Wooden Titan: Hindenburg in Twenty Years of German History, 1914-1934. By John W. Whcelcr-Bcnnctt. New York: William Morrow and Company. $3.00.
Paul von hindenburg lived three almost distinct lives. The first of these dates from his birth in 1847 to his retirement from the army in 1911, The second begins in 1914 at the age of sixty-seven when he was appointed to the command of the Eighth Army and ends with his second retirement in 1919. The third begins with his election to the Presidency in 1925 at the age of seventy-eight and lasts until his death nine years later.
John W. Wheeler-Bennett, in “Wooden Titan,” claims that the choice of Hindenburg as commander of the German army which was later to win the victories of Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes was almost an accident. His name was mentioned by a cousin of Hindenburg, who was a junior officer on the staff of Moltke, as a suitable figurehead for Ludendorff, who had been appointed as Chief of Staff of the Eighth Army. The Eastern front, where Ludendorff and Hindenburg were sent, had been almost in a state of panic over the Russian advance. The brilliant strategy of Ludendorff and the unshakeable confidence and calm of Hindenburg constituted a combination which was not only to triumph over the Russian army but was to furnish an asset of incalculable value to Germany during the four years of war that lay ahead. This combination of brilliance and calm confidence, however, was to furnish the materials for a yet unsettled argument over the relative importance of Ludendorff and Hindenburg in determining the military fortunes of Germany during the war.
It is Mr. Wheeler-Bennett’s thesis that both in the war and in after years as President of Germany, Hindenburg was really a kind of glorified figurehead—a Wooden Titan, symbolized by his gigantic wooden statue which was set up in Berlin during the war as an incident to patriotic propaganda. This thesis is brilliantly supported by the evidence which the author marshals. It would be completely inadequate as an explanation of Hindenburg as a personality and of his place in German history, if it were not that Wheeler-Bennett shows that he appreciates the towering importance of Wooden Titans as symbols of authority and power. Perhaps the author does not quite realize how few men there are who can adequately fill the role of Wooden Titan and how difficult it is to find one of these men in times of national emergency. Yet hardly any other thesis would serve so well as a solvent to dissolve the incrustations of gossip and mystery which have incased the Hindenburg Legend.
The author paints an amazing picture of the way in which the Hindenburg-Ludendorff combination finally became during the last years of the war the real government of Germany. It was over the opposition, not only of the German Foreign Office, but over the personal opposition of the Kaiser, that a dictated peace was forced upon Soviet Russia. The policy of annexations in the West which was responsible for the great spring offensive of 1918 was determined by Ludendorff-Hindenburg. It was a stunning blow to both Kaiser and Reichstag when the failure of this offensive resulted in the demand by the General Staff that the Foreign Office obtain peace terms for the German army, threatened with overwhelming defeat.
The unlovely side of Hindenburg’s character is revealed as the author recounts the incidents which led up to the Kaiser’s abdication. Hindenburg refused for a long time to believe in the necessity of the Kaiser’s abdication; and when circumstances compelled him to recognize the necessity, he did not have the courage to break the news to the Kaiser himself. Instead Groner, the new Quartermaster General, was forced to accept this painful duty. The first indelible blot on Hindenburg’s honor came when later he refused to accept responsibility for having advised the Kaiser to abdicate, but on the contrary allowed Groner to suffer the attacks of the Nationalists for performing a duty which was Hindenburg’s responsibility.
Mr. Wheeler-Bennett builds up a damning case against Hindenburg as he relates the incidents of one major crisis after another in which the old Field Marshal induced someone to assume the heaviest responsibilities under the most binding pledges of his eternal support. In almost every case Hindenburg later betrayed his pledge and left his subordinates to their fate. Thus he induced Erzberger to become one of the members of the Armistice Commission and in effect signer of his own death warrant, since Hindenburg made no move to protect him later against his assassins. Bruning was induced to become Chancellor against his wish and then was brutally abandoned when Papen and Schleicher conspired against him. Schleicher was later left to his fate when Papen and Hitler turned against him.
This book is of the greatest importance to the historian, since the author has been able to tap sources covering the period from the beginning of Bruning’s Chancellorship to the accession of Hitler which have not hitherto been available. Internal evidence indicates that these sources were primarily the personal accounts of Bruning and Treviranus. We owe it to the fortuitous escape of these two men from the Blood Purge that much which formerly could only be deduced from circumstances is now corroborated and explained. The book is most interestingly written. It amounts to a history of post-war Germany, with the events of the period organized around the life of Hindenburg. It is indispensable for anyone who wishes to be informed concerning the period which gave rise to the Third Reich.