This is my second contribution towards the effort to document the events of World War One on this blog, and another attempt at modern history, and this time I am profiling a man who preceded Adolf Hitler as president of Germany, Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (Paul von Hindenburg to his friends). At the first instance of research for this post all I had heard about that could be related to him would be the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 where a blimp crash landed, which I now know occurred after his death. This post will give a brief overview of his life and times in office while attempting to understand his significance in being the man to come before Hitler.
Paul von Hindenburg was born to a Prussian aristocrat, Robert von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg, in 1847 in Posen, Prussia (now Pozen, Poland). Hindenburg’s parents were engaged in a morganatic marriage due to his mother, Luise Schwickart, being a daughter of a medical professional and this fact was not seen as favourable to Hindenburg due to her barely occupying any attention in his journals. Hindenburg lineage was distinguished through two high powered Prussian aristocratic families. Hindenburg obtained a long but in no regards exceptional military career, after joining the Prussian Cadet Corps in 1858. He served in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Hindenburg eventually retiring from active service in 1911 aged 64 after being decorated for bravery and representing his regiment at the declaration of the German Empire in 1871. He finished his first career as head of the Fourth Army Corps. However his most significant rise to prominence came after retirement through being appointed to mobilise the whole German state for war in 1914, and thus becoming a popular and well-known figure to the detriment of the reputation of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Hindenburg’s shining hour was by cripplingly defeating the Russian Army at Tannenburg and Masurian Lakes earning him a promotion to Field Marshall and sole command of the Eastern Front in November 1914.
Throughout the First World War Hindenburg rose to immense power across the military and civil spheres of German government. August 1916 saw Hindenburg being appointed as Chief of the Greater German General Staff (GGB) a body within the Prussian Government established in 1806 to overlook all aspects of war through intelligence and strategic advances. The GGB had greater autonomy to the rest of the German Empire and held extensive political sway. Hindenburg was also a major mind behind the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Russia. This treaty effectively ended Russia’s involvement in World War One on 3rd March 1918 after the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia thus eradicating the Romanov Tsar and his family. Throughout the war Germany had pushed through Russian occupied Poland and Lithuania, and into Russia itself, disintegrating the enormous but undisciplined Russian army. It was also Hindenburg that was instrumental in orchestrating the armistice as the Allies were pushing Germany to their limits especially after America waded into the fray to push the invasion of Germany. If the Allies had succeeded Germany would have suffered to a much greater extent materially, financially and civilly like France and Belgium. The 1918 German offensive on the Western Front had failed and the result was the conclusion of the First World War on November 11th 1918.
The aftermath of the war was the crushing of Germany as a power in Europe. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the throne and retired to Holland while Hindenburg remained as head of the army until July 1919 when he once again attempted to retire. This was not to last since he was persuaded to stand in the presidential elections of 1925 upon the death of Ebert. Weimar Germany was growing and needed an authoritative figure at its helm. This era in German history unofficially began at the end of the war but took off in 1924 upon its first constitutional assembly in Weimar. Creating the German Republic caused several issues such as extreme inflation, political extremism from both the left and right and a distinct coldness toward other European countries that partook in the First World War. The main achievements of Weimar Germany was a reform of the currency, tax policies and a new organised railway connecting and integrating Germany into a further unified country. Germany had strained against the Treaty of Versailles which was aimed to prevent Germany from obtaining any power and Weimar Germany pushed against these boundaries vigorously. Hindenburg as the leader of all this was elected twice in 1925 and 1931, partly due to not being a politician foremost but a military man who was active during the whole war.
Hindenburg was of advanced age during these years but proved to be a good president for a Germany attempting to renew itself, particularly when hit by the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Hindenburg had a particular fear of communism which led to dismissals within his government including the chancellor Heinrich Brüning. 1932 saw Hitler attempts to become chancellor of Germany. Hindenburg initially rebuffed these due to Hitler not coming from the right social class, and had not had a majorly established career in the military during the war, but Hindenburg gave in January 1933 and Adolf Hitler began his track to power.
During the years that Hindenburg was in power he began to show his age and was more susceptible to persuasion. The burning of the Reichstag in February 1933 enabled Hitler to be granted emergency powers against any communism and thus gain another step to dictatorship. Hindenburg died in August 1934 on his Prussian estate which Hitler used the state funeral to solidify his progress. Immediately after Hindenburg’s death Hitler initiated the use of Fuhrer instead of president and started the ball rolling towards World War Two.