On this day in 1934, Paul von Hindenburg, president of the Weimar Republic of Germany, dies, opening the door for the tyranny of Adolf Hitler, whom he had appointed chancellor in 1933.
Hindenburg’s life was one immersed in the Prussian military tradition. His father was a Prussian officer, and Hindenburg fought in the Seven Weeks’ War (with Austria) at age 19, and later in the Franco-Prussian War. He was eventually promoted to the rank of general before retiring from the military in 1911.
But it was during World War I that Hindenburg came to national prominence. He was asked to serve as the superior to Major General Erich Ludendorff, a prominent army strategist. Ludendorff succeeded in driving Russian invaders from East Prussia-but it was Hindenburg who was given the credit. As the war progressed, Hindenburg’s stature grew to epic proportions, even influencing Emperor Wilhelm II to make him commander of all land forces, despite Hindenburg’s rather dubious strategic skills. In fact, severe miscalculations on Hindenburg’s part resulted in Germany’s defeat, which Hindenburg then blamed on Ludendorff. (And which Ludendorff and the generals then blamed on the politicians.)
A monarchist fond of authoritarian regimes, Hindenburg nevertheless took the reigns of the postwar republican government as president in 1925. Fearful of social unrest (from both the far right and far left), in light of the Depression and the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which demanded heavy reparations from Germany as the terms of its surrender, Hindenburg authorized his chancellor, Heinrich Bruning, to dissolve the Reichstag (parliament) if necessary and call for new elections—which he did. Those new elections ushered in the Nazi Party as the second largest party in the Reichstag.
Re-elected as president in 1932, Hindenburg had already lost the support of many of the more conservative elements in the government, who were flocking to Hitler’s party, which they saw as the key to renewed German prestige and the bulwark against Bolshevism. After a succession of chancellors proved ineffectual in reversing Germany’s economic slide, and gaining the Nazi support necessary to keep a coalition together, Hindenburg reluctantly named Hitler chancellor of Germany. Hindenburg was never an ardent Hitler supporter, but he did little to impede him as Hitler began employing terror tactics in his drive to consolidate power for the Nazis.
When Hindenburg died, he was still a respected figure nationwide and was buried, with his wife, at Tannenberg, the sight of the great victory against the Russians during World War I. As World War II was came to a close, their bodies were removed so that the advancing Russians would not get at them. They were ultimately reburied by Americans at Marburg.