Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg was born in Posen in 1847. After being educated at the cadet schools at Wahlstatt and Berlin he fought at the Battle of Koniggratz (1866) and in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Promoted to the rank of general in 1903, Hindenburg retired from the army in 1911.

On the outbreak of the First World War Hindenburg was recalled to the German Army and after being sent to the Eastern Front won decisive victories over the Russians at Tannenberg (1914) and the Masaurian Lakes (1915). Seen as the saviour of East Prussia, he was promoted to field marshal and on the 29th August 1916 became Chief of Staff of the German Army.

With the support of senior military officers and right-wing industrialists, Hindenburg and his quartermaster general, Erich von Ludendorff, formed what became known as the Third Supreme Command. This military-industrial dictatorship held power until 29th September 1918, when with defeat inevitable, the government of Germany was returned to the Reichstag.

Hindenburg retired from the German Army in October, 1918, but continued to take an active interest in politics. In 1925 Hindenburg replaced Friedrich Ebert as President of Germany. Re-elected in 1932 he did not oppose the rise of Adolf Hitler and in January 1933, appointed him Chancellor. Paul von Hindenburg was so popular with the German people that Hitler was unable to overthrow constitutional government until his death in 1934.

Primary Sources

(1) General Paul von Hindenburg, letter to the Imperial Chancellor (27th September 1916)

Your Excellency knows what tremendous tasks face our munition industry if a successful result of the war is to be attained. The decisive factor is the solution of the labour problem, not only as regards the numbers of workpeople, but specially as regards the provision of ample food to enable each individual to put forth his maximum effort. It does not seem to me to be sufficiently recognized everywhere among the officials that the existence or non-existence of our people and Empire is at stake. It is impossible for our working people

to maintain their full strength if they do not succeed in obtaining a sufficient supply of fat, allotted to them on a proper basis.

I beg your Excellency most urgently to impress upon all Federal Governments, administrative and communal authorities, the seriousness of the situation, and to demand that they shall use every means to provide sufficient nourishment for our munition workers, and unite all the leading men of all parties as leaders of the Army at home behind the plough and the lathe to work together.

(2) General Paul von Hindenburg, Out of My Life (1934)

The English attack at Cambrai for the first time revealed the possibilities of a great surprise attack with tanks. We had had previous experience of this weapon in the spring offensive, when it had not made any particular impression. However, the fact that the tanks had now been raised to such a pitch of technical perfection that they could cross our undamaged trenches and obstacles did not fail to have a marked effect on our troops. The physical effects of fire from machine-guns and light ordnance with which the steel Colossus was provided were far less destructive than the moral effect of its comparative invulnerability. The infantryman felt that he could do practically nothing against its armoured sides. As soon as the machine broke through our trench-lines, the defender felt himself threatened in the rear and left his post.

(3) General Paul von Hindenburg, Out of My Life (1934)

On the other hand, in view of England's economic situation, the Imperial Admiralty promises us that by the ruthless employment of an increased number of U-boats we shall obtain a speedy victory, which will compel our principal enemy, England, to turn to thoughts of peace in a few months. For that reason, the German General Staff is bound to adopt unrestricted U-boat warfare as one of its war measures, because among other things it will relieve the situation on the Somme front by diminishing the imports of munitions and bring the futility of the Entente's efforts at this point plainly before their eyes. Finally, we could not remain idle spectators while England, realising all the difficulties with which she has to contend, makes the fullest possible use of neutral Powers in order to improve her military and economic situation to our disadvantage.

(4) General Paul von Hindenburg, Out of My Life (1934)

In the middle of August I did not consider that the time had come for us to despair of a successful conclusion of the war. In spite of certain distressing but isolated occurrences in the last battle, I certainly hoped that the Army would be in a position to continue to hold out. I also believed that our public at home would be strong enough to survive even the present crisis. I fully realised what the homeland had already borne in the way of sacrifices and privations and what they would possibly still have to bear. Had not France, on whose soil the war had now been raging for four years, had to suffer and endure far more? Had that country ever been cast down by failure during the whole of that time? Did she despair when our shells fell into her capital? I believed that our own public would keep this in mind even in this serious crisis, and stand firm if only we at the front continued to stand firm too.

(5) Gustav Stresemann, diary entry (28th April, 1925)

The result of the election is psychologically extraordinarily interesting. There can be no doubt that the personal element won the day. During the turmoil of the election campaign there was no lack of effort to discredit the significance of Hindenburg's personality. But with little success. Many indeed were doubtful whether the burden of age might not be too heavy for one who aspired to the Presidential office. But in the end the great name produced its effect, and brought forth reserves of voters who would hardly otherwise have been available in such numbers if they had not regarded it as a patriotic duty to record their votes for the great commander in the Great War.

On the other side, Hindenburg's nomination combined the Weimar Coalition even more firmly than would have otherwise been the case. Anyone acquainted with the reports of the meetings held by the Social Democratic Party at the time of the elections knows how violent was the reaction against the idea of electing a leading member of the Centre Party to the Presidency. It was opposed by the Levi Group, which saw a betrayal of the conception of the Class War in any co-operation with the Centre bourgeoisie. It was opposed by the whole body of Freethinkers - and where are these stronger than in the ranks of the Social Democratic Party? - who had no notion of voting for the champion of denominational schools, and the avowed supporter of the Christian attitude to the State and the world. It was opposed above all by the women in the areas where the denominational conflict is acute, owing to their fear that the election of Marx would lead to a strengthening of Catholicism. And the opposition was much more intense among the Democrats. Not only from Bavaria came protests against the support of the Centre candidate. In other districts too the Democratic creed was shaken.