This is one of those rare days when me and the heritage industry want to commemorate the same big news, because a hundred years ago the man running the German Army, Chief of General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, resigned after almost two years in the job. His replacement was the overall commander on the Eastern Front, Field Marshal Paul von Beneckendorf und von Hindenburg (we’ll just call him Hindenburg from now on), and his long-time number two, General Ludendorff, remained at his side as Quartermaster-General.
Approaching seventy, Hindenburg was a puppet. An essentially inert figure, he had been called out of retirement in 1914 to a command in East Prussia on the Eastern Front (with Ludendorff as his chief of staff), and he’d been striking lucky ever since. He had little to do with the initial German victory at Tannenberg, but Ludendorff conspired with the supreme command to make him its victor for propaganda purposes, and from that point Hindenburg became Germany’s equivalent of Lord Kitchener, a popular hero whose impressive features – martial but reassuring – made him the perfect front for Ludendorff.
While Ludendorff (who wasn’t so pretty) ran the Eastern Front, exaggerated his successes, and plotted with right-wing military and industrial contacts to bend overall German strategy to his ambitions, Hindenburg took the popular credit. For the next two years, Ludendorff pressed for military concentration on the Eastern Front, lobbied for his fantastic vision of Germany’s eastern empire, and generally undermined Falkenhayn’s authority whenever possible, while his military and industrial supporters took effective control of the war effort by establishing a firm grip on its supply system (1 May, 1916: Stomping On Thin Ice). By the time Falkenhayn resigned, his position fatally weakened by the exhaustion of German offensive efforts at Verdun and the Somme, the figurehead hero of the east was the inevitable choice as his successor.
I’ve poured bile over Ludendorff in the past (7 February 1915: Breaking Bad), so I won’t go into detail here about his first-class organisational abilities, both military and administrative, or about his self-important, power-hungry, fanatically nationalist, anti-semitic, stubborn and militarily deluded character. Both had helped define the Eastern Front’s peculiar form of mobile stalemate, and during the next two years both would help shape Germany as the modern world’s first military-industrial, totalitarian dictatorship.
The new Third Supreme Command (Möltke led the First, Falkenhayn the Second) sought to counter increased Allied production output by fully mobilising the German people for the war effort, in pursuit of absolute military victory and massive territorial annexations. On 31 August, just two days after Falkenhayn’s resignation, the regime put forward a plan to take central control over almost every aspect of national life. The Kaiser, by now a cowed and acquiescent figure, passed the measures under the Prussian Siege Law, which gave the crown far-reaching powers in time of national emergency.
The plan was known as the Hindenburg Programme. It demanded massive increases in military output, including tripled machine gun production, doubled ammunition production and similar leaps in production of mortars, artillery, aircraft and trench warfare equipment. Every suitable factory was turned over to war work, and those found to be inefficient were closed down by a new Integration of Factories Committee. In December 1916, all able bodied males not already in uniform were conscripted as war labour, while attempts were made to conscript women for the same purpose, and deportation programmes brought in forced labour from occupied Belgium and Poland. None of these unpopular measures made much difference to a labour force already stretched to the limit.
Meanwhile a Supreme War Bureau, headed by General Gröner, took over the functions of both the War Materials Department (KRA) and the arms procurement office. Effectively a branch of the Supreme Command, it proceeded to redraw Germany as an industrial magnate’s fantasy, pouring funds into the development of heavy industry and planning a series of lavish infrastructural projects without regard for feasibility.
The whole Programme was based on the assumption that the German people as a whole had been slacking – a view that was completely in tune with elite, right-wing thinking in contemporary Germany but had no basis in reality – and its immediate effect was to put an enormous spanner in the works of the German economy. Failure to find untapped labour resources meant 1.2 million men had to be transferred from the Army to civilian war work in September, while the strain of industrial reorganisation and a new campaign in Romania brought the railway system to a virtual standstill in October, causing widespread coal shortages, and unusually cold weather added urban starvation to the mix during the winter.
By the spring of 1917 none of the Programme’s production targets had been met, or even approached, and its only major achievement had been to unleash a storm of opposition, killing off the faltering political truce and raising the spectre of revolution that had haunted Germany’s pre-War ruling classes.
The occasional shaft of pragmatism did improve matters slightly during 1917. February’s decision to cut back on investment projects enabled the Programme to meet some of its targets by the autumn, including machine gun and light artillery quotas, but the industrial magnates behind the Third Supreme Command would not be denied their earthly paradise. Gröner was dismissed when he tried to curtail their profits in mid-1917, and a year later even Ludendorff was unable to force through similar measures. Meanwhile Germany’s economy and society screamed towards the buffers, its supercharged industries clearly unable to meet requirements or sustain the effort, its angry population ever closer to exhaustion, and its politics lurching into extremism.
German military strategies during the last two years of the War – from unrestricted submarine warfare to the occupation of Eastern Europe and the last battles in France – would display the same kind of reckless aggression as the Hindenburg Programme, and at first glance it’s hard to see the Third Supreme Command’s tenure as anything but a form of madness. To make any sense of the national harakiri presided over by Ludendorff and his backers you have to take on board the mindset of Germany’s elite rulers during the early twentieth century.
Germany had come into the War under internal political pressures the ruling classes could only see as revolutionary, and that terrible vision still dominated their thinking in 1916. They were fighting the British, French and Russians for Germany’s place in the world, but the struggle that really mattered to them had less to do with national ambitions than with class war. When the War seemed to be going against them, they preferred a colossal (and repeated) gamble on the ever more remote possibility of total victory to what they saw as the certainty of revolution without it.
History can’t be sure if revolution in a defeated Germany was inevitable, or if the chaos unleashed on post-War Germany was a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. It can record that the Third Supreme Command operated in ways and in conditions that made the gamble’s failure all but inevitable, and that it trampled all over civil liberties in pursuit of state aims defined by and for of a powerful minority. In other words, the military-industrial oligarchy that took power in August 1916 created both a blueprint for future totalitarian dictatorships, and made Germany the fertile ground in which the twentieth century’s most ghastly example could flourish. A century on, that seems worth a commemorative mention.