Paul von Hindenburg was a significant and controversial political figure in German history who served as the second president of the Weimar Republic. But while some praise the World War I military hero for stabilizing Germany in the wake of World War I sanctions, Hindenburg played a key role in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, bowing to pressure from his advisors to appoint Hitler as the country’s chancellor, and thus ceding control of the nation to the Nazi Party.
Early Life and Military Career
Paul von Hindenburg was born into an aristocratic family on October 2, 1847, in Posen, Prussia (present-day Poznań, Poland). His father, a Prussian military officer-turned-government official, was granted a title of nobility in 1869; his mother was the daughter of a doctor.
When he was 19, Hindenburg enlisted in the Prussian army during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, also known as the Seven Weeks’ War, which was considered a key precursor to Germany’s unification. He served as a staff officer during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and was eventually promoted to lieutenant general.
In 1911, Hindenburg retired from the military at age 64, but, in 1914, was called back to active duty with the outbreak of World War I. Commanding the Eighth Army, he was promoted to field marshal and led a series of victories against the Russians on the eastern front that made him a cult national hero. One of the most notable, the Battle of Tannenberg in Poland, which he commanded with his chief of staff Gen. Erich Ludendorff, was one of Germany’s most significant victories of the war.
“Soon after the outbreak of war Hindenburg became Germany’s major symbol of victory against the enemy and of unity at home–a function traditionally performed by the Emperor in wartime, or perhaps on occasion by the Chief of the General Staff, but certainly not by the commander of a single German army,” writes Anna von der Golz in Hindenburg.
“Hindenberg will sort it out,” she adds, quickly became a catchphrase and statues and portraits of the field marshal became commonplace. Kaiser Wilhelm appointed Hindenburg chief of the German General Staff, giving him command of the army, but the Allies went on to deliver a crushing defeat.
Germany's Second President
Following Germany’s World War I loss, Hindenburg retired from the army a second time and turned to politics. In 1925, the “Victor of Tannenberg” was elected president of the democratic Weimar Republic (1919-1933) at age 77, making him Germany’s second president (he was reelected in 1932).
Focusing on bringing stability to the region in the wake of the war and the severe terms of the Armistice of Compiègne, Hindenburg turned to delivering presidential emergency decrees. Allowed by the country’s constitution during periods of unrest and economic turmoil, these edicts gave him the power to sidestep the approval of the German parliament, silence his political opponents, stifle free speech and other civil liberties and allow military generals to form foreign policy.
Rise of the Nazi Party
An early critic of Hitler and the Nazi party, Hindenburg initially refused to give Hitler the chancellor title he demanded. But, pressured by his conservative inner circle and in response to the Nazi party’s growing power, he appointed Hitler to the leadership position, assured by his advisors that the Nazi agenda would be squelched.
Hitler quickly used Hindenburg’s decree powers to pass a number of mandates, including the 1933 Reichstag Fire Decree, the Enabling Act and the Law for the Protection of the People and the States.
In failing health, Hindenburg’s appointment essentially gave Hitler dictatorship powers, and when the president died at the age of 86 on August 2, 1934, Hitler appointed himself führer of Germany. Hindenburg was interred, along with the remains of his wife, TK, who died in TK, at the Tannenberg war memorial in Prussia. In 1946, they were moved to St. Elizabeth Church in Marburg, Germany.
While some historians view Hindenburg as a World War I hero who stabilized the Weimar Republic in the years that followed, others cite him as a key contributor to the rise of Nazi Germany and the death of the nation’s democracy.
“Hindenburg’s legacy has been mythologized to suggest that he was either a puppet of Hitler or was supportive of the authoritarian ruler,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Historical evidence suggests a more complex portrait of a man who rejected democratic principles and used dictatorial, if legal, powers in an attempt to govern, but also of a man who lacked the strength or conviction to powerfully oppose Hitler’s rise to power.”
In 2020, Hindenburg was removed from Berlin’s honorary citizen list, citing his role in Hitler’s rise and his anti-civil liberty decrees.