President Paul von Hindenburg’s Role in Hitler’s Rise to Power | History Hit

President Paul von Hindenburg’s Role in Hitler’s Rise to Power

Amy Irvine

12 Jul 2023
President Paul von Hindenburg with new Chancellor Adolf Hitler in May 1933.
Image Credit: Das Bundesarchiv / Public Domain

Paul von Hindenburg was a respected military war hero who served as President of the Weimar Republic from 1925 to 1934 – a presidency that coincided with a turbulent period in German history.

Although he was hailed as a symbol of stability, and disapproved of Hitler and his politics, Hindenburg’s decisions and actions as president facilitated Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor, ultimately leading to the erosion of democracy and the Nazis’ takeover of power.

What role did Hindenburg play in Germany’s post-World War One environment and why did someone who disliked Hitler help him rise to power?

Military career and heroic reputation

Paul von Hindenburg was born on 2 October 1847, in Posen, Prussia (now Poznań, Poland) into an aristocratic family. He embarked on a military career at a young age, serving in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), earning a reputation as a skilled commander.

Having retired in 1911, Hindenburg was recalled in 1914 to bolster Germany’s efforts on the Eastern Front in World War One, as Commander of the Eighth Army and the superior to talented military strategist, General Erich Ludendorff. Their partnership was highly successful, and Hindenburg oversaw a significant series of victories, particularly the Battle of Tannenberg (1914), that established him as a national hero.

Reproduction of a 1914 photograph of Paul von Hindenburg

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Original photo: Nicola Perscheid (1864–1930); Restoration: Adam Cuerden / Public Domain

By 1916, his popularity led to his appointment as Field Marshall and Commander of the Imperial German Army. Together with Ludendorff, he established a de-facto military dictatorship, sidelining Kaiser Wilhelm II. Following Germany’s defeat, Hindenburg retired again in 1919.

Hindenburg and the ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth

After the Armistice, the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919, marked World War One’s formal conclusion. It consisted of 440 articles setting-out the terms for Germany’s punishment, including 132 billion gold marks in reparations (£6.6 billion today), crippling Germany’s economy.

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The Treaty angered millions of Germans, and military leaders shifted blame for Germany’s defeat onto the politicians who agreed the Treaty. Hindenburg appeared before a parliamentary commission investigating responsibility for the war’s outbreak and defeat, during which he read-out a prepared statement falsely testifying that the German Army had been close to victory. He pointed to the Dolchstoß (“stab in the back”) myth, blaming liberal betrayals and disloyal elements on the home-front, and unpatriotic politicians (the ‘November Criminals’) for the surrender.

This Dolchstoßlegende narrative gained traction, undermining the Weimar Republic’s legitimacy, fuelling nationalist sentiment and paving the way for the rise of extremist ideologies.

President of the Weimar Republic

The Weimar Republic faced serious challenges including economic depression, domestic turmoil, and political unrest. On 8 November 1923, Hitler had launched the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich – an attempted coup against the Weimar government. The coup was suppressed, and Hindenburg issued a statement urging national unity.

Early Nazis who participated in the attempt to seize power during the 1923 Putsch

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) / CC BY-SA 3.0

By 1924, the Dawes Plan bolstered Germany’s economy, resulting in reductions to reparation payments, hyperinflation subsiding, and political divisions easing. Hindenburg was convinced to run for president to unify Germany, eventually becoming the second elected President of the Weimar Republic (with exiled Wilhelm II’s approval), taking office on 12 May 1925.

Despite limited political experience, Hindenburg’s military background and revered status made him a popular choice. Throughout his presidency, Hindenburg’s image was used as a symbol of the Weimar Republic, with his stern and distinguished appearance representing stability and respectability, providing a sense of continuity which helped maintain Germany’s fragile democratic institutions.

His presidency was marked by a delicate balance between democratic governance and the persistent threat of authoritarianism, fostering reconciliation between republicans, and moderate monarchists and the right-wing. Between 1925-1928, Germany saw relative prosperity, with increased wages and a boom in industry.

Economic depression

However, following the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression, Germany once more faced economic turmoil and rising unemployment. Hindenburg struggled to form stable cabinets, often ruling by decree, seeking political stability. This contributed to Hitler’s rise to power.

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By 1930, as economic depression took hold and another government fell, Hindenburg ensured his cabinet was accountable only to him. Hindenburg authorised Chancellor Brüning to dissolve the Reichstag in July, leading to elections in which the Nazi Party became the second-largest party. With parliamentary cooperation weakening, Brüning also governed almost exclusively through decrees. However, his deflationary policies exacerbated economic difficulties, fuelling unrest which the Nazis capitalised on.

Major portions of society still pined for the imperial era, and Germany’s lingering resentment from World War One, coupled with rising unemployment, drew people towards extremist parties like the Nazis, who promised simple solutions.

The 1932 Presidential Election

Hindenburg was persuaded to run for re-election, garnering support from the Centre Party, Deutsche Volkspartei (DVP) and Social Democratic Party (SPD), who saw him as the best chance to defeat Hitler. Yet while Hindenburg made a single radio address emphasising unity, Hitler campaigned vigorously throughout Germany.

Hindenburg, aged 84, at a radio microphone in 1932 during the election campaign in which he defeated Hitler

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13227 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

During the election, Hindenburg refused to allow Hitler’s Sturmabteilung paramilitary group onto the streets, intimidated by their thuggish behaviour. Whilst Hitler wanted the Sturmabteilung to create chaos (which he could then be seen to ‘control’), he also wanted to portray himself as law-abiding, so accepted Hindenburg’s request. 

Hindenburg was re-elected president in 1932. 

Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor

Despite Hindenburg’s dislike of Hitler, the Nazi Party had emerged as the largest in the Reichstag following two successive elections (in July and November 1932) yet could not form a majority government. Hitler demanded to be appointed Chancellor in any government his party participated in.

Initially Hindenburg refused, however Hitler soon obtained his confidence, promising the restoration of monarchy once Germany regained full sovereignty. In November an agreement was reached between Hitler and von Papen – former Chancellor – to form a government, with Hitler as Chancellor but with non-Nazis in most other posts. Thus in January 1933, under pressure from advisors believing it would lead to political stability, Hindenburg reluctantly appointed Hitler as Chancellor, granting the Nazi’s two cabinet seats.

Hitler secured significant power and quickly manipulated the political landscape, yet maintained a respectful public demeanour towards Hindenburg – renaming a city after him, and building a monumental tower in East Prussia honouring Hindenburg’s military achievements.

Enabling Act of 1933

Conscious of his lack of majority, Hitler’s first act as Chancellor was to request Hindenburg dissolve the Reichstag. As his campaign was closing, the Reichstag burnt down on 27 February 1933. The Nazis blamed young Dutch communist, Van der Lubbe, who was arrested, then used the incident to turn public opinion against the communists. 

Exploiting the situation, Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to sign the Reichstag Fire Decree, granting Hitler emergency powers. These temporarily suspended civil liberties, but gave the Nazis a legal way to oppress opponents, framed as traitors.

In March, Hitler proposed the Enabling Law which would grant him emergency dictatorial authority – effectively giving power to rule by decree, rather than passing laws through the Reichstag and the president. Within an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, the law passed, and Hindenburg signed the Enabling Act on 23 March 1933 – effectively ending the Weimar Republic.

The Enabling Act curtailed civil liberties, suppressed opposition parties, and solidified Hitler’s path towards establishing a totalitarian state.

Hitler pictured with German President Paul von Hindenburg in March 1933

Image Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S38324 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Hindenburg’s death and Hitler’s consolidation of power

Hitler recognised that Hindenburg was the only means by which he could legally be removed from office. Thus to maintain a favourable image and avoid offending Hindenburg or the Army, Hitler showed great respect and deference whenever they appeared in public together.

However, Hindenburg’s declining health made his upcoming death inevitable. In anticipation, Hitler orchestrated a law granting him the combined powers of the Chancellorship and the presidency upon Hindenburg’s death.

After Hindenburg died from lung cancer on 2 August 1934, aged 86, Hitler immediately declared himself head of state and head of government – as Führer. This consolidation of power marked the end of democratic governance, cementing Hitler as the absolute dictator of Germany


Hindenburg’s legacy is controversial. Some argue he was supportive of Hitler and played a significant role in undermining democratic values, while others contend he was a mere puppet, manipulated by Hitler and his supporters. Other evidence suggests Hindenburg rejected democratic principles and used dictatorial powers, yet lacked the strength or conviction to effectively oppose Hitler. 

Nevertheless, Hindenburg’s presidency marks a critical juncture in German history, leading to the dissolution of the Weimar Republic and the subsequent atrocities of the Nazis.

In recent years, there has been a reassessment of Hindenburg’s role, leading to the withdrawal of official recognition by various local German bodies. In February 2020, his honorary citizenship of Berlin was revoked, reflecting his legacy’s ongoing reevaluation.

Amy Irvine