J. von Hoegen, Der Held von Tannenberg (Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius)
Jesko von Hoegen, Der Held von Tannenberg.
Genese und Funktion des Hindenburg-Mythos, Köln, Weimar, Wien
(Böhlau) 2007, XII–475 p. (Stuttgarter Historische Forschungen,
4), ISBN 978-3-412-17006-6, EUR 54,90.
rezensiert von/compte rendu rédigé par
Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Knoxville
This fascinating book is not a traditional biography, but rather a subtle, detailed, and insightful study of the powerful and historically fateful myth that surrounded Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) from the opening stages of the First World War to the Nazi consolidation of power in Germany. The author examines – over the course of decades – the origins, changes, transmutations, uses, legacies, and ultimate meaning of this political myth centered on one man.
Von Hoegen stresses that the circumstances of the genesis of the myth in August 1914 were of great importance to its later trajectory. Some of those circumstances were improbable. Before the outbreak of the First World War, von Hindenburg was basically unknown to a larger public, and indeed his military career, which reached back to Bismarck’s wars of German unification, seemed over. Yet the Battle of Tannenberg in East Prussia launched the myth of Hindenburg as a providential crisis manager and savior. The author convincingly insists that at the core of the new Hindenburg myth was not so much the stunning victory over Russian armies itself as his aura as the rescuer of German territory. In the years that followed, in times of crisis, the Hindenburg myth would be reenergized by the promise of rescue for Germany, returning to the origins of the phenomenon. As the author maintains, »Der Mythos des ›Retters‹ ist als der Kern des Hindenburg-Mythos and als Ausgangspunkt des Charismas des ›Kriegshelden‹ Hindenburg anzusehen« (p. 426).
The myth that grew up around Hindenburg after the victory at Tannenberg, moreover, was not a centrally directed and constructed masterpiece of governmental propaganda, according to von Hoegen. Rather, it grew from massive public interest and devotion to this carrier of hopes at a time of crisis, as the dehumanizing realities of industrial warfare were becoming increasingly evident. An eager homefront in Germany read hagiographic accounts of war journalists visiting the headquarters in the East, and expressed its enthusiasm for this champion of the national cause in a proliferation of souvenirs named after him. One contemporary comedian claimed to have seen the name of Hindenburg used to advertise beer, boots, ice-cream, cakes, »und tausend andere Hindenburg-Dinge!« (p. 84). As the previously unknown character of Hindenburg took on more detailed outline in the popular mind, the virtues ascribed to him were in essence Wilhelmine society’s own idealized self-concept, projected onto a military victor. Comparisons to Bismarck abounded, ascribing his political skills and insights to Hindenburg, who now came to be seen not only as a military victor, but also the sole embodiment of the unity of will of the national community.
On the basis of extensive reading of a range of newspaper accounts, from publications across a spectrum of political orientations, the author concludes that there was a remarkable uniformity to the cult of personality, with little variation in regional, religious, class, or political terms (with the exception of the Social Democratic workers, who showed greater resistance to its lure). The further victories won by Hindenburg and his aide, Erich Ludendorff, on the Eastern Front, and their growing popularity, led to their elevation to the Supreme Command in Germany by 1916. Already at this date Hindenburg began to function as an Ersatzkaiser in the public imagination, putting Kaiser Wilhelm II increasingly into the shadows.
When an exhausted Germany at last was defeated in the fall of 1918, by a paradoxical development Hindenburg’s public persona managed to avoid the stigma of failure and collapse, which instead adhered to his aide, Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, who fled into exile. By contrast, Hindenburg stayed on as military commander even as the collapsing imperial state gave way to a democratic revolutionary regime. Hindenburg came to be regarded as a rescuer of another sort, a »moderator« of the transition between the »Reich« to the democracy. Yet in the immediate postwar period, another dynamic was also at work, as the surviving prestige of the Hindenburg myth and the »Stab in the Back Legend« (Dolchstoßlegende) mutually reinforced one another among a population fleeing a full acceptance of defeat in the Great War.
A further unexpected twist was yet in store, as after the death of President Friedrich Ebert in 1925, the now 77-year old Hindenburg was elected to head the Weimar democracy as President. His supporters in this bid claimed that Hindenburg was a man above parties, immune to the opportunism and selfishness they asserted were the essence of parliamentary democracy. In a word, in a throwback to the opening stages of the First World War, Hindenburg was again presented as a rescuer (p. 266). His tenure as President was also rich in paradox, von Hoegen argues. Instead of ushering in a monarchical restoration, as some of his followers expected, his presidency and the symbolic weight of his own public image weakened the forces of monarchism by providing a charismatic alternative. At the same time, however, and in spite of the hopes of supporters of the Republic, the aura of Hindenburg did not serve to reconcile all to the new democracy, nor to integrate them politically. The Hindenburg narrative was vigorously opposed by the communists, Social Democrats, and the Nazis (who in Hitler had their own candidate for charismatic authority in mind). These oppositional groups proposed an »anti-legend« as a negative counternarrative to that of Hindenburg as hero and rescuer.
The last paradox came with Hindenburg’s fateful appointment of Hitler as chancellor on January 30, 1933, a step that Hindenburg had resisted in the past. The task of Nazi propagandists was now to shift from trying to deconstruct the Hindenburg myth as in the past, to harnessing it to their own purposes. In this they succeeded, as seen in the symbolically laden rituals of the Day of Potsdam (March 21, 1933), culminating in a handshake between the old Field Marshall and the former corporal of the Great War near the grave of King Frederick the Great. The stage-managed event aimed to communicate to Germans the continuities and linkages of tradition and the past with the new Germany the Nazis promised. In a more muted way, Nazi instrumentalization of the Hindenburg myth continued even beyond his death on August 2, 1934, and was prominently on display with his entombment in the Tannenberg war memorial in 1935 (contrary to his private wishes). The myth itself expired by 1945, in the rubble of a more total defeat.
This study is marked by close reading of textual sources, draws on a wide range of documents, and has the special merits of providing both a thoughtful theoretical overview on the concepts of leadership cults and charisma as well as a closely reasoned conclusion section which in condensed form very clearly summarizes the findings. Besides these, von Hoegen also has made very effective and compelling use of visual images, two dozen of them handsomely reproduced in the book. The visual representations of Hindenburg’s myth include cartoons, official portrait paintings, the wooden statue of Hindenburg erected in downtown Berlin as part of the war loan drive, and election posters. This study also should open up fascinating questions for a host of scholars about comparisons and contrasts with other leadership cults in Europe of the interwar period, an age of would-be dictators and strongmen. In particular (although this is of course beyond the scope of the book under discussion) it would be fascinating to learn more about the resonance of Hindenburg’s image beyond Germany’s borders. Did it foster imitations? What impact, if any, did the cult have on the sphere of international relations, as Germany sought to craft a role for itself after World War I? Finally, in terms of the largest significance of leader cults as such, von Hoegen concludes by reminding that the rise and popularity of the Hindenburg myth testified to a deep internal need in German society for »Identität und Integration stiftenden Wirkungen politischer Mythen«, which the author argues is still present today. The author ends on a careful note: »Das Entstehen eines Personen-Mythos ist jedoch eher unwahrscheinlich […]. Dennoch ist nicht gänzlich auszuschließen, daß ein nationales Krisenmoment erneut die Sehnsucht nach einer charismatischen Führerfigur, eine ›Krisenmanager‹ hervorrufen könnte« (p. 435).
Both as a historical study and as a cautionary tale in politics, this study is rewarding and most valuable.
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Rezension von: Jesko von Hoegen, Der Held von Tannenberg. Genese und Funktion des Hindenburg-Mythos, Köln, Weimar, Wien (Böhlau) 2007, XII–475 p. (Stuttgarter Historische Forschungen, 4), ISBN 978-3-412-17006-6, EUR 54,90. In: Francia-Recensio 2010/3 | 19./20. Jahrhundert – Histoire contemporaine URL: http://www.perspectivia.net/content/publikationen/francia/francia-recensio/2010-3/ZG/hoegen_liulevicius Veröffentlicht am: May 26, 2013 Zugriff vom: May 26, 2013