The First World War in 261 weeks

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022 Paul von Hindenburg and his march with a pure heart

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

Germany relies on Prussian values

It is Sunday 22 November 1914. It is the 22nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

 The seven-century-old Cloth Hall in Ypres goes up in flames after a German bombing.

The Germans do not spare Reims cathedral either.

 A British squadron blasts the Flemish port of Zeebrugge.

 Portugese congress authorizes the government to side with the allies as soon as she thinks this expedient.

 American president Woodrow Wilson condemns the shelling of unfortified towns.

 After heavy fighting the Austrians withdraw near Krakow and south of the river Vistula.

 British warships attack the German port of Dar es Salaam in East Africa.

 Russian general Paul von Rennenkampf lets three German divisions escape at the Polish town of Lodz.

 The Russians manage to get the mountain passes in the Carpathians under control again.

 And the rank of field marshal is granted to the German hero of Tannenberg, Paul von Hindenburg 

‘What do you do in times of tension?’, Paul von Hindenburg was once asked. He answered: ‘I whistle.’ After which the enquirer remarked that he had never heard Hindenburg whistle. ‘I never have’, the latter replied.

There you are, the caricature of the Prussian hero of the First World War, Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg. Tower of German strength. Imperturbable. Self-assured. Judging by the numerous streets and squares that still bear his name in present-day Germany, his reputation has proved to be quite solid. Whatever his curriculum vitae may have shown afterwards, Hindenburg has remained the Hero of Tannenberg – the icon of German values such as Ordnung and Kampfgeist.

Hindenburg could also count on the respect of someone like David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister in the second half of the Great War. When he is elected president of the Weimar Republic in the decade after the First World War, Lloyd George understands. After all, Hindenburg is a ‘very sensible old man’.

To historian and contemporary Hans Delbrück Hindenburg was rather an ‘old nobody’. Delbrück passed this destructive judgement before Hindenburg had the nerve as president to appoint Adolf Hitler Reich’s Chancellor of the Weimar Republic in January 1933. Initially he did not think a lot of the leader of the NSDAP. ‘Böhmischer Gefreiter’, he used to call Hitler amidst his intimate friends: ‘Bohemian corporal’. That was a historical mistake of the field marshal. He mistook Austrian Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace, for Bohemian Braunau.

June 1919 does not look good for Hindenburg either. Defeated Germany is dictated its conditions of peace. President of the new republic is social democrat Friedrich Ebert, who telephones Hindenburg to ask what he thinks of it. Hindenburg leaves the answer to his Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Wilhelm Groener. ‘You know what to do. I will go for a walk’, he tells him. Groener tells Ebert that there is nothing for it but to sign, for the German army cannot permit itself to resume the war. When Hindenburg returns from his walk and hears how Groener has acted, he puts his arm on his shoulder and says: ‘You have taken a big responsibility on you.’

October 1918. Wilhelm II receives the Chief of the General Staff Hindenburg and his right-hand man Erich Ludendorff. The offensive on the western front has ended in a big disappointment. The emperor gives Ludendorff to understand that his days are numbered. But to Hindenburg he says: ‘Und Sie bleiben.’ ‘And you stay’. After which Hindenburg politely bows his head, to the dismay of Ludendorff, who had expected solidarity of his old comrade in arms. Hindenburg a tower of strength? Do you think so?

***

He was born in 1847 as scion of a noble East Prussian family. His father is an officer and for young Paul the only future is a military one. ‘A matter of tradition’, he will remark in his memoirs. In 1866 he is actively involved in the war of the Prussians against the Austrians. He gets by relatively unscathed with a head injury. In 1871 he is present when the German Empire is proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, in the heart of France. Seventeen years later he is chosen to keep watch as an officer at the dead body of Emperor Wilhelm I lying in state. And in 1911 he is 64, the right age for retirement.

But the historical life of Paul von Hindenburg has yet to begin. When in 1914 Russia puts pressure on the Germans in their very own East Prussia, an appeal is made on old general Von Hindenburg. Together with his energetic aide Erich Ludendorff he achieves a glorious victory in a clash which Hindenburg himself calls the Battle of Tannenberg. In 1410 a German army had to yield to a Polish king there. Hindenburg has now erased that disgrace.

When Hindenburg publishes his memoirs after the war, an extract from September 1914 betrays his world view. He describes how elevated thoughts come into his mind during a ride through Polish regions that German tribes have done a favour to culture here. Of course one can notice that people here live according to East Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Here live simple, faithful and cautious people. Further away in the Russian part of Poland Hindenburg especially notices the mud. People there are brimming with filth, he writes. To a man like Hindenburg civilisation corresponds with Prussia.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff will stay in the northern part of the eastern front together for a long time. They are opposites that miraculously complement each other throughout the war. Hindenburg, the composed aristocrat and Ludendorff, the tempestuous commoner general. Hindenburg, keeper of old Prussian values, Ludendorff, careerist without scruples. Together over there in the east they distrust Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who pays more attention to the western front and the more southern battlefields in the east, where the Austrians can do with support from the Germans.

In August 1916 Hindenburg and Ludendorff seize their opportunity. They take over the Oberste Heeresleitung from Falkenhayn. In the west they take a drastic decision. They give up territory for a front line that can be defended better. Scorched earth is left in northern France when they retreat. The German army regroups in a new system of trenches and concrete bunkers, which will be called the Hindenburg Line.

But there is more than a reshuffle of the battlefield. Politically speaking the army draws almost all power to itself. Germany is beginning to look like a dictatorial nation. Using the writer Sebastian Haffner’s words, the real emperor is Paul von Hindenburg and the real chancellor is Erich Ludendorff. The latter is the one who is really pulling the strings. Forever popular Hindenburg is above all the figure head.

In the year 1916 the Hindenburg Programm appears. It is a thorough attempt to fashion the German economy after the war. Men and women are forced to work in the war industry. Companies that do not serve the war are locked. Through a Kriegsamt which has been set up the army dictates production from now on. It is not an unqualified success. Economic practice appears to be too unmanageable to be controlled by generals.

The duo Hindenburg-Ludendorff has a hand in sending off chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who is too soft to their taste. And in 1918, when the front in the east is shut down after the revolution in Russia, the Oberste Heeresleitung launches a full attack. If they do not win this war, it is in any case important to form a good basis for the next one. After all the Romans also needed more than one Punic War to get the better of Carthage.

They get far, but 8 August 1918 will be a ‘black day for the German army’, according to Erich Ludendorff, who mentally collapses because of the military adversity. Hindenburg will record in his memoirs: ‘The depression and the disappointment, that despite all victories the war will not end for us, have also affected our brave soldiers.’

Already in 1919 he is the most prominent spreader of the Stab-in-the-back myth. Germany has not lost because the other party was stronger, but because it was stabbed in the back at home by left-wing revolutionaries.

The twenties are coming and the frail Weimar Republic urgently needs an important mediator, somebody who declares himself above the parties as a pater familias. All eyes are fixed on Paul von Hindenburg. In 1925 the people elect this old warrior their president. Gradually he will listen too carefully to what his right-wing friends have to say. He sidetracks parliament, which is dominated by social democrats. In 1932, when he is 85, Hindenburg is elected for another seven-year term. However, this appears to be overoptimistic. Hindenburg dies in 1934 in a Germany, where meanwhile someone else has become the Führer. How the hero of Tannenberg ended as Adolf Hitler’s master of ceremonies, it is a sad story anyway.

***

It is 1927 when Time magazine reports on a glorious event. ‘Erect and martial, President General Field Marshal Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg arrived at Tannenberg, East Prussia, to unveil a war memorial to the soldiers who fell in the historic battle of Tannenberg.’

Over a hundred thousand people had gathered to witness the ceremony. There was a queue of veterans six miles long to pay hommage to their old military chief. Some were dressed in field grey, others had proudly put on their plumed helmets and donned imperial uniforms set off with gold. The highest authorities had also assembled, from chancellor Wilhelm Marx and several members of his cabinet to marshal Von  Mackensen and generals Von François and Von Ludendorff. Dressed in the uniform of marshal, staff in his left hand, old Hindenburg, almost eighty years old, strode through the cheering masses, stopping now and then to speak one or two words to his former brothers in arms.

What did Hindenburg say to the old comrades that day? The following: ‘We, the German people, dismiss in every possible way the reproach that Germany should be guilty of the greatest of all wars. It was not envy, hatred or desire for conquests which forced us to take up arms. War was our last resort and making the biggest sacrifices by our entire people was the last means to keep up our prestige against a multitude of enemies. We marched with a pure heart to defend our Fatherland and we brandished the sword with clean hands. Germany will always be prepared to prove that before impartial judges.’

Whoever allows these words to sink in, will see the future come towards him. Paul von Hindenburg’s Germany was simply a bad loser. Germany was heading for new misfortune. It would eventually end like the zeppelin in 1937, which the nazis had named after Hindenburg and which would crash down in flames near New Jersey.

Next week: August de Block

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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