Assess the impact of the role of Paul von Hindenburg in the period following World War 1 and prior to World War 2

Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Hindenburg und Benechendorff was a German field marshal and right-wing politician. He was born into a Prussian Junker family in Posen, Prussia in 1847 being the eldest of three sons. His military interest was sparked at an early age when he attended two cadet schools in Wahlstatt and Berlin.

He entered the Prussian Army and served in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and then in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. His rank rose steadily as he was appointed to the general staff in 1878, by 1903 he had rose to the Commanding General of the Fourth Army in Magdeburg but in 1911 he retired from military service. He married a woman named Gertrud von Sperling in 1879 and had three children, one boy and two girls. They stayed stationed at Strettin.

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World War I

On August the 22nd, 1914 he was recalled to active duty as Supreme Commander on the Eastern Front, as Commander of East Prussia. It was here that he led the Germans to victory against the much larger Russian forces in the Battle of Tannenberg. This victory led to German occupation of Poland and part of the Baltic provinces. This victory led to Hindenburg being made Commander-in-Chief of the German armies. After this came another victory over the Russians at the Masurian Lakes.

With these two important victories over the Russians under his belt, he became more and more popular among the locals. On the 1st of November he was promoted to Supreme Commander in the East, and then on the 27th of November he was named General Field Marshal. He was thought to be the most popular Field Commander of the German Army and was seen as a major folk hero being given nicknames like Der eiserne Hindenburg which means, The Iron Hindenburg or ‘The Saviour of East Prussia’.

Although Hindenburg was a great military leader, much of his success can be attributed to General Ludendorff, who was his chief of staff throughout the war and is credited with the victories at Tannenberg and the Masaurian Lakes.

On August the 29th 1916 Hindenburg succeeded General Falkenhayn as the Chief of Staff of the German Army. Ludendorff was made Quartermaster General.

As a result, the two men became virtual dictators of Germany. They intervened in civilian affairs regulated labour and mobilized the rest of the economy for total warfare. 1

In a letter he wrote to the Imperial Chancellor on the 27th of September 1916, Hindenburg expresses his support of his people.

“It does not seem to me to be sufficiently recognized everywhere among the officials that the existence or non-existence of out people and Empire is at stake. It is impossible for out 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.”2

As a military leader he stopped the allied advance in the west and consolidated the Hindenburg line. He was then transferred to the western front at the Somme and Verdun. It was here that armies had suffered heavy casualties, but Hindenburg was able to ease the situation by withdrawing German troops to the defensive Hindenburg line. The Hindenburg Line was a string of crucial defence fortifications. This line was held until October 5th 1918 when the Allies took full control of these fortifications.

Although he had previously displayed much success in defeating the Russians, this wasn’t to continue in when from March to July of 1818 he had to withdraw the German troops from the western front. The defeat is attributed to the American troops assisting the forces on the French line. At the end of September when the military situation became utterly hopeless, Hindenburg convinced William II to withdraw the troops completely into the homeland.

Along with Ludendorff, the support of other senior military officers and right-wing industrialists they formed what was to be called the Third Supreme Command. This was a military-industrial dictatorship of Germany which made all the decisions in regards to the war. It was made up with the support of the senior military officials and the right-wing industrialists holding power in Germany until the 29th of September 1918 when Germany was finally defeated. After this, they returned to the Reichstag. Hindenburg practically directed Germany’s war effort until his retirement.

It was at this stage when Hindenburg retired for the second time to his estate at Neudeck in East Prussia. According to the Treaty of Versailles he was to be tried as a war criminal, but due to his popularity the special German court at Leipzig never even indicted him.

Upon the death of Friedrich Ebert, Hindenburg was asked to run for President of the Weimar Republic, this was the name given to the German republic from 1918- 1933. His main support was provided by a coalition of nationalists, Prussian Junkers and other conservative groups. Gustav Stresemann said in his diary on the 28th April 1925,

During the turmoil of the election campaign there was no lack of effort to discredit the significance of Hindenburg’s personality.

His popularity had not warn off from his successes during the war, thus Hindenburg as elected the Second President of the Weimer Republic in 1925. It was clear, that in his presidency he would stick strictly to the Weimer Constitution. There was a great deal of unrest amongst neighbouring countries who had defeated the Germans, as they feared Hindenburg would be restoring the Hohenzollern monarchy. The fact that it was clear he was planning on honouring the constitution was a relief for the allies and there was minimal concern.

On March 28 1930 he appointed his friend Heinrich Bruening, who was the leader of the Catholic Centre Party, to the office of Chancellor. As economic conditions were appallingly bad with the Depression and the Reparation payments, Hindenburg gave more ruling power to Bruening.

Hindenburg ran for office again in 1932, but this time, he was running against Adolf Hitler, Ernst Thaelmann (a communist) and Theodor Duesterberg (a candidate for the German Nationalist party whose campaign was ruined when Nazi’s revealed that his grandfather was in fact a Jew).

“To Hindenburg, a Protestant, a Prussian, a Conservative and a Monarchists went the support of the Socialists, the Trade Unions, the Catholics of Bruening’s Centre Party and the remnants of the Liberal, democratic middle-class parties. To Hitler, a Catholic, an Austrian, a former tramp, a ‘national socialists’, a leader of the lower-middle-class mass, was rallied in addition to his own followers, the support of the upper-class Protestants of the north, the conservative Junker agrarians and a number of monarchists, including, at the last minute, the former Crown Prince himself. The confusion was further compounded by the entrance of two other candidates, neither of whom could hope to win but both of whom might poll enough votes to prevent either of the leading contestants from obtaining the absolute majority”3

Hitler’s campaign was tireless as he flew from town to town, speaking at rallies and gaining support.

Hitler threw himself into the campaign with furious energy, crisscrossing the country, addressing large crowds at scores of mass meetings and whipping them up into a state of frenzy…In this first campaign he harped on the misery of the people, the impotence of the republic.4

Hindenburg’s campaign was almost non-existent as he spoke only once in a reordered broadcast on March 10th, the eve of the polling.

“Election of a party man, representing one-sided extremist views, who would consequently have the majority of the people against him, would expose the Fatherland to serious disturbances whose outcome would be incalculable. Duty commanded me to prevent this… If I am defeated, I shall at least not have incurred the reproach that of my own accord I deserted my post in an hour of crisis…. I ask for no votes from those who do not wish to vote for me.”5

It was an effective speech and when the votes were polled, he was by far the winner receiving 49.6% of the votes. But this was .4 per cent short of the required absolute majority. Because of this, another election had to be held a month later on the 10th of April 1932.

Once again, Hindenburg’s was minimal, and Hitler’s had a furious campaign. William L. Shirer, author of ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ describes Hitler’s second campaign:

This time, he depicted a happy future for all Germans if he were elected: Jobs for the workers, higher prices for the farmers, more business for the businessmen, a big Army for the militarists, and once in a speech at the Lustgarten in Berlin he promised ‘In the Third Reich every German girl will find a husband!”

At this stage, the Nationalists withdrew Duesterberg from the race and appealed to their voters to vote for Hitler. But victory was still for Hindenburg as he polled 53% of all votes. This result shows the desire of the German people to reject the extremists of both the Right and Left, leaving the vast majority in favour of the Democratic Republic.

At this stage, Hindenburg was 85 years old, and his mental health was starting to deteriorate. The military camarilla suggested to Hindenburg that he should dismiss Bruening. After dismissing Bruening he appointed Franz von Papen in his place. Papen was a member of the extreme right wing of the Catholic Centre party. In the recent elections, Papen had not supported the extreme right-wing candidate, instead choosing to support Hindenburg. As Chancellor, it was his responsibility to manage Hitler. Hindenburg saw Hitler as being of little use, and had to decide wether to include Hitler and the Nazis in a coalition government

On January 30th 1933 Hindenburg made Hitler Chancellor. It was from here that Hindenburg’s political career declined as he retired to his estate in Neudeck and allowed the right-wing coalition, lead by Hitler, to run the government. Although still officially in office, Hitler gradually disregarded Hindenburg’s authority. It wasn’t until his death that Hitler was able to gain full control of Germany.

Not three hours after his death was confirmed, it was announced that according to a law made on the previous day, that the role of President and chancellor had been combined, thus giving Hitler full control. This was contrary to Hindenburg’s desires for his Germany. According to Papen, in his memoirs he tells of the initial draft of Hindenburg’s will and what he wanted for Germany.

My draft recommended that after his death a constitutional monarchy should be adopted, and I made a point of the inadvisability of combining the offices of President and Chancellor.

He had taken the powers of the head of stages and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The title of President had been abolished, and Hitler was known as Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor. Hitler then made all officers and men of the armed forces an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler, not to Germany or the constitution.

“The venerable Hindenburg was no longer there to dispute his authority, the Army was in his hands, bound to obedience by an oath no German soldier would lightly break. Indeed, all Germany and the Germans were in his bloodstained hands now that the last recalcitrants had been done away with, or had disappeared for good.”

During World War one, Hindenburg was one of the key leaders in Germany. Especially with his involvement in the Third Supreme Command, his leadership, although not overall successful, had many points where he was able to make good changes to the German army. Especially by withdrawing troops at the Somme and Verdun, where that was the only rational thing to do. Not only had Germany suffered major losses, but with the allied forces joining the French it was a hopeless battle for the Germans.

Hindenburg was the only figure standing in the way of Hitler and his Third Reich. Hitler’s role of Fuehrer was completely dismissive of the constitution of the Weimar Republic, which was no what Hindenburg wished for. It was evident in the previous election that the German people did not want a country run by political extremists, the left or right winged having both candidates being voted down. But with his declining health and oncoming senility, Hindenburg was unable to prevent the uprising of the Third Reich.

It probably comes down to the fact that Hindenburg was too old and shouldn’t have been put into the Presidency position for the second time. But all this did was give Hitler more time. He did receive 36.8% of the votes in the election, which was the second highest, so if Hindenburg had not been elected, then Hitler would have gained power in 1932 rather than 1934. Hitler was determined to gain power. At one stage Hitler was quoted as saying:

“Hindenburg? He is 85 years old, I am 45. I can wait”

Hindenburg proved himself to be a great military leader and a charismatic politician, working for the good of the people. It was unfortunate that at the most crucial time of his career he was unaware of what was going on. The period of time from 1932-34 was messy for the German government, and it wasn’t helpful that Hindenburg was mentally incapable of making thorough judgments. This is how a man who was voted down by the people was eventually given the role of Fuehrer and lead the world into World War II.

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