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

Submarine warfare[edit]

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[83] 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[84] to “ensure that a fight is kept up against all agitators, croakers and weaklings”.[85] 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 of 1812.

The great withdrawal and defending the Western Front[edit]

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.[86] 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’”[87] 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 had packed men in the front line and kept counterattack divisions too far back. He was replaced.

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.[88] 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[edit]

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 OHLordered him not to defend Jerusalem, which was occupied in December.

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[edit]

Kaiser 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.”[89] 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.[90] 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 "interpret".

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.[91][92] 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.[93] 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!"[94]

Victory in Italy[edit]

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 whip 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[edit]

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.”[95] 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.[96] 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”,[97] 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.”[98] 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 effectively.[99]

Opting for a decision in the west[edit]

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.[100]

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.[101] 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.[102] 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 to 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.[103]

Breaking the trench stalemate[edit]

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.[104] 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 enough to 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 resiliency.

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,[105] 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 Marne River.

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.[106] 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.[107] 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.

Ludendorff's breakdown[edit]

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.[108] 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".[109] 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".[110] 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 armistice.

Defeat and revolution[edit]

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.[111] 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).[112] 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.[113] 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.[114] Hindenburg's remaining in command bolstered the new government's position.

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.[115] 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."[116] 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.[117] 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 independent 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".[118]

His military reputation[edit]

“Victory comes from movement” was Schlieffen’s principle for war.[119] His disciple Hindenburg expounded his ideas as an instructor of tactics and then applied them on 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.”[120] Churchill led the way: later he is Parkinson’s “beloved figurehead”,[121] while to Stallings he is "an old military booby.”[122] These distortions stemmed from Ludendorff, who strutted in the limelight during the war and immediately thereafter wrote his comprehensive memoir with himself center stage.[123] 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 to boost sales it was rewritten by General von Mertz and other ghosts.[124] Ludendorff continued touting his preeminence in print,[125] which, typically, Hindenburg never disputed publicly.

Others did. The OHL officers who testified before the Reichstag committee investigating the collapse of 1918 agreed that Hindenburg was always in command.[126][127][128] He managed by setting objectives and appointing talented men to do their jobs, for instance "giving full scope to the intellectual powers" of Ludendorff.[129] 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.[130] 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 I.

Aftermath of the war[edit]

In June 1919, when the Allies submitted the Treaty of Versailles for the Reichstag to ratify, the President Friedrich Ebert was in favor of rejecting the treaty and resuming the war.[131] As such, Ebert asked the military what were the possibilities of the Reich winning if the war resumed in June 1919.[131] Groener advised acceptance of the treaty under the grounds that Allies would win the war if it resumed and that the terms of Versailles treaty left the Reich intact and allowed for the possibility of Germany regaining great power status one day, observing the treaty did not destroy the basis of German power.[132] Hindenburg felt the same way, but argued at a meeting with Ebert and Groener that: "Should we not appeal to the Corps of Officers and demand from a minority of the people a gesture of sacrifice in defence of our national honor?".[133] Groener replied: "The significance of such a gesture would escape the German people. There would be a general outcry against counter-revolution and militarism. The result would be the downfall of the Reich. The Allies, baulked of their hopes of peace, would show themselves pitiless. The Officer Corps would be destroyed and the name of Germany would disappear from the map".[133] Hindenburg could not rebut Groener's argument, but still offered only half-hearted support, writing to Ebert on 17 June 1919: "In the event of a resumption of hostilities, we can reconquer the province of Posen and defend our frontiers in the East. In the West, however we can scarcely count upon being able to withstand a serious offensive on the part of the enemy in view of the numerical superiority of the Entente and their ability to outflank us on both wings. The success of the operation as a whole is therefore very doubtful, but as a soldier I cannot help feeling it were better to perish honourably than accept a disgraceful peace".[133] The Allies submitted an ultimatum saying that Germany had 72 hours to sign the Treaty of Versailles before the war resumed. On 23 June 1919 with only 7 hours left before the ultimatum expired, Ebert contacted Groener and Hindenburg to ask for their advice as professional military men about what he should do.[134] Hindenburg refused to speak, and let Groener do all the talking as Groener advised acceptance.[135] After hearing Groener's advice, with just 19 minutes to go, Ebert sent a message to the French Premier Georegs Clemenceau saying Germany would ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed on 28 June 1919.[136] The British historian Sir John Wheeler-Bennett wrote that Hindenburg's behavior in June 1919 closely resembled his actions in November 1918 where Groener had to pressure Wilhelm II to abdicate while he remained silent.[136] Wheeler-Bennett further charged that in June 1919, the real Hindenburg revealed himself; not the titanic, larger-than-life figure beloved by the German people, the "rock" upon which the Reich rested, but rather "a poor thing, a thing of plaster and of papier mâché."[136] Wheeler-Bennett wrote Hindenburg knew the truth, but chose to do the easy thing by having his faithful aide Groener say all the things that he knew to be true while maintaining the pretense that he had been opposed to accepting Versailles, a sign of both Hindenburg's deeply dishonest nature and his tendency to evade responsibility whenever responsibility became difficult.[131]

In the summer of 1919, Hindenburg retired a second time and announced his intention to leave public life. By 1919, Hindenburg's ego had reached such a point that equated criticism of himself as practically treason, writing: "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.".[137] In 1919, he was called before a parliamentary commission that was investigating the responsibility for both the outbreak of war in 1914 and for the defeat in 1918.[138] Hindenburg had not wanted to appear before the commission but he had been subpoenaed. His appearance became an eagerly awaited public event. Ludendorff had fallen out with Hindenburg over the decision to continue seeking the armistice in October 1918, and he was concerned that Hindenburg might reveal that it was he who had advised seeking an armistice the previous month, and had insisted that he would not testify unless Hindenburg was also subpoenaed.[139] Ludendorff wrote a letter to Hindenburg to inform him that he was writing his memoirs and was prepared to expose the fact that Hindenburg did not deserve the credit that he had received for his victories. Ludendorff's letter went on to suggest that Hindenburg's testimony would determine how favorably Ludendorff would present him in his memoirs.

When Hindenburg did appear before the commission on 18 November 1919, he refused to answer any questions about the responsibility for the German defeat and instead read out a prepared statement that had been reviewed in advance by Ludendorff's lawyer.[140] Hindenburg 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, saying that an unnamed British general had said "The German Army was stabbed in the back."[141] Hindenburg's statement had nothing to with the question he asked about what was his responsibility for the decision for launch unrestricted submarine warfare despite the risk it would bring America into the war.[142] Hindenburg simply walked out of the hearings after reading his statement, despite being threatened with a contempt citation for refusing to respond to questions.[141] Hindenburg's status as a war hero provided him with a political shield; he was never prosecuted. Hindenburg's testimony constituted the first use of the Dolchstoßlegende, and the term was adopted by nationalist and conservative politicians who sought to blame the socialist founders of the Weimar Republic for the loss of the war. The reviews in the German press that had grossly misrepresented general Frederick Barton Maurice's book The Last Four Months contributed to the creation of this myth. Ludendorff made use of the reviews to convince Hindenburg.[143]

In a hearing before the Committee on Inquiry of the National Assembly on 18 November 1919, a year after the war's end, Hindenburg declared, "As an English general has very truly said, the German Army was 'stabbed in the back'."[143]

Afterwards, Hindenburg had his memoirs ghost-written in 1919–20.[144] The resulting book Mein Leben (My Life) was a huge bestseller in Germany, but it was dismissed by most military historians and critics as a boring apologia that skipped over the most controversial issues in Hindenburg's life.[145] The major themes of the book was the need to Germany to maintain a strong military as the military was "the school of the nation" that taught young German men the proper moral values and the need to restore the monarchy as Hindenburg insisted that only under the leadership of the House of Hohenzollern could Germany become great again.[146] Partly reflecting guilt over pressuring Wilhelm to abdicate and partly because the book was written to serve as manifesto to appeal to conservative voters for the presidential run Hindenburg was contemplating, Mein Leben went out of its way to praise Wilhelm II who was always "my Emperor" and "my Supreme Warlord", and Hindenburg even made the ludicrous claim that it was Wilhelm I who had unified Germany with only very limited assistance from Bismarck.[147] In 1919–20, Hindenburg considered running for president and wrote to Wilhelm II in exile in the Netherlands for permission to run.[148] Wilhelm gave his approval, believing that if Hindenburg was elected president he would restore the monarchy, and 8 March 1920 Hindenburg announced his intention to seek the presidency.[149] As it was the planned presidential election of 1920 was cancelled and in the backlash against the right caused by the Kapp Putsch, Hindenburg had already withdrawn his candidacy.[150] Afterwards, Hindenburg retired from most public appearances and spent most of his time with his family. Hindenburg was a widower and was very close to his only son Major Oskar von Hindenburg and his granddaughters.


1925 election[edit]

During the 1925 election, second cycle

In 1925, Hindenburg was urged to run for the office of President of Germany. In spite of his lack of interest in holding public office, he decided to stand for the post anyway as he believed only he could "save" Germany.[151] No candidate had emerged with a majority in the first round of the presidential election held on 29 March 1925, and a run-off election had been called. Social Democratic candidate Otto Braun, the Prime Minister of Prussia, had agreed to drop out of the race and had endorsed the Catholic Centre Party's candidate Wilhelm Marx. Karl Jarres was the joint candidate of the two conservative parties: the German People's Party (DVP) and the German National People's Party (DNVP). He was regarded as too dull, and it seemed likely that Marx would win. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, one of the leaders of the DNVP, visited Hindenburg and urged him to run.[152]

Hindenburg initially demurred. While he was not opposed to the concept of leading Germany (something he had already effectively done during the latter years of the war), he was still a staunch monarchist and as such found the idea of becoming Germany's head of state repulsive. However, under strong pressure from Tirpitz applied over several meetings, and later from Jarres himself, who withdrew from the election saying only Hindenburg could win the presidency for the right,[153] Hindenburg agreed to run provided he could secure some sort of blessing from the exiled German Emperor. After receiving a clear endorsement in the form of a letter Wilhelm II wrote from the Netherlands urging him to run, Hindenburg finally agreed that he would seek the presidency.[154] On 9 April 1925, Hindenburg issued a brief press statement from his home in Hanover saying he was a candidate for president.[155] Hindenburg ran during the second round of the elections as a non-party independent, though he was generally regarded as the conservative candidate. He won the election in the second round of voting held on 26 April 1925, largely because of his status as Germany's greatest war hero. He was aided by the support of the Bavarian People's Party (BVP), which switched from supporting Marx, and by the refusal of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) to withdraw their candidate Ernst Thälmann. (If either party had supported Marx, Marx would have won.)[156] Significantly, Hindenburg's only election statement was his Easter Appeal of 11 April 1925 calling for a Volksgemeinschaft under his leadership.[157]

First term[edit]

Crowds in front of Hindenburg's villa in Hanover on 12 May 1925

Hindenburg took office on 12 May 1925. Contrary to what many had expected, Hindenburg made no effort to restore the monarchy and always rebuked those Junkers who tried to persuade him otherwise.[158] Hindenburg's rationale for accepting the republic was that his main interest was in making Germany great again by revising the Treaty of Versailles; that politicians like the Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann were making good progress in revising Versailles; and that to bring back Wilhelm II would only antagonize the Allies and make the process of revising Versailles more difficult than it otherwise would be.[158] As in 1918, Hindenburg stressed that he was more loyal to the nation than to the House of Hohenzollern, saying that what really mattered was that Germany should win "world power status" and the form of government that would win the next world war was only a secondary matter at best.[159] Hindenburg added that on sentimental grounds he would personally would like to restore the monarchy, but the needs of Realpolitik trumped his sentimental feelings.[160] At the same time, Hindenburg was no Vernunftrepublikaner (republican by reason) as those monarchists like Stresemann who were willing to accept the republic as the least bad form of all possible governments were known as Hindenburg felt that democracy was incompatible with the militaristic volksgemeinschaft that would unite the people into one.[160]

For the first five years after taking office, Hindenburg generally refused to allow himself to be drawn into the maelstrom of German politics in the period, and sought to play the role of a republican equivalent of a constitutional monarch. He was often referred to as the Ersatzkaiser (substitute Emperor), yet he made no effort to restore the monarchy and took seriously his oath to the Weimar Constitution. Hindenburg was only loyal to the letter of the constitution, not its spirit. Pyta described Hindenburg's first five years in office as attempt to use his own prestige and the power of the presidency to create an inclusive volksgemeinschaft under his leadership, and as such Hindenburg was willing to overcome his distaste for the Weimar Coalition of the SPD, the Zenturm and the DDP by allowing men from those parties to hold office with the aim of drawing them towards his right-wing viewpoint.[161] However, deep down Hindenburg had a fundamental antagonism towards the pacifistic Social Democrats, who could never be part of the militaristic volksgemeinschaft that he wanted to see, and as such, the SPD just had to go.[162] In 1927, Hindenburg shocked international opinion by defending Germany's actions and entry in World War I by repudiating Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles in a speech celebrating the opening of the Tannenberg memorial. Specifically, 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."[163]

In private, Hindenburg often complained to his associates that he missed the quiet of his retirement and bemoaned that he had allowed himself to be pressured into running for president. He carped that politics was full of issues such as economics that he did not understand, and did not want to. He was surrounded by a coterie of advisers antipathetic to the Weimar constitution. These advisers included his son Oskar, Wilhelm Groener, Otto Meißner, and General Kurt von Schleicher. This group were known as the Kamarilla. The younger Hindenburg served as his father's aide-de-camp and controlled politicians' access to the President, enjoying far more power than what his position would suggest, making him into "the constitutionally unforeseen son of the President".[164]

Schleicher was a close friend of Oskar and came to enjoy privileged access to Hindenburg. It was he who came up with the idea of Presidential government based on the so-called "25/48/53 formula".[165] Under a "Presidential" government, the head of government (in this case, the chancellor) is responsible to the head of state namely the president, and not a legislative body. The "25/48/53 formula" referred to the three articles of the Constitution that could make a "Presidential government" possible:

  • Article 25 allowed the President to dissolve the Reichstag.[166]
  • 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.[167]
  • Article 53 allowed the president to appoint the chancellor.[165]

Schleicher's idea was to have Hindenburg appoint as chancellor a man of Schleicher's choosing, who would rule under the provisions of Article 48.[168] If the Reichstag should threaten to annul any laws so passed, Hindenburg could counter with the threat of dissolution.[166] The German historian Eberhard Jäckel wrote that the idea of presidential government was within the letter of the constitution as the "25/48/53 formula" did make a presidential government possible, but violated its spirit as Article 54 stated the Chancellor and his cabinet were responsible to the Reichstag, and thus the idea of a presidential government was an attempt by Hindenburg and his kamarilla to do an end-run around the constitution.[169] Hindenburg approved of these plans promoted by his kamarilla, and his principle disagreement with Meißner and Schleicher was always a matter of timing rather than because of a commitment to upholding democracy.[170]

Presidential government[edit]

President Hindenburg as painted by Max Liebermann

The first attempt to establish a "presidential government" occurred in 1926–27, but floundered for lack of political support. During the winter of 1929–30, however, Schleicher had more success. As early as August 1929 Schleicher had told the Zentrum's Heinrich Brüning that both the army and the president wished to see the end of the Müller government as soon as possible, and asked if Brüning would be willing to serve in a new government.[171] After a series of secret meetings attended by Meißner, Schleicher, and Brüning starting in the spring of 1929, the parliamentary leader of the Catholic Center Party (Zentrum), Schleicher and Meißner were able to persuade Brüning to go along with a scheme for "presidential government". In December 1929, Schleicher informed Brüning that Hindenburg was implacably opposed to the Müller government and that as soon as the Young Plan was passed, he wanted Müller gone.[172] In January 1930, Meißner told Kuno von Westarp that soon the "Grand Coalition" government would fall to be replaced with a "presidential government" which would exclude the Social Democrats under all conditions, adding that the coming "Hindenburg government" would be "anti-Marxist" and "anti-parliamentarian", serving as a transition to a dictatorship.[172] Schleicher maneuvered to exacerbate a bitter dispute within the "Grand Coalition" government of the Social Democrats and the German People's Party over whether the unemployment insurance rate should be raised by a half percentage point or a full percentage point.[173] With the Grand Coalition government on the brink of collapse by early 1930, Müller asked that Hindenburg let him have the budget approved under Article 48, but Schleicher persuaded Hindenburg to refuse this request as a way of exacerbating the crisis.[174] The upshot of these intrigues was the fall of Müller's government in March 1930 and Hindenburg's appointment of Brüning as Chancellor.[173] When Müller asked for Hindenburg's help to save his government, Hindenburg refused, which to Müller submitting his resignation on 27 March 1930.[173] The German historian Eberhard Kolb wrote about the coming of presidential government in 1929–30 that:

In light of the sources it can now be firmly stated that the fateful transition from parliamentary government to the presidential regime was well and carefully planned in advance. The protagonists, and Schleicher in particular, were not compelled by circumstances or by the hopelessness of the political situation; they acted with cool deliberation and with the intention of drastically altering the constitutional system and the balance of social forces in favor of old elites of the army, bureaucracy and big business".[175]

Kolb described the presidential governments that began in March 1930 as a sort of creeping coup d'état as the government gradually become less and less democratic and more and more authoritarian, a process that culminated with in 1933 with Hitler appointed as Chancellor.[176]

Brüning's first official act was to introduce a budget calling for steep spending cuts and steep tax increases.[177] When the budget was defeated in July 1930, Brüning arranged for Hindenburg to sign the budget into law by invoking Article 48.[177] When the Reichstag voted to repeal the budget, Brüning had Hindenburg dissolve the Reichstag, just two years into its mandate, and reapprove the budget through the Article 48 mechanism.[177] In the September 1930 elections the Nazis achieved an electoral breakthrough, gaining 17 percent of the vote, up from 2 percent in 1928.[177] The Communist Party of Germany also made striking gains, albeit not so great.

After the 1930 elections, Brüning continued to govern largely through Article 48; his government was kept afloat by the support of the Social Democrats who voted not to cancel his Article 48 bills in order not to have another election that could only benefit the Nazis and the Communists.[177] Hindenburg for his part grew increasingly annoyed at 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 his policies of raising taxes and cutting spending to address the onset of the Great Depression; the only areas in which government spending increased were the military budget and the subsidies for Junkers in the so-called Osthilfe (Eastern Aid) program. Both of these spending increases reflected Hindenburg's concerns.

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".[178] Hindenburg meant he was being attacked as a supporter of the Weimar Republic which he in fact was opposed to.[178] In October 1931, Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler met for the very first time in a high-level conference in Berlin over Nazi Party politics among Hindenburg's cabinet members. There were clear signs of tension throughout the meeting as it became evident to everyone present that both men took an immediate dislike to each other. Afterwards, Hindenburg often disparagingly referred to Hitler in private variously as "that Austrian corporal", "that Bohemian corporal" or sometimes just simply as "the corporal".[179][180] Hindenburg not only believed mistakenly that Hitler was from Braneau in Bohemia rather than Braneau in Austria, but for Prussians like Hindenburg, the Austrian dialect that Hitler spoke his German had much the same negative effects on people from northern Germany as the Southern dialect of American English does on many people outside of the South, suggesting a lack of sophistication and education.[181] Thus, the best equivalent for translating Hindenburg's term "Bohemian corporal" into English might be "white trash".[181] For his part, Hitler often disparagingly referred to Hindenburg in private as "that old fool" or "that old reactionary". Until January 1933, Hindenburg often stated that he would never appoint Hitler as chancellor under any circumstances.

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".[182]

Similarly, after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, Ludendorff allegedly sent the following telegram to Hindenburg:

I solemnly prophesy that this accursed man will cast our Reich into the abyss and bring our nation to inconceivable misery. Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done.[183]

Hindenburg made it clear that he saw himself as the leader of the "national" forces and expected Hitler to submit to his claim of leadership.[178]

End of the Weimar Republic: January 1932–1933[edit]

Election poster for Hindenburg in 1932 (translation: "With him")

By January 1932, at the age of 84, Hindenburg was uncertain if he wanted a second term or not. Despite rumors of senility he remained lucid until his death.[184] The American historian Henry Ashby Turner noted that Hindenburg was always a bit slow when it came to thinking, and many people who knew him as an old man assumed this was just senility when in fact Hindenburg's sluggish mental processes and his rather "simplistic" ways of understanding the world had been well documented from his teenage years on.[184] Hindenburg was a career soldier with no interests outside of the military, a man who rarely read books and even then only read military books, and as such he often had trouble understanding non-military matters, an aspect of his personality frequently misunderstood as senility.[184] Hindenburg depended upon his kamarilla for advice for exactly the same reasons that he had depended upon Ludendorff and his staff in World War I, namely he did not know what to do when confronted with difficult decisions and he needed the help of others to resolve a problem.[184] For the German people, Hindenburg was an image of strength and power, owing to his 6'5 frame and bearlike physique, a man with courtly, polished manners and military bearing, the very image of a Junker officer, but in fact, Hindenburg as president often broke down in tears when confronted with decisions that required deep thoughts that he was incapable of, and despite his stress on loyalty and keeping one's words, Hindenburg was a selfish man who disregarded his friends and freely broke his promises when keeping his promises proved inconvenient.[184]

Nonetheless, he was persuaded to run for re-election in the 1932 presidential election by the Kamarilla as well as by the Centre Party, the DVP and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The SPD regarded Hindenburg as the only man who could defeat Hitler and keep the Nazi Party from winning the elections (and they said so throughout the campaign); they also expected him to keep Brüning in office.[185] Hindenburg had a different ideal about what he would do in his second term, writing on 25 February 1932: "Please see from the following that the charge that I opposed a government of the Right is completely false. It was not I...but solely the disunity of the Right (emphasis in the original) and its inability to come together in the main points that constituted the obstacle to such a development...Despite all the blows in the neck I have taken, I will not abandon my efforts for a healthy move to the Right".[178] Hindenburg made it clear in private that he regarded Brüning as too moderate, would replace him after his reelection, and wanted a government that would bring together all of the right-wing parties including the National Socialists, though Hitler was not to serve as Chancellor under any conditions.[186] Hindenburg agreed to stay in office, but wanted to avoid an election. The only way this was possible was for the Reichstag to vote to cancel the election with a two-thirds supermajority. Since the Nazi Party was the second-largest political party, their co-operation was vital if this was to be done. Brüning met with Hitler in January 1932 to ask if he would agree to President Hindenburg's demand to forgo the presidential election. Surprisingly, Hitler supported the measure, but with one major condition: dissolve the Reichstag and hold new parliamentary elections.

Brüning rejected Hitler's demands as totally outrageous and unreasonable. By this time, Schleicher had decided that Brüning had become an obstacle to his plans and was already plotting Brüning's downfall. Schleicher convinced Hindenburg that the reason why Hitler had rejected Brüning's offer was because Brüning had deliberately sabotaged the talks to force the elderly president into a grueling re-election battle.[187] During the election campaign of 1932, Brüning campaigned hard for Hindenburg's re-election.[187] As Hindenburg was in bad health and a poor speaker in any case, the task of traveling the country and delivering speeches for Hindenburg had fallen upon Brüning.[187] Hindenburg's campaign appearances usually consisted simply of him appearing before crowds and waving to them as Hindenburg gave no speeches in person during his entire re-election campaign.[187] In a speech delivered on German radio on 10 March 1932, Hindenburg explained what he stood for: "We can only reach our great goal when we come together in a genuine Volksgemeinschaft...I recall the spirit of 1914, and the mood at the front, which asked about the man, and not about his class or party".[188]

In the first round of the German presidential election of 1932, held in March, Hindenburg emerged as the frontrunner, but failed to gain a majority.[189] In the runoff election of April 1932, Hindenburg defeated Hitler for the presidency.[190] Hindenburg won 53% of the vote, which was impressive given he had hardly spoken in the campaign.[189] Much to Hindenburg's fury, the conservative Protestants who voted for him in 1925 mostly voted for Hitler and it was largely the Weimar Coalition parties of the SPD, the Zentrum and German State Party that had provided the votes that gave Hindenburg the presidency for a second time.[189] Hindenburg, with Schleicher's encouragement held Brüning responsible that it was the "wrong people", namely Catholics, socialists and liberals who had re-elected him.[187] After the presidential elections had ended, Schleicher held a series of secret meetings with Hitler in May 1932 and thought that he had obtained a "gentleman's agreement" in which Hitler had agreed to support the new "presidential government" that Schleicher was building. At the same time, Schleicher, with Hindenburg's complicit consent, set about undermining Brüning's government.

Hindenburg, aged 84, at a radio microphone in 1932 during the election campaign in which he defeated Hitler.

The first blow occurred on 13 May 1932, when Schleicher had Hindenburg dismiss Groener as Defense Minister in a way that was designed to humiliate both Groener and Brüning.[191] Schleicher told Groener that he had "lost the confidence of the Army" and must resign at once.[191] Hindenburg supported Schleicher and in this way, Groener who had been a faithful aide of Hindenburg going back to 1916 and who had taken the blame in public for pressuring Wilhelm II into abdicating in 1918 had his career ended by Hindenburg.[191] On 30 May 1932, Hindenburg dismissed Brüning as chancellor and replaced him with the man that Schleicher had suggested, Franz von Papen.[192] When Brüning was sacked, he broke down in tears as he had always loved Hindenburg going back to his days as a captain of a machine gun company fighting on the Western Front in World War I, but the president was very cold, telling Brüning to get out of his sight.[192] "The Government of Barons", as Papen's government was known, openly had as its objective the destruction of German democracy. Like Brüning's government, Papen's government was a "presidential government" that governed through the use of Article 48.

Unlike Brüning, Papen ingratiated himself with Hindenburg and his son through flattery. Much to Schleicher's annoyance, Papen quickly replaced him as Hindenburg's favorite advisor. The French Ambassador André François-Poncet reported to his superiors in Paris that "It's he [Papen] who is the preferred one, the favorite of the Marshal; he diverts the old man through his vivacity, his playfulness; he flatters him by showing him respect and devotion; he beguiles him with his daring; he is in [Hindenburg's] eyes the perfect gentleman."[193] Just after becoming Chancellor, Papen secretly took an oath of feudal loyalty to Hindenburg, declaring upon his honor as a knight and gentleman that he would serve Hindenburg forever.[194] Papen's anachronistic feudal oath had nothing to do with the Weimar constitution and had no legal standing, but for the Junker Hindenburg, whose understanding of social relations were essentially medieval, this oath made him Papen's liege lord and as such he now had a duty of "knightly fealty" to stay loyal to his "knight" Papen.[194]

In accordance with Schleicher's "gentleman's agreement", Hindenburg dissolved the Reichstag and set new elections for July 1932. Schleicher and Papen both believed that the Nazis would win the majority of the seats and would support Papen's government.[195] Hitler staged an electoral comeback, with his Nazi Party winning a solid plurality of seats in the Reichstag. Following the Nazi electoral triumph in the Reichstag elections held on 31 July 1932, there were widespread expectations that Hitler would soon be appointed Chancellor. Moreover, Hitler repudiated the "gentleman's agreement" and declared that he wanted the Chancellorship for himself. In a meeting between Hindenburg and Hitler held on 13 August 1932, in Berlin, Hindenburg firmly rejected Hitler's demands for the chancellorship.

The minutes of the meeting were kept by Otto Meißner, the Chief of the Presidential Chancellery. According to the minutes,

Herr Hitler declared that, for reasons which he had explained in detail to the Reich President that morning, his taking any part in cooperation with the existing government was out of the question. Considering the importance of the National Socialist movement, he must demand the full and complete leadership of the government and state for himself and his party.

The Reich President in reply said firmly that he must answer this demand with a clear, unyielding "No". He could not justify before God, before his conscience, or before the Fatherland the transfer of the whole authority of government to a single party, especially to a party that was biased against people who had different views from their own. There were a number of other reasons against it, upon which he did not wish to enlarge in detail, such as fear of increased unrest, the effect on foreign countries, etc.

Herr Hitler repeated that any other solution was unacceptable to him.

To this the Reich President replied: "So you will go into opposition?"

Hitler: "I have now no alternative."[196]

Chancellor Adolf Hitler greets President Paul von Hindenburg at the opening of the new Reichstag in Potsdam, Germany, 21 March 1933.

After refusing Hitler's demands for the chancellorship, Hindenburg had a press release issued about his meeting with Hitler that implied that Hitler had demanded absolute power and had his knuckles rapped by the president for making such a demand. Hitler was enraged by this press release. However, given Hitler's determination to take power lawfully, Hindenburg's refusal to appoint him as chancellor was a quandary for Hitler.

When the Reichstag convened in September 1932, its only act was to pass a massive vote of no-confidence in Papen's government. In response, Papen had Hindenburg dissolve the Reichstag for elections in November 1932. The second Reichstag elections saw the Nazi vote drop from 37 percent to 33 percent, though the Nazis once again remained the largest party in the Reichstag. After the November elections, there ensued another round of fruitless talks between Hindenburg, Papen, Schleicher on the one hand, and Hitler and the other Nazi leaders on the other.

The president and chancellor wanted Nazi support for the "Government of the President's Friends"; at most, they were prepared to offer Hitler the meaningless office of vice-chancellor. On 24 November 1932, during the course of another Hitler–Hindenburg meeting, Hindenburg stated his fears that "a presidential cabinet led by Hitler would necessarily develop into a party dictatorship with all its consequences for an extreme aggravation of the conflicts within the German people".[182]

Hitler, for his part, remained adamant that Hindenburg give him the chancellorship and nothing else. These demands were incompatible and unacceptable to both sides and the political stalemate continued. To break the stalemate, Papen proposed that Hindenburg declare martial law and do away with democracy, effecting a presidential coup. Papen won over Hindenburg's son Oskar with this idea, and the two persuaded Hindenburg for once to forgo his oath to the constitution and to go along with this plan.[197] Schleicher, who had come to see Papen as a threat, blocked the martial law move by unveiling the results of a war games exercise that showed that if martial law was declared, the Nazi Sturmabteilung and the Communist Red Front Fighters would rise up, the Poles would invade, and the Reichswehr would be unable to cope.[197]

Whether this was the honest result of a war games exercise or just a fabrication by Schleicher to force Papen out of office is a matter of some historical debate. The opinion of most leans towards the latter, for in January 1933 Schleicher would tell Hindenburg that new war games had shown that the Reichswehr would crush both the Sturmabteilung and the Red Front Fighters and defend the eastern borders of Germany from a Polish invasion. The results of the war games forced Papen to resign in December 1932 in favor of Schleicher. Hindenburg was most upset at losing his favorite chancellor. Suspecting that the war games were faked to force Papen out, he came to bear a grudge against Schleicher. Hindenburg took the loss of Papen very badly, writing him a letter saying he wanted Papen to stay on as Chancellor and gave him the gift of an autographed photo of himself together with lines from a popular World War I song "Once I had a comrade", which was the first time Hindenburg had ever given any sort of gift to the men who had served as Chancellor.[198]

Papen, for his part, was determined to get back into office, and on 4 January 1933 he met Hitler to discuss how they could bring down Schleicher's government, though the talks were inconclusive largely because Papen and Hitler each coveted the chancellorship for himself. However, Papen and Hitler agreed to keep talking. Ultimately, Papen came to believe that he could control Hitler from behind the scenes and decided to support him as the new chancellor.

On 11 January 1933, the Junker-dominated Agricultural League issued a blistering statement attacking the Schleicher government for its refusal to raise agricultural tariffs, claiming that Schleicher was "the tool of the almighty money-bag interests of internationally oriented export industry and its satellites" and accused him of "an indifference to the impoverishment of agriculture beyond the capacity of even a purely Marxist regime".[199] Although his position as president made him responsible to all Germans, Hindenburg always saw himself as representing the interests of the Junkers first and foremost, and in response Hindenburg summoned Schleicher to browbeat him into raising tariffs, though this was not strictly a constitutional action as the question of raising or lowering tariffs was a matter for the Chancellor and his cabinet to decide.[200] During the ensuing meeting, Hindenburg took the side of the League and forced Schleicher to give in to all of its demands.[200] Despite Schleicher giving in to Hindenburg's brow-beating, on 12 January 1933 the League released a public letter to Hindenburg asking that Schleicher be sacked at once and Hitler appointed as his replacement.[201] At the same time, Hindenburg received hundreds of letters and telegrams from Junkers who were active in the League asking for Schleicher to be dismissed as chancellor, and again demanding that Hitler be made Chancellor.[201]

Papen had, in the meantime, persuaded the younger Hindenburg of the merits of his plan, and the three then spent the second half of January pressuring Hindenburg into naming Hitler as chancellor. Hindenburg loathed the idea of Hitler as chancellor and preferred that Papen hold that office instead. On 22 January 1933, Papen arranged for Hitler to meet Oskar von Hindenburg at the house of Joachim von Ribbentrop.[202] At the two hour meeting, Hitler still insisted on having the Chancellorship while Papen informed him that the President was still opposed to Hitler as Chancellor, but now accepted it was crucial to have the National Socialists in the proposed "Government of National Concentration".[202] In contrast to August 1932, Hitler now stated that he would want only two portfolios to go to the National Socialists and said he was willing to accept the rest of his cabinet being conservatives, acceptable to Hindenburg.[202] Papen promised to support Hitler's claim to be Chancellor provided he would serve as Vice-Chancellor. Oskar von Hindenburg had nothing but praise for Hitler as Meißner drove him home, saying he disliked Hitler before, but now that he had met him, he was very excited at the prospect of a Hitler chancellorship.[202] In reference to the extremely low intelligence of Oskar von Hindenburg, Hitler commented to Goebbels after the meeting that: "Young Oskar cut a remarkable image of stupidity" as Hitler noted that younger Hindenburg was one of the stupidest men he had ever encountered.[202] The president continued to reject the idea of Hitler as Chancellor, saying that he wanted Papen as Chancellor again, but with Papen now saying he didn't want the Chancellorship and would rather have Hitler as Chancellor, Hindenburg's position was weakening.[203] A further problem for Papen was that Hitler rejected the idea of a parliamentary government, saying he only serve as Chancellor in a presidential government with himself as Commissioner for Prussia and National Socialists serving as Interior ministers in the Reich and Prussian governments.[204] Papen persuaded Hitler to drop the demand to be Commissioner for Prussia, saying that Hindenburg would never agree to that, while ceding the Interior Ministries of the Reich and Prussia to the Nazis.[204] At the same time, Papen had been phoning members of Schleicher's cabinet, asking if they were willing to serve in a Hitler cabinet and had been receiving mostly positive answers.[204]

On January 26, 1933, Hindenburg told a group of his friends: "Gentlemen, I hope you will not hold me capable of appointing this Austrian corporal to be Reich Chancellor".[205] The next day, Hindenburg was visited by his close friend, the arch-reactionary Junker Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau who told him that he should appoint Hitler as Chancellor as Hitler was the man most capable of imposing "order" and of carrying out economic policies favorable to the Junkers.[206] In order to maintain their estates, which since the 19th century had been threatened with bankruptcy as many Germans preferred to buy cheaper foodstocks from the United States, Argentina, Canada, Hungary and Russia, the Junkers were staunch enemies of free trade and the Nazi promises to pursue an ultra-protectionist policy designed to make Germany economically self-sufficient were very attractive to the Junkers.[206] The advice Hindenburg received from a fellow Junker like Oldenburg-Januschau whom Hindenburg greatly respected made him far more favorable to appointing Hitler chancellor.[206] With three of the most important members of his kamarilla, namely Papen, Meißner and his son Oskar all pressuring him to name Hitler Chancellor, Hindenburg's resistance to a Hitler chancellorship was weakening by the hour.[206] On the evening of 28 January 1933, Papen met with Hindenburg to tell him that the majority of the Schleicher cabinet (which had been in Papen's "cabinet of the President's friends") were willing to serve in a Hitler cabinet and also unwilling to serve under himself again, which Papen used as a further reason for why he could not serve as Chancellor again.[204] Hindenburg for his part was pleased that the majority of the proposed Hitler cabinet were men who served in the Papen and Schleicher governments, saying that he wanted General Werner von Blomberg to replace Schleicher as Defense Minister as he was "reliable" and for the first time said he was willing to have Hitler as Chancellor as he was happy now with the "moderation" of Hitler's demands.[204]

After Schleicher despaired over his efforts to get hold of the situation, Hindenburg accepted his resignation with the words, "Thanks, General, for everything you have done for the Fatherland. Now let's have a look at which way, with God's help, the cat will keep on jumping." Finally, the 85-year-old Hindenburg agreed to make Hitler chancellor, and on the morning of 30 January 1933, Hindenburg swore him in as chancellor at the presidential palace.[179]

The Machtergreifung[edit]

German stamps of Hindenburg with the overprint "Elsaß" (Alsace) produced in 1940

Hindenburg played the key role in the Nazi Machtergreifung (Seizure of Power) in 1933 by appointing Hitler chancellor of a "Government of National Concentration", even though the Nazis were in the minority in cabinet. Papen was the Vice-Chancellor and the Commissioner for Prussia, and Hitler could only meet Hindenburg when Papen was present. The only Nazi ministers were Hitler himself, Hermann Göring and Wilhelm Frick. Frick held the then-powerless Interior Ministry (unlike the rest of Europe, at the time the Interior Ministry had no power over the police, which was the responsibility of the Länder), while Göring was given no portfolio. However, Göring was appointed Prussian Interior Minister, giving him control of the Prussian police, and as Prussia was the largest and most populous of all the Länder, this was a great benefit to the Nazis. Most of the other ministers were survivors from the Papen and Schleicher governments, and the ones who were not, such as Alfred Hugenberg of the German National People's Party (DNVP), were not Nazis. This had the effect of assuring Hindenburg that the room for radical moves on the part of the Nazis was limited. Moreover, Hindenburg's favorite politician, Papen, was Vice Chancellor of the Reich and Minister-President of Prussia, and Hindenburg agreed not to hold any meetings with Hitler unless Papen was present as well.

Hitler's first act as chancellor was to ask Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag, so that the Nazis and DNVP could win an outright majority to pass the Enabling Act that would give the new government power to rule by decree, supposedly for the next four years. Unlike laws passed by Article 48, which could be cancelled by a majority in the Reichstag, under the Enabling Act the Chancellor could pass laws by decree that could not be cancelled by a vote in the Reichstag. Hindenburg agreed to this request. In early February 1933, Papen asked for and received an Article 48 bill signed into law that sharply limited freedom of the press. After the Reichstag fire on 27 February, Hindenburg, at Hitler's urging, signed into law the Reichstag Fire Decree via Article 48, which effectively suspended all civil liberties in Germany. Göring as Prussian Interior Minister had enlisted thousands of Sturmabteilung (SA) men as auxiliary policemen, who attacked political opponents of the Nazis with Communists and Social Democrats being singled out for particular abuse. Fritz Schäffer, a conservative Catholic and a leading politician of the Bavarian People's Party met Hindenburg on 17 February 1933 to complain about the ongoing campaign of terror against the SPD.[162] Schäffer told Hindenburg: "We reject the notion that millions of Germans are not to be designated as national. The socialists served in the trenches and will serve in the trenches again. They voted for the banner of Hindenburg...I know many socialists who have earned acclaim for their service to Germany; I need only mention the name of Ebert".[178] Hindenburg, who had always hated the Social Democrats, rejected Schäffer's appeal, saying that the SPD were "traitors" who had "stabbed the Fatherland in the back" in 1918 (Hindenburg seems to have convinced himself of the reality of the Dolchstoßlegende by this point) who could never belong to the volksgemeinschaft and the Nazis had his full support in their campaign against the Social Democrats.[178] Hindenburg disliked Hitler, but he approved of his efforts to create the volksgemeinschaft, writing to his daughter on 17 February 1933 that he could feel the "Spirit of 1914" returning as "Patriotic revival very gratifying; may God preserve our unity!".[178] For Hindenburg, the "Government of National Concentration" headed by Hitler was the fulfillment of what he had been seeking since 1914, the creation of the volksgemeinschaft.[207]

At the opening of the new Reichstag on 21 March 1933, at the Garrison Church in Potsdam,[208] the Nazis staged an elaborate ceremony in which Hindenburg played the leading part, appearing alongside Hitler during an event orchestrated to mark the continuity between the old Prussian-German tradition and the new Nazi state. He said, in part, "May the old spirit of this celebrated shrine permeate the generation of today, may it liberate us from selfishness and party strife and bring us together in national self-consciousness to bless a proud and free Germany, united in herself." Hindenburg's apparent stamp of approval had the effect of reassuring many Germans, especially conservative Germans, that life would be fine under the new regime.

On 23 March 1933, Hindenburg signed the Enabling Act of 1933 into law, which gave decrees issued by the cabinet (in effect, Hitler) the force of law. During 1933 and 1934, Hitler was very aware of the fact that Hindenburg, as President and supreme commander of the armed forces, was now the only check on his power. With the passage of the Enabling Act and the banning of all parties other than the Nazis, Hindenburg's power to dismiss Hitler from office was effectively the only means by which he could be legally dismissed. Given that Hindenburg was still a popular war hero and a revered figure in the Reichswehr, there was little doubt that the Reichswehr would side with Hindenburg if he ever decided to sack Hitler. Thus, as long as Hindenburg was alive, Hitler was always very careful to avoid offending him or the Army. Although Hindenburg was in increasingly bad health, the Nazis made sure that whenever Hindenburg did appear in public it was in Hitler's company. During these appearances, Hitler always made a point of showing him the utmost respect and deference. However, in private, Hitler continued to detest Hindenburg, and expressed his hope that "the old reactionary" would hurry up and die as soon as possible.

The only time that Hindenburg ever objected to a Nazi bill occurred in early April 1933, when the Reichstag passed a Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service that called for the immediate dismissal of all Jewish civil servants at the Reich, Land, and municipal levels. Hindenburg objected to this bill unless it was amended to exclude all Jewish veterans of World War I, Jewish civil servants who served in the civil service during the war and those Jewish civil servants whose fathers were veterans. Hitler amended the bill to meet Hindenburg's objections.[209][210] In the fall of 1933, a group of Hindenburg's friends led by General August von Cramon asked Hindenburg to restore the monarchy.[158] Hindenburg replied: "Of course, I recognize your fidelity to our Kaiser, King and Lord without reservation. But precisely because I share this sentiment, I must urgently warn against the step you plan to take. ... The domestic crisis is not yet completely over, and foreign powers will have a hard time imagining me on the sidelines if it comes to a restoration of the monarchy. ... To say this is unbelievably painful for me."[158]

During the summer of 1934, Hindenburg grew increasingly alarmed at Nazi excesses. With his support, Papen gave a speech at the University of Marburg on 17 June calling for an end to state terror and the restoration of some freedoms. When Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels got wind of it, he not only canceled a scheduled tape-delayed broadcast of the speech, but ordered the seizure of newspapers in which part of the text was printed.[211]

Papen was furious, telling Hitler that he was acting as a "trustee" of Hindenburg, and that a "junior minister" like Goebbels had no right to silence him. He resigned and immediately notified Hindenburg about what happened. Hindenburg told Blomberg to give Hitler an ultimatum—unless Hitler took steps to end the growing tension in Germany and rein in the SA, he would dismiss Hitler, declare martial law and turn the government over to the army. Not long afterward, Hitler carried out the Night of the Long Knives, for which he received the personal thanks of Hindenburg.[211][212]


Hindenburg remained in office until his death at the age of 86 from lung cancer at his home in Neudeck, East Prussia, on 2 August 1934. On August 1, Hitler had got word that Hindenburg was on his deathbed. He then had the cabinet pass the "Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich," which stipulated that upon Hindenburg's death, the offices of president and chancellor would be merged under the title of Leader and chancellor (Führer und Reichskanzler).[213]

Two hours after Hindenburg's death, it was announced that as a result of this law, Hitler was now both Germany's head of state and head of government, thereby cementing his status as the absolute dictator of Germany.[211] Publicly, Hitler announced that the presidency was "inseparably united" with Hindenburg, and it would not be appropriate for the title to ever be used again.[212]

In truth, Hitler had known as early as April 1934 that Hindenburg would likely not survive the year. He worked feverishly to get the armed forces—the only group in Germany that would be nearly powerful enough to remove him with Hindenburg gone—to support his bid to become head of state after Hindenburg's death. In a meeting aboard the Deutschland on April 11 with Blomberg, army commander Werner von Fritsch and naval commander Erich Raeder, Hitler publicly proposed that he himself succeed Hindenburg. In return for the armed forces' support, he agreed to suppress the SA and promised that the armed forces would be the only bearers of arms in Germany under his watch. Raeder agreed right away, but Fritsch withheld his support until May 18, when the senior generals unanimously agreed to back Hitler as Hindenburg's successor.[211]

Hitler had a plebiscite held on 19 August 1934, in which the German people were asked if they approved of Hitler merging the two offices. The Ja (Yes) vote amounted to 90% of the vote.

Silver 5 mark commemorative coin of Paul von Hindenburg, struck 1936
Obverse: Paul von Hindenburg, 1847–1934 Reverse: (German) Deutsches Reich, 5 RM

In taking over the president's powers for himself without calling for a new election, Hitler technically violated the Enabling Act. While the Enabling Act allowed Hitler to pass laws that contravened the Weimar Constitution, it specifically forbade him from interfering with the powers of the president. Moreover, the Weimar Constitution had been amended in 1932 to make the president of the High Court of Justice, not the chancellor, acting president pending a new election. However, Hitler had become law unto himself by this time, and no one dared object.

All his life Hindenburg was a monarchist who favored a restoration of the German monarchy and won the support of monarchist voters. Papen in 1933 urged Hindenburg to write a "political testament" that called for a restoration of the monarchy. He considered the idea but rejected the plan to address it to all Germans. He did write a personal letter to Hitler suggesting it.[214]

Burial, removal, and reburial[edit]

Hindenburg's original 1934 burial at the Tannenberg Memorial. Hitler is speaking at the lectern.

Hitler ordered his architect, Albert Speer, to take care of the background for the funeral ceremony at the Tannenberg Memorial in East Prussia. As Speer later recalled: "I had a high wooden stand built in the inner courtyard. Decorations were limited to banners of black crepe hung from the high towers that framed the inner courtyard...On the eve of the funeral the coffin was brought on a gun carriage from Neudeck, Hindenburg's East Prussian estate, to one of the towers of the monument. Torchbearers and the traditional flags of German regiments of the First World War accompanied it; not a single word was spoken, not a command given. This reverential silence was more impressive than the organized ceremonial of the following days."[215]

Hindenburg's remains were moved six times in the 12 years following his initial interment.

Hindenburg was originally buried in the yard of the castle-like Tannenberg Memorial near Tannenberg, East Prussia (now Stębark, Poland) on 7 August 1934 during a large state funeral, five days after his death. This was against the wishes he had expressed during his life: to be buried in his family plot in Hanover, Germany, next to his wife Gertrud, who had died in 1921.

The following year, Hindenburg's remains were temporarily disinterred, along with the bodies of 20 unknown German soldiers buried at the Tannenberg Memorial, to allow the building of his new crypt there (which required lowering the entire plaza 8 feet (2.4 m)). Hindenburg's bronze coffin was placed in the crypt on 2 October 1935 (the anniversary of his birthday), along with the coffin bearing his wife, which was moved from the family plot.[216]

In January 1945, as Soviet forces advanced into East Prussia, Hitler ordered both coffins to be disinterred for their safety. They were first moved to a bunker just outside Berlin, then to a salt mine at the village of Bernterode, Germany, along with the remains of both Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia and Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great). The four coffins were hastily marked of their contents using red crayon, and interred behind a 6-foot-thick (1.8 m) masonry wall in a deep recess of the 14-mile (23 km) mine complex, 1,800 feet (550 m) underground. Three weeks later, on 27 April 1945, the coffins were discovered by U.S. Army Ordnance troops after tunneling through the wall. All were subsequently moved to the basement of the heavily guarded Marburg Castle in Marburg an der Lahn, Germany, a collection point for recovered Nazi plunder.

The U.S. Army, in a secret project dubbed "Operation Bodysnatch", had many difficulties in determining the final resting places for the four famous Germans. Sixteen months after the salt mine discovery, in August 1946, the remains of Hindenburg and his wife were finally laid to rest by the American army at St. Elizabeth's, a 13th-century church built by the Teutonic Knights in Marburg, Hesse, where they remain today.[217][218]

A colossal statue of Hindenburg, erected at Hohenstein (now Olsztynek, Poland) in honor of his defeat of the Russians was demolished by the Germans in 1944 to prevent its desecration by the advancing Soviet Army.[219]


The famed zeppelin Hindenburg that was destroyed by fire in 1937 was named in his honor, as was the Hindenburgdamm, a causeway joining the island of 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[edit]

Historian 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.″[220]

Decorations and awards[edit]


See also[edit]


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Historiography and memory[edit]

  • Von der Goltz, Anna. Hindenburg: Power, Myth, and the Rise of the Nazis (Oxford University Press, 2009)

In German[edit]

  • Bracher, Karl Dietrich (1971). Die Aufloesung der Weimarer Republik; eine Studie zum Problem des Machtverfalls in der Demokratie. Villingen, Schwarzwald: Ring-Verlag. 
  • Görlitz, Walter (1953). Hindenburg: Ein Lebensbild. Bonn: Athenäeum. 
  • Görlitz, Walter (1935). Hindenburg, eine Auswahl aus Selbstzeugnissen des Generalfeldmarschalls und Reichpräsidenten. Bielefeld: Velhagen & Klasing. 
  • Hiss, O.C. (1931). Hindenburg: Eine Kleine Streitschrift. Potsdam: Sans Souci Press. 
  • Maser, Werner (1990). Hindenburg: Eine politische Biographie. Rastatt: Moewig. 
  • Rauscher, Walter: Hindenburg. Feldmarschall und Reichspräsident. Ueberreuter, Wien 1997, ISBN 3-8000-3657-6.
  • Zaun, Harald: Paul von Hindenburg und die deutsche Außenpolitik 1925–1934. Böhlau (zugleich Dissertation, Köln 1998) Köln/Weimar/Wien 1999, ISBN 3-412-11198-8.
  • von Hoegen, Jesko: Der Held von Tannenberg. Genese und Funktion des Hindenburg-Mythos (1914–1934.) Böhlau, Köln 2007, ISBN 978-3-412-17006-6.
  • Pyta, Wolfram: Hindenburg. Herrschaft zwischen Hohenzollern und Hitler. Siedler, München, 2007, ISBN 978-3-88680-865-6.

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Generaloberst Maximilian von Prittwitz und Gaffron
Commander, 8th Army
23 August 1914 – 18 September 1914
Succeeded by
General der Artillerie Richard von Schubert
Preceded by
New Formation
Commander, 9th Army
18 September 1914 – 2 November 1914
Succeeded by
General der Kavallerie August von Mackensen
Preceded by
New Formation
Oberbefehlshaber Ost
3 November 1914 – 29 August 1916
Succeeded by
Prince Leopold of Bavaria
Political offices
Preceded by
Erich von Falkenhayn
Chief of the General Staff
29 August 1916 – 3 July 1919
Succeeded by
Wilhelm Groener
Political offices
Preceded by
Friedrich Ebert
President of Germany
12 May 1925 – 2 August 1934
Succeeded by
Adolf Hitler
as Führer of Germany