making worse

Paul von Hindenburg

[hin-duhn-burg; Ger. hin-duhn-boork]

Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg known universally as Paul von Hindenburg (October 2, 1847August 2, 1934) was a German field marshal and statesman.

Hindenburg enjoyed a long if undistinguished career in the Prussian army, eventually retiring in 1911. He was recalled at the outbreak of the First World War, and first came to national attention, at the age of sixty-six, as the victor at Tannenberg in 1914. As Germany's Chief of the General Staff from 1916, he and his deputy, Erich Ludendorff, rose in the German public's esteem until Hindenburg came to eclipse the Kaiser himself. Hindenburg retired again in 1919, but returned to public life one more time in 1925 to be elected as the second President of Germany.

Though 84 years old and in poor health, Hindenburg was obliged to run for re-election in 1932 as the only candidate who could defeat Adolf Hitler, which he did in a runoff. In his second term as President, he did what he could to oppose the Nazi Party's rise to power, but was eventually obliged to appoint Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933. In March he signed the Enabling Act of 1933 which gave special powers to Hitler's government. Hindenburg died the next year, after which Hitler declared the office of President vacant and made himself the "Führer", or the combination of the president and chancellor.

The famed zeppelin Hindenburg that was destroyed by fire in 1937 had been named in his honour, as is the Hindenburgdamm, a causeway joining the island of Sylt to mainland Schleswig-Holstein that was built during his time in office.

German army

Hindenburg was born in Posen, Prussia (since 1919 Poznań, Poland) on Podgorna street, the son of Prussian aristocrat Robert von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (1816 – 1902) and wife Luise Schwickart (1807 – 1893), the daughter of medical doctor Karl Ludwig Schwickart and wife Julie Moennich. Hindenburg was embarrassed by his mother's non-aristocratic background, and for this reason hardly mentioned her at all in his memoirs. His paternal lineage is known to be one of the oldest and most distinguished in all of Germany. His younger brothers and sister were Otto, born August 24, 1849, Ida, born December 19, 1851, and Bernhard, born January 17, 1859. His paternal grandparents were Otto Ludwig von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (1778 – July 18, 1855), by whom he was still a remote descendant from the illegitimate daughter of Count Heinrich VI of Waldeck, and wife Eleonore von Brederlow (d. February 18, 1863). He was also a direct descendant of Martin Luther and wife Katharina von Bora, through his daughter Margareta Luther.

After his education at Wahlstatt (now Legnickie Pole) and Berlin cadet schools, he fought in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). Hindenburg was selected for prestigious duties: serving the widow of king Frederick William IV of Prussia, being present - as one of a group of young officers decorated for bravery in battle, who had been chosen to represent their regiments - in the Palace of Versailles when the German Empire was proclaimed on 18 January 1871, and as Honor Guard prior to the Military funeral of Emperor William I in 1888.

Hindenburg remained in the army, eventually commanding a corps and being promoted to General of Infantry (equivalent to a British or US lieutenant-general; the German equivalent to four-star rank was Colonel-General) in 1903. Meanwhile, he married Gertrud von Sperling, also an aristocrat, by whom he had two daughters, Irmengard Pauline (1880) and Annemaria (1891), and one son, Oskar (1883).

World War I

Hindenburg retired from the army for the first time in 1910, but was recalled shortly after the outbreak of World War I in 1914 by the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke. Hindenburg was given command of the Eighth Army, then locked in combat with the First and Second Russian armies in East Prussia; after defeat by the Russian First Army at Gumbinnen, Hindenburg's predecessor Maximilian von Prittwitz had been planning to abandon East Prussia and retreat behind the Vistula.

Hindenburg's Eighth Army was victorious in the Battle of Tannenberg and the Battle of the Masurian Lakes against the Russian armies. Although historians attach much of the credit to Erich Ludendorff and to the then little-known staff officer Max Hoffmann, these successes made Hindenburg a national hero.

At the start of November 1914 Hindenburg was given the position of Supreme Commander East (Ober-Ost) – although at this stage his authority only extended over the German, not the Austro-Hungarian, portion of the front – and units were transferred from East Prussia to form a new Ninth Army in south-western Poland. Later in November 1914, after the battle of Lodz, Hindenburg was promoted to the rank of field marshal. A further battle was fought by the Eighth and newly-formed Tenth Armies in Masuria that winter. (Ober-Ost) eventually consisted of the German Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Armies, plus other assorted corps.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff felt that more effort should be made on the Eastern Front in order to defeat Russia, although ironically the most spectacular victory of 1915, the Gorlice-Tarnów Offensive, was won by Mackensen's German Eleventh Army fighting on the Austro-Hungarian sector rather than as part of Hindenburg's command. By contrast Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the General Staff, felt that it was impossible for Germany to win a decisive victory, hoped that Russia might be encouraged to drop out of the war if not pressed too hard, and in 1916 unleashed an offensive at Verdun designed to "bleed France white" and encourage her to make peace.

Though Hindenburg was only average in terms of military ability, he had a team of talented and able subordinates who won him a series of great victories on the Eastern Front between 1914-1916. These victories transformed Hindenburg into Germany's most popular man. During the war, Hindenburg was the subject of an enormous personality cult. He was seen as the perfect embodiment of German manly honor, rectitude, decency and strength. The appeal of the Hindenburg cult cut across ideological, religious, class and regional lines, but the group that idolized Hindenburg the most were the German right who saw him as an ideal representative of the Prussian ethos and of Lutheran, Junker values. During the war, there were wooden statues of Hindenburg built all over Germany into which people nailed money and cheques for war bonds. It was a measure of Hindenburg's public appeal that when the Government launched an all-out program of industrial mobilization in 1916, the program was named the Hindenburg Program. Before 1914, any such program would have been named the Kaiser Wilhelm Program.

By the summer of 1916 Erich von Falkenhayn had been discredited by the bogging-down of the Verdun Offensive and the near-collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Army caused by the Brusilov offensive and the entry of Rumania into the war on the Allied side. In August Hindenburg succeeded him as Chief of the General Staff, although real power was exercised by his deputy, Erich Ludendorff. From 1916 onwards, Germany became an unofficial military dictatorship, often called the "Silent dictatorship" by historians.

In September 1918, Ludendorff advised seeking an armistice with the Allies, but in October, changed his mind and resigned in protest. Ludendorff had expected Hindenburg to follow him by also resigning, but Hindenburg refused on the grounds that in this hour of crisis, he could not desert the men under his command. Ludendorff never forgave Hindenburg for this. Ludendorff was succeeded by Wilhelm Groener, a staff officer who served as Hindenburg's assistant until 1932. In November 1918, Hindenburg and Groener played a decisive role in persuading the Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate for the greater good of Germany.

Hindenburg, who was a firm monarchist throughout his life, always regarded this episode of his life with considerable embarrassment, and almost from the moment the Kaiser abdicated, Hindenburg insisted that he had played no role in the abdication and assigned all of the blame to Groener. Groener for his part loyally went along with this in order to protect the reputation of his chief.

Aftermath of the war

At the conclusion of the war Hindenburg retired a second time, and announced his intention to retire from public life. In 1919, Hindenburg was called before a Reichstag Commission that was investigating the responsibility for both the outbreak of war in 1914 and for the defeat in 1918.

Hindenburg had not wanted to appear before the commission, and had been subpoenaed. The appearance of Hindenburg before the commission was an eagerly awaited public event. Ludendorff, who had fallen out with Hindenburg over the decision to continue seeking the armistice in October 1918, was concerned that Hindenburg might reveal that it was he who had advised seeking an armistice in September 1918. Ludendorff wrote a letter to Hindenburg, informing him that he was writing his memoirs and threatened to expose that Hindenburg did not deserve the credit that he had received for his victories. Ludendorff's letter went on to suggest that how Hindenburg testified would determine how favorably Ludendorff would present Hindenburg in his memoirs.

When Hindenburg did appear before the commission, he refused to answer any questions about the responsibility for the German defeat, and instead read out a prepared statement that had been reviewed in advance by Ludendorff's lawyer. Hindenburg testified that the German Army had been on the verge of winning the war in the fall of 1918, and that the defeat had been precipitated by a Dolchstoß ("stab in the back") by disloyal elements on the home front and by unpatriotic politicians. Despite being threatened with a contempt citation for refusing to respond to questions, Hindenburg simply walked out of the hearings after reading his statement. Hindenburg's status as a war hero provided him with a political shield and he was never prosecuted.

Hindenburg's testimony was the first use of the Dolchstoßlegende. The field marshal credited an unnamed British general for first uttering the phrase, and the term was adopted by nationalist and conservative politicians who sought to blame the socialist founders of the Weimar Republic for the loss of the war.

Afterwards, Hindenburg had his memoirs entitled Mein Leben (My Life) ghost-written in 1919-20. Mein Leben was a huge bestseller in Germany, but was dismissed by most military historians and critics as a boring apologia that skipped over the most controversial issues in Hindenburg's life. Afterwards, Hindenburg retired from most public appearances and spent most of his time with his family. A widower, Hindenburg was very close to his only son, Major Oskar von Hindenburg and his granddaughters.


1925 election

In 1925, Hindenburg had no interest in running for public office. In the first round of the presidential elections held on 29 March, 1925, no candidate had emerged with a majority and a run-off election had been called. The Social Democratic candidate, Prime Minister Otto Braun of Prussia, had agreed to drop out of the race and had endorsed the Catholic Center Party's candidate, Wilhelm Marx. Since Karl Jarres, the joint candidate of the two conservative parties, the German People's Party (DVP) and German National People's Party (DNVP) was regarded as too dull, it seemed likely that Marx would win. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, one of the leaders of the DNVP, visited Hindenburg and urged him to run.

Hindenburg initially demurred, but under strong pressure from Tirpitz applied over several meetings, broke down and agreed to run. Though Hindenburg ran during the second round of the elections as a non-party independent, he was generally regarded as the conservative candidate. Largely because of his status as Germany's greatest war hero, Hindenburg won the election in the second round of voting held on 26 April, 1925. He was aided by the support of the Bavarian People's Party (BVP), which switched its support from Marx, and the refusal of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) to withdraw its candidate, Ernst Thälmann.

First term

Hindenburg took office on May 12 1925. For the first five years after taking office, Hindenburg fulfilled his duties of office with dignity and decorum. For the most part, Hindenburg refused to allow himself to be drawn into the maelstrom of German politics in the period, and sought to play the role of a republican equivalent of a constitutional monarch. Although often referred to as the Ersatzkaiser (substitute Emperor), Hindenburg made no effort to restore the monarchy and took his oath to the Weimar Constitution seriously.

In private, Hindenburg often complained that he missed the quiet of his retirement and bemoaned that he had allowed himself to be pressured into running for President. Hindenburg carped that politics was full of issues such as economics that he did not, and did not want to, understand. He was surrounded, however, by a coterie of advisers antipathetic to the Weimar constitution. These advisers included his son, Oskar, Otto Meissner, General Wilhelm Groener, and General Kurt von Schleicher. This group were known as the Kamarilla. The younger Hindenburg served as his father's aide-de-camp and controlled politicians' access to the President.

Schleicher was a close friend of Oskar and came to enjoy privileged access to Hindenburg. It was he who came up with the idea of Presidential government based on the so-called "25/48/53 formula". Under a "Presidential" government the head of government (in this case, the chancellor), is responsible to the head of state, and not a legislative body. The "25/48/53 formula" referred to the three articles of the Constitution that could make a "Presidential government" possible:

  • Article 25 allowed the President to dissolve the Reichstag.
  • Article 48 allowed the President to sign into law emergency bills without the consent of the Reichstag. However, the Reichstag could cancel any law passed by Article 48 by a simple majority within sixty days of its passage.
  • Article 53 allowed the President to appoint the Chancellor.

Schleicher's idea was to have Hindenburg appoint a man of Schleicher's choosing as chancellor, who would rule under the provisions of Article 48. If the Reichstag should threaten to annul any laws so passed, Hindenburg could counter with the threat of dissolution. Hindenburg was unenthusiastic about these plans, but was pressured into going along with them by his son along with Meissner, Groener and Schleicher.

Presidential government

The first attempt to establish a "presidential government" had occurred in 1926–1927, but foundered for lack of political support. During the winter of 1929–1930, however, Schleicher had more success. After a series of secret meetings attended by Meissner, Schleicher, and Heinrich Brüning, the parliamentary leader of the Catholic Center Party (Zentrum), Schleicher and Meissner were able to persuade Brüning to go along with the plan for "presidential government". How much Brüning knew of Schleicher's ultimate plans to abolish democratic governance altogether is unclear. Schleicher then set about making worse a bitter dispute within the "Grand Coalition" government between the Social Democrats and the German People’s Party over whether the unemployment insurance rate should be raised by a half a percentage point or a full percentage point. The end result of these intrigues by Schleicher was the fall of Müller’s government in March 1930 and Brüning being named Chancellor by Hindenburg.

Brüning's first act as Chancellor was to introduce a budget calling for steep spending cuts and sharp tax increases. When the budget was defeated in July 1930, Brüning had Hindenburg sign the budget into law via Article 48. When the Reichstag voted to cancel the budget, Brüning had Hindenburg dissolve Reichstag only two years into its mandate, and had the budget passed again by Article 48. The September 1930 elections saw the Nazis making an electoral breakthrough, going from 2% of the vote in 1928 to 17% in 1930. Also making striking, though not as dramatic gains in the 1930 elections was the Communist Party of Germany.

After the 1930 elections, Brüning continued to govern largely through Article 48; his government was kept afloat by the support of the Social Democrats who voted not to cancel his Article 48 bills in order not to have another election that could only benefit the Nazis and the Communists. Hindenburg for his part grew increasingly annoyed at Brüning, complaining that he was growing tired of using Article 48 all the time to pass bills. Hindenburg also found the detailed notes that Brüning submitted explaining the economic necessity of each of his bills to be incomprehensible. Brüning continued with his policies of raising taxes and cutting spending in order to deal with the Great Depression; the only areas where government spending rose was in the area of defense and in the subsidies for Junkers in the so-called Osthilfe (Eastern Aid) program. Both of these spending increases reflected Hindenburg's concerns.

In October 1931, Hindenburg and Hitler had their first meeting. The Hindenburg-Hitler meeting was a disaster as both men took an immediate and immense dislike to one another. In private, Hindenburg disparagingly referred to Hitler as "that Austrian corporal", "the Bohemian corporal" and sometimes just simply as "the corporal". Hitler in turn, often described Hindenburg as "that old fool" and "the old reactionary". Right up until January 1933, Hindenburg often stated that he would never appoint Hitler as Chancellor under any circumstances. On 26 January 1933, Hindenburg told a group of his friends: "Gentlemen, I hope you will not hold me capable of appointing this Austrian corporal to be Reich Chancellor".

January 1932 - January 1933: A year of decisions

Although Hindenburg was now lapsing in and out of senility, he was persuaded to run for re-election in 1932, as the only candidate who could defeat Adolf Hitler. Hindenburg had wanted to leave office in 1932, but was urged by the Kamarilla to run again in order to keep Hitler out of office. Hindenburg reluctantly agreed to stay in office, but wanted to avoid an election. The only way this was possible was for the Reichstag to vote to cancel the election with a two-thirds supermajority. Since the Nazis were the second-largest party, their co-operation was vital if this was to be done. Brüning met with Hitler in January 1932 to ask if he would agree to the President's demand to forgo the election. Hitler stated he would only if Brüning would fulfill a set of impossible demands.

Brüning rejected Hitler's demands as totally outrageous and unreasonable. By this time, Schleicher had decided that Brüning had become an obstacle to his plans and was already plotting Brüning's downfall. Schleicher convinced Hindenburg that the reason why Hitler had rejected Brüning's offer was because Brüning had deliberately sabotaged the talks to force the elderly president into a grueling re-election battle.During the election campaign of 1932, Brüning had campaigned hard for Hindenburg's re-election. As Hindenburg was in bad health and a poor speaker anyhow, the task of traveling the country and delivering speeches for Hindenburg had fallen upon Brüning. Hindenburg’s campaign appearances usually consisted simply of appearing before the crowd and waving to them without speaking.

In the first round of the election held in March 1932, Hindenburg emerged as the frontrunner, but failed to gain a majority. In the runoff election of April 1932, Hindenburg defeated Hitler for the Presidency. After the presidential elections had ended, Schleicher held a series of secret meetings with Hitler in May 1932, and thought that he had obtained a "gentleman's agreement" in which Hitler had agreed to support the new "presidential government" that Schleicher was building. At the same time, Schleicher, with Hindenburg's complicit consent, had set about undermining Brüning's government.

The first blow occurred in May 1932, when Schleicher had Hindenburg sack Groener as Defense Minister in a way that was designed to humiliate both Groener and Brüning. On 31 May 1932, Hindenburg sacked Brüning as Chancellor and replaced him with the man that Schleicher had suggested, Franz von Papen. "The Government of Barons" as von Papen's government was known, openly had as its objective the destruction of German democracy. Like Brüning's government, von Papen's government was a "presidential government" that governed through the use of Article 48.

Unlike Brüning, von Papen ingratiated himself to Hindenburg and his son through the use of the most oleaginous flattery. Von Papen's easy charm and his sense of humour made him Hindenburg's favorite Chancellor. Much to von Schleicher's annoyance, von Papen quickly replaced him as Hindenburg's favorite advisor. The French Ambassador André François-Poncet reported to his superiors in Paris that "It's he [Papen] who is the preferred one, the favorite of the Marshal; he diverts the old man through his vivacity, his playfulness; he flatters him by showing him respect and devotion; he beguiles him with his daring; he is in [Hindenburg's] eyes the perfect gentleman"".

In accordance with Schleicher's "gentleman's agreement", Hindenburg dissolved the Reichstag and set new elections for July 1932. Schleicher and von Papen both believed that the Nazis would win the majority of the seats and would support von Papen's government. Hitler staged an electoral comeback, with his Nazi party winning a solid plurality of seats in the Reichstag. Following the Nazi electoral triumph in the Reichstag elections held on 31 July 1932, there were widespread expectations that Hitler would soon be appointed Chancellor. Moreover, Hitler repudiated the "gentleman's agreement" and declared that he wanted the Chancellorship for himself. In a meeting between Hindenburg and Hitler held on 13 August 1932, in Berlin, Hindenburg firmly rejected Hitler's demands for the Chancellorship.

The minutes of the meeting were kept by Otto Meißner, the Chief of the Presidential Chancellery. According to the minutes:

Herr Hitler declared that, for reasons which he had explained in detail to the Reich President that morning, his taking any part in cooperation with the existing government was out of the question. Considering the importance of the National Socialist movement, he must demand the full and complete leadership of the government and state for himself and his party.

The Reich President in reply said firmly that he must answer this demand with a clear, unyielding No. He could not justify before God, before his conscience, or before the Fatherland the transfer of the whole authority of government to a single party, especially to a party that was biased against people who had different views from their own. There were a number of other reasons against it, upon which he did not wish to enlarge in detail, such as fear of increased unrest, the effect on foreign countries, etc.

Herr Hitler repeated that any other solution was unacceptable to him.

To this the Reich President replied: "So you will go into opposition?"

Hitler: "I have now no alternative".

After refusing Hitler’s demands for the Chancellorship, Hindenburg had a press release issued of his meeting with Hitler that implied that Hitler had demanded absolute power and had his knuckles rapped by the President for making such a demand. Hitler was enraged by this press release. However, given Hitler’s determination to take power legally, Hindenburg’s refusal to appoint him Chancellor was an impassable quandary for Hitler.

When the Reichstag convened in September 1932, its first and only act was to pass a massive vote of no-confidence in von Papen’s government. In response, von Papen had Hindenburg dissolve the Reichstag for elections in November 1932. The second Reichstag elections saw the Nazi vote drop from 37% to 32%, though the Nazis once again remained the largest party in the Reichstag. After the November elections, there ensued another round of fruitless talks between Hindenburg, von Papen, von Schleicher on the one hand and Hitler and the other Nazi leaders on the other.

The President and the Chancellor wanted Nazi support for the "Government of the President's Friends"; at most they were prepared to offer Hitler the meaningless office of Vice-Chancellor. On 24 November 1932, during the course of another Hitler-Hindenburg meeting, Hindenburg stated his fears that " ... a presidential cabinet led by Hitler would necessarily develop into a party dictatorship with all its consequences for an extreme aggravation of the conflicts within the German people".

Hitler for his part, remained adamant that Hindenburg give him the Chancellorship and nothing else. These demands were incompatible and unacceptable to both sides and the stalemate continued. To break the political stalemate, von Papen proposed that Hindenburg declare martial law and do away with democracy via a presidential putsch. Von Papen won over Oskar Hindenburg with this idea and the two persuaded Hindenburg for once to forgo his oath to the Constitution and go along with this plan. Schleicher, who had come to see von Papen as a threat, blocked the martial law move by unveiling the results of a war games exercise that showed if martial law was declared, the Nazi SA and the Communist Red Front Fighters would rise up, the Poles would invade and the Reichswehr would be unable to cope.

Whether this was the honest result of a war games exercise or just a fabrication by von Schleicher to force von Papen out of office is a matter of some historical debate. The opinion of most leans towards the latter, for in January 1933 von Schleicher would tell Hindenburg that new war games had shown the Reichswehr would crush both the SA and Red Front Fighters and defend the eastern borders from a Polish invasion. The results of the war games forced von Papen to resign in December 1932 in favor of von Schleicher. Hindenburg was most upset at losing his favorite Chancellor, and suspecting that the war games were faked to force von Papen out, came to bear a grudge against Schleicher.

Von Papen for his part, was determined to get back into office and on 4 January 1933, von Papen met with Hitler to discuss how they could bring down von Schleicher’s government, though the talks were inconclusive largely because von Papen and Hitler each coveted the Chancellorship for himself. However, von Papen and Hitler agreed to keep talking. Ultimately, von Papen came to believe that he could control Hitler from behind the scenes and decided to support him for Chancellor. Von Papen then persuaded Meissner and the younger Hindenburg of the merits of his plan, and the three then spent the second half of January pressuring Hindenburg into naming Hitler as Chancellor. Hindenburg was most loath to consider Hitler as Chancellor and preferred that von Papen hold that office instead.

However, the pressure from Meißner, von Papen and the younger Hindenburg was relentless and by the end of January, the President had decided to appoint Hitler Chancellor. On the morning of 30 January 1933, Hindenburg swore Hitler in as Chancellor at the Presidential Palace.

The Machtergreifung

Hindenburg played a supporting but key role in the Nazi Machtergreifung (Seizure of Power) in 1933. In the "Government of National Concentration" headed by Hitler, the Nazis were in the minority. Besides Hitler, the only other Nazi ministers were Hermann Göring and Wilhelm Frick. Frick held the then-powerless Interior Ministry, while Göring was given no portfolio. Most of the other ministers were hold-overs from the von Papen and von Schleicher governments, and the ones who were not, such as Alfred Hugenberg of the DNVP, were not Nazis. This had the effect of assuring Hindenburg that the room for radical moves on the part of the Nazis was limited. Moreover, Hindenburg's favorite politician, von Papen, was Vice Chancellor of the Reich and Minister-President of Prussia.

Hitler's first act as Chancellor was to ask Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag so that the Nazis and DNVP could increase their number of seats and pass the Enabling Act. Hindenburg agreed to this request. In early February 1933, von Papen asked for and received an Article 48 bill signed into law that sharply limited freedom of the press. After the Reichstag fire, Hindenburg, at Hitler's urging, signed into law the Reichstag Fire Decree. This decree suspended civil liberties in Germany.

At the opening of the new Reichstag on 21 March 1933, at the Kroll Opera House, the Nazis staged an elaborate ceremony, in which Hindenburg played the leading part, that was meant to mark the continuity between the Prussian-German tradition and the new Nazi state. The ceremony at the Kroll Opera House had the effect of reassuring many Germans, especially conservative Germans, that life would be fine under the new regime. On 23 March 1933, Hindenburg signed the Enabling Act of 1933 into law, which gave decrees issued by the cabinet (in effect, Hitler) the force of law.

Though Hindenburg was in increasingly bad health, the Nazis made sure that whenever Hindenburg did appear in public it was in Hitler’s company. During these appearances, Hitler always made a point of showing the utmost respect and reverence for the President. In private, Hitler continued to detest Hindenburg, and expressed the hope that "the old reactionary" would die as soon as possible, so that Hitler could merge the offices of Chancellor and President into one.

Hitler was always very conscious of the fact that the President was the Supreme Commander-In-Chief of the German armed forces, and that given that Hindenburg was a revered figure in the German Army, that if the President decided to sack Hitler as Chancellor, there was little doubt that the Reichswehr would side with Hindenburg. Thus, as long as Hindenburg lived, Hitler was always very careful to avoid offending him.

The only time Hindenburg ever objected to a Nazi bill occurred in early April 1933. The Reichstag had passed a Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service that called for the immediate sacking of all Jewish civil servants at the Reich, Land, and municipal levels. Hindenburg refused to sign this bill into law until it had been amended to exclude all Jewish veterans of World War I, Jewish civil servants who served in the civil service during the war and those Jewish civil servants whose fathers were veterans. Hitler, who believed that no Jews had served in the Great War, amended the bill to meet Hindenburg’s objections, and was later to be surprised at the number of Jews who whose jobs were protected by the amendents.

Hindenburg remained in office until his death at the age of 86 from lung cancer at his home in Neudeck, East Prussia on 2 August 1934 (exactly two months short of his 87th birthday).

One day before Hindenburg's death, Hitler flew to Neudeck and visited him. Hindenburg, old and senile, thought he was meeting Kaiser Wilhelm II, and called Hitler "Your Majesty".

He was Germany's last president until 1945, when Karl Dönitz was appointed president according to Hitler's last testament upon the dictator's suicide, as following Hindenburg's death, Hitler declared the office of President to be permanently vacant, effectively merging it with the office of Chancellor under the title of Leader and Chancellor (Führer und Reichskanzler), making himself Germany's Head of State and Head of government, thereby completing the progress of Gleichschaltung. Hitler had a plebiscite held on 19 August 1934, in which the German people were asked if they approved of Hitler merging the two offices. The Ja (Yes) vote amounted to 90% of the vote.

In taking this action, Hitler technically violated the provisions of the Enabling Act. While the Enabling Act allowed Hitler to pass laws that contravened the Weimar Constitution, it specifically forbade him from interfering with the powers of the president. Moreover, the Weimar Constitution had been amended in 1932 to make the president of the High Court of Justice, not the chancellor, next in line for the presidency. However, Hitler had become law unto himself by this time, and no one dared object.

Hindenburg himself was said to be a monarchist who favored a restoration of the German monarchy. Though he hoped one of the Prussian princes would be appointed to succeed him as Head of State, he did not attempt to use his powers in favour of such a restoration, as he considered himself bound by the oath he had sworn on the Weimar Constitution.

It has been alleged that Hindenburg’s will asked for Hitler to restore the monarchy. However, the truth of this story cannot be established as Oskar von Hindenburg destroyed the portions of his father’s will relating to politics.

It has been argued that the political testament of Hindenburg’s will that was made public in 1934, in which Hindenburg expresses the greatest thanks for Hitler was forged by Oskar von Hindenburg as a way of ingratiating himself with Hitler.


Hindenburg was buried in the Tannenberg memorial near Tannenberg, East Prussia (today: Stębark, Poland) against the wishes he had expressed during his life. Hindenburg always said he wanted to be buried next to his beloved wife. In 1945, German troops removed his and his wife's coffins, to save them from the approaching Soviets, to Marburg an der Lahn in western Germany (Hindenburg was an Honorary Citizen of this town). The caskets of Hindenburg and his wife were found in an abandoned salt mine on 27 April 1945 by U.S. Army Ordnance troops. Later that month, he and his wife were interred anew in the famous Elisabeth Church in the North Tower Chapel.

He still rests there, although the church chapter recently voted to keep the lights switched off at his tomb. Will Lang Jr., correspondent of Life, wrote an article (6 March, 1950) about how the United States Army Ordnance troops found the coffins. His tombstone simply states "Paul von Hindenburg 1847-1934".


Although he was widely esteemed in his time, his biographers John Wheeler-Bennett and Andreas Dorpalen have argued that beneath Hindenburg's façade of strength and power was a weak-willed and not particularly intelligent man who, while well-meaning, was highly dependent upon the advice of others to make decisions.

In Wheeler-Bennett's phrase, Hindenburg was the "Wooden Titan"; a man who looked impressive on the outside but who was hollow and empty on the inside.



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  • Wheeler-Bennett, Sir John Hindenburg: the Wooden Titan, London : Macmillan, 1967; New York, Morrow, 1936.
  • Turner, Henry Ashby Hitler's thirty days to power : January 1933, Reading, Mass. : Addison-Wesley, 1996.

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