Paul von Hindenburg, the last German president before Hitler’s Third Reich took over, was the man who was never allowed to retire. Born 2 October 1847 into an aristocratic Prussian family, he had had a successful if not spectacular career in the army, decorated in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and then, aged 64, retired in 1911.
But with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Hindenburg was recalled to service. With Erich Ludendorff as his deputy, he scored an impressive double victory on the Eastern Front against the Russians at the Battles of Tanneburg and Mausaurian Lakes (August and September 1914). But a total victory against the Russians was not forthcoming which Hindenburg blamed entirely on his counterpart on the Western Front and the German Army’s Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, and his excessive need for troops.
Chief of Staff
In August 1916, Hindenburg replaced Falkenhayn as Chief of Staff. Ludendorff, in theory, remained his deputy but in practice became more of a partner – all orders were issued under their joint names. With the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, increasingly sidelined during the war, the duo ran a virtual military regime. Hindenburg implemented Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, allowing his subs to attack civilian as well as military targets; dictated the harsh terms of the Treaty of Brest Litoski, in which Russia, having rid itself of its Tsar, Nicholas II, accepted defeat in the war under instruction from its new leader, Vladimir Lenin; and helped Ludendorff launch Germany’s last throw of the dice against the Allies, the Spring Offensive of 1918.
Although the Spring Offensive yielded some spectacular results for Germany, it was unable to maintain the momentum and by the autumn of 1918, it was facing defeat. In order to accept an armistice, the Allies, in particular US president, Woodrow Wilson, demanded the abdication of the German Kaiser.
On 9 November, Hindenburg, accompanied by Ludendorff’s successor, Wilhelm Groener, visited the Kaiser who had bolted to army headquarters in the Belgium town of Spa. Hindenburg, a monarchist at heart, bowed his head in shame and left Groener to do the talking. The Kaiser remained defiant until the news came through – Germany had proclaimed itself a republic and had passed the chancellorship to the Social Democrat, Friedrich Ebert. Thus, on 9 November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated; the 500-year rule of the Hohenzollern dynasty had come to an end. The Kaiser fled to the Netherlands and into exile, never again to step on German soil. Two days later, Germany signed the armistice and the First World War was at an end.
Retiring for a second time in 1919, Hindenburg was again prised back when he was persuaded to accept the presidency of the Weimar Republic following Ebert’s, the republic’s inaugural president, death in 1925. In July 1932, still convinced that Germany would be better served with a monarch, and still wanting to retire, Hindenburg was again persuaded to stand for re-election as the only alternative to the rising popularity of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Hindenburg won two elections, July and November 1932, narrowly defeating Hitler in both.
Hindenburg and Hitler
Despite the growing popularity of the Nazis, Hindenburg initially resisted calls to invite Hitler into his coalition government, saying, ‘That man a Chancellor? I’ll make him a postmaster and he can lick stamps with my head on them.’
However, persuaded by his chancellor, Franz von Papen, he relented. Von Papen, realising that the Nazis were a menace, argued that it would be better to have Hitler within the government, where he could be contained, than causing mischief from outside. Thus on 30 January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Increasingly senile, Hindenburg took little active part in the affairs of state while von Papen soon realised the folly of his logic.
Following the Reichstag Fire on 27 February 1933, a month after Hitler’s appointment, blamed as the work of the communists, Hitler manipulated Hindenburg into suspending the constitution until the threat to the country was restored (a measure that was never revoked).
Then, having done away with the constitution and, with the passing of the Enabling Act, the Reichstag, the Nazis established the first concentration camps, bullied its opponents, banned all political parties but its own, and suppressed freedom of speech. When Hitler’s comrade and former friend, Ernst Rohm, and his SA, threatened to contest Hitler’s supremacy and ignite a power struggle, Hindenburg encouraged Hitler to act decisively. On the night of 30 June 1934, on what became known as the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler purged the SA and had Rohm killed. Hindenburg congratulated his chancellor for having acted so swiftly. (Von Papen was lucky not to have been one of its victims).
But Hitler still could not assume full, dictatorial power – not until the frail president died. Hindenburg duly obliged, dying aged 86 on 2 August 1934. The night before Hitler visited him and the old man, now totally senile and mistaking Hitler for the old Kaiser, called him “your majesty”.
Hindenburg was buried at Tanneburg, the scene of his greatest triumph, until 1946, when his body was re-interred in the town of Marburg.