Regarded as the icon of German militarism, Paul von Hindenburg was one of the most popular field marshals, politicians and the second president of Germany. Hindenburg, a man of discipline and fortitude, served gloriously in the Prussian army retiring from the military in 1911. However, during the World War I, he was called back in service to serve the nation and he, with the help of his deputy, Erich Ludendorff, fought the Russian army victoriously bringing glorious victories in the eastern front of Germany.
Because of his immense popularity as a war hero, he was nominated to run for the German presidency after he retired from the military again in 1919. Admired and worshipped by the German people, he won the election and became the second serving president of Germany from the period of 1925 till his death in 1934. He was a very important figure in the history of Germany. Due to his failing health and his old age during the last years of his presidency, his aides took advantage of him and Hitler rose to power. If he were few years younger and if would have been alive, then the German history would have been something different. No Nazi party would have risen to power and the Jew extermination at Auschwitz and other concentration camps would not have taken place. This paper would present a biography of Hindenburg, highlighting his early life, military career, his role in the World War I, his presidential tenure and his relationship with Hitler.
Early Life and Education
Born on 2nd October, 1847 in Posen, West Prussia, Paul von Hindenburg is known as an icon of German militarism. The paternal side of his family was quite distinguished tracing back its lineage to "the crusading Teutonic knights of the medieval period", and he took pride in his paternal ancestry. Growing up on the stories of heroic battles told by an aged gardener of his family estate and by his own grandfather, he was always fascinated by the military activities and values of the resurgent Prussia. During his cadetship at Wahlstatt and Berlin, he learned to live a very disciplined life, developed physical hardiness and demonstrated moral uprightness. Though he was level-headed and compassionate, he was a "stickler for detail", and in his later life he expressed that he owed his success in the World War I to the life of discipline he led as a cadet.
Soon after completing his education as a cadet, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1865 in the Third Regiment of the Foot Guards. He subsequently fought a number of battles including the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. He held various prestigious duties during his service in the military. He served as page to the widowed Queen Elizabeth of Prussia, represented his regiment in the Palace of Versailles at the proclamation of Wilhelm I as Kaiser of the Second Reich and participated as honor guard to the funeral of the Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1888. He earned a number of promotions during his military service including promotion to the post of captain in 1878, major in 1881, lieutenant-colonel in 1891, colonel in 1893, brigadier general in 1897, lieutenant general in 1900 and General der infanterie (lieutenant general) and commander in 1903. He retired from the service of army in 1911 at the age of 64.
World War I
Soon after his retirement, the World War I started in 1914, and he was recalled back in service Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of the General Staff. Assigned with the command of the Eighth Army and promoted to the post of colonel-general, he along with his chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff, and staff officer, Max Hoffmann, led the Eighth Army to its victory in the Battle of Tannenberg and the Battle of the Masurian Lakes against the Russian armies in 1914. These two victories by the Eighth army totally shattered the base of the Russian armies although the Russians fought vigorously till almost the end of year in 1917. Hindenburg with the back-up and support from Ludendorff was able to conduct successful operations in seizing the provinces of Poland and the Baltic region from the Russians. Because of Hindenburg's success in the eastern front of Germany, he was soon promoted to the post of Field Marshal while Ludendorff was promoted to the position of quartermaster general.
Because of his victorious accomplishments in the eastern front, Hindenburg began to be worshipped as a hero and icon of German militarism by the Germans. With his statues built all over Germany during the war, he soon assumed military dictatorship in the whole of Germany and practically became the real commander-in-chief while then Kaiser remained as a nominal figurehead. Hindernburg along with Ludendorff assumed the full control of both industry and labor in mobilizing Germany for the war. In the month of September 1918, when the Hindenburg Line, which was the last line of German troops on the western front of Germany, was breached by the allied forces, Ludendorff, seeking an agreement of truce with the Allies, resigned from the service in protest and wanted Hindenburg to follow suit, but the latter refused on the ground that he could not leave his army at that hour of crisis. Wilhelm Groener, another staff officer, soon replaced the position of Ludendorff, and Hindenburg with Groener's help was able to convince the Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate, and the Wimar Republic was founded. Though Hindenburg was an out and out monarchist, he was forced by the circumstances to swear allegiance to the German Republic.
After the World War I was over, Hindenburg retired from the army again in 1919, but soon he was nominated to run for the presidency of Germany in 1925 and came back to public life. Because of his huge popularity as the war hero, he won the election and became the second German president. However, though he became a German president, he never wanted to lead a public life after his retirement from the military service. He wanted to enjoy his retirement and often bemoaned for having allowed himself to be pressurized into running for the presidency. Upon completing five years as the president of Germany, he wanted to retire from politics, but the coterie of his close advisers including Oskar, Otto Meibner, General Groener and General Kurt Schleicher wanted him to continue in the post of German president. Actually, Oskar, Hindenburg’s elder son, and Schleicher wanted to create a presidential rule in Germany replacing the monarchy, and they knew it was only possible if Hindenburg continued as president of Germany.
Hitler and Paul Von Hindenburg
Hindenburg was the most well-known Field Marshal of Germany for his brilliant victories in the eastern front during the Word War I. Hitler, on the other hand, was a corporal in the western front trenches. Hitler was not a German by birth. He was from Bavaria and was not a German citizen. He was facing a deportation to Austria after the World War I. However, he and his Nazi party slowly but surely started making progress with their radical views. By 1930, it was clear that the Nazi party was a big force in the German politics. In 1930, Hitler first held a minor state post that helped him get the citizenship of Germany.
During the 1930-1931, Bruning government made huge budget cuts and increased taxes at the onset of the Great Depression. These measures made him very unpopular among the cabinet as well as across the nation. Bruning passed most of his laws through the direct intervention of Hindenburg. During that time, Adolf Hitler met the President Hindenburg for the first time in 1931. He met the president to discuss the future of the Nazi party in the politics of Hindenburg’s cabinet. In the very first meeting, both instantly took a dislike of each other. Hindenburg after that meeting mostly referred Hitler as “that Bohemian Corporal” or “the Austrian corporal”. Hitler, on the other hand, often referred Hindenburg as “the old fool” or “the old reactionary”.
In 1932, the seven year presidential term of Hindenburg was coming to an end, and Hindenburg wanted to retire. However, the admirers of Hindenburg convinced him to stay as the president. Hindenburg reluctantly agreed. Bruning went to Hitler and the Nazi leaders to convince them to reelect Hindenburg as the next president without going through the reelection process. Hitler agreed to support Hindenburg’s reelection on one condition that Hindenburg would have to dissolve the Reichstag and hold the reelection. Bruning rejected Hitler’s proposal as he was fearful that a reelection would see a landslide victory of the Nazis. However, on the other hand, Schleicher noticed that Bruning was becoming more and more powerful and wanted to end his government. In the election of March, 1932, Hindenburg emerged with the highest votes against Hitler and another communist candidate in the presidential election. However, nobody got the absolute majority. In the second round of election between Hindenburg and Hitler, Hindenburg won a majority and was reelected as the president. During this time, Schleicher also made sure that Burning was not appointed as the chancellor. Instead Franz von Papen was made the chancellor. However, Papen soon became the more trusted ally of Hindenburg than Schleicher. In the 1932 general elections, the Nazi party emerged as the single largest party in the national elections and entered as the biggest party in the cabinet. After the election, Hitler met Hindenburg and asked Hindenburg for the chancellorship. However, Hindenburg refused to make Hitler the chancellor. He gave the reason that he could not make someone a chancellor holding radical views against people who cherished different views from the Nazis. In response, the Nazi party voted against the Papen government. This vote-of no-confidence forced Hindenburg to dissolve the cabinet and ask for another election in November, 1932. This time the total percentage of vote for the Nazi party reduced from 37% to 32 %.
However, the Nazi party still was the single largest party. After the elections, again multiple fruitless talks took place between Hindenburg and Hitler. Hitler remained adamant that he should be made the chancellor of Germany. Papen asked Hindenburg to declare martial law and take the leadership in his hand. In other words, he wanted to end democracy. However, this time Schleicher, who never liked the rise of Papen, convinced Hindenburg against it, and Papen had to resign in December, 1932. Papen, however, was determined to come back to office and with that intention in mind, he visited Hitler. Papen decided to support Hitler as the chancellor. He thought that he would be able to control Hitler by giving him support from the back. He also convinced Oskar, Hindenburg’s elder son, and Otto Meissner. Thus, they were were able to convince Hindenburg in January, 1933 that Hitler should be made the chancellor of Germany. On 30th January, 1933, 84 years old Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler the chancellor of Germany at the presidential palace.
During 1933, Hitler and his Nazi cabinet played a very supportive role in the cabinet, and in fact, there was almost no conflict with the president during that time. Hitler understood that Hindenburg was a very popular man and going against him would be equivalent to going against the majority of German people. So, he very cleverly started using Hindenburg to pass laws to increase the power of the Nazis. First, he used the Article 48 to pass the Enabling Act to increase the number of seats for the Nazi and DNVP through Hindenburg. Hindenburg at that time was unable to understand the implications of those and also was disinterested. He was also falling ill. Hitler next passed the Reichstag Fire Decree that suspended all the civil liberties including the freedom of newspaper, with the help of Hindenburg.
Hitler was very well aware of the fact that he might be the chancellor and leader of the democratic house, but Hindenburg was his superior who had the complete power over the military. Through the passing of Enabling Act and Reichstag Fire Decree, Hitler made sure that the only way he could be ousted from the government was by Hindenburg. He knew that Hindenburg was aging and going through an array of health problems. He patiently waited for Hindenburg to die. The only bill that was objected by Hindenburg during the Nazi government was the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service”, where Hitler wanted the Jewish civil servants at the Reich be dismissed. By 1934, Hindenburg’s health deteriorated further and Nazi propaganda also increased by manifold. In fact, by the early 1934, Hindenburg understood that the Nazi movements would bring a state of terror in Germany. Papen gave a speech in the University of Marburg calling for an end to the state of terror against Jews and other non-German races to create an environment of freedom. However, his speech was never broadcasted. Papen immediately informed Hindenburg about the incident, and Hindenburg gave an ultimatum to Hitler. Hitler immediately carried out a mission and killed some Anti-Jew extremists. This pleased Hindenburg. However, soon afterwards Hindenburg fell sick and died on 2nd August, 1934 from lung cancer. Immediately after the death of Hindenburg, Hitler passed the "Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich,” and this made Hitler both the President and the chancellor of Germany. The new name of the combined post was “Fuhrer”.
Till the time Hindenburg was alive, he made sure that Hitler could not turn Germany a ground of Nazi dictatorship. However, during the last few years of his presidency, he fell sick and became senile. Hitler knew that it was not long before that the only barrier to his dictatorship, Hindenburg, would die. He waited patiently till the death of Hindenburg. If Hindenburg lived a few more years or if he would have been few years younger, then probably we would have never seen the Nazi reign of terror.
Paul von Hindenburg, the second president of Germany, was a popular war hero who was admired and worshipped by the Germans due to his zealous contribution to the World War I. His birth into an aristocratic Prussian family and his cadetship at Wahlstatt and Berlin had instilled in him discipline, love for the war field and physical and mental strength. Throughout his military career, he enjoyed a number of prestigious duties and rose to the pinnacle of military post as General der infanterie (lieutenant general) 8 years prior to his retirement in 1911. After the World War I started in 1914, he was recalled back in service and during the war he along with the help of his deputy Ludendorff fought the Russian armies gallantly bringing glorious victories in the eastern front of Germany. He amassed immense popularity as a war hero during this time and became the president of Germany when he ran for the election in 1925. However, during the second term of his presidency, due to his failing health and old age, his close advisors took advantage of him and Hitler using the circumstances in his favor rose to power. Hindenburg was an important figure who, had he been few years younger and able-bodied, would have been able to thwart the rise of the Nazis and Hitler.
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