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HindenburgPower, Myth, and the Rise of the Nazis$

Anna von der Goltz

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199570324

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199570324.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction

Anna von der Goltz (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter outlines the thrust of the book and provides the reader with a theoretical background. The author surveys the historiography of Hindenburg's career and his role in German politics. The most important scholarly texts on the politics of memory and commemoration and the history of political myths and hero worship are discussed. Turning to Weber's concept of charismatic authority, the author contends that its application to Hindenburg's case is limited because projection is defined as key. Hindenburg's followers could not simply mould him into the mythical figure they desired, but constantly had to incorporate the tumultuous events and his conflicting actions into the mythical narrative, making it an enduring, but ever-evolving phenomenon. Furthermore, it is argued that Hindenburg's adulation was no stride on a ‘special German path’, but had parallels elsewhere. However, the Hindenburg myth had grave consequences: it was inextricably linked to the rise of National Socialism.

Keywords:   myth, hero worship, politics of memory, charismatic authority, National Socialism, Hindenburg, commemoration

On 27 April 1925, the day after Paul von Hindenburg had won the first presidential elections of the Weimar Republic, the liberal weekly Welt am Montag offered a striking explanation for the victory of the retired Field Marshal of the First World War. It had not been possible to persuade the ‘ignorant’ with compelling and irrefutable arguments against Hindenburg's candidacy, the leading article argued,

because for them he is not at all a sharply delineated person with clear character traits, but a mythical slogan, a fetish. They need only look at him, hear his name, and the last of their reason goes up in smoke, they sink into a state of befuddlement . . .1

The left‐liberal Frankfurter Zeitung took the same line. It conceded self‐critically that it had been ‘one of the gravest mistakes to spare the Hindenburg legend's life’ after Germany's military collapse and revolution in 1918. As a result of this omission, the article concluded admonishingly, the ‘Hindenburg legend continues to live on among large parts of German society’.2 Both newspapers could find no explanation more convincing for republican defeat than the alluring appeal of what they termed the ‘Hindenburg legend’ or the ‘Hindenburg myth’, which had supposedly drawn German voters to the polls the previous Sunday.

In 1932, Hindenburg would win a second presidential election battle fought under fundamentally altered political conditions. This time, left‐wing journalist Carl von Ossietzky was equally certain that no political programme had brought about this victory. Only ‘Hindenburg has triumphed, a piece of legend’, the future Nobel laureate maintained.3 Thus, both in 1925 and 1932—the only two times in German history that the people could elect their head of state directly and secretly—a majority opted for the mythical Hindenburg.4

(p.2) Today remembered first and foremost critically for the role he would play in the collapse of Weimar democracy by appointing Hitler as Reich Chancellor on 30 January 1933, a myth surrounding Hindenburg as invoked by these Weimar journalists seems a somewhat curious phenomenon. Interviewed in 2003, during a controversy surrounding a possible retraction of Hindenburg's honorary citizenship of Berlin, the city's one‐time mayor, Walter Momper (SPD), summed up this present‐day sentiment with the verdict: ‘there is no one who stands up for Hindenburg with enthusiasm’.5 As the pointed election commentary of 1925 shows, however, matters looked entirely different then. If the papers' analyses are to be believed, Hindenburg was a figure enthralling enough to let voters' capacities for critical thinking evaporate and to paralyse republican defences. In the seventh year after the First World War had ended—having brought in its wake the collapse of the German monarchies, near civil war, hyperinflation, and a reviled peace treaty cementing German war guilt, the loss of substantial territory, and a reduced army—Hindenburg, who had led the German armies between 1916 and 1919, remained the undisputed living national hero in Germany.

How, then, did this man acquire the extraordinary, mythical stature that enabled him to capture the presidency in 1925 and to defend it in 1932? How did his myth manage to survive military failure in 1918, and why was the sheer presence of his name on the ballot enough to mesmerize a critical mass of voters? Admiring and trusting Hindenburg were, of course, not the only factors that motivated voters' choices and dominated people's concerns in the complex period of Weimar. Nevertheless, the suddenness, intensity, longevity, striking political and social breadth, and the political deployment of Hindenburg's adulation, in short, the power of his myth between 1914 and 1934, was a political phenomenon of the first order that merits detailed examination. How this little‐known General, whose career to normal retirement age had provided no real foretaste of his heroic status after 1914, became a national icon and living myth, catching the imagination of millions of Germans, and what this phenomenon tells us about one of the most crucial periods of the country's history, is the subject of this book.

* * * 

Much has been written about Paul von Hindenburg. A bibliography compiled by the National Socialist Cultural Community a few years after (p.3) the President's death, already listed no fewer than 3,000 works on the deceased.6 The volume of studies since has grown considerably. The historiography to date, however, consists first and foremost of assessments of Hindenburg's military leadership and political role as head of the third Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL) during the First World War7, of biographical approaches, which either focus on the period of 1914–19188 or concentrate on Hindenburg's politics until 1934.9 Some of these studies—even from the post‐1945 era—have to be considered hagiographic.10 In addition, the very fact that Hindenburg was a key player in Weimar politics in the second half of the 1920s and, in particular, during the era of the so‐called presidential cabinets between 1930 and 1933, means that his part in the political decision‐making process has been analysed in the standard works on the history of this period.11 The overwhelming majority of these works is concerned exclusively with political and military matters. Hindenburg's talents as a military commander, the ambivalent nature of his relationship with Erich Ludendorff, his own political ideas, and his stance towards Kaiser Wilhelm II are themes addressed in the literature. Furthermore, many specialized studies have shed light on various aspects of Hindenburg's record as President.12

For a long time, the consensus had been that Hindenburg was a personally weak and untalented military leader and an apolitical and perhaps not particularly intelligent Reich President, who was largely steered by others—a consensus summed up by John Wheeler‐Bennett's evocative description of Hindenburg as a ‘wooden titan’, imposing on the outside but hollow within.13 Those charged with pulling the strings in the background were first and foremost Erich Ludendorff during wartime and the so‐called camarilla during his presidency, allegedly comprising his son Oskar, his State Secretary Otto Meissner, and various figures from the East Prussian agrarian conservative political milieu and German big business.14 Only recently has this paradigm been thoroughly questioned, with newer studies revising the idea of an all‐powerful camarilla and highlighting Hindenburg's independent thought and acute political understanding. Werner Maser, Harald Zaun, and, most recently, Wolfram Pyta have revealed a political figure much better‐informed and in command of his decisions than previously thought and—though not its focal point—this study makes a further contribution to revising the idea of an apolitical and weak‐willed Hindenburg.15

While Hindenburg's politics are an important issue, the thrust of this book is different. Although it is widely acknowledged that the Field Marshal (p.4) had entered the realm of myth during his lifetime, little research has been done on what that myth meant.16 How did it come into being, how was it communicated, appropriated, transformed, and how did it function between 1914 and 1934, and beyond his death? Those historians who invoke the phenomenon usually treat it first and foremost as a political issue, a factor in German political history, debated endlessly by party politicians and in the political press.17 Here, however, the Hindenburg myth will be investigated as a political and cultural phenomenon, which did not just occupy those involved in German politics, but penetrated much broader sections of society in its myriad forms. The mythical narrative sheds a great deal on how power was brokered and what hopes, wishes, and fears the German population harboured between 1914 and 1934.

* * *

The study of political myths—central components of cultural memory—is largely based on the notion of socially constructed memory.18 It owes much to the theoretical works of French interwar sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. In his pioneering work Halbwachs argued that images of the past are not static, but in flux; different socio‐political groups constantly contest them.19 The problem of memory is thus one of social power. Analysing what a society or community remembers—and how—is a way of reading the cultural distribution of power within that society and gives us clues to the needs and wishes of its members.20 Rather than commemorating ‘objectively’, each age reconstructs the past within images that suit its present needs. Politicians and opinion‐makers intent on furthering a more current agenda often appropriate such constructed images of the past.21 Far from being a method pursued only by authoritarian regimes or dictatorships, the deployment of the past to meet more current practical ends is a phenomenon that can also be witnessed in pluralist democratic societies.22

The application of Halbwachs's model of how the memory of individuals is converted into collective memory has since led to extensive research into the history of commemorative practices in the public sphere.23 The politics of memory and commemoration in the fragmented political culture of the Weimar Republic with its lack of a historical consensus has been subject to particularly close scholarly attention.24 It took some time until the theoretical sophistication of this area of research began to have an impact (p.5) on the study of political myths. As late as the mid‐1990s one historian bemoaned that in spite of the cultural turn historical scholarship had mostly ignored the study of myths.25 This has changed in recent years; scholars have discovered the history of myth as a fruitful subject.26

After 1945 the notion of myth was largely discredited in Germany. The National Socialists' powerful appropriation of older political myths during their rise to power and the aesthetics of their rule meant that myths were seen first and foremost as possessing dangerous emotional connotations, causing people to depart from rational behaviour. Myths appeared as hazardous weapons from the arsenal of political propagandists, especially in authoritarian societies and dictatorships, which ran counter to the values of an enlightened democratic society.27 In the period under investigation, however, the term did not yet entail these negative connotations, but was largely considered a positive social force.28 Even the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer, dubbed the ‘father of the modern study of myths’29 who described myth as a potentially destructive force in his highly influential The Myth of the State published after the Second World War, had subscribed to a more positive understanding of the concept in the 1920s.30 This 1920s consensus on myth as a constructive force may explain why Hindenburg's contemporaries frequently interpreted his mythical exaltation in a positive light without fear that such candour would discredit the cult.31 Contemporary society considered myth a binding force, a social glue, which appealed to people on an emotional level serving to integrate different groups within society. Myth seemed to be an almost natural force, which belonged to all forms of human life ‘like roots to a plant’.32 Especially during the 1920s, as some contemporary observers noted, people were ‘starving’ or ‘longing’ for myth in Germany, thus expressing the belief that myth was somewhat organic.33

Hence, in this study the term ‘myth’ will not be used in its colloquial form as a deliberate falsification or an outright lie. It differs from the term ‘legends’ in this respect. Legends are commonly defined as stories based on half‐truths and distortions of reality.34 By contrast, the aim here is not to contrast the ‘real’ Hindenburg with the mythical one. Naturally, some of the factual distortions that lie at the heart of the narrative surrounding him will be discussed, but the aim of this study is neither to uncover the real ‘Victor of Tannenberg’ nor to prove that Hindenburg was not worthy of his adulation.35 Instead, the Hindenburg myth itself will take centre stage (p.6) and will be analysed as a complex communicative process, in which the motives of both myth‐purveyors and consumers have to be examined.

The term ‘myth’ is defined as an ‘order of images with a metaphysical claim’.36 Myths are symbolically charged narratives that purport to give a true account of a set of past, present, or predicted political events and are accepted by a social group.37 They are told to explain or justify present conditions and as social constructions of reality, they appeal to the emotional dimension of human thought.38 By reducing complex events to simple processes (e.g. by creating a dichotomy of ‘good versus evil’, ‘hero and coward’, or ‘us versus them’) myth‐purveyors seek to simplify reality for the purpose of increasing affective mass unity.39 This is a viable avenue, because reducing the multiplicity of standpoints creates a feeling of community and belonging—myths integrate.40 They also generate meaning by acting as a filter of reality, a lens through which events and human actions are perceived.

Furthermore, they have a normative function: the protagonists of mythical narratives—the mythical heroes—often embody a set of values and serve as role models appealing to societies or social groups to emulate their virtuous stance.41 Equally, mythical figures have much to reveal about the society in which they are worshipped: as the symbolic expression of its hidden conflicts, fears, hopes, longings, and needs they give us vital clues to the ‘collective unconscious of a society’.42

As manifestations of collective memory, myths are dynamic. They consist of different layers—what Levi‐Strauss termed ‘les véritables unités constitutives du mythe’—and are therefore by nature polyvalent in their form.43 Their function is not always clear‐cut. It can, in fact, vary considerably depending on the respective social and political context in which they surface. Myths can thus create legitimacy for an existing political order, but they can also destabilize conditions—depending on how and by whom they are deployed and which particular mythical layer is emphasized at which point.44 Myths are embedded into the binding forces of social groups or societies. In times of crisis they are often especially potent and prolific, as Ernst Cassirer was one of the first to recognize.45 The period under investigation, which was defined by the experience of the First World War, Germany's military collapse and revolution in 1918/19, and the politically, economically, and socially unstable years of the Weimar Republic was the perfect ‘incubator for political myths’, the ‘natural soil’ in which they ‘found ample nourishment’.46

(p.7) ‘Mythophilia’ and by definition the worshipping of individual heroes had generally been on the rise in Europe since the mid‐nineteenth century, particularly in Germany, not least due to the promise innate in myths of filling the void left by the decline of religious thinking in the era of secularization.47 Thomas Nipperdey identified the ‘inclination to historical myths, monumentality and pathos’ as one of the negative aspects of the Wilhelmine period.48 As early as the 1860s, the historian Jacob Burckhardt had observed ‘intense longing for great men’ in Germany and Thomas Carlyle's lectures On Heroes, Hero‐Worship and the Heroic in History, in which he hailed hero‐worship as one of the most efficient means of stabilizing a social and political order, went through numerous German editions.49 Leo von Klenze's Walhalla monument near Regensburg, a pantheon of German heroes, had opened in 1842, and turned into a magnet for tourists. After 1871 a large number of memorials to individual heroes—especially Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I—were erected throughout Germany and German schoolchildren were instilled with a sense of their historic glory in the Kaiserreich’s history lessons that focused overwhelmingly on the role of ‘great men’.50

Myths and mythical hero figures are rarely new inventions. It is easier for them to gain potency if they correspond to the structure of a society's imagination and build upon semantic and semiotic traditions.51 The dominant hero figure of the latter half of the nineteenth century was, of course, the ‘Iron Chancellor’, and Hindenburg was often hailed as a ‘new Bismarck’ based on the two men's visual and political associations.52 Hindenburg's image was also composed of different elements of other historical narratives. His myth was closely entwined with the notion of German ‘innocence’ for the outbreak of war in 1914, the saviour theme, the ‘stab‐in‐the‐back’ legend, and the ‘spirit of 1914’. He was firmly embedded in this mythical network of Weimar Germany and served as the supreme individual living link between these collective moments and tales.53

Furthermore, Hindenburg's adulation owed much to even older German patterns of thought. In some important respects, he met the criteria of a classic hero figure—ideals worshipped in the nineteenth century in figures as diverse as Arminius or Hermann, who had defeated the Roman troops in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, in Siegfried, the hero of the Nibelungen saga popularized as the German national epic since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and in the legend of the medieval Hohenstauffen Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa, who would allegedly awake one day from (p.8) his long sleep inside Mount Kyffhäuser to restore the German Reich to its former greatness.54 All three had gained prominence as a reaction to the Napoleonic occupation and the wars of liberation at the beginning of the nineteenth century.55

The archetypal hero of the classic heroic saga was almost exclusively male and an aristocrat who embodied the values of medieval society resurrected by German romanticism: honour, loyalty, obedience, and piety.56 Indeed, the one great German heroine, Queen Luise of Prussia, supposedly embodied them all in a heightened degree.57 As the personification of German wartime virtues, Hindenburg fitted this description perfectly. In sacrificing his comfortable life in retirement in Hanover, he personified another key element of heroism: leaving one's home to experience ‘adventures’ in a ‘strange and faraway land’ (in his case German military headquarters in the east).58 Though he could hardly be said to be either youthful or athletic (usually a further precondition for heroic status), this did not stop illustrators from portraying Hindenburg as a youthful and athletic giant into old age.59

* * *

Some scholars have turned to Max Weber's concept of ‘charismatic authority’ to explain the adulation of heroic political leaders.60 In his seminal work on what constitutes legitimate rule the sociologist described trust in a ‘charismatic leader’ as one of the binding social forces that can lend legitimacy to a social order. Charismatic rule is based on the exceptional belief in the heroic power and model function of a leader who is thought to possess extraordinary qualities.61

The concept has first and foremost been applied to Hitler and Bismarck. Since Weber's notion of plebiscitary democratic leadership found expression in the Weimar constitution at least in part—the President was elected by popular vote and could dissolve the Reichstag—an analysis of Hindenburg as ‘charismatic leader’ might seem like an obvious choice.62 On closer inspection, however, in Hindenburg's case the blanket concept of ‘charismatic authority’ poses almost as many questions as it provides answers. Whilst its emphasis on the charismatic leader functioning as a projection screen for the needs and wishes of a society is certainly useful, it does not tell us much about the daily face of charisma—the communi−cation of a leader's popularity, the role of the media, of everyday objects, symbolic displays and rituals.63 Most importantly, Weber insists that the (p.9) charismatic leader has to prove his worth time and again to sustain his authority. He cites the case of a Chinese monarch under whose rule a series of natural catastrophes occurs and whose troops are defeated in the field. As a consequence, his followers lose their trust in his exceptional qualities and his authority falters; he can no longer sustain his charismatic rule.64 As we will see, Weber's insistence on the leader having to prove his worth continuously to guarantee the loyalty of his following, cannot be applied to Hindenburg's mythical standing in a clear‐cut manner.65 Hindenburg did not deliver victory in 1918. Nor did he ‘save’ Germany from perceived international humiliation, civil war, or hyperinflation in the postwar years. Nor could he avert the increasing political polarization, economic crisis, and record unemployment of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and he did not, as the majority of his voters of 1932 had hoped, save Germany from Nazi rule. Thus, Hindenburg did at least as much to disappoint the expectations his devotees had invested in him as he did to turn desperate hopes into confident expectations in the first place. And yet, he kept the status of a mythical hero throughout the period of 1914 to 1934. Those who subscribed to his myth largely clung to their beliefs for twenty years and more, although the political system in which they lived and all its other symbols (including the national flag) were overthrown not once, but twice during this time. The belief in Hindenburg's mythical qualities was less ephemeral and more enduring than a close reading of Weber would suggest.66

How far was such mythical adulation an exclusively German phenomenon? Should the personality cult surrounding Hindenburg be considered a further stride on Germany's ‘special path’, ultimately ending in dictatorship and war?67 Parallels to the hero worship of Hindenburg certainly suggest themselves in other countries and periods even though they cannot be discussed in detail here.68 In wartime Britain, not just a civilian leader like David Lloyd George was revered, but Herbert Kitchener, idolized until his sudden death in 1916, determined the British iconography of wartime.69 In the Second World War, Winston Churchill seemingly embodied key British virtues such as resilience and fighting spirit and has remained a popular icon to this day.70 In France, Philippe Pétain emerged as the hero of the First World War, his fame, like Hindenburg's, resting on a defensive battle—Verdun—and he would also be portrayed as the ‘saviour’ of the French as the leader of the Vichy government. The trust of large parts of the French population in Maréchal Pétain also proved (p.10) remarkably enduring even after the pitfalls of the policy of collaboration his name sanctioned became evident. The Pétain myth, in fact, shaped and defined French politics from the First World War to the post‐1945 period, in similar ways the Hindenburg myth left its mark on German history between 1914 and 1934.71 A hundred years earlier, Napoleon Bonaparte had also entered the realm of myth during his own lifetime. At the core of his myth lay not just his glory as a victorious military leader, but also notions of non‐partisanship and a conciliatory political role—not all too different from Hindenburg's reputation as towering above the fray of party politics. Napoleon's myth, too, was a broad and complex phenomenon that lasted beyond his death and represented much more than romantic nostalgia for the Imperial past. And like Hindenburg, Napoleon was the subject of a ‘cult of objects’.72 In Italy, the country that invites comparison with Germany most frequently due to its relatively late unification and strong regional characteristics, Guiseppe Garibaldi, the hero of the Risorgimento, a potent and plastic symbol of Italian nationalism, was exalted to mythical heights during his lifetime. As in Hindenburg's case, the Garibaldi myth was the result of an ‘intricate process of negotiation between actor and audience’ whose authorship was not always clear‐cut, as Lucy Riall has shown recently.73 Socialist regimes, be it Communist China or Soviet Russia, have equally witnessed heroic leadership cults around Mao Zedong, Lenin, and Stalin.74

Notwithstanding these parallels, which show that worshipping mythical figures was not limited exclusively to Germany, however, the Hindenburg myth merits investigation because its consequences were extremely serious: it was followed by National Socialism. While this outcome was far from coincidental, it was, as this study will assert, not inevitable from the outset. Public displays of unity between Hindenburg and the ‘young leader’ Adolf Hitler, such as the infamous ‘Day of Potsdam’ of March 1933 were, of course, milestones in both the history of Hindenburg's mythical adulation and in showcasing the ‘people's community’, a key element of Nazi propaganda. Focusing exclusively on Hindenburg's image in the early years of the Nazi regime, however, entails the danger of buying into Nazi propaganda by reducing the hero worship of Hindenburg to a linear process, which was always going to result in Hitler coming to power—when, in fact, it is precisely the complexity of Hindenburg's idolization that makes the phenomenon worth investigating. For it was not just based on right‐wing notions of authoritarian leadership but also more (p.11) collective national values, such as salvaging something positive from war and defeat, preventing chaos, and about self‐affirmation and German virtues in the face of crisis. The polyvalent and multi‐layered nature of the narrative also meant that different groups could deploy the myth, at different times, and for different purposes. It did not serve the same clear‐cut rationale for twenty years; its function changed repeatedly depending on the conditions of its deployment. This plasticity made the Hindenburg myth a much more powerful political weapon than a clear‐cut symbol strictly consigned to the echelons of Weimar's political right could ever have been. As this study will show, it was precisely because he managed to cut across party political lines like almost no other figure in this period of political polarization that Hindenburg's myth—and, by extension, his actions—could wield such influence over the course of German history.

Weimar's political landscape was fragmented into numerous different social‐political milieux, with at least nine different political or professional affiliations having been identified by scholars as the locus of group identities—the liberals, Social Democrats, left‐wing intellectuals, Communists, political Catholics, the industrial elites, agrarian conservatives, right‐wing nationalists, and the Nazis.75 When analysing the political and cultural codes to which they subscribed, they can be reduced to three blocks—the republicans, who were essentially in favour of Weimar democracy, the nationalist right, which opposed it and favoured authoritarian rule, and the Socialist block, which extolled class warfare.76 As we will see, only the latter, comprised of the left‐wing of Social Democracy and the Communist Party (KPD) founded after the revolution in 1918, was immune to Hindenburg's appeal from 1914 to 1934. All other seven subgroups—albeit at different times and in qualitatively different ways—subscribed to significant elements of the mythical narrative, and there we must include the moderate Social Democratic majority, which had supported the war and the Republic. He thus did not quite achieve, but bordered on a catch‐all appeal.

In terms of myth‐making, Hindenburg's exaltation was somewhat special. Without a permanent propagandistic myth‐maker, or, to use Claude Lévi‐Strauss's term, ‘bricoleur’, in the fashion of Joseph Goebbels to Hitler (at least prior to 1933), his mythical adulation was promoted by a variety of players.77 Acknowledging Hindenburg's own role in promoting and safeguarding his fame is especially crucial, because his much‐trumpeted personal modesty, lack of ambition and political interest, as well as his non‐existent vanity were such central elements of the mythical narrative. (p.12) According to his admirers, Hindenburg regarded the cult that had accreted around his name with growing irritation and did nothing to further this adulation. The liberal publicist Theodor Wolff, for instance, proclaimed that Hindenburg gained popularity precisely because he did not look for it. ‘It is unthinkable that anyone else on whom the eyes of the world rest, is freer of pose, less concerned with making a positive impression . . . than him’, he wrote in 1932.78 Such convictions have turned out to be remarkably long‐lived.79 Although replacing the notion of a Hindenburg, who was entirely free of vanity and did nothing to further his cult, with that of a highly image‐conscious politician obsessed with his public standing may be tempting, such a turnaround would be oversimplified. The truth probably lies somewhere in between these two extremes: there is plenty of evidence to revise contemporary ideas about Hindenburg's indifference towards his public standing, but there were also limits to his attempts to control the way he was portrayed, especially, as we will see, in ostentatiously apolitical media.80 Hindenburg's vanity or image‐consciousness cannot explain every twist and turn of his career.81

Since the main focus of this study will be on Hindenburg's mythical adulation during his lifetime, rather than on the posthumous deployment of his myth, it differs from other works on myth and memory in some important respects. Myths surrounding political ideas, such as that of the ‘national community’, or heroes of a previous era, such as the myths of Bismarck or Hermann the Cherusker in the Weimar years, are confined to the realm of discourse and commemoration. Thus, their capacity as projection screens for contemporary ideas and the influence exerted on them by present agendas is much more clear‐cut. As a living myth, Hindenburg could still influence the way he was perceived, and he could and did make decisions that contradicted his erstwhile reputation. In that sense, the future Nobel laureate Carl von Ossietzky only grasped part of the phenomenon when he described Hindenburg as ‘a heroic frame onto which anyone can clamp whatever colourful web of illusions he desires’.82 In fact, there was a tension inherent in the Hindenburg myth between the projected needs and wishes of his followers and his political actions. Because he made decisions that often contradicted the expectations of his diverse adherents, Hindenburg was no empty vessel waiting to be filled with whichever dreams and wishes people harboured at a particular moment in time. They could not simply mould him into the mythical figure they desired, but had to work with what they got from him. His (p.13) actions were constantly incorporated into the mythical narrative, making it an ever‐evolving phenomenon. This inner tension and need for ongoing adaptation, and the fact that despite so many ruptures between 1914 and 1934 the myth managed to survive make its history particularly worth examining.


(1.) WaM, 27 April 1925.

(2.) FZ, 27 April 1925, ev. edn.

(3.) Weltbühne, no. 12, 22 March 1932.

(4.) In the Federal Republic of Germany, the President is elected by a special assembly (the so‐called Bundesversammlung).

(5.) See his interview in FAZ, no. 28, 3 Feb. 2003, 39.

(6.) Deutsche Bücherei (ed.), Hindenburg‐Bibliographie: Verzeichnis der Bücher und Zeitschriftenaufsätze von und über den Reichspräsidenten Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg (Leipzig, 1938).

(7.) R. B. Asprey, The German High Command at War: Hindenburg and Ludendorff and the First World War, 4th edn. (London, 1994); M. Kitchen, The Silent Dictatorship: The Politics of the German High Command under Hindenburg and Ludendorff, 1916–1918 (London, 1976); W. J. Astore and D. E. Showalter, Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Washington DC, 2005).

(8.) W. Rauscher, Hindenburg: Feldmarschall und Reichspräsident (Vienna, 1997).

(9.) A. Dorpalen, Hindenburg and the Weimar Republic (Princeton, NJ, 1964).

(10.) W. Görlitz, Hindenburg: Ein Lebensbild (Bonn, 1953); W. Hubatsch, Hindenburg und der Staat: Aus den Papieren des Generalfeldmarschalls und Reichspräsidenten von 1878 bis 1934 (Göttingen, Berlin, Frankfurt/M., and Zurich, 1966); see also W. Scharlau, ‘Mit ihm trug sich Preußen selber zu Grabe: Der Mythos Hindenburg und ein wissenschaftlicher Skandal’, Der Monat, vol. 23 (1971), 56–64.

(11.) K. D. Bracher, Die Auflösung der Weimarer Republik: Eine Studie zum Problem des Machtverfalls in der Demokratie (Stuttgart and Düsseldorf, 1955); A. J. Nicholls, Weimar and the Rise of Hitler, 4th edn. (London, 2000); H. Mommsen, The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy (Chapel Hill, NC, and London, 1996).

(12.) V. R. Berghahn, ‘Die Harzburger Front und die Kandidatur Hindenburgs für die Präsidentschaftswahlen 1932’, VfZ, 13, no. 1 (1965), 64–82; N. D. Cary, ‘The Making of the Reich President, 1925: German Conservatism and the Nomination of Paul von Hindenburg’, CEH, 23 (1990), 179–204; G. Jasper, ‘Die verfassungs‐ und machtpolitische Problematik (p.220) des Reichspräsidentenamtes in der Weimarer Republik: Die Praxis der Reichspräsidenten Ebert und Hindenburg im Vergleich’, in R. König, H. Soell, and H. Weber (eds.), Friedrich Ebert: Bilanz und Perspektiven der Forschung (Munich, 1990), 147–59; L. E. Jones, ‘Hindenburg and the Conservative Dilemma in the 1932 Presidential Elections’, German Studies Review, vol. 20 (1997), 235–59; E. Matthias, ‘Hindenburg zwischen den Fronten: Zur Vorgeschichte der Reichspräsidentenwahlen von 1932 (Dokumentation)’, VfZ, vol. 8 (1960), 75–84; W. Pyta, ‘Die Präsidialgewalt in der Weimar Republik’, in M.‐L. Recker (ed.), Parlamentarismus in Europa: Deutschland, England und Frankreich im Vergleich (Munich, 2004), 65–96.

(13.) J. Wheeler‐Bennett, The Wooden Titan (London, 1936).

(14.) e. g. ibid., 272; Dorpalen, Hindenburg; H. A. Turner, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler (New York and Oxford, 1985); H. Schulze, Weimar: Deutschland 1917–1933 (Berlin, 1982), 100 and 298–300.

(15.) W. Maser, Hindenburg: Eine politische Biographie (Rastatt, 1990); H. Zaun, Hindenburg und die deutsche Außenpolitik 1925–1934 (Cologne, 1999); W. Pyta, ‘Paul von Hindenburg als charismatischer Führer der deutschen Nation’, in F. Möller (ed.), Charismatische Führer der deutschen Nation (Munich, 2004), 109–48; W. Pyta, Hindenburg: Herrschaft zwischen Hohenzollern und Hitler (Munich, 2007) offers the most far‐reaching re‐assessment of Hindenburg's political role. None of these authors gained access to Hindenburg's personal papers, which the family refuses to make available. This author's attempt to gain access was not crowned with success either, see Hindenburg's grandson Hubertus von Hindenburg to the author, 12 October 2004.

(16.) A few studies are exceptions: A. Menge, ‘The Iron Hindenburg—a Popular Icon of Weimar Germany’, German History, vol. 26, no. 3 (2008), 357–382; A.v.d. Goltz, ‘Die Macht des Hindenburg‐Mythos: Politik, Propaganda und Popularität in Kaiserreich und Republik’ in V. Borsó et al (eds.) Transfigurationen der Macht: Politik, Vermittlung und Popularität (Bielefeld, forthcoming 2009). K.‐D. Weber, Das Büro des Reichspräsidenten (Frankfurt/M., 2001), 250–79; H. Fischer, ‘Tannenberg‐Denkmal und Hindenburgkult’, in M. Hütt et al. (eds.), Unglücklich das Land, das Helden nötig hat: Leiden und Sterben in den Kriegsdenkmälern des Ersten und Zweiten Weltkriegs (Marburg, 1990), 28–49; D. Lehnert, ‘Die geschichtlichen Bilder von “Tannenberg”. Vom Hindenburg‐Mythos im Ersten Weltkrieg zum ersatzmonarchischen Identifikationssymbol in der Weimarer Republik’, in K. Imhof and P. Schulz (eds.), Medien und Krieg—Krieg in den Medien (Zurich, 1995), 37–72; J. v. Hoegen, Der Held von Tannenberg: Genese und Funktion des Hindenburg‐Mythos (Cologne, Weimar, Vienna, 2007). Hoegen's work, which was published after this study was submitted as a doctoral thesis at Oxford University, focuses exclusively on Hindenburg's image in the mainstream press. It does not examine the popular press and other mass media, such as film, radio, and commercial advertising, and leaves out the period between 1919 (p.221) and 1925, as well as the fate of the myth after Hindenburg's death in 1934.

(17.) Dorpalen, Hindenburg; Hoegen, Held von Tannenberg.

(18.) J. Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis (Munich, 1999); S. Wodianka, ‘Mythos und Erinnerung: Mythentheoretische Modelle und ihre gedächtnistheore−tischen Implikationen’, in G. Oesterle (ed.), Erinnerung, Gedächtnis, Wissen: Studien zur kulturwissenschaftlichen Gedächtnisforschung (Göttingen, 2005), 211–30.

(19.) M. Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago, IL, and London, 1992); L. Niethammer, ‘Maurice Halbwachs: Memory and the Feelings of Identity’, in B. Strath (ed.), Myth and Memory in the Construction of Community: Historical Patterns in Europe and Beyond (Brussels, 2000), 75–94.

(20.) P. H. Hutton, History as an Art of Memory (Hanover and London, 1993), 79.

(21.) B. Strath, ‘Introduction. Myth, Memory and History in the Construction of Community’, in idem (ed.), Myth and Memory, 33.

(22.) E. Wolfrum, Geschichte als Waffe: Vom Kaiserreich bis zur Wiedervereinigung (Göttingen, 2001), 5–7.

(23.) P. Nora et al. (eds.), Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, 3 vols. (New York, 1996–1998); E. Francois and H. Schulze (eds.), Deutsche Erinnerungsorte, 3 vols. (Munich, 2001).

(24.) D. Lehnert and K. Megerle (eds.), Politische Identität und nationale Gedenktage: Zur politischen Kultur in der Weimarer Republik (Opladen, 1989); idem (eds.), Politische Teilkulturen zwischen Integration und Polarisierung: Zur politischen Kultur in der Weimarer Republik (Opladen, 1990); U. Heinemann, Die verdrängte Niederlage: Politische Öffentlichkeit und Kriegsschuldfrage in der Weimarer Republik (Göttingen, 1983); A. Thimme, Flucht in den Mythos: Die Deutschnationale Volkspartei und die Niederlage von 1918 (Göttingen, 1969); B. Barth, Dolchstoßlegenden und politische Desintegration: Das Trauma der deutschen Niederlage im Ersten Weltkrieg 1914–1933 (Düsseldorf, 2003); J. Verhey, The ‘Spirit of 1914’: Militarism, Myth and Mobilization in Germany (Cambridge, 2000).

(25.) H.‐D. Schmid, ‘Der Mythos‐Begriff in der neueren Geschichtswissenschaft, Philosophie und Theologie’, in A. von Saldern (ed.), Mythen in Geschichte und Geschichtsschreibung aus polnischer und deutscher Sicht (Münster, 1996), 40–2, here: 40.

(26.) I. Kershaw, The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (Oxford and New York, 1987); A. Grunenberg, Antifaschismus: Ein deutscher Mythos (Reinbek, 1993); H. Blumenberg, Arbeit am Mythos (Frankfurt/M., 1996); A. Dörner, Politischer Mythos und symbolische Politik: Der Hermannmythos: Zur Enstehung des Nationalbewußtseins der Deutschen (Reinbek, 1996); R. Gerwarth, The Bismarck Myth: Weimar Germany and the Legacy of the Iron Chancellor (Oxford, 2005).

(27.) S. Behrenbeck, Der Kult um die toten Helden: Nationalsozialistische Mythen, Riten und Symbole (Vierow near Greifswald, 1996), 36 and 40; D. Orlow, (p.222) ‘The Conversion of Myths into Political Power: The Case of the Nazi Party, 1925–1926’, AHR, vol. 72, no. 3 (1967), 906–24; C. Jamme, Einführung in die Philosophie des Mythos, vol. 2: Neuzeit und Gegenwart (Darmstadt, 1991), 110.

(28.) A. Horstmann, ‘Der Mythosbegriff vom frühen Christentum bis zur Gegenwart’, Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte, 23 (1979), 7–54 and 197–245.

(29.) A. v. Saldern, ‘Mythen, Legenden und Stereotypen’, in idem (ed.), Mythen in Geschichte und Geschichtsschreibung aus polnischer und deutscher Sicht (Münster, 1996), 13–26, here: 14.

(30.) E. Cassirer, The Myth of the State (London, 1946); idem, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, vol. 2: Das mythische Denken (Berlin, 1925).

(31.) See e.g.: W. Scholz, ‘Mythos Hindenburg’, Die Woche, no. 40, 1 Oct. 1927; W. v. Schramm's ‘Gegenwärtiger Mythus’ in MNN, no. 68, 10 March 1932.

(32.) R. Voigt (ed.), Symbole der Politik, Politik der Symbole (Opladen, 1989), 11.

(33.) T. Ziolkowski, ‘Der Hunger nach dem Mythos: Zur seelischen Gastronomie der Deutschen in den Zwanziger Jahren’, in R. Grimm and J. Hermand (eds.), Die Sogenannten Zwanziger Jahre (Bad Homburg, 1970), 169–201; G. L. Mosse, The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars through the Third Reich (Ithaca, NY, 1991), 6.

(34.) Behrenbeck, Kult, 36–40; Saldern, ‘Mythen, Legenden und Stereotypen’.

(35.) J. Topolski, ‘Historiographische Mythen: Eine methodologische Einführung’, Saldern, Mythen, 27–35, here: 2.

(36.) H.‐H. Nolte, ‘Mythos‐Plädoyer für einen engen Begriff’, Saldern, Mythen, 36–9, here: 36.

(37.) C. G. Flood, Political Myth: A Theoretical Introduction (New York and London, 2004), 44.

(38.) Saldern, ‘Mythen, Legenden und Stereotypen’, 15.

(39.) Orlow, ‘The Conversion of Myths’, 906; Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, 76.

(40.) Behrenbeck, Kult, 45; H. Münkler and W. Storch, Siegfrieden: Politik mit einem deutschen Mythos (Berlin, 1988), 66–7.

(41.) J. Topolski, ‘Helden in der Geschichte und Geschichtsschreibung (theoretische Überlegungen)’, in J. Strzelzyk (ed.), Die Helden in der Geschichte und Historiographie (Poznan, 1997), 11–19.

(42.) H.‐J. Wirth, ‘Vorwort’, in idem (ed.), Helden: Psychosozial 10 (Weinheim, 1987), 6.

(43.) C. Lévi‐Strauss, ‘La structure des mythes’, in idem, Anthropologie structurale (Paris, 1958), 235–65, here: 242; Wodianka, ‘Mythos und Erinnerung’, 215–18.

(44.) Dörner, Politischer Mythos, 28 and 92; Gerwarth, Bismarck Myth, 6–7.

(45.) Cassirer, Myth of the State, 280.

(46.) Orlow, ‘The Conversion of Myths’, 906; Cassirer, Myth of the State, 278; on the Weimar republic as crisis‐ridden: D. Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The (p.223) Crisis of Classical Modernity (London, 1991); for a recent alternative reading: M. Föllmer and R. Graf (eds.), Die ‘Krise’ der Weimarer Republik: Zur Kritik eines Deutungsmusters (Frankfurt/M., 2005).

(47.) Behrenbeck, Kult, 45; Ziolkowski, ‘Hunger nach dem Mythos’, 170–1.

(48.) T. Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte 1866–1988: Arbeitswelt und Bürgergeist, 2nd edn. (Munich, 1991), 814.

(49.) T. Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero‐Worship, and the Heroic in History (London, 1841); U. Frevert, ‘Herren und Helden: Vom Aufstieg und Niedergang des Heroismus im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert’, in R. van Dülmen (ed.), Erfindung des Menschen: Schöpfungsträume und Körperbilder 1500–2000 (Vienna, 1998), 323–44.

(50.) Mosse, Nationalization, 53; Frevert, ‘Herren und Helden’, 332 and 335; on Bismarck especially K. Breitenborn, Bismarck: Kult und Kitsch um den Reichsgründer (Frankfurt/M. and Leipzig, 1990).

(51.) Dörner, Politischer Mythos, 96.

(52.) Gerwarth, Bismarck Myth, 86–92; H.‐U. Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, vol. 4: 1914–1949 (Munich, 2003), 547.

(53.) On these narratives: L. Kettenacker, ‘Der Mythos vom Reich’, in K.‐H. Bohrer (ed.), Mythos und Moderne: Begriff und Bild einer Rekonstruktion (Frankfurt, 1983), 134–56; K. Schreiner, ‘“Wann kommt der Retter Deutschlands?” Formen und Funktionen von politischem Messianismus in der Weimarer Republik’, Saeculum, 49 (1998), 105–47; Barth, Dolchstoßlegenden; Verhey, ‘Spirit of 1914’; on the ‘mythical web’ of Weimar, Dörner, Politischer Mythos, 314.

(54.) Ibid. H. Callies, ‘Arminius—Hermann der Cherusker: der deutsche Held’, in Strzelzyk, Helden in der Geschichte und Historiographie, 49–58; Münkler and Storch, Siegfrieden; R. Krohn, ‘Friedrich I. Barbarossa. Barbarossa und der Alte vom Berge: Zur neuzeitlichen Rezeption der Kyffhäuser‐Sage’, in U. Müller and W. Wunderlich (eds.), Mittelalter‐Mythen, vol. 1 (St. Gallen, 1996), 101–18.

(55.) Dörner, Politischer Mythos, 15.

(56.) Frevert, ‘Herren und Helden’, 324; R. Schilling, Deutungsmuster heroischer Männlichkeit in Deutschland 1813–1945 (Paderborn, 2003), 23–6.

(57.) P. Demandt, Luisenkult: Die Unsterblichkeit der Königin von Preussen (Cologne, 2003).

(58.) H.‐J. Wirth, ‘Die Sehnsucht nach Vollkommenheit: Zur Psychoanalyse der Heldenverehrung’, in idem Helden, 96–113, here: 97; M. Naumann, Strukturwandel des Heroismus: Vom sakralen zum revolutionären Heldentum (Königstein and Taunus, 1984).

(59.) Schilling, Deutungsmuster, 257–8; Wirth, ‘Sehnsucht nach Vollkommenheit’, 97.

(60.) Kershaw, Hitler Myth; H.‐U. Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, vols. 3 and 4 (Munich, 1995 and 2003); Möller, Charismatische Führer.

(61.) M. Weber, ‘Die drei reinen Typen der legitimen Herrschaft’, idem, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, ed. J. Winckelmann (Tübingen, 1985, 6th edition), 475–88.

(62.) W. J. Mommsen, Max Weber and German Politics 1890–1920 (Chicago, IL, and London, 1984), 332–89; for an application of Weber's theory to Hindenburg's rule: Pyta, ‘Hindenburg’; and his Hindenburg, especially 285–93; also Hoegen, Held von Tannenberg, 21–5.

(63.) This is especially true for Hans‐Ulrich Wehler's concept of Fremdcharisma (‘external charisma’) that he derived from Weber's theory. The notion of Fremdcharisma focuses exclusively on the projection of beliefs and wishes onto a leader. See his Gesellschaftsgeschichte, vol. 3, 370.

(64.) Weber, ‘Typen der legitimen Herrschaft’, 484. Accordingly, Ian Kershaw asserts that Hitler's image suffered substantially once he was no longer able to prove his worth by delivering foreign policy and military successes: Kershaw, Hitler Myth; on this ‘Bewährungszwang’ also Wehler, Gesellschaftsgeschichte, vol. 4, 553.

(65.) I disagree with Pyta here, who works with the idea of the ‘Bewährungszwang’ and argues that the projected wishes of his followers corseted Hindenburg, see his, Hindenburg, 291.

(66.) Kurt Hübner has described this obstinate clinging to an idea even in the face of intense pressure with reference to myths. Since the perceived charisma of a leader is also situated in the realm of myth, Hübner's findings can—and should be—applied to Weber's concept. See K. Hübner, ‘Wie irrational sind Mythen und Götter?’, in H. P. Duerr (ed.), Der Wissenschaftler und das Irrationale, vol. 3: Beiträge aus der Philosophie (Frankfurt/M., 1985), 7–32, here: 20.

(67.) D. Blackbourn and G. Eley, The Peculiarities of German History (Oxford, 1984).

(68.) On Hindenburg's adulation abroad, see Zaun, Hindenburg, 195–226; R. W. Faulkner, ‘American Reaction to Hindenburg of the Weimar Republic, 1925–1934’, The Historian 51/3 (1989), 402–22.

(69.) P. Warner, Kitchener: The Man behind the Legend (London, 1985).

(70.) J. Ramsden, Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and His Legend Since 1945 (London, 2002).

(71.) P. Servent, Le mythe Pétain: Verdun ou les tranchées de la mémoire (Paris, 1992); I therefore disagree with both Hoegen and Pyta who argue that the Hindenburg myth was an exclusively German phenomenon which had no European parallels. They specifically cite the French and British cases to make this point. See Hoegen, Held von Tannenberg, 61, 62 and 427; and Pyta, Hindenburg, 69 and 228. See further A. v. d. Goltz and R. Gildea, ‘Flawed saviours: the myths of Hindenburg and Pétain compared’, European History Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 3 (2009), 439–64.

(72.) S. Hazareesingh, The Legend of Napoleon (London, 2004), 261 and 72–89.

(73.) L. Riall, Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero (New Haven, CT, 2007), 392.

(74.) B. Apor et al. (eds.), The Leader Cult in Communist Dictatorships: Stalin and the Eastern Bloc (Basingstoke, 2004).

(75.) Lehnert and Megerle, Politische Teilkulturen.

(76.) Dörner, Politischer Mythos, 295–314; Wehler, Gesellschaftsgeschichte, vol. 4, 359.

(77.) C. Lévi‐Strauss, La pensée sauvage (Paris, 1962), cited in Wodianka, ‘Mythos und Erinnerung’, 217.

(78.) See Wolff's ‘Wunsch an Hindenburg’, BT, 2 Oct. 1932; also O. Meissner, Staatssekretär unter Ebert‐Hindenburg‐Hitler: Der Schicksalsweg des deutschen Volkes von 1918–1945, wie ich ihn erlebte (Hamburg, 1950), 382; and D. v. d. Schulenburg, Welt um Hindenburg. 100 Gespräche mit Berufenen (Berlin, 1935), 57; Even the former Prussian Interior Minister Carl Severing (SPD) continued to stress Hindenburg's humility and lack of vanity after 1945. See his article on Hindenburg in AdsD Bonn, NL Severing, 1/CSA B000027; Hindenburg's lack of vanity and personal ambition is also a paradigm of some of the more useful scholarly treatments, see e. g. Wheeler‐Bennett, Wooden Titan, 226.

(79.) Klaus‐Dieter Weber, who charts the mythmaking of Meissner et al. in some detail, bemoans the longevity of notions of an ‘apolitical’ Hindenburg, but clings to the idea that Hindenburg himself was not at all interested in the way he was portrayed and did not consider public opinion important. Weber, Büro, 172–3, 480–1, footnote, 1491.

(80.) For a more radical interpretation of Hindenburg as an obsessive ‘image politician’, Pyta, ‘Hindenburg’.

(81.) See Pyta, Hindenburg, who regards Hindenburg's obsession with his own myth as key to understanding his entire political career, especially his decision to appoint Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933.

(82.) Die Weltbühne, no. 12, 22 March 1932.