The “wooden titan” of the wartime empire and the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg saw action in 1866 and 1870-1871. Hindenburg is often dismissed by critics as lacking intelligence and imagination–“wooden”–but his career established him as a man of force and integrity who at the same time understood the difference between honor and intransigence. He spent most of his active service with troops, alternating command and staff appointments. Although regarded as a possible candidate for chief of staff and Prussian war minister, Hindenburg’s talents were not sufficient to overcome his own well-founded opinion that he lacked the skills of the politician and the courtier required for success in the higher echelons of Wilhelm II’s peacetime army. Hindenburg retired in 1911 as a corps commander. He was then sixty-four.
His career took an unexpected upturn three years later when Erich Ludendorff was appointed chief of staff of the Eighth Army, reeling from defeat at the hands of the Russians. Ludendorff was arrogant, touchy, and humorless, a man with more admirers than friends; someone calm and steady would be required to balance his mercurial temperament. Hindenburg’s imperturbability, his good health, and his imposing physical presence all worked in his favor. On August 22, 1914, he was offered command of the Eighth Army. He promptly accepted.
The professional relationship between Hindenburg and Ludendorff became so close that Winston Churchill in The Unknown War consistently refers to them by the anagram HL. In fact, the association began as a marriage of convenience. If a new command team joining the headquarters of a defeated army (whose staff officers feared for their own careers) did not watch each other’s backs, no one could be expected to do it for them. Hindenburg also had the gift, rare among senior officers, of knowing his own limitations and his own best qualities. He could provide without resentment a base and a framework for a man more brilliant than himself and gave free play to Ludendorff’s intellect, will, and energy. Hindenburg’s calm kept Ludendorff steady during the battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, two of Germany’s brightest victories of the war. And it was Hindenburg, not his chief of staff, who became a household word as the savior of East Prussia and a symbol of Germany at war.
Hindenburg’s wartime image was psychologically specific. It focused on mature male virility at a time when war was becoming a young man’s province. Institutionally, the German army badly needed heroes in the aftermath of the Schlieffen Plan’s collapse. Hindenburg also had the advantage of being isolated from the tensions proliferating in a high command forced by the battles of the Marne and First Ypres to rethink its basic views of war. For the first time in its history, imperial Germany had a hero independent of the royal house. By the end of 1914, former chancellor Bernhard von B[udie]low and Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz were discussing the possibility of having Wilhelm II declared insane, his son appointed regent, and Hindenburg given the emergency post of imperial administrator. No one doubted where the real power would be.
Hindenburg’s mystique increased during 1915 and 1916, both because of the achievements of his armies in the east and because of the continued loss of status by Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, and not least the kaiser himself. His appointment as chief of the General Staff in August 1916 surprised few politicians and fewer soldiers. Hindenburg, once again working in tandem with Ludendorff, however, was in well over his head as the supreme commander of a total war effort in a state already stumbling from exhaustion. He lent his name and prestige to a series of policies ranging from inauspicious to disastrous. The munitions program, the Auxiliary Services Law, and the unrestricted U-boat campaign overstrained Germany’s resources and, in the latter case, added the United States to Germany’s enemies. Hindenburg participated in the intrigues that led to Bethmann’s dismissal in July 1917 and saw to it that the chancellor’s successors remained no more than figureheads. He accepted the increasingly unrealistic war aims of the militarists and nationalists. The shrewd common sense that had been a hallmark of his earlier career gave way to a passivity ironically replicating that of Wilhelm II.
Hindenburg came to life once more only as Germany stood on the brink of disaster. The great offensives of March 1918 so depleted Germany’s human and material resources that the army proved unable to stop the battering Allied counterattacks. By October, the Second Reich was exhausted. While refusing to resign with Ludendorff, Hindenburg accepted the convictions of Ludendorff’s successor, General Wilhelm Groener, that the army no longer supported the kaiser and the country needed immediate peace. Neither the abdication nor the armistice would have gone as smoothly as they did without Hindenburg’s support. Even after his retirement in 1919, he remained a national hero–a fact made apparent in 1925 when he was elected president of the Weimar Republic. Hindenburg initially performed his new duties loyally and not ineffectually. However, the Great Depression, the rise of National Socialism, and his own advancing age robbed Hindenburg by 1930 of whatever effectiveness he still possessed. His appointment of Adolf Hitler as German chancellor in January 1933 gave the Nazi regime badly needed legitimacy. It thereby laid the groundwork for the destruction of the Germany Hindenburg loved after his fashion and served according to his best lights.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.