The First World War in 261 weeks

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032 August von Mackensen and the hat with the skull

August von Mackensen

August von Mackensen

Eastern front is in full swing

It is Sunday 31 January 1915. It is the 32nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

British-Indian troops stop a Turkish attack on the Suez canal. 

British and French ward off a German offensive west of La Bassée.

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg gives in to the pressure of the admirals and declares a war zone around the British Isles, where U-boats can operate freely.

Montenegrins in Herzegovina manage to stave off the Austrians.

The French flying ace Adolphe Pégoud eliminates three German aircraft over the western front.

In Upington Boer general Jan Kemp surrenders to South African troops.

In Germany bread and flour are rationed.

Germany lends a large sum of money to Bulgaria.

Sailing under American flag oceanliner Lusitania arrives in Liverpool.

And in the Battle of Bolimow, a Polish village, gas is used as a weapon for the first time by the Germans under the command of August von Mackensen.

When hearing the name August von Mackensen, one first of all thinks of his hat – the fur hat of the Totenkopf Hussaren, bigger than the head itself, but especially frightening by the skull on the front with the crossed bones under it. It is hard to imagine that these days you will find another soldier anywhere in the world wearing such a grotesque hat as Mackensen’s. He was born without ‘von’ before his name, but already before the turn of the century he managed to rise into the echelons of the nobility.

The hat with the skull went with an overkill of trimmings and epaulettes on his uniform of the hussars. All this may stand for the frills around the bloodshed of the battlefields. Welcome to the First World War, Von Mackensen calls out to us a century later. We get killed by the thousand, but haven’t we got great hats!

The Field Marshal is one of the transition figures from tradition to modernity. August Mackensen was born as early as the Prussian kingdom, in 1849, a year after liberals had seized constitutional power here and there in Europe. But nationalism was also coming into bloom and so August Mackensen became one of Bismarck’s soldiers who fought for the German empire at the expense of France. He saw the kaiser flee in 1918 and after that witnessed full of disgust Germany’s struggle with democracy in the Weimar Republic. Then August von Mackensen embraced Adolf Hitler and finally died in a Germany occupied by allies, reminiscing about his days under Führer, kaiser and king.

To conclude, he became 95 years old. On his last birthday in 1944 a delegation came to convey the congratulations of Adolf Hitler on behalf of the entire German people. The nazis gratefully used him as the symbol for the obvious transition from the Second to the Third Reich. For that good cheer Hitler presented him with a country estate as a favour in return.

Thanks to the German Wochenschau – also penetrated to YouTube – we can see how Von Mackensen underwent that tribute on his 95th bithday with sincere pleasure. At the end of the film we see the greise Generalfeldmarschall talk to the delegation while gesticulating fiercely. It must have been a powerful peptalk of the war hero of old. A month earlier he had urged the German youth to show ‘Opferbereitschaft und Fanatismus’, self-sacrifice and fanaticism.

Admittedly one can draw a different picture of the man, the picture of August von Mackensen, the devoted Christian. As a devout protestant in nazi Germany he cannot agree with the Gleichschaltung (equalization) of the churches. And he defends the preachers of the Bekennende Kirche, the Confessional Church, when they venture to speak against the ideology of national socialism. Moreover, Von Mackensen protests against the atrocities of the wretched SA, massacres in the Night of the Long Knives and war crimes by German troops in invaded Poland. But he has never drawn the conclusion that all this evil started with Adolf Hitler.

Until the beginning of the First World War Von Mackensen had an atypical career as a Prussian soldier. As a volunteer in the French-Prussian war he is awarded the Iron Cross and is promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Initially Mackensen chooses to follow in his father’s footsteps by studying agricultural science. But soon he enrolls in the army again. Without having been to the Kriegsakademie he becomes deputy of chief-of-staff Von Schlieffen and later even aide-de-camp of the kaiser himself. Meanwhile he has recorded the history of the Black Hussars, in two volumes even. His wife, who bore him five children, dies in 1905. Three years later he remarries. His second wife is half his age. She remains with him until his death at a ripe old age.

Now let’s have a look at his achievements in the Great War. As one of the army commanders he has to share the debacle of the Battle of Gumbinnen in August 1914. Von Mackensen himself described it as a ‘mass slaughter’ for the Germans, based on bad intelligence and poor air reconnaisance.

The Russians greatly embarrass the Germans in their own East-Prussia, but Hindenburg and Ludendorff will come to put things right. In the Battle of Tannenberg and the one of the Masurian lakes also Von Mackensen manages to revenge.

In November 1914 Von Mackensen gets the command of the Ninth Army which has been formed two months earlier. He takes over from Paul von Hindenburg who as head of Ober Ost will now look across the entire eastern front. Von Mackensen will help the Austrians at Lodz. Both camps can count their blessings after the battle has ended. The Russians have managed to keep the Polish capital of Warsaw despite a German siege. It is, however, more meaningful that Von Mackensen has succeeded in stopping the Russian advance in Silesia.

By this time Von Mackensen has secured his place in the German Pantheon. In imitation of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Napoleon’s rival from Prussia, the Germans will affectionately call Von Mackensen ‘Unser Marschall Vorwärts’. They also sing their new Marshal Forward’s praises: Mackensen, der edle Ritter, fuhr wie Sturm und Ungewitter’ – ‘a noble knight of thunder and storms’.

Throughout the war he remains active on the eastern front. At the same time he receives a choice of awards. The Pour le Mérité, the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle, the Bavarian Order of Max Joseph, quite a chestful.

Commanding the Ninth Army Von Mackensen fights the Battle of Bolimow in Poland against the Second Army of the Russians on 31 January 1915. It is under his authority that for the first time in military history gas is used as a weapon on a large scale. Thousands of gas grenades are fired, but the gruesome experiment fails. The teargas is either  blown back to the German lines or it condenses on the ground as a result of the cold temperatures. Anyway, the Russians are not impressed and neglect to inform their allies in the west of the German test.

Following the big Spring Offensive of Gorlice-Tarnów, two Polish towns east of Kraków, he is promoted to field marshal in 1915.  What starts as a small operation, meant to protect the Austrians, ends in the collapse of the Russian lines. At the end Galicia is in the hands of the Central Powers and there is no longer the threat of a Russian invasion in Austria-Hungary. The crowning glory of the German work is the recapture in June 1915 of Przemyśl, the town that had been seized by the Russians before that after a siege of over a hundred days. On 4 August Warsaw falls into the hands of the Germans after all. The enormous number of 750,000 Russians are taken as prisoners of war.

Von Mackensen wreaks havoc at Tarnow-Gorlice with a murderous artillery bombardment, which lasts for hours, preceding an assault of the Russian lines. He acquires fame by attacking on a wide front and penetrating as far as possible into enemy territory. However, the true brain behind these tactics is his right hand Hans von Seeckt, the same man who will build the Reichswehr from the bottom up during the interbellum under the strict regulations of the Treaty of Versailles.

‘Trust in God and on your own strength’ is the motto of the Hussars with which Von Mackensen urges his men to head for the Bug river, which connects Poland with Ukraine. In September 1915 the Serbs are facing Marshal Forward, who also carries the command of Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops. On 9 October 1915 Von Mackensen captures Belgrade, the Serbian capital.

After that he heads the multicoloured Danube Army that deals with the Romanians. It will be his last campaign. Von Mackensen serves the rest of the war as military-governor in Romania and is more concerned with economic business than military affairs. In December 1916 Von Mackensen conducts a military parade in the heart of Bucharest on a white horse. In August and September 1917 he is confronted with Russian-Romanian armed forces. At the Battle of Mărăşeşti the Romanian heroine Ecaterina Teodoroiu dies saying ‘Forward men, I am still with you’. The battle itself ends in a deadlock, but soon afterwards Romania has no other choice than sign the scornful Treaty of Bucharest on 7 May 1918.

In Romania Von Mackensen is taken as prisoner of war in November 1918. He is detained in Hungary and Saloniki, but the old marshal travels back to Germany again in 1919 where he can start resting on his many laurels. He remains loyal to the monarchy and leaves for the Dutch town of Doorn in 1941 in full attire in order to attend Kaiser Wilhelm II’s funeral. The deceased ordained that swastikas are not to be seen. However at his grave the loving power of Jesus rules: ‘Ich bete an die macht der Liebe, die sich in Jesu offenbart’

As far as biographer Theo Schwartzmüller is concerned, Von Mackensen, the monarchist who thought he could reconcile Hitler and Jesus, already presented himself as an ‘anti democrat’ in 1914. Besides, when talking about Von Mackensen’s military successes, Schwarzmüller also sneers at him by calling him the ‘Pyrrhus of the Central Powers’.

Yet the Bundeswehr had two military barracks, at Karsruhe and Hildesheim, carry the name of Mackensen until long after the Second World War. Also this hommage is in the past now, just as the Mackensen Strasse in Berlin has been named after the Jewish poetess Else Lasker-Schüller since 1988.

As it is, August von Mackensen has disappeared into the misty past of the hat with the skull, though his life is less misty than the Myth of MacDonald/Mackensen makes us believe. Even during the Great War rumour had it that the Scottish major-general Hector MacDonald had not killed himself at all in 1903 because he was suspected of being homosexual. No, he had escaped to Germany and taken on the identity of a high ranking German officer, who had died of cancer. Thus Hector MacDonald became August von Mackensen. German Marshal Forward was in fact a Scot. And Adolf Hitler was from the planet Mars.

Next week: Marie Curie

Translation Peter Veltman

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