Victory myths and the battle of Tannenberg

Victory myths and the battle of Tannenberg

Dubeski, Norman

Journal of Political and Military Sociology 2001, Vol. 29 (Winter):282-292

The study of the difference between the alleged explanations for victory and the real causes can yield insight into the mindset of the combatants. The legend of the Battle of Tannenberg incorporated several falsehoods including an anecdote by Colonel Hoffmann. The need to mythologize the explanation for victory reflects the nature of the challenge to the preconceptions and cognitive assumptions of the participants during the course of the battle.


Sometimes there are mistakes in the explanations for military victories. Just as military leaders will not want to say that they do not know how to fight a battle, victors will not want to say that they do not know how they won, or to otherwise attribute the outcome to chance and other circumstances beyond their control. Also, sometimes the defeated also build myths about battles in order to give themselves some solace and to find meaning and unity in defeat.

Many military historians have discussed the causes for the outcomes of wars and battles, but few historians and sociologists have studied the popular explanations for military outcomes as a phenomena in themselves. Richard Hamilton (1996) expounded how the explanations for victory (victory myths) sometimes had little to do with the actual chain of events, but Hamilton limited himself to showing that the two phenomena were different, rather than seeking to find the causes behind the nature of military mythmaking.

Not all battles will be mythologized. Only battles that were thought to have been able to go either way and that shook up established preconceptions become mythologized and become the subject of plays, operas, ballads, movies, books, and historical monuments. The political and cultural influence of a battle like Tannenberg, Kosovo, or Pearl Harbor is felt generations later long after its military significance becomes no longer relevant. When the combatants’ view of the world and themselves is challenged, the need to make a myth or legend arises and the function of the myth is to put an end to the uncertainty and sometimes, in fact, to deny that it ever occurred. If the beliefs of the combatants were neither changed nor challenged, then there would have been no reason to build monuments and to create explanations for the battle that included elements of fiction or wishful thinking.


The Battle of Tannenberg was fought approximately over a five day period at the end of August 1914. The German 8th Army encircled and then destroyed the Russian 2nd Army. The nearby Russian Ist Army had tried only belatedly to come to the aid of the 2nd Army. The commander of the 2nd Army, General Alexander Samsonov, shot himself. The commander of the 1st Army, General Paul Rennenkampf, was accused of cowardice, sloth, and even treason (Evans 1970:171). The German generals who commanded the 8th Army went on to glory and gained an aura of prestige they never lost. German propagandists claimed that the German people were superior in terms of race and culture to the Asiatics and Slavs. The German generals propagated legends about their leadership and unity and about how the two Russian generals, Rennenkampf and Samsonov, had allowed their personal rivalry to sabotage their professionalism. As we can prove that this rivalry never existed, and because we also know that the German leadership had its own share of disunity and insubordination, we can see that the official explanations of the battle were more mythical and factual. We can see how this particular myth was created because we can now detail the ways in which the official explanations were mythical. Then, more importantly, we can use the fictitious interpretation of the battle to learn something about victory myths in general.

Tannenberg was one of the most decisive battles in history, yet it did not determine who would win the war. It was seen as the greatest victory of the war and certainly generated one of the biggest propaganda myths (Stone 1998:66). The victory enabled the Germans to fight on for four more years, and it validated the prestige and self-aggrandizing assumptions of the German army. The German High Command and the civilian government fabricated a myth of Tannenberg as a great victory over a numerically superior and uncivilized enemy, a myth which displaced the old, more historically based, legend of the defeat of the Teutonic Knights at Tannenberg in the 15th century at the hands of the Poles and Lithuanians. After the Great War, the German government built a great monument that could accommodate 100 000 visitors at a time, modeled on Stonehenge and other symbolism, both Nordic pagan and Christian (Keegan 2000:149; Showalter 1991:348). Architects Johannes and Walter Kruger designed the monument to include eight large stone towers, an encircling wall, a massive sacred circle, and a dedication to the “savior of the fatherland” (Herwig 1997:87). It became a place of pilgrimage for the German people until the end of World War II. The monument was leveled by retreating German troops at the end of the Second World War. On the site the Polish government built a monument to the Polish victory of the 15th century. In a sense, Tannenberg belonged more to the people and their need for myth than to the event itself.

Tannenberg was a great victory for the German Army in World War One, and this is indisputable. After all, over 92 000 unwounded and 30 000 wounded prisoners of war were taken, and a great deal of Russian military material fell into German hands. A disturbing effect of Tannenberg was that it gave the Germans false expectations of victory in the Great War, and it established the myth of invincibility of generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who had less to do with the battle than they and official propaganda would have had the German war-time public believe. The effect of this one battle on the Eastern Front in World War One was disproportionate to the actual number of casualties on both sides (Keegan: 149). The victory was celebrated as a deliverance and caused a paradigm shift in the thinking of the German military and politicians in two ways: (1) a German victory in the Great War could be secured in the East and not just on the Western Front as had been assumed (Keegan:149), and (2) the notion was created that if the Germans were racially and culturally superior to the eastern barbarians, then perhaps they would deserve to expand eastwards (Keegan: 150; Showalter:352). The German generals and politicians continued to look for a military solution to end the Great War and hoped to achieve another great victory, if only they could get the formula right again. In fact, the later architects of Blitzkrieg in the 1930s before WW II, such as Hans Seeckt and Heinz Guderian, took Tannenberg as their inspiration (Showalter:351). General Hindenburg’s ascension as Supreme War-Lord of the German Army in WW I was the product of the process that started at Tannenberg, and Hindenburg’s election to the presidency of the Weimar Republic in 1925 and 1932 was its final result. When he died in 1934 the president was buried in the monument with great ceremony: a fitting end, for he had already been buried in its legend for twenty years.


The Germans had gone to war in 1914 with the Schlieffen Plan. This intricate mobilization plan was to allow Germany to win a two-front war against both France and Russia. Like an astrology chart, it was full of complex mathematical details and unproven premises. Exact railroad timetables were combined with questionable premises such as that no unexpected factors would occur, that there would be no delays of any kind, and that military plans should dictate political strategy. No provision had been made for foot blisters, sick horses, or for a British intervention on the continent. The Schlieffen Plan was built on many unproven assumptions and became in turn the basis for others. If the next war for Germany might be a two-front war, then Germany’s sole plan must be to win a two-front war, even though this would guarantee that any war Germany became involved in would then become a two-front war. Schlieffen had assumed that France would mobilize much faster than Russia, and so concluded that Germany should first concentrate the majority of her forces on the western front. Following the adoption of the Schlieffen Plan, the political and military leaders of Germany became increasingly fatalistic and came to believe that war was becoming inevitable and that planning was better reserved for how to win the next confrontation than for how to prevent it. Schlieffen’s successors seem to have implicitly assumed that because Germany must win the next war, Germany could win it if the German generals were clever enough and maintained strict control over the details. This article of faith became in effect a cognitive assumption. The professionalism and the decisiveness of the German generals would become one with the foundation of the Schlieffen Plan, and a setback would be horrifying and unthinkable. There was no provision for mistakes and defeats, even minor ones.

In August 1914, the generals of the German Army in East Prussia found themselves immersed in an acute crisis. The Germans had followed the Schlieffen Plan and had committed seven-eighths of their total forces to an offensive in the west against Belgium and France. At the same time, the Russians had launched offensives into German East Prussia and Austrian Galicia. The German 8th Army in East Prussia found itself facing two invading Russian armies. The 1st Russian Army invaded from the East and the 2nd Russian Army invaded from the south. The Germans fought the First Army at Gumbinnen, and their casualties proved higher than expected. Whether Gumbinnen was a victory, a defeat, or a stalemate depends a great deal on the viewpoint of the military historian. The Germans decided to withdraw their entire army except for a light screen of one cavalry division. This looked somewhat like a defeat, and the trouble with the perception of defeats is that, if one looked defeated for any reason, morale plummeted, and soon the appearance of defeat turned into reality.

The German generals in overall command were replaced by generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff. As the two generals traveled to the German headquarters in East Prussia, the German 8th army pulled back from the Russian 1st Army and coalesced as a cone around the front of the 2nd Army. Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived; they then confirmed and then extended the orders already in operation (Keegan:147). They ordered an outflanking operation against the 2nd Army as the first priority. Baron Herman von Francois was the commander of the 1st Infantry Corps. Francois’s troops were in the midst of disembarking from their trains when they received an order to attack the Russian’s left flank. Francois refused to obey the direct order to attack at once. His masterful delay achieved through insubordination upped the stakes of the battle. The Russians forced back the weak German centre, but in doing so made their flanks even more vulnerable to a simultaneous attack on their left by Francois and an attack on their right by Mackensen. In the course of events, due to the poor roads that the Russians had to use, their lack of maps and reconnaissance of the area, the poor communication between the two Russian armies, and the proper use of military intelligence by the Germans, what had started off as a simple outflanking operation turned into a complete encirclement. The Germans encircled the entire centre of the 2nd Army, destroyed its right wing, took a massive number of prisoners, and drove the remnants of the army across the frontier.


The Germans made use of the Russian mistakes because they had made a mistake of their own. This mistake was the Hoffmann anecdote.

The Germans had been rattled by their casualties at Gumbinnen and by the specter of an attack by the menacing Russian oriental hordes of legend. The German generals at one point were ready to concede East Prussia completely and withdraw to the Vistula River (Showalter: 195-198). The German High Command overruled that decision and sent in Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff with the explicit instructions to hold off the Russians east of the Vistula. However, this act of reasserting control over chaos by the German High Command would not have been properly implemented had it not been for an error by Colonel Max Hoffmann that put an end to the uncertainty that plagued the German generals.

Max Hoffmann was a German staff officer, a noted gourmand, and a dispenser of scathing anecdotes. Hoffmann saw an opportunity to defeat the 2nd Army, and he already had his plan in place by the time Ludendorff and Hindenburg arrived. Ludendorff agreed to the plan, and the battle started. However, Ludendorff started to panic and lose his nerve, thinking of the size of the gamble (Showalter:235 & 240). Not only could the 2nd Army defeat the German 8th Army on its own if things went badly for the Germans but, if the Ist Army moved forward to come to the aid of the 2nd Army, the entire German position would also be lost. It would not be the Russians that would be outflanked; it would be the Germans. Hoffmann reassured his superiors. He said that he knew a secret that would turn the battle in their favor. He told them an anecdote from his experiences as an observer in the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Hoffmann said he knew that the Germans could concentrate their forces against one Russian army and then the other because the Russian generals hated each other and would not come to each other’s aid. Ludendorff was reassured, the battle continued, and the Germans won.

The German 8th Army in East Prussia had suffered a crisis of confidence and then recovered. Ludendorff was known for being professional and competent, but here at Tannenberg he first manifested moments of near-hysterical rage and anxiety, a disorder which would reappear again in 1918 when he faced the prospect of impending defeat on the Western Front. Ludendorff’s memoirs discreetly mentioned that he lost his nerve to such a degree that he could not later celebrate the victory (Ludendorff 1919:68).

For soldiers to fight effectively, they need a frame of reference and a stable set of cognitive assumptions (sometimes also called value-relations), and this is true for privates and generals alike. At Tannenberg, the Germans attempted to hold back the Russian centre with both regular and reserve divisions while their reinforcements arrived on the flanks. The German centre suffered considerable disarray in the severe fighting. It is vital to note the difference in responses of the regular German troops and their reserve divisions to the same unexpected situations. At Tannenberg, it was the trained regular troops who fled the enemy without orders (Showalter:254). There was also a mention of a whole elite battalion having fled in disorganization (Tuchman:338). The reserve troops were noted as willing to fight to the last man. The intensity of modern warfare was overwhelming. The regular troops, who could see that this was something beyond their expectations, felt they had acquitted themselves honorably, and so they withdrew. Their conception of honor was intact enough; it was their conception of war and their confidence in victory that were shaken. The reserve troops had not known what to expect, so they fought with fatalistic bravery. Perhaps it was this fatalism and naivete of these reserve troops that saved the entire German army at the early stage of the battle of Tannenberg. The officers had experienced a similar crisis as their troops. The German generals did not know what to expect because it was the beginning of a new kind of warfare and this was the first war that the German army had experienced since 1871. The unexpected will always happen in war, but each commander and each trooper must have consistent cognitive assumptions and keep a stable view of the world in order to deal with the unexpected and cope with all the chaos of battle.

Despite the many competing factors and details of the battle, Hoffmann’s little anecdote has assumed a lasting importance in the history books. Hoffmann was later promoted to the head of the entire Eastern Front for 1917-1918. Yet, in the history books, he is generally remembered for his role in reassuring Ludendorff at the Battle of Tannenberg with his little anecdote. Readers find mention of this incident in a variety of sources (Tuchman:327; Rutherford 1975:47) and in the writings of Winston Churchill (Churchill 1931:175). In any case, the anecdote became a part of the legend of Tannenberg (Showalter:134).

Hoffmann did whatever he could to advance the importance of his anecdote for years after the war. It did seem important in hindsight because the nerve of the German generals nearly broke trying to second-guess the Russians as the battle began:

Yet Despite Ludendorff s concern, the Russian lst Army was not advancing. Even its cavalry had remained inactive. Max Hoffmann described this tardiness as the last act of the feud with Samsonov…. In his later years he was prone to say that if the battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton, the battle of Tannenberg was lost on the railway platform at Mukden where the two generals came to blows. Hoffmann told the story with such confidence that one standard reference work even describes him as having witnessed the fight–a remarkable feat for an officer attached at the time to the Japanese army (Showalter 1991:206-207).

It looked like Hoffmann’s anecdote “saved the day” for the Germans, yet it contained no literal truth. Russian historians documented that on no occasion did General Rennenkampf and General Samsonov ever get into a violent dispute or even have the opportunity to do so (Showalter: 134). The incident at the Mukden railway station never happened.

Now that we have shown how Hoffmann was wrong with his anecdote, for the first time we can reveal its true source. Norman Stone’s brilliant book, The Eastern Front 1914-1917, discarded a large number of cliches about the Czar’s army. True, it was inefficient, but Russia’s war effort was nowhere near as uncivilized as some historians had assumed. Stone mentioned an incident in passing but did not seem to recognize its import:

…General Bezobrazov, appointed to command the whole of the Guard Army…was in his late sixties when appointed to this position. His previous history did not justify such honour –he had been among the men who had led the Tsar into the gross bungling of war with Japan. In war, he commanded a Guard division, with Olokhov as corps commander. He refused to obey Olokhov’s orders, and the two men fought publicly at a station. Bezobrazov was then removed from his command. (Stone 1998:225)

It cannot be proved beyond all doubt, but it seems reasonable to suggest that this event was the inspiration and source for the Hoffmann anecdote. This is the one and only known source that describes a fight that could actually have taken place between two Russian generals at Mukden in 1905. However, Professor Stone did not link this incident to Hoffmann and Tannenberg. While it is true that General Rennenkampf once had a publicized quarrel with General Mischchenko (Stone:310), the only Russian generals who fought in public at a Mukden railway station were Olokhov and Bezobrazov. For the first time, we now know the source of the anecdote that Hoffmann used to bolster the German generals’ intermittent and unsteady confidence at the start of the battle of Tannenberg.

Knowing the source of the anecdote, we can now speculate on its significance. The anecdote steadied the nerves of the German officers, and they then readily grasped the significance of the other, more accurate information they had at their disposal. If they had not believed in the false anecdote, they might not have used the other information properly. We infer this from how badly stressed Hoffmann and Ludendorff were at the beginning of the battle. Several times they seriously reconsidered their position, wondering if they were in a position of great strength or a position of great weakness (Evans: 122; Showalter:240). If Rennenkampf was already coming to Samsonov’s aid, the Germans would be outflanked and outnumbered and would be unable to withdraw all of their forces in time to avoid an overwhelming defeat. However, if Rennenkampf harbored a grudge against Samsonov as Hoffmann said, the Germans had a window of opportunity. As the German officers had based their view of the world and their self-confidence on the value-relation that they must be able to win a two-front war, seeing this false opportunity gave them the means to make use of the real opportunity at their disposal. Believing the false statement steadied their view of the world and helped them see things as they really were. As Nietzsche once mentioned, both truth and lies have their uses, and sometimes people need a little illusion in order to function (Nietzsche 1979:93). First, the anecdote steadied the nerves of the German officers and decreased their stress. Second, it provided positive imagery. Third, it restored the stability of their cognitive assumptions and value-relations through which they perceived their circumstances.

When we understand the significance of the Battle of Tannenberg, we can see how the events were matched with corresponding elements of the subsequent propaganda myth. The German victory had to be explained as something more than a product of the mistakes of the Russians or dumb luck. The victory had to be explained to soothe rattled nerves and to deny that the beliefs of the German officers were ever challenged; it had to be explained as a product of things over which Germans had control or were intrinsic to their character: their staff planning, training, bravery, and foresight. No part of the myth of the battle which propelled Hindenburg and Ludendorff into historical prominence ever suggested that the Germans won due to luck, insubordination, or stupidity. The monument of Tannenberg and the official propaganda version emphasized the unity of the German people, the brilliance of German generals, and the cultural and racial superiority of the German people. The battle had exposed German disunity and incompetence at the highest levels of the German army, and had shaken German prejudices in their own superiority.

When we look at the military myths of other countries, we see a consistent pattern of explanations that are at odds with the historical facts. Victories in faith-based societies are usually explained as products of divine will. Such examples include Japan’s deliverance from the Mongols through the Kamikaze, the victory of the Arabs over the Byzantines in 636 at the Jarmuk River, and the Byzantine’s successful defence of their immensely fortified capital Constantinople with Greek Fire in 678 and 718. The Japanese believed that they were saved by a divine wind, not by an aberrant weather front. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews attributed their defeats to their sins and their victories to their faith. It is unfortunate that no philosopher of history ever dared to suggest that a people may have gained a victory through their vices. Similarly, the defeated will also usually have to explain their defeat as products of their own actions, betrayal, overwhelming odds, and their moral failure in the eyes of the divine, or risk giving up their autonomy and identity. In cases where defeat was ascribed to the virtues of the victors by the defeated, members of the defeated group usually joined the victors or otherwise did not oppose assimilation.

The German newspapers, German generals, and German military historians (Herwig:87) ascribed the victory at Tannenberg to the brilliance of the German generals as well as the unity and the racial/cultural superiority of the German people. The myth reflects what was challenged by the battle. It seems reasonable, because of its unity and its consistency, that the myth which explained the German victory reflects what the German officers involved wanted to believe and what instability they had been struggling to overcome. A mythical explanation for defeat gives solace and meaning to the defeated. A victory myth reassures the self-image and ideology of the victors by stabilizing the cognitive assumptions and value– relations of the victors and smoothing over retroactively any disturbance in these assumptions and value-relations that occurred during or before the battle. If a victory is seen as a sure thing by the victors, then the victors will not feel a need to mythologize events. Only in cases where a looming defeat turns into victory and the victor’s faith in themselves comes close to breaking, does a victory myth almost always develop. An unexpected victory has to be explained more than a normal victory or defeat. The defeated can always blame themselves, attribute their defeat to their opposition, or even accept a kind of dissolution of identity by ending their identification with those who had been defeated. The winners of an unexpected victory must always explain it by their own characteristics, especially by reestablishing any irrational assumption that was nearly dethroned or otherwise rocked during the battle. Woe betide he who says after an unexpected victory, “I won, but I don’t know how!”


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Copyright Dr. George Kourvetaris Winter 2001

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