The German field marshal and statesman Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (1847-1934) commanded the German forces during the last 2 years of World War I. He was president of Germany from 1925 to 1934.
Paul von Hindenburg was one of the last prominent representatives of the old Prussian Junkerdom— once the mainstay of Prussia's military power and its honest and efficient civil service—and he profoundly shared its values of honor, duty, and total dedication to the state. As president during the critical years of the Depression, he also symbolized the curious inability of the old Prussian aristocrats to deal with the barbaric nationalism and reckless militarism of Hitler's national socialism.
Hindenburg was born in Posen (now Poznań, Poland) on Oct. 2, 1847, to a family of old Junker stock. Trained in the Prussian Cadet Corps, he fought bravely in the wars against Austria (1866) and France (1870), earning a citation for bravery and the Iron Cross.
Never a man of outstanding strategic or tactical talents, Hindenburg made his mark as a hardworking, loyal, and dedicated soldier. His sincerity and noble bearing earned him the respect of both superiors and subordinates and assured him of a steady rise through the ranks in the long years of peace after 1871. By 1904 he had become commanding general of the IV Army Corps, a post he held until his retirement in 1911.
World War I
As an experienced officer, Hindenburg was recalled to active duty shortly after the outbreak of World War I and sent to command the 8th Army on the Eastern front with the extremely talented but highly temperamental Erich Ludendorff as his chief of staff. On the morning after its arrival on the front, the new command team commenced the Battle of Tannenburg (August 26-29), which resulted in the most decisive German victory on the Eastern front and made its official victors, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, into almost legendary German heroes. In this battle the German forces virtually annihilated a Russian army twice the size of the German detachment and cleared East Prussian territory for the balance of the war. By November 1914 Hindenburg had advanced to supreme commander in the east with the rank of field marshal.
When the German armies were increasingly driven into the defensive on the decisive Western front in the summer of 1916, Hindenburg was made chief of general staff, with Ludendorff at his side as chief of operations. Thus Hindenburg and Ludendorff—with the latter always in the driver's position—increasingly determined the direction of German politics. Their policy consisted primarily of a stubborn, increasingly suicidal insistence on an all-out military effort and sizable annexations and a wooden resistance to all reforms at home. For the German military fortunes, however, even the unification of the supreme command of the Central Powers under Hindenburg and desperate all-out offensives in the west were not enough. By the summer of 1918 German offensive strength had run out, and an Allied counteroffensive, reinforced by fresh American troops, threatened to carry the war into Germany.
The subsequent surrender did not diminish Hindenburg's prestige, however. He prepared what he believed to be the temporary resignation of the emperor, William II, to make an armistice possible. He gained the lasting gratitude of his nation by bringing every German soldier across the armistice line along the Rhine before the deadline set by the Allies. Only after the signing of the Peace Treaty of Versailles did he finally lay down his command—still the most popular public figure in Germany.
Years as President
After the first president of the postwar republic died in 1925, Marshal Hindenburg was nominated by the parties of the right and was elected with a slight plurality over the candidate of the center and moderate left. Although he continued to hope for a return of his beloved monarchy, he loyally supported the various governments of the republic in the 1920s.
An abrupt shift in Hindenburg's position took place with the outbreak of the Depression and the subsequent breakdown of majority coalition governments in the German Parliament. Under an emergency paragraph in the constitution, he now supported Chancellor Heinrich Brüning's government of the center against the combined antirepublican majority of Nazis and Communists. Widely regarded as the last bulwark against Hitler, the 82-year-old war hero was reelected with the support of the center-left parties in the spring of 1932.
Hindenburg soon turned against Brüning, however, because of a moderate land reform thought disadvantageous to Hindenburg's fellow landed aristocrats. He replaced this last genuinely republican chancellor with Franz von Papen and then Kurt von Schleicher, both personal friends. Finally, on Jan. 30, 1933, he overcame his initial dislike and distrust of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and appointed him to the chancellorship, thereby inaugurating 12 years of Nazi dictatorship.
Failing in health, Hindenburg increasingly lost control over the radicalization and terrorization of German politics. In March 1933 he symbolically presided over the opening of Hitler's newly purged Reichstag and in the following year had to tolerate the army purges accompanying the infamous Roehm Purge. On Aug. 2, 1934, Paul von Hindenburg died at Neudeck, a broken man. His death removed the last restraints on Hitler.
Further Reading on Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg
Hindenburg's early autobiography, Out of My Life (1920), was translated by F. A. Holt (1933). Of the many biographies of Hindenburg, mostly by admirers, the best in English are John W. Wheeler-Bennett, Wooden Titan: Hindenburg in Twenty Years of German History, 1914-1934 (1936; republished as Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan, 1967), a full biography, and Andreas Dorpalen, Hindenburg and the Weimar Republic (1964), which is limited to the time of the republic. Margaret Goldsmith and Frederick Voigt, Hindenburg: The Man and the Legend (1930), is a generally favorable, scholarly account. Emil Ludwig, Hindenburg (trans. 1935), is popularized but is an accurate appraisal. Recommended for general historical background are Walter Görlitz, The German General Staff: Its Historical Structure, 1657-1945 (1950; trans. 1953); Gordon A. Craig, The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640-1945 (1955); and Erich Eyck, A History of the Weimar Republic (trans., 2 vols., 1962-1963).