“It does not seem to me to be sufficiently recognized everywhere among the officials that the existence or non-existence of our people and Empire is at stake.”
(Paul von Hindenburg)
On 3 February 1917, the German army began a colossal withdrawal operation on the Western Front. Known as “Operation Alberich”, the strategic retreat undertaken by the Chief of the Army Staff, Paul von Hindenburg, was planned to be over in 35 days and its objective was to fall back on a defence-in-depth line known as the Siegfriedstellung (Siegfried Position), or Hindenburg line.
This consisted of a comprehensive series of fortifications, preparations for which had started as early as August 1916 along the Noyon salient in the northwest of France. The decision to withdraw was reached after the difficult situation created following the disastrous German offensive at Verdun and the subsequent defeat that was unfolding on the Somme. On top of all this came the ruinous consequences of the Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front and the entry of Romania into the war.
The crisis situation that ensued had cost the Chief of the Army Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, his post. Paul von Hindenburg aided by Erich Ludendorff, succeeded Falkenhayn in the summer of 1916.
By stabilising their position along the new line, they aimed to reduce the length of the German front by at least 50 kilometres, which would have enabled substantial savings to be made in terms of men and materials. Moreover, during the withdrawal the Germans destroyed infrastructure and civilian buildings, leaving “scorched earth” behind them. The whole defensive concept on which the Hindenburg line was based aimed to optimise resources and create a defence that was considered impenetrable. Centred upon a system of five main fortifications, the line also envisaged a series of outposts intended to interfere with and weaken any possible enemy offensive.
In a more general context, the withdrawal was an integral part of a complete, comprehensive overhaul of the German strategies and tactics employed by the new Chief of the Army Staff. His authority began to extend well beyond military issues. The so-called “Hindenburg Programme” in fact envisaged large-scale use of resources and manpower in order to double German industrial output within a short time and to enable the country to keep pace with the enemy.
The Chief of the Army Staff in that period divested the civilian authorities and the Emperor himself of their powers, creating a situation that was later to be defined as the “silent dictatorship”. The personality cult that was being developed around the figure of Hindenburg also contributed to creating this situation. In the German states wooden statues of Hindenburg were erected in his honour and he became a legendary figure. Starting with the great victories he achieved early on in the war at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, Hindenburg was seen as an embodiment of the typical traits of the German hero: strength, rectitude and honour. His legend appealed to Germans of all classes, confessions and generations. It was however particularly widespread and propagated amongst the members of the landowning nobility in Prussia, the so-called Junkers.
Whilst formally refuting the definition of military dictatorship, the interference of Hindenburg and his staff in the political and economic life of Germany knew no limits, nor did their profound control over propaganda and communications.
The main limitation of the Hindenburg Programme turned out to be the management of the workforce. Both the construction of the Hindenburg line, and his industrial programme in fact required the use of millions of men who had to be taken away from the front. This problem was partially solved through the systematic use of Russian prisoners and the relocation of workers arriving from the countryside and food production sector. Which, on the other hand, was one of the reasons for which Germany, towards the end of the war, found itself in a situation of famine and insufficient food supplies.
The parable of Hindenburg and his Army Staff came to an end in the autumn of 1918. In September, Ludendorff suggested seeking a compromise with the Entente to reach an armistice, but changed his mind shortly afterwards and resigned. Subsequently it was to be Hindenburg who managed the process of handing over power to the civilian authorities, as well as appointing Prince Max of Baden as Chancellor and putting pressure on the Kaiser to abdicate.