Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

The Kaiser’s Abdication

leave a comment »

In January, 1915, the highest levels of the Imperial German military command suffered a meltdown, with political intrigues and backstairs maneuvering. The crisis was never fully resolved, and as a result the Kaiser was effectively a figurehead in Germany, with little influence by the end of the year.

The Participants


General Erich von Falkenhayn. From the German Bundesarchiv.

General Erich von Falkenhayn. From the German Bundesarchiv.


On 25 October 1914, after losing the Battle of the Marne and, with it, the initiative in France, General Helmuth von Moltke (the younger) was dismissed as Chief of General Staff and replaced with the Prussian War Minister, General Erich von Falkenhayn. Falkenhayn continued Moltke’s strategic France-first direction, believing that the Russians could simply retreat into the interior of the country while the Germans wore themselves out on a two-front war.

Field Marshall von Hindenburg and General Ludendorff, 1917.

Field Marshall von Hindenburg and General Ludendorff, 1917.

Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff had rescued the German situation in East Prussia. With von Hindenburg commanding the Eighth Army and Ludendorff as his chief of staff, they inflicted a decisive defeat on the Russians at Tannenberg. They believed that they could destroy the Russian armies and force Russia out of the war. Therefore, they disagreed with the France-first strategy. Ludendorff and von Falkenhayn also knew and despised one another.

Major Hans von Haeften was the press officer of the Eighth Army. When von Moltke was moved to the titular position of Deputy Chief of General Staff (“tossed in the corner like a used umbrella,” in von Molkte’s own self-pitying summary), Haeften became his adjutant. Moltke naturally resented his successor and had an interest in von Falkenhayn’s downfall. Haeften served as liaison between Moltke and the Eighth Army pair, and as lobbyist in Berlin while Hindenburg and Ludendorff were in the field.

The Chief of Staff

The role of a chief of staff is to organize staff work for the commander. Commanders at regimental and higher levels typically have responsibilities beyond combat leadership and staffs to assist with these added responsibilities. This is the source of the distinction between “line” and “staff”.


Military command structure with staff functions. Additional staff functions may exist.

Military command structure with principal staff functions. Additional staff functions may exist.

This is a typical command structure where the commander has both line and staff responsibilities. The commander is responsible for the performance of his command regardless of how or whether he delegates his responsibilities.

If a general wants to move an army to the area of Posen, there is a lot of staff work to do. The forces involved have grown to such a size that the whole army cannot just march in column down one road. It will have to move in separate corps and take up mutually supporting positions. The men will need food along their lines of march. Enemy actions to interfere with the movement will have to be foreseen and pre-empted. Artillery will have to be put into positions to interdict possible enemy advances or support planned attacks on the enemy. The staff would work out all these details. The operations officer would prepare orders for the subordinate commanders, ready for the general’s signature. The chief of staff was responsible for directing this effort and ensuring that minute operational issues were kept off the commander’s desk.

Details such as how many men could march through a road junction in a day or how many wagons would be needed to feed a corps in a day are part of command science. The commander can and should delegate command science matters to staff.

Decisions such as where to put the main effort, when to commit the reserves or when to change the plans in response to events are part of command art. The commander cannot delegate command art. These matters are his direct responsibility and are why you have commanders in the first place.

The German General Staff

A general staff is a staff operating at a national level. The Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL) was the highest echelon of command staff in Imperial Germany. In January 1915, Falkenhayn was the chief of staff. Who, then, was his commander? Kaiser Wilhelm.


Kaiser Wilhelm II. Picture from the Library of Congress.

Kaiser Wilhelm II. Picture from the Library of Congress.

The German General Staff had gone into breakdown at the outbreak of the war. On 1 August 1914, the Imperial foreign service thought that Britain had signaled the possibility of Anglo-French neutrality in a German war with Russia. The Kaiser seized on the chance and ran to Moltke.

Now we can go to war against Russia only. We simply march the whole of our Army to the East!
— Kaiser Wilhelm, quoted in Tuchman, p. 98.

Moltke threw a tantrum, claiming that the mobilization would have been thrown into chaos, and the Kaiser backed down. In fact, the OHL always had contingency plans drafted for alternative actions.

Whether or not the opportunity to go to war against Russia with France remaining neutral was real, the Kaiser had failed as a commander in backing down against the first sign of resistance by his subordinate.

Revolt in the East

By December, von Hindenburg had been made into a folk hero and the German government had allowed a personality cult (as it were) to develop around him. He had brought success in the field while the war in France had resulted in stalemate.

The Kaiser, while constantly appearing in military uniform, was detached from day-to-day conduct of the war. There was no forum to resolve the strategic dispute between the France-first and Russia-first parties. As a result, the dispute degenerated into politicking among the officers in the War Ministry, the court and the imperial family. Haeften moved between Berlin and the eastern headquarters, lining up allies for Hindenburg-Ludendorff and lobbying for the dismissal of Falkenhayn. The latter started gathering allies in his own defense.

Matters came to a boil on 11 January 1915 when Hindenburg demanded the replacement of Falkenhayn with Moltke and threatened to publicly resign if not accommodated. On the same day, Falkenhayn and Ludendorff had a stormy meeting in Breslau that got very personal very quickly. Meanwhile, Haeften was recruiting the sons of the Kaiser to his cause. Four days later, the Kaiser implored Hindenburg not to resign.

Unable to ignore the issue any longer, the Kaiser summoned Haeften to his headquarters in France on 20 January. The Kaiser was unwilling to confront the man he had allowed to become a patriotic cult hero, so he took out his anger on a staff major. Wilhelm made clear his support of the France-first strategy, and objected to the organizational turmoil being created.

I will not do General Joffre the favor of being forced to remove my Chief of General Staff every few weeks.
— Kaiser Wilhelm to Major von Haefen, quoted in Herwig, p. 133.

Haeften was reassigned from the Eastern Front to the military district of Cologne. Before he departed, Haeften was given a set of questions from Wilhelm to answer. The Kaiser might as well have required Haeften to write “I shall not foment disunion among generals” 500 times.

Clearly the Kaiser was in support of the France-first strategy. He was in agreement in policy with his chief of staff, as well as desiring to uphold Falkenhayn’s position. It was Wilhelm’s responsibility as commander-in-chief to bang heads together if necessary and make his subordinates put their personal issues aside to do what was best for the nation in a time of crisis. He did not do this.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff continued to run their theatre of war, receiving three new army corps for their campaigns against Russia. Falkenhayn continued to seek victory in the West. The strategic argument that helped to bring the conflict about remained unresolved.


Falkenhayn initiated the Verdun campaign in 1916, seeking victory through attrition. However, the French were able to make replace their losses. With the failure of the campaign plus the continuing political maneuvering of Hindenburg and Ludendorff against him, Falkenhayn was finally removed from his position as Chief of General Staff in August 1916. He was given a field command and fought in Romania, where he took Bucharest, and then in Palestine.

Hindenburg became Chief of General Staff after Falkenhayn’s dismissal. He brought Ludendorff as his deputy, effectively his executive officer. The two took over the German state, effectively imposing a military dictatorship. In July 1917 they even participated in bringing down the Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg. The pair kept civilians in shambolic government offices, but until the end of the war they held real power in Germany. Turning the teachings of Clausewitz upside down, the soldiers were now in charge and the statesman were in service to them.

American propaganda poster, 1917.

American propaganda poster, 1917.

The Western Allies portrayed the Kaiser as the animating spirit of the German enemy. However, by the time this poster was circulated, Wilhelm was an irrelevance. The Navy and Hindenburg determined the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare; Wilhelm rubber-stamped it.

Ludendorff finally quit on 26 October 1918. After fleeing to Sweden, he returned to Germany in time to participate in two attempts to overthrow the Weimar government: the Kapp Putsch in 1920 and the Hitler Putsch in 1923. He broke with Hindenburg, and later with Hitler. He rejected Hitler’s offer to make him a field marshal in 1935.

Hindenburg initially retired from public life in 1919. He was subpoenaed to appear before a Reichstag Committee of Enquiry that year to answer questions about the German defeat. Hindenburg ignored the questions and read from a prepared statement, where he said that the defeat was caused by a stab in the back by disloyal elements within Germany. In 1925, he was elected as President; some called him the Ersatzkaiser. He initially refused to grant the chancellorship to Hitler, but reversed himself under the influence of von Papen. Hindenburg died in 1934, by which time Hitler already had seized dictatorial powers.

Many German officers in the 1920s recoiled from the Hindenburg-Ludendorff military dictatorship. They resolved that this must never happen again. The army must remain apolitical and serve the politicians, not give them orders. However, their choice of politician to serve was most unfortunate.

Hans von Haeften retired in 1920 with the rank of major general. He died in 1937. He had two sons, Hans-Bernd and Werner, both of whom participated in the resistance to Hitler. Werner became an army officer and ultimately served as Stauffenberg’s adjutant; he was shot along with Stauffenberg and two other officers when the attempted coup collapsed. Hans-Bernd was a diplomat and co-conspirator. He was tried before the People’s Court and hanged in August, 1944.


Herwig, Holger, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918.

Tuchman, Barbara, The Guns of August.


Written by srojak

February 7, 2015 at 5:39 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: