Paul von Hindenburg

From Kaiserreich

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Hindenburg in 1916

Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg, commonly known as Paul von Hindenburg, (born on 2 October 1847 and died on 2 August 1934) was a German general. Along with Erich von Ludendorff, he was one of the key leaders who led to the German victory during the Weltkrieg, became a Generalfeldmarschall and led with Ludendorff a military dictatorship on Germany from 1917 to 1924.

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Early years

Paul von Hindenburg was born in Posen, Prussia, on Podgórna street, the son of Prussian aristocrat Robert von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (1816–1902) and wife Luise Schwickart (1825–1893). Hindenburg was embarrassed by his mother's non-aristocratic background, and hardly mentioned her at all in his memoirs. On the other hand, his paternal lineage was considered highly distinguished. Hindenburg was also a direct descendant of Martin Luther and wife Katharina von Bora, through their daughter Margareta Luther. Hindenburg's younger brothers and sister were Otto, born 24 August 1849, Ida, born 19 December 1851 and Bernhard, born 17 January 1859.

Military Career

After his education at Wahlstatt and Berlin cadet schools, he fought in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). Hindenburg was selected for prestigious duties: serving the widow of King Frederick William IV of Prussia, being present - as one of a group of young officers decorated for bravery in battle, who had been chosen to represent their regiments - in the Palace of Versailles when the German Empire was proclaimed on 18 January, 1871, and as Honour Guard prior to the Military funeral of Emperor Wilhelm I in 1888. Hindenburg remained in the army, eventually commanding a corps and being promoted to General of Infantry in 1903.

Hindenburg retired from the army for the first time in 1910, but was recalled shortly after the outbreak of the Weltkrieg in 1914 by the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke. Hindenburg was given command of the Eighth Army, then locked in combat with the First and Second Russian armies in East Prussia; after defeat by the Russian First Army at Gumbinnen, Hindenburg's predecessor Maximilian von Prittwitz had been planning to abandon East Prussia and retreat behind the River Vistula.

Hindenburg's Eighth Army was victorious in the Battle of Tannenberg and the Battle of the Masurian Lakes against the Russian armies. Although after his death much of the credit was given to Erich Ludendorff and to the then little-known staff officer Max Hoffmann, these successes made Hindenburg a national hero.

At the start of November 1914 Hindenburg was given the position of Supreme Commander East (Ober-Ost) – although at this stage his authority only extended over the German, not the Austro-Hungarian, portion of the front – and units were transferred from East Prussia to form a new Ninth Army in south-western Poland. Later in November 1914, after the Battle of Lodz, Hindenburg was promoted to the rank of field marshal. Ober-Ost eventually consisted of the German Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Armies, plus other assorted corps.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff felt that more effort should be made on the Eastern Front in order to defeat Russia, although ironically the most spectacular victory of 1915, the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive, was won by Mackensen's German Eleventh Army fighting on the Austro-Hungarian sector rather than as part of Hindenburg's command. By contrast Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the General Staff, felt that it was impossible for Germany to win a decisive victory, hoped that Russia might be encouraged to drop out of the war if not pressed too hard, and in 1916 unleashed an offensive at Verdun designed to "bleed France white" and encourage her to make peace.

Though Hindenburg was only average in terms of military ability, he had a team of talented and able subordinates who won him a series of great victories on the Eastern Front between 1914-1916. These victories transformed Hindenburg into Germany's most popular man. During the war, Hindenburg was the subject of an enormous personality cult. He was seen as the perfect embodiment of German manly honour, rectitude, decency and strength. The appeal of the Hindenburg cult cut across ideological, religious, class and regional lines, but the group that idolized Hindenburg the most were the German right who saw him as an ideal representative of the Prussian ethos and of Lutheran, Junker values. During the war, there were wooden statues of Hindenburg built all over Germany, onto which people nailed money and cheques for war bonds. It was a measure of Hindenburg's public appeal that when the Government launched an all-out programme of industrial mobilisation in 1916, the programme was named the Hindenburg Programme. Before 1914, any such programme would have been named the Kaiser Wilhelm Programme.

By the summer of 1916 Erich von Falkenhayn had been discredited by the bogging-down of the Verdun Offensive and the near-collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Army caused by the Brusilov Offensive and the entry of Romania into the war on the Allied side. In August Hindenburg succeeded him as Chief of the General Staff, although real power was exercised by his deputy, Erich Ludendorff. Hindenburg in many ways served as the real commander-in-chief of the German armed forces instead of the Kaiser who had been reduced to a mere figurehead while Ludendorff served as the de facto general chief of staff. From 1916 onwards, Germany became an unofficial military dictatorship led by Ludendorff and Hindenburg. Both chancellor Georg Michaelis and the Kaiser himself where little more than figureheads at this point. Many claim that Hindenburg too was nothing more than a popular figurehead for Ludendorff.

After the Russian withdrawal from the war in 1917, caused by the beginning of the Russian Civil War, the two men decided to concentrate the German war efforts on the Greek front, where the German forces where able to break the Entente lines and conquer Greece. The successful 1919 Great Spring Offensive, that led to the surrender of France and Italy, inscribed the name of the two war heroes in the hearts of the Germans, making more firm and secure their grip on the reins of the country.

After the Weltkrieg

However, after the end of the war in 1921, Hindenburg and Ludendorff failed in leading the country in time of peace, mainly because of their lack of diplomatic abilities. Their popularity slowly being to fade and the public opinion turned against them in 1923 after the scandal of the suicide attempt of Prince Joachim (caused by his unhappy marriage and the end of his short reign as King of Ireland). Because of the pressure of the public opinion, of the Kaiser (tired of being a figurehead and eager to regain his power) and of the press (under the influx of Alfred Hugenberg), Ludendorff was forced to resign from the General Staff in 1924, just as the puppet chancellor Georg Michaelis was forced to retire from politics, putting an end to their rule.

Hindenburg, who unlike Ludendorff had maintained his popularity, was retained as the Chief of the Generalstab, but this position was more symbolic than anything else. Some suggest a behind the screen deal between Tirpitz and Hindenburg, where Hindenburg was allowed to retain his position if he wouldn't block Tirpitz efforts to keep Ludendorff away from power.

Hindenburg died at the age of 86 from lung cancer at his home in Neudeck, East Prussia on 2 August 1934 (exactly two months short of his 87th birthday).

Personal life

Hindenburg married Gertrud von Sperling, also an aristocrat, by whom he had two daughters and one son:

  • Irmengard Pauline (born in 1880)
  • Oskar (born in 1883)
  • Annemaria (born in 1891)

Gertrud died in 1921.

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