Hindenburg and Ludendorff at Tannenberg (painting by Hugo Vogel)
Fully expecting a short war, Paul von Hindenburg paced restlessly in Hanover as seven German armies swept into France, Luxembourg, and Belgium in August. As the Schlieffen Plan unfolded in the west, Russia mobilized weeks earlier than predicted and in mid-August invaded East Prussia with two armies. The cry of Kossaken kommen! sent tens of thousands of villagers onto the roads, no matter that the Russian army’s actual Cossacks were on the whole thoroughly domesticated: often no more than farm boys mounted on plow horses, with officers who wore glasses and sported paunches. Nevertheless, the image of savages who raped, killed, and plundered at will was strong enough that even officers groveled for their lives when they fell into Cossack hands.
Streams of German refugees reached near flood tide when the Russian First Army, the northern arm of the invasion’s pincers, administered a sharp local defeat to the Germans at Gumbinnen on August 20. When the German Eighth Army’s commanding general and his chief of staff suggested a general withdrawal to the west bank of the Vistula, a panicky Moltke the Younger sacked them. Moltke and the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, or Army High Command) then had to select a new command team to stabilize Germany’s eastern front.
Moltke’s selection of Erich Ludendorff as the new chief of staff of the Eighth Army was easily made. Ludendorff had overseen the general staff’s prewar blueprint for mobilization until outspoken advocacy of army expansion landed him in political hot water. Exiled to a socially second-rate regimental command in the industrial city of Düsseldorf, when war came he distinguished himself within days. Attached as deputy chief of staff to the Second Army, Ludendorff assumed command of a leaderless brigade, stormed the Belgian fortress of Liege, and boldly demanded its surrender by hammering on the citadel’s door with the hilt of his sword. For this act the Kaiser decorated the “hero of Liege” with the Pour le Mérite (the coveted Blue Max). Audacious and technically brilliant though Ludendorff was, he was known to be a hothead; he suffered from nerves when plans went awry; and his social origins were not quite top-drawer. Ludendorff would make an excellent chief of staff, Moltke concluded, but someone higher ranking was needed to take command and provide stability and aristocratic presence.
As Moltke debated the choice, a distant relative of Hindenburg attached to OHL recalled that Hindenburg stood ready in Hanover, conveniently centered on a major rail line. The telegram went forth, the retired general replied “Ready,” and a special two-car train carrying Ludendorff from Coblenz made a stopover at Hanover in the early morning hours of August 23. Lacking a regulation field gray uniform, Hindenburg improvised with black trousers and a peacetime Prussian blue tunic let out by his wife to accommodate a postretirement paunch. Ludendorff stepped forward, saluted his oddly garbed commander, and stood respectfully aside as the newly promoted Generaloberst (colonel general) bid adieu to his wife. Together Hindenburg and Ludendorff readied themselves for the journey to East Prussia. It was their first meeting and the beginning of a remarkable strategic partnership.
Hindenburg’s new chief of staff was born on April 9, 1865, two days after Hindenburg had been commissioned a second lieutenant. Son of a bourgeois father and an aristocratic mother, Ludendorff reflected the new wave of general staff officers distinguished more by military proficiency than by aristocratic lineage. He was, in Basil Liddell Hart’s telling phrase, a “robot Napoleon.” He had Napoleon’s work ethic, endurance, and capacious mind, but none of his charisma or inspirational qualities. Peering through a monocle, a sternly self-important expression animating a bulky and somewhat flaccid frame, Ludendorff in peacetime had moved expertly from crisis to crisis. Irascible, humorless, indefatigable, he was the stereotype of a Prussian officer. His main flaw was unbridled ambition. Subordinates respected him but feared his sarcastic tongue and dictatorial ways. In his unrefined bossiness and mastery of minutiae, he was the antithesis of what the Kaiser looked for in his senior officers (der Feldwebel, or that sergeant major, the Kaiser was heard to call him), but no one else in August 1914 had Ludendorff’s combination of tactical skill, operational insight, and boundless energy.
On the train Ludendorff summarized the military situation in East Prussia. After half an hour, Hindenburg nodded his agreement and then set the standard for their relationship by calmly going to sleep. As Hindenburg explained in his memoirs, there was little they could do until they reached Eighth Army headquarters at Marienburg. Hindenburg’s calm confidence reassured the excitable Ludendorff. Already these men had begun to form a symbiotic relationship.
In their postwar memoirs, both men celebrated the Hegelian synthesis they had forged during the war. Ludendorff gushed that he and the field marshal had worked together “like one man, in the most perfect harmony.” Hindenburg’s account was more measured and telling. He described their bond as a “happy marriage” in which they became “one in thought and action.” More to the point, Hindenburg admitted that he gave “free scope to the intellectual powers, the almost superhuman capacity for work and untiring resolution” of his “brother warrior.” That last phrase suggests the most appropriate trope for their relationship. Hindenburg was like an older, shrewder, but less gifted, brother who, as the war progressed, found himself eclipsed by the unbounded ambition of a younger sibling.
At first the older comrade provided much needed stiffening to the younger. Recalled to active duty at the age of sixty-seven, Hindenburg had little left to prove. Having already served with distinction during the German wars of unification, he only wanted to be of service for a week, a month, or however long it took Germany to win this war. Having assiduously studied the geography of East Prussia and having been committed since the 1890s to the idea of repulsing a Russian offensive with aggressive counterattacks, he quickly grasped and approved Ludendorff’s concepts for redeploying the Eighth Army.
Arriving at Eighth Army headquarters in the late afternoon, Hindenburg’s commanding physical presence and emotional imperturbability proved a tonic. Few commanders possessed the force of will to steady not only an inexperienced army whose previous commander and chief of staff had been summarily cashiered, but also a skillful but anxious chief of staff whose imagination plagued him with paralyzing visions of catastrophic defeat and failure. Teaming with Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Max Hoffmann, a highly capable and equally arrogant officer of the army staff, Hindenburg and Ludendorff confirmed plans to concentrate Eighth Army’s strength against the Russians advancing from the south.
Facilitated by the Russians’ failure to follow up their victory at Gumbinnen, the Germans took advantage of their road and railroad networks to bring the equivalent of five army corps against a Russian Second Army suffering from overextension and disrupted communications. On August 27, First Corps crushed the Russian left wing. Two more corps, reaching their positions by hard marching in the brutal August heat, drove in the Russian right. The Russian commander sought to restore the situation by attacking forward with the five divisions of his center and came closer to success than is generally realized. By the evening of August 28, however, German forces advancing on the flanks had closed an unbreakable circle around the Russians.
Victory, the saying goes, has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan. After the fact, many self-proclaimed “victors of Tannenberg” stepped forward. But as Hindenburg himself noted, only he would have taken the blame if the battle had gone the other way. Tannenberg was Hindenburg’s victory. He knew what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. By restoring calm at headquarters, he created an environment in which officers could get on with their jobs. Meddling or micromanaging was simply not his way. Instead, he provided the force of command by holding his nerve and calling Russia’s bluff. An overly ambitious Russian advance, launched prematurely to aid France, was almost fated to fail if German forces moved expeditiously to outflank and outmaneuver their less mobile Russian counterparts. Tannenberg was nevertheless a stunning victory. It marked the destruction of the Russian Second Army, the suicide of its commander, and the capture of ninety-two thousand men and nearly four hundred guns. Yet, it did not even come near to driving Russia from the war-Schlieffen’s criterion for decisive victory. In this it was ironically similar to the Carthaginian victory at Cannae, which only reconfirmed Rome’s determination to resist. Tannenberg’s legacies were nonetheless important. Together with the victory over the Russian First Army at Masurian Lakes in September, it reinvigorated a German war effort seeking to cope with a conflict of unexpected length and dimensions. Even more importantly, Tannenberg created a new national hero.
Paul von Hindenburg reached maturity as the Second Reich emerged triumphantly from the Franco-Prussian War. As Germany sought to cohere as a nation-state in fin de siecle Europe while simultaneously reaching out for its own imperial place in the sun, the Junker-dominated officer corps in which Hindenburg proudly served provided the glue that enabled Wilhelm II to maintain a semiauthoritarian rule into the twentieth century. In return, Hindenburg and his brother officers earned the enviable status that came with serving in imperial Germany’s most visible and admired institution, an army that had earned its spurs by producing decisive victories on the battlefield. Even professors were known to flaunt reserve commissions and when introduced, chose to have their military rank announced first, academic credentials second.
Hindenburg’s retirement in 1911 marked a fitting end to a respectable military career. It certainly did not weaken the feudal bond he felt to his liege lord, the Kaiser. Recalled to active duty in the opening weeks of the war, Hindenburg won acclaim and celebrity with impressive victories at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes. With Ludendorff by his side, in two years Hindenburg rose from command of an army, to field marshal and overlord of Germany’s eastern front, and eventually to chief of the imperial general staff. By 1917 these men became virtual military dictators of Germany, and by extension Austria-Hungary as well as Germany took over a faltering Hapsburg war effort.
Excessive power and near-universal adulation exposed Hindenburg’s shortcomings. The wooden statues that became his wartime symbol unintentionally captured a certain woodenness of character. Strength and fortitude Hindenburg possessed; dexterity and breadth of vision he did not. Effective as an army commander, he was out of his depth as a coalition commander and especially as a soldier-statesman. Rejecting negotiated settlements to the war as dishonorable and pusillanimous, Hindenburg and Ludendorff agreed that all-out offensives in every sphere, military, political, and intellectual, were the answer. Unrestricted submarine warfare, however, failed and inexorably dragged the United States into the war, restoring the morale of faltering Entente forces. Meanwhile, overweening ambition in the east prevented concentration of force in the west. Bewilderment and strategic overstretch combined to produce all-or-nothing attacks on the western front from March to July 1918 that ended in exhaustion and widespread disillusionment on both the battlefront and the home front.
Together, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had failed to honor their promises to the soldiers wearing field gray, ultimately betraying their trust. Instead of taking their share of the blame, Hindenburg and Ludendorff sought scapegoats. Defeat marked an acrimonious split of the so-called marriage between these men. Recrimination and betrayal replaced cooperation and mutual respect. Their bitter divorce was a minor, if telling, manifestation of the totality of the Second Reich’s moral collapse.