As a result of a run-off election on April 26, 1925, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was elected president of Germany. The election took place during the turbulent days of Germany's Weimar Republic.
Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg was born in Posen in 1847. A career army officer, Hindenburg, then known as Beneckendorff, rose through the ranks of the imperial German military and saw service in the 1870-71 Franco-German War. Eventually, Hindenburg reached the rank of general and retired as a corps commander in 1911. In Germany's peace-time army, command of a corps, roughly 30,000 men, was seen as the crowing achievement to an honorable career.
Hindenburg rejoined the army at the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and led the German Army to victory over the Russians at Tannenberg. Henceforward known as Hindenburg, the old soldier was promoted to field marshal, Germany's highest rank, and by 1916 was promoted to chief of staff of the German Army. Together with his right-hand man, Gen. Erich Ludendorff, Hindenburg became the virtual military dictator of Germany for the remainder of the war.
With the Allies unwilling to negotiate with the Kaiser's government, Germany became a republic at the end of the war, its constitution written in the central German town of Weimar, which lent its name to the new government. Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, was soon elected the president of the new republic by the Reichstag, Germany's parliament. The new constitution stipulated, however, that the next president must be elected by a popular vote.
This was also a period of civil war and revolution throughout Germany. Germany's communists, many of whom had been members of the SPD before it came to power, believed the time had come for the revolution. Taking a cue from Vladimir Lenin in Russia, German communists sought to create a government system along Soviet lines, while Ebert and the SPD, already in power, questioned the need for revolution. It wasn't long before communist and government forces clashed openly in the streets. Murder and riots were not uncommon, and armed street battles became a regular occurrence in Germany’s larger cities.
The communist uprisings had just settled down when a new problem struck Germany: hyperinflation. The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I required Germany to pay the Allies war reparations in the amount of $33 billion. Additionally, the Allies insisted on a strict timetable which would have Germany paying off the costs of the war by the year 1988. Germany's economy, however, had been smashed by the war and further disrupted by the communist uprisings. The only solution German economists could come up with was printing more money. This “solution” only led to the value of the currency dropping catastrophically.
By 1923, the government was printing trillion mark notes. An American could spend a week in Berlin's finest hotel, the Adlon, with room service and all the amenities for only five American dollars. One story, perhaps apocryphal, told of a German who filled his wheelbarrow up with hundreds of million mark notes as he went to the store. Ducking inside quickly to see if the store had what he needed, he returned to find all of his money scattered on the sidewalk. Someone had stolen the wheelbarrow.
The German middle class, which had invested heavily in war bonds, had been economically wiped out by the nation's defeat in World War I. Now they were being wiped out economically once again by out-of-control inflation.
November 1923 also saw Adolf Hitler's abortive revolution in Bavaria and subsequent arrest and trial. The following year, however, the United States brokered the Dawes Plan with Germany, which essentially allowed American banks to loan Germany money on which the government could pin its currency. The mark once again had a fixed value, and though the country still faced heavy economic burdens, at least the hemorrhaging had been stopped.
From 1924 until the Great Depression struck in 1929, the Weimar Republic enjoyed a period of relative prosperity and a general increase in the standard of living. Germans placed more faith in the government, and began to shy away from radical political parties like the communists and Hitler's Nazis. The government was so confident that Hitler's political strength had been sapped that they consented to his release from prison after serving only nine months of a five-year sentence.
President Ebert, who suffered from ill health though only in his mid-50s, passed away from natural causes in late February 1925. A presidential election, based upon a popular vote, was scheduled for March 29, and over a dozen candidates threw their hat into the ring. Karl Jarres, a prominent conservative politician, represented a coalition of conservative parties. Otto Braun ran for the SPD, while Wilhelm Marx represented the Catholic Centre Party. Ernst Thälmann was the Communist Party candidate.
The Nazi Party enjoyed only a semi-legal status at this time and Hitler, no doubt aware that he lacked the support in 1925 to be elected, decided to support the candidacy of Ludendorff, Hindenburg's old chief of staff and Hitler's collaborator in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. Ludendorff represented a coalition of far-right parties. Several other candidates also rounded out the ballot.
When the results were tabulated, Jarres took nearly 39 percent of the vote; Braun, 29 percent; Marx, 15 percent, Thälmann, 7 percent; and Ludendorff, 1 percent. No candidate garnered an absolute majority, meaning that a second, run-off election would be required. (Presidential elections in the United States have always required an absolute majority, or at least 51 percent of the vote. This is represented by the “magic number” of electoral votes needed by candidates to win. Currently the “magic number” is 270.)
German conservatives began to consider their strategy. Victory was close, but many believed that Jarres lacked the charisma and prestige to carry the vote. Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz, one of Germany's leading conservative figures, believed that there was only one man who could, though many believed that that man would not run under any circumstances.
Since the war, Hindenburg had become a kind of symbol, the last vestige of the old imperial system. He was not without controversy, testifying before the Reichstag in 1919 that the German Army had not lost the war on the battlefield, but rather had been stabbed in the back by traitorous elements (i.e. communists and Jews) on the home front. He was also a publicly committed monarchist, who did not believe he had the moral right to become Germany's head of state, an office suited only to those of royal blood.
In the book “Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism,” biographers William J. Astore and Dennis E. Showalter wrote: “During his second retirement from July 1919 to March 1925, Hindenburg hunted, expanded his kitschy collection of Madonna-and-child artwork, and basked in the warm glow of the near universal adulation of his countrymen. The death of his wife in May 1921 marked the most trying event for him. Her passing left Hindenburg bereft and alone.”
Leading conservatives prevailed upon the old field marshal, who was now approaching 80. They convinced Hindenburg that he was the only man who could save Germany from Marxism and international threats. Reluctantly, Hindenburg agreed to run, but not before, according to legend, he sent a telegram to the exiled Kaiser in Holland asking for his permission to run. Though he declared his candidacy as an independent, everyone understood that Hindenburg represented Germany's conservative interests.
In the book, “The Nemesis of Power: The German Army and Politics, 1918-1945,” historian Sir John Wheeler-Bennett wrote: “Both right and left saw the necessity for concentrating their forces. Marx was agreed upon as the candidate for all the parties of the Left and Centre, with the exception of the Communists, who persisted in keeping Thälman in the field, but the Right were only at one in deciding that Jarres, although he had headed the poll on the first ballot, was not a strong enough candidate to beat Marx in a straight fight. He was therefore somewhat unceremoniously bundled back to Duisburg ”
The run-off election on April 26 therefore consisted of three candidates with any chance of success: the conservative Hindenburg, the moderate Marx and the far-left Thälmann. Because this was a run-off election, a simple majority, rather than an absolute majority, was required to win. With about 14.6 million votes, Hindenburg took 48 percent of the 30.5 million votes cast, while Marx took just 45 percent of the vote, or about 13.75 million votes. Thälmann took only 1.9 million votes, representing less than 7 percent of the vote. Had the communists backed Marx, Hindenburg would have been defeated.
In the book, “The Coming of the Third Reich,” historian Richard J. Evans wrote: “Once in office, Hindenburg, to the surprise of many, stuck to the letter of the constitution; but as his seven-year term of office wore on, and he moved into his 80s, he became ever more impatient with the complexities of political events and ever more susceptible to the influence of his inner circle of advisers, all of whom shared his instinctive belief that the monarchy was the only legitimate sovereign power in the German Reich.”
Under Hindenburg, Germany continued to enjoy rising prosperity until the Great Depression hit in 1929. The depression, which ruined the German middle class for the third time in 10 years, pushed most voters toward the radical parties of the far right and far left — the Nazis and the communists. By 1932, Hitler enjoyed greater support and challenged Hindenburg for the presidency in that year's presidential election. He lost to Hindenburg, though he gained considerably more votes than Thälmann, again running for the communists.
Later that summer, the Nazis became the largest political party in the Reichstag. Though Hindenburg initially opposed the move, the increasingly senile president reluctantly appointed Hitler to the post of chancellor (head of government) in January 1933. With the arrival of the Nazis, Marx fell into political obscurity and eventually died in Bonn after World War II. Thälmann was arrested soon after the Nazis came to power and thrown into Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was eventually killed. When Hindenburg finally died in August 1934, Hitler amalgamated the offices of chancellor and president into a new office, Führer.