Beware mythology

The loss of the Great War, the Great Depression and political catastrophe are often cited as the reasons for the Nazi’s ascension to power in Germany. They were factors but there’s another: Paul von Hindenburg.
President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor on 30 January 1933. But, as Anna von der Goltz says, he had a choice. Hindenburg could’ve declared a state of emergency and put the army in charge. A military dictatorship didn’t rule out a return to democracy but the appointment of the Nazis did.

Germany was paralysed in January 1932. The country had been a virtual dictatorship since 1930 when the government could not get legislation passed by the Reichstag, the parliament. Chancellors, starting with Heinrich Brüning, governed by decree. Article 48 of the Weimar constitution empowered the President to issue decrees without reference to, or approval, of the Reichstag.

There were three chancellors in 1932: Brüning, sacked on 30 May; Franz von Papen sacked on 17 November and Kurt von Schleicher who resigned on 28 January. Von Schleicher wanted Hindenburg to declare a state of emergency to prevent the Nazis coming to power. Hindenburg refused because he might have feared impeachment, as others have argued*.

It’s not the kind of response to be expected from a man whose reputation was that of a selfless individual whose sense of duty to his country had motivated him to twice come out of retirement to serve.

Anna von der Goltz has constructed a compelling argument to explain Paul von Hindenburg’s unique place in German history. His power came from the mythology forged on the battlefield of the Great War. The great extent of that mythology’s power is shown by Hindenburg being blameless for his country’s defeat. It is extraordinary that the man who was his country’s Supreme Commander and who virtually directed the war effort wasn’t held responsible. He was instead hailed a hero.

Von der Goltz doesn’t spend much time explaining the origins of that supposed heroism. It was forged on the battlefield of Tannenberg between 26 August and 30 August 1914. It was one of the first major battles of World War One. Britain and France’s ally, Russia, agreed to take the pressure of France by invading Germany from the east. Two armies invaded German East Prussia in August 1914.

The outnumbered Germans outmanoeuvred the Russians. They were helped by the respective Russian commanders’ intense dislike for each other. Against immense odds, the Germans prevailed and pushed back the Russians.

Paul von Hindenburg retired from the army in 1911 after a 45-year career. In 1906 he was considered for the role of Chief of the General Staff, the Kaiser’s chief military advisor. It was an indication of the esteem in which he was held.

“Personable and usually well-liked by those who met face-to-face, but not a great orator or brilliant intellectual, Hindenburg never excelled in creativity or strategic thinking throughout his solidly successful career displaying little of the military genius would be that would later be attributed to him.”

Hindenburg came out of retirement when the Great War started. He rose to the role of Supreme Commander. After his country’s defeat, he again retired. He expressed anti-republican views but cultivated an image of a non-partisan hero.

He left retirement for the second time in 1925 to contest the presidential election. The pro-monarchist was a candidate to be head of state of a republic.

Anna von der Goltz has written a detailed and convincing case that explains the Hindenburg phenomenon. Not only did Hindenburg aid and abet the Nazi’s rise, he allowed himself to be used by them. He even wrote a “political will” made public after his death in 1934 in which he gave his imprimatur to the Nazis.

The reasons for the Nazis rise are many and complex. This book explains Hindenburg’s contribution and how it happened.

* See Alexander B. Bitter, Kurt Von Schleicher. The Soldier and Politics In The Run-Up To National Socialism: A Case Study Of Civil-Military Relations, 2013, p80.


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