Hindenburg, Paul von (1847–1934)

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German field marshal and president.

The career of Paul von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg illustrates the difficulties and perhaps even the pointlessness of distinguishing between appearance and substance. Throughout a long public career, he projected an almost stereotypical image of German patriarchal authority—honest, unshakeable, aloof, intimidating. Not least, Hindenburg looked the part. Ample in personal appearance, he had disciplined, brushed-back hair and a formidable mustache, complimented by perfect posture and a stately walk.

To some extent, Hindenburg's image saved him from relative obscurity in 1914. Born to a Junker family of good pedigree but modest property, Hindenburg had worn a uniform since entering cadet school at age eleven. He enjoyed a successful military career, though lack of royal and imperial favor excluded him from the innermost circles. Hindenburg had actually retired in 1911, and was recalled to active duty in August 1914 as a consequence of the purge of the German command following the momentary Russian success invading East Prussia. The predictable and aristocratic Hindenburg would be seconded by the talented but erratic and common-born Erich Ludendorff. Together, the pair would win the two greatest German victories of the war, the battles of Tannenburg (August 1914) and Masurian Lakes (September 1914).

These victories, carefully spun so as to divert attention from the stagnating western front, rendered Hindenburg the most formidable German military hero since Frederick the Great. Hindenburg managed to remain above politics and above reproach. Success accrued to him, while failure could be sloughed off on to subordinates, civilians, or later even Kaiser William, who had always feared Hindenburg's greater popularity. When Hindenburg and Ludendorff were called from the eastern front to head a reorganized supreme command in August 1916, they became leading political figures. The so-called Hindenburg Program (in which Ludendorff actually played a far greater role) sought to reorganize war production for greater efficiency in waging "total" war. It raised expectations more than production. Military results remained mixed, with success on the eastern front counterbalanced by costly and inconclusive battles at Verdun, the Somme, and the Chemin des Dames, as well as by the entry of the United States into the war in April 1917. Yet the cult of personality around Hindenburg seemed only to grow with Germany's difficulties. In one of the more peculiar cultural practices of the Great War, giant wooden statues of Hindenburg were erected in cities and towns across Germany. A contribution to the Red Cross gave the donor the right to drive a nail into the wooden titan.

The cult of Hindenburg survived the defeat of 1918 and the demise of the imperial regime. Hindenburg played a major role in the abdication of Kaiser William, the decision to sign the armistice, and the bloody establishment of the Weimar Republic, yet always managed to remain above the fray. He carefully timed his resignation as supreme commander to precede the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty in June 1919. He claimed somewhat disingenuously that "I would rather perish in honor than sign a humiliating peace."

Following the unexpected death of Friederich Ebert in 1925, Hindenburg was persuaded to run for president of the republic as a national unity candidate. He won, though by a more narrow margin than expected in a polity experimenting with genuine democracy. Some, indeed, feared a return to military rule. Yet Hindenburg maintained a very Lutheran sense of loyalty to secular political power, though he remained frustrated and confused by tumultuous and poisoned party politics. He greatly disliked Adolf Hitler. According to legend, Hindenburg suggested Hitler be made a postal clerk, so that he could "lick my rear on a stamp."

Yet Hindenburg found himself increasingly adrift, politically and probably mentally, in the later years of his presidency. The last hero of imperial Germany proved ill-suited to the crises of the Weimar Republic. Above all, he wanted to avoid presiding over a civil war as violence became common political practice. Hindenburg finally acquiesced in the formation of a Hitler-led cabinet in January 1933. Hitler had little difficulty persuading him of the perils of communist revolution after the Reichstag fire of February 1933, and induced him to sign the emergency decrees paving the way for the consolidation of Nazi power. Hindenburg's death in the summer of 1934 removed the last pretenses of restraint as the supreme symbol of the old regime gave way to the new.

See alsoGermany; Hitler, Adolf; Ludendorff, Erich; World War I.


Craig, Gordon. The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640–1945. Oxford, U.K., 1955.

Demeter, Karl. The German Officer-Corps in Society and State, 1650–1945. Translated by Angus Malcolm. London, 1965.

Dorpalen, Andreas. Hindenburg and the Weimar Republic. Princeton, N.J., 1964.

Herwig, Holger. The First World War: Germany and Austria–Hungary, 1914–1918. London and New York, 1996.

Leonard V. Smith