The appointments of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg to command of the German army and his Chief of Staff, Erich Ludendorff, as the force’s First Quartermaster General on 29 August 1916 opened a new phase of the Central Powers’ war. The two soldiers had reached the apex of their profession through martial skill, a fair bit of luck and a large dose of intrigue. Thanks to their victories on the Eastern Front and a carefully cultivated public image, they enjoyed the faith of the people. At a time when Kaiser Wilhelm II had receded from public view and most Reich institutions were losing credibility, this gave them immense influence. The duo’s programme was victory, no matter what the cost. Germany’s war effort under them was stamped by a new ruthlessness. For both men, military necessity trumped any humanitarian scruple. As Ludendorff frankly admitted looking back at the period of the Third OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung), the German Army High Command, ‘in all the measures we took, the exigencies of war alone proved the decisive factor’.

Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, aged sixty-eight when he became Chief of the General Staff, was the most revered personality in the German-speaking world by 1916. For most of the Reich’s inhabitants, he was the man who single-handedly had saved the country from the ravages of the Tsar’s hordes in August 1914. With the victory at Tannenberg, he had become a national treasure overnight. The immortalization of his person in Berlin’s enormous nail figure in 1915 was an imposing mark of how completely he had usurped the Kaiser as the symbol of Germany’s war effort. Tremendous faith was placed in the man: ‘Our Hindenburg,’ the German public repeated to itself at times of crisis, ‘will sort it out.’ His name, which summoned up visions of a medieval castle, its sturdy walls standing immovable against all assaults, suited his physical bulk. At six foot five inches, he was a very tall man, with a square head like a block of masonry mounted on broad shoulders. He looked like nothing could shake him, an impression amplified by his legendary calm and resolution. It was also exaggerated by propaganda; Hindenburg took great pains about his public image. Renowned artists and sculptors were invited to his headquarters to promote his fame and he maintained close relations with the press. He was undoubtedly vain, yet he was also acutely aware of the power conferred by his popular following. He was no mere symbol or cipher but a highly political general, sure of what he wished to achieve but content to leave the details to competent subordinates. The political capital gained from his personality cult gave him a unique chance to impose radical change on how not just Germany’s army but the whole society waged war.

Erich Ludendorff, Hindenburg’s First Quartermaster General and right-hand man, was a very different personality. He was a master of minutiae, and a compulsive workaholic. Whereas his chief could be good company, charming visitors to the Field Army’s headquarters with a relaxed manner and dry wit, Ludendorff was cold, highly strung and utterly humourless. Since joining a cadet institution at the tender age of thirteen in 1877, he had made the army his life, and had struggled against the disadvantages of his bourgeois roots to become one of the force’s most respected, if not liked, General Staff officers. His concern to harness Germany’s manpower for military needs had found early expression in 1912–13, when with Moltke (the then Chief of the General Staff) he had pressed for a vast increase in the size of the army. At that time under Ludendorff’s influence, Moltke had insisted that ‘our political and geographical position makes it necessary to ready all available strength for a fight which will determine the existence or nonexistence of the German Reich’. In the summer of 1916, as battle raged on all fronts, the same thought obsessed Ludendorff. The Entente’s vast outlay of men and materiel during the Somme offensive had impressed on him with ‘pitiless clarity’ the urgent need for a drastic remobilization. The new First Quartermaster General had no respect for the customary division between ‘political’ and ‘military’ spheres within the Reich’s government, which was hopelessly ill-suited to the all-embracing conditions of a gruelling war of endurance. With the Kaiser incapable of coordination and the civilian government under attack from the right and increasingly discredited by the food shortages, the army, its prestige still intact, was the institution with the best chance of providing some unity to a fragmented war effort. However, Ludendorff’s narrow military expertise and arch-conservative instincts had failed to equip him with an understanding of the complexity of German society or to negotiate its competing interests. What emerges from his memoirs, besides arrogance, patent exculpation and obdurate blindness to the great responsibility that he bore for his nation’s defeat, is not a sense of power, but rather uncomprehending frustration at how the plans of the Third OHL were thwarted at every turn by political realities.

Characteristically, the new OHL’s programme for German remobilization had, as its starting point, the army. To counter enemy material superiority, the force would need to be upgraded. Ludendorff had encountered the elite storm troops in September 1916. Impressed, a month later he ordered the establishment of similar battalions within each army, and in December new tactical instructions for defensive warfare were issued based on their techniques and on analysis of the recent campaigns. To veterans of the Somme and Verdun, there was little novel in these instructions; lessons learned had been circulated throughout the force during the fighting, and many units had already embraced small-group fighting techniques through necessity, as by the end of the battles sturdy purpose-built lines had been lost or destroyed, leaving troops dispersed in shell-hole defences. Yet to meet the new challenges, the force required not just the institutionalization of the growing emphasis on teamwork and individual initiative but also extensive rearmament. The Third OHL wanted to treble artillery and machine-gun production. The numbers of trench mortars, weapons that gave the combat groups their own close support, were to be doubled. With the memory still fresh of the anguished cries for more shells from front-line formations on the Somme, it was also decided to double munitions output. All this was to be achieved by May 1917, when a new Entente offensive could be expected. To realize these targets, and their military vision, Germany’s new army leaders had to intervene heavily in their country’s industry and society. The ensuing industrial and propaganda drive was christened the ‘Hindenburg Programme’.

The Third OHL wasted no time in pushing for the total mobilization of German strength for the war effort. Already on 31 August 1916, Colonel Max Bauer, the arms procurement expert who worked closely with Ludendorff, had completed a memorandum for the War Ministry outlining the disadvantageous material and manpower position of the Reich’s army and stressing that ‘men . . . must be more and more substituted for by machines.’ Two weeks later, the Third OHL sent concrete proposals to Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg. To accelerate production, Ludendorff and Hindenburg regarded administrative reform as essential: the management of the war economy would have to be centralized. More fundamentally, as industrialists had stressed to the new leaders, any rise in the output of armaments would depend on bringing workers into the weapons factories. The army was prepared to furlough skilled workers to help with the armaments drive. Yet new sources of labour would also have to be found and mobilized.

The prime administrative innovation introduced by the Third OHL for the purposes of economic remobilization was the Supreme War Office (Kriegsamt), at the head of which was installed the personable south German railway expert, General Wilhelm Groener. The new body came into existence on 1 November 1916. In part, it was a product of bureaucratic infighting. Ludendorff and Hindenburg regarded the War Ministry, whose agencies had been responsible for weapons and munitions procurement, with disdain. Although the Supreme War Office was situated within the War Ministry, Groener in practice answered to Ludendorff. Nonetheless, the reorganization was also a genuine attempt to move closer to a functioning command economy. The new office was, at its upper levels, organized on military lines for decisive decision-making, while a more conventional bureaucratic structure, with six major departments, operated below. The War Ministry’s responsibilities for labour, arms and clothing procurement, as well as for the War Raw Materials Section, the Food Section and imports and exports, all passed into its remit. Eminent scientists, economic experts and industrialists filled its technical staff, who were tasked with planning and advising its chief. The ability of the Supreme War Office to coordinate the Reich’s economy was greatly facilitated by the new right to issue orders to Prussian deputy commanding generals in the home military districts. This right was conferred on the War Ministry and devolved by a new War Minister, installed at the behest of the Third OHL, to the Supreme War Office. The allocation of manpower and material to the army and industry could finally be rationally planned and centralized, instead of being at the whim of regional military commanders with no economic training and subject to local pressures.

The Supreme War Office was, nonetheless, not the coordinating institution for which Ludendorff and Groener had wished. The new War Minister, Hermann von Stein, was Ludendorff’s man, but when faced by Groener’s over-mighty office within his own Ministry, his bureaucratic territorial instincts were kindled and he resisted all attempts to rein in the powers of the deputy commanding generals. There were conflicts too with civil authorities, most notably the Prussian Interior Office, which defended their own administrative jurisdictions. Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg refused to subordinate their institutions to any Prussian administrative body, and accordingly set up their own parallel war offices within their war ministries. Moreover, the Supreme War Office was itself no paragon of efficiency. Its weird half-military, half-bureaucratic structure led to much duplication of effort and confusion. So great was the flood of competing directives issued by his staff chiefs and departmental heads that Groener found it necessary at one point to impose a two-week hiatus. Yet even had the War Office been rationally organized and not at the centre of bureaucratic infighting, it could never have sponsored an industrial resurgence capable of meeting the fantastical aims of the Third OHL.

The Hindenburg Programme was doomed by the entirely arbitrary nature of its targets. Ludendorff and others would later stress the partly propagandistic motivation for the plan; the order to double or, in some cases, triple weapons production certainly added drama to the inception of the Third OHL. Yet, as Groener reflected, it was no way to run a war economy. The War Ministry, whose efforts to procure munitions were disdained by the Third OHL, had sensibly used the production of explosive powder as a basis for its armaments planning. After the first shortages of autumn 1914, it had established an incremental programme to increase powder manufacture, in the first instance to 3,500 tons. The target had been raised in February 1915 to 6,000 tons per month, an output finally reached in July 1916. The Somme battle prompted the War Ministry to increase its target further, to a monthly quantity of 10,000 tons of powder, to be achieved by May 1917. For the sake of an extra 2,000 tons and some striking press headlines, the Third OHL tore up these carefully calibrated plans. The result was, predictably, a disaster. The Hindenburg Programme, unlike the War Ministry’s scheme, needed to create new capacity to fulfil its goals, and consequently diverted scarce materials and manpower to constructing factories, some of which could not be completed. The programme overstrained both the Reich’s railways and its coal supply. Combined with freezing weather that iced up the canals, the programme thus contributed substantially to the shortages and misery of the German population during the ‘turnip winter’. It also added to civilians’ woes by fuelling inflation: the Third OHL cut back on foreign-currency-earning steel exports and, in attempting to incentivize greater output, abandoned the War Ministry’s careful housekeeping and offered armaments manufacturers generous profits. Paper currency in circulation proliferated. Remarkably, powder and guns were not linked in its programme, so if the targets had been achieved, there would have been a mismatch. However, the disruption meant that output never came close to being realized. Steel production was actually lower in February 1917 than six months earlier. Powder manufacture also suffered. Not until October 1917 did Germany produce 10,000 tons of powder in a month. The OHL would have been better off sticking to the War Ministry’s paced plan.

The Hindenburg Programme’s most significant feature was undoubtedly its aspiration to change the moral basis of Germany’s war effort. Labour was desperately needed. Even under the War Ministry’s armaments plan, there was a shortfall of between 300,000 and 400,000 workers. The Third OHL’s drive raised the need to between two and three million extra men. The army released 125,000 skilled workers from the front. A ruthless cull of industries not producing directly for the war effort was undertaken, diverting their manpower into the armaments sector. Small, less efficient factories were closed on a large scale in 1917, to redirect both manpower and scarce resources. In Prussia, the 75,012 plants registered in 1913 had shrunk to 53,583 by 1918. However, at the core of Ludendorff and Bauer’s scheme was a desire to gain total control over the labour force. Hitherto, the Burgfrieden had informed the home authorities’ policy towards labour. The government and deputy commanding generals had, for minor concessions, gained the voluntary cooperation of Socialists and trade unions. Now, much more coercive methods were to be adopted. In a letter to the Chancellor on 13 September, the Third OHL proposed among other measures that the upper limit for military service should be extended from forty-five to fifty years of age (a rise implemented by the Austro-Hungarians already in early 1915), and that a new war performance law should be introduced permitting workers to be transferred to armaments factories and making war work compulsory, even for women. All university departments except medicine should, it was argued, be shut down. The extent of the new army leaders’ radicalism was best encapsulated by Hindenburg’s chilling admonition to organize on the basis that ‘he who does not work shall not eat’.

There is little evidence that, had the Third OHL had its way, Germany’s economic performance would have been improved. Austria was also inducted into the Hindenburg Programme; Article 4 of its 1912 War Law had permitted the conscription of all able-bodied individuals not in the army, and Article 6 held labourers at their place of work. Yet in spite of this coercive legislation and although 454 million crowns were paid out to build or expand factories, Austrian arms production actually declined in the second half of 1917. In the Reich, civilian leaders were totally opposed to the OHL’s plans for compulsory civilian mobilization. The State Secretary of the Interior, Karl Helfferich, objected that attempts to force women to work were superfluous, as more women were already seeking employment than were offered positions. Any attempt to introduce compulsion, he rightly feared, would be ruinous to the ‘willing and enthusiastic collaboration’ that workers had largely displayed during the Burgfrieden. The War Ministry too was hostile, doubted that raising the age of military service to fifty would make much difference and stressed that inner conviction, not coercion, must motivate workers. Ludendorff’s response was simply to raise his demands and argue that all men from fifteen to sixty years old be given a military obligation. Most notable, and problematic, was the Third OHL’s insistence that the measures should be passed as a law and thus legitimized by the Reichstag. The Prussian government, well aware that deputies were fractious as a result of the ineptitude of the official food management and abuses by deputy commanding generals of the Law of Siege, and aware of how controversial the law’s provisions would be, regarded this as a grave error. Yet Hindenburg and Ludendorff brushed all reservations aside blindly. ‘The Reichstag,’ they asserted, ‘will not deny passage to this bill when it is made clear that the war cannot be won without the help of such a law.’

What became the Patriotic Auxiliary Service Bill was drawn up by Groener, whose Supreme War Office would control and allocate the nation’s captive manpower. Groener was a reasonable man. Unlike Hindenburg and Ludendorff he had worked on the home front and knew the dire conditions there. He was prepared to compromise with the proletariat’s representatives, recognizing that ‘we can never win this war by fighting against the workers’. His draft took account of civilian criticism. The extension of military service for fifteen to sixty year olds had mutated into a new obligation, Patriotic Auxiliary Service, which comprised war work of all sorts, in government offices and agriculture as well as in war industry. Only men were subject to this new duty; Hindenburg’s demand for women too to be obligated was abandoned. In keeping with the Third OHL’s wishes, the draft bill was short and general, but implicit in its statement that ‘at the command of the War Minister’ males of fifteen to sixty could ‘be called upon to perform Patriotic Auxiliary Service’ was the radical new power to transfer labour and restrict its free movement. Although Ludendorff pushed for immediate implementation, passing such a change through the Reichstag required extensive consultation. The civil authorities were not prepared to relinquish all control and added clauses granting the Bundesrat, the house representing the federal states of Germany, oversight of the decrees issued by the Supreme War Office in implementing the law and the right to revoke it. Ministers also rejected a provision for compulsory military training for adolescents over fifteen and they raised the lower boundary of obligation for Patriotic Auxiliary Service to seventeen years old. After meetings with industrialists and trade union representatives, guidelines were also added detailing how the bill should be implemented. To reassure the left, these included provision for arbitration committees with worker representation, which would mediate when an employee wished to leave his job but his employer would not grant a ‘leaving certificate’. The intention was to pass the bill through the Bundesrat, and then take it to the Reichstag Steering Committee, where party representatives would haggle with Groener and Helfferich over its contents behind closed doors. Once agreement was reached, it was hoped the bill would in short order receive thunderous acceptance in the Reichstag, sending a powerful message of unity and will to continue the struggle and placing Germany’s war effort on a new, more efficient and controlled basis.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff were in for a rude shock. Social Democratic, Centre and Progressive deputies in the Reichstag and its Steering Committee did not share the Third OHL’s vision of a suborned command economy and were unwilling to place unconditional trust in the hands of the military or government. The heavily revised bill accepted by the parliament on 2 December and signed into law by the Kaiser three days later was very different from the generals’ intentions. In contrast to Groener’s concise and general early draft, the long text was filled with concessions to the workers and their institutions; Ludendorff later denounced ‘the form in which the Bill was passed’ as ‘equivalent to a failure’. The disgruntled Helfferich complained similarly that ‘one could almost say the Social Democrats, Poles, Alsatians and the trade union secretaries made the law.’ For the conservative soldiers and statesmen, it was deeply worrying that the Reichstag had forced through a demand to set up a special committee of fifteen of its members to supervise the implementation of the Auxiliary Service Law, and even more so that general regulations would need their consent. Many industrialists, looking forward to having a captive workforce at their disposal, making planning easier and undermining employees’ ability to bargain for higher wages, were dismayed to find workers’ committees and conciliation agencies foisted on any factory with over fifty personnel. The trade unions had come closer to achieving a long-standing aim of forcing employers to recognize and parley with them. Perhaps worst of all, the primary objective of reducing worker mobility, a precondition for the central management of manpower resources, had to a large degree been thwarted. The left had spotted the potential for huge profits for industrialists, and had insisted that workers too should have the opportunity to better their lot. In consequence, although theoretically war workers were fixed to their employment, the prospect of ‘a suitable improvement of working conditions’ was explicitly acknowledged to be a valid justification to switch jobs.

The Third OHL’s attempt to remobilize Germany on a new basis of compulsion and control was thus a resounding failure. Ludendorff showed great naivety in imagining that a law limiting labour’s freedoms would be accepted without demand for compensation. He disowned the final Patriotic Auxiliary Service Law as ‘not merely insufficient, but positively harmful’; it was, he self-servingly argued, a manifestation of the weakness of civil authorities and avarice of the political left that ultimately cost the Reich victory. Yet the real issue for Ludendorff was that he had been thwarted and the forces of democracy and Socialism had received a boost. The Reichstag committee’s oversight of the law, the cooperation between the SPD and centrist bourgeois parties and the imposition of arbitration committees in which workers sat in judgement alongside employers were deeply disturbing for conservatives. Their claims, backed by some historians, that the Auxiliary Service Law undermined the war effort generally lack a firm basis in evidence. The increase in strikes in 1917 was a response to deteriorating social circumstances rather than the altered employment conditions under the new law, and the complaint that the law increased labour turnover appears doubtful. By contrast, the law was extremely successful in freeing up military manpower by substituting fit workers with men liable for auxiliary service. Crucially, the concessions made also kept the trade unions invested in the imperial regime and assured their cooperation; an invaluable achievement, especially given the tumultuousness of 1917. Attempting to militarize the workforce regardless of all other interests would inevitably have led to disaster. In a war that could only be fought with the consent of the people, the compromise and concessions of the Patriotic Auxiliary Service Law were Germany’s best hope of holding out.