Max Hoffmann

Carl Adolf Maximilian Hoffmann (25 January 1869 – 8 July 1927) was a German military strategist. As a staff officer at the beginning of World War I, he was Deputy Chief of Staff of the 8th Army, soon promoted Chief of Staff. Hoffmann, along with Hindenburg and Ludendorff, masterminded the devastating defeat of the Russian armies at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. He then held the position of Chief of Staff of the Eastern Front. At the end of 1917, he negotiated with Russia to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Max Hoffmann
Birth nameCarl Adolf Maximilian Hoffmann
Born(1869-01-25)25 January 1869
Homberg (Efze), Upper Hesse,
Grand Duchy of Hesse, North German Confederation
Died8 July 1927(1927-07-08) (aged 58)
Bad Reichenhall, Bavaria, Weimar Republic
Allegiance German Empire
Service/branchImperial German Army
Years of service1887–1918
Battles/warsWorld War I
AwardsPour le Mérite
Iron Cross First class

Early life and prewar military careerEdit

Foreign officers in the Russo-Japanese War, with Hoffmann at the far left of the front row

Hoffmann was born in Homberg (Efze), the son of a district court judge. From 1879 to 1887 he studied at the Gymnasium in Nordhausen. After graduation he volunteered for the 72nd Infantry Regiment. One of his comrades affectionately recalled "He was almost the worst athlete, horseman and swordsman of them all. ... he exceeded them in his terrifying appetite."[1] As an ensign he studied at the Royal War College in Neisse from October 1887 to August 1888 when he graduated with an Imperial commendation and was commissioned second lieutenant.[2][3] From 1895 to 1898 as a first lieutenant he attended the Prussian War Academy and then was sent to Russia to study their language. He was on the General Staff from 1899 to 1901 in the First Department (Russia and the Nordic States). In 1901 he was promoted to captain and assigned as a staff officer to V Army Corps. Two years later he moved to command a company in the 33rd Fusilier Regiment. In 1904 the General Staff sent him to Manchuria as an observer with the Imperial Japanese Army in their war with the Imperial Russian Army. During this time, he is remembered for breaching protocol in the presence of other foreign observers when a Japanese general refused to allow him on to a hill to watch a battle, leading him to respond that the general was "a yellow-skin" and that he was "uncivilized if you don't let me go over that hill."[4]

He returned to the Staff twenty months later, before being assigned as the first staff officer of the 1st Division, stationed in Königsberg, East Prussia. In 1911 he became an instructor at the War Academy for two years, before moving to the 112th Infantry Regiment, where he had a field and then a staff position; he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

The World WarEdit

Eighth ArmyEdit

At the outbreak of World War I Hoffmann became the first general staff officer of the German Eighth Army, responsible for defending their eastern border from a Russian attack. The bulk of the German Army, following the Schlieffen Plan, was attempting to gain decisive victory in the west by knocking France out of the war. Russian mobilization had begun secretly before the declaration of war, so earlier than anticipated the Russian First Army invaded East Prussia across its eastern frontier, the Eighth Army attacked them unsuccessfully at the Battle of Gumbinnen on 20 August 1914. Then they learned that the Russian Second Army was approaching their southern frontier in the west. To avoid being cut off the alarmed Eighth Army commander, Maximilian von Prittwitz, proposed to retreat over the River Vistula, abandoning East Prussia to the invaders. He soon reconsidered and instead decided to move the bulk of his forces to block the Russian Second Army from reaching the Vistula, but he and his chief of staff had already been relieved in favor of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. Hoffmann knew Ludendorff well because they had been neighbors in the same building in Berlin for several years.

The two Russian armies were too far apart to readily aid one another, and the Germans could gauge their lack of coordination from intercepted radio messages. When Hindenburg and Ludendorff stepped off of their special train they announced that Eighth Army would be put into position to encircle and annihilate Alexander Samsonov's Russian Second Army. They succeeded, winning the crucial victory in the Battle of Tannenberg, saving the rest of Germany from invasion. Hoffmann saw the propaganda value of casting the German victory as long-awaited revenge for a nearby medieval defeat, so he suggested the engagement be named Tannenberg, though it actually took place much closer to Allenstein. (Ludendorff also claims credit for the name,[5] though it was Hindenburg, having lost an ancestor at the earlier battle, who requested the kaiser to use it.) Next the Eighth Army turned east and mauled Paul von Rennenkampf's Russian First Army at the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, freeing most of East Prussia.

Ninth Army and Ober OstEdit

General Erich Ludendorff (left) with Colonel Max Hoffmann on the Eastern Front, 1915-1916

Then Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffmann led a new Ninth Army in blocking a Russian attempt to invade German Silesia, continuing the campaign after being given command of all German forces on the Eastern Front: they were designated as Ober Ost. In the Battle of Łódź they ended the immediate threat by outflanking the Russians and capturing Poland's second city. Hoffmann believed that if given the reinforcements they requested for the battle they might have knocked the Russians out of the war.[6] During the winter lull in the fighting, Ober Ost struggled unsuccessful to shift major operations eastward in the coming year, claiming that they could force the Russians out of the war by encircling their armies in the Polish salient.

Ober Ost began 1915 with a surprise attack in a snowstorm that encircled a Russian Army, completing the liberation of East Prussia and obtaining a foothold in Russia's Baltic provinces. Hoffmann believed that if allowed to continue this incursion they might have inflicted a major, perhaps mortal, defeat on the Russians.[7] Instead they were ordered to stop in favor of a major thrust in the south of Poland at Gorlice and Tarnów where a joint Austro-German army battered the Russians step by step out of Galicia (Austro-Hungarian Poland). To assist them Ober Ost was ordered to mount similar head-on, costly attacks in northern Poland. After the Russians evacuated Poland, Ober Ost was permitted to continue thrusting into Russia's Baltic provinces. By the start of winter their headquarters were in the Lithuanian city of Kovno. Hoffmann saw to the construction a strong defensive line on the new front and visited all of their units, "I have crawled through all the trenches... The mud is terrible."[8] Meanwhile, Ludendorff set up an administration for the occupied region.

During the winter the Russians were finally able to arm their troops adequately. In the spring masses of Russians attacked Ober Ost's entrenchments. The German lines held except for one segment that was vacated and then recaptured in April. To exploit the successful defense Ober Ost pleaded for reinforcements to enable them to capture the fortress of Riga and to roll up the Russian armies in the north, but the Supreme Commander focused on his fruitless attacks on Verdun. On 4 June the Russians attacked the Austro-Hungarian lines in the south. In a few days the defenders lost 200,000 prisoners and the Russians penetrated through their fortifications. Ober Ost sent reinforcements south and more had to come from the west. To Hoffmann, the Austrian front was "like a mouth full of sensitive teeth."[9] At last in July Hindenburg's command was extended further south, including many of the Austro-Hungarians on the front. Therefore, they moved their headquarters south to Brest-Litovsk. When the Russians also renewed their attacks in the north, the German reserves in the east were a single cavalry brigade. In addition to plugging holes along their long front, the staff was busy organizing training for the Austro-Hungarians they now commanded, whom the Russians were still pushing back.

Chief of the staff in the eastEdit

The crisis worsened when Romania entered the war on the side of the Entente. Hindenburg and Ludendorff became the Supreme Commanders. Field Marshal Prince Leopold of Bavaria, whom Hoffmann regarded as "a clever soldier and a distinguished superior officer",[10] took command of three army groups that included both German and Austro-Hungarian troops and Hoffmann was elated to become his chief of staff with promotion to major general: "I shall actually become an Excellenz!".[11] He was supported by a highly competent staff.[12] Eventually, they commanded all of the forces of the Central Powers on the Eastern front: German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Bulgarian. Since he was no longer able to visit the front in person, he was assigned a General Staff officer, Major Wachenfeld, for this purpose.[13] The Russians shifted their attacks to the south to support the Romanians, who were beaten decisively by an army with troops from all of the Central Powers. That autumn Franz Joseph I of Austria died. His successor Charles I, who had been a cavalry officer, appointed himself commander-in-chief and replaced their able chief of staff with "a more conciliatory personage",[14] Hoffmann had a two-hour conversation in which the young emperor "gave his opinion on military matters by which he displayed his great want of understanding in all he said."[15]

He corresponded and met with political leaders: for example Dr. Wolfgang Kapp a founder of the right wing Fatherland Party (who after the war led a putsch that failed to overturn the Republic).[16]

The entrance to the fortress at Brest-Litovsk, headquarters for the Eastern Front and the site of the peace negotiations

When 1917 dawned it seemed that as a result of the battering the Russian infantry had suffered when attacking that now most were only willing to defend their positions. Then the February Revolution led to a new Russian government under Alexander Kerensky. Hoffmann wanted to attack, but was only permitted to use a single division to reduce a Russian bridgehead. In July Kerensky launched an offensive in Galicia, hoping to reinvigorate public support for the war. Hoffmann had anticipated the attack, and was eager to launch their counter-move. At first the Austro-Hungarians lost ground, but on 19 July Prince Leopold and Hoffmann were in a tower watching the Germans counterattack the flank of the Russian incursion, slicing through to the rear. In a few days the Russians were driven out of Galicia, but further pursuit had to be delayed while railroads were repaired. Hoffmann was rewarded with the Oak Leaves for his Pour le Mérite. On 1 September they attacked the Riga fortresses, by throwing pontoon bridges across the intervening river. They took Riga, but most of the defenders had slipped out.

On 26 November they received a wireless message from the new Russian Bolshevik government requesting an armistice. They sent a delegation to Hoffmann's headquarters, after dining with them in the mess-room—they included a peasant and a political assassin—he was dismayed that they had been received as representing Russia.[17] He assisted Foreign Secretary Richard von Kühlmann during the negotiations for the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ; his fluent Russian was an asset. Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Ottokar Czernin found that "The General [Hoffmann] combined expert knowledge and energy with a good deal of calm and ability, but also not a little of Prussian brutality...."[18] The negotiations dragged on; the major sticking point was that the Russians would not be given back Poland, Lithuania, or Courland, which the Central Powers maintained had opted for independence.

In December 1917 he was summoned to Berlin, where at lunch the Kaiser ordered him, despite his objections, to give his opinion regarding the post-war German–Polish border. He favored taking from Poland a modest defensive strip, so they would acquire as few new Slav subjects as possible. The Supreme Commanders wanted much of Poland, so they were furious when the kaiser endorsed his viewpoint.[19] Both threatened to resign; the kaiser gave in on the border but refused Ludendorff's demand that Hoffmann be sent off to command a division. Hindenburg does not mention him in his memoirs.[20] Ludendorff undermined him with a press campaign, alleging that his ideas came from his Jewish wife.[21] (She was a well-known artist from a family of converts.) Hoffmann wrote "great men can also be very small sometimes."[22]

After a break the negotiations were resumed with Foreign Commissar Leon Trotsky leading the Russian delegation; he stopped them from eating with the enemy. Hoffmann did not write any clause in the treaty, but Trotsky "did not doubt for a single minute that ... General Hoffmann was the only element of serious reality in these negotiations."[23] The Central Powers simultaneously negotiated with a delegation representing an independent Ukraine. In late January 1918, Trotsky returned to Petrograd to consult about the Ukrainian problem. When he returned a peace with the Ukrainians had been signed. On 10 February Trotsky announced that Russia would consider the war at an end but would not sign the proposed treaty. Eight days later the Eastern Army resumed its offensive, sweeping over the remainder of the Baltic provinces without opposition. After two days the Russians caved in: the Treaty was signed on 3 March 1918. German troops marched into Ukraine to prop up the beleaguered independent government and also went further east into the Don basin to obtain the coal to ship the grain they seized. Hoffmann anticipated that the Crimea would become the German Riviera.[24] The Supreme Commanders set up new administrations for Ukraine and the Baltic States, strikingly diminishing Prince Leopold's and Hoffmann's territorial sway—they were left only with Ober Ost. Hoffmann argued unsuccessfully that to counter the Bolsheviks they should denounce the Treaty and forcibly establish a new government in Russia.[25]

Later lifeEdit

Grave of Max Hoffmann (1927) on the Invalidenfriedhof Berlin

In 1919 he was given command of a brigade along the Polish border. The leader of the new, small German Army was Hans von Seeckt, who had quarreled with Hoffmann during the war. Hoffmann was retired in March 1920. He settled back in Berlin where he reconciled with Hindenburg at a personal meeting. He and the industrialist Arnold Rechberg campaigned persistently trying to persuade the western powers to join together to overthrow the Soviet Union. He published his wartime memoirs and evaluations,[26] his views on Russia,[27] and his version of Tannenberg.[28] A few years after the war, when touring the field at Tannenberg, Hoffmann told a group of army cadets "See—this is where Hindenburg slept before the battle, this is where Hindenburg slept after the battle, and between you and me this is where Hindenburg slept during the battle".[29]

Hoffmann died at the spa at Bad Reichenhall on 8 July 1927. He was "rated by some historians 'as perhaps the most brilliant staff officer of his generation' and used as a model at the United States Army Command and General Staff College."[30]


  1. ^ Hoffmann, Major General Max (1929). War Diaries and other papers. 1. London: Martin Secker. p. 10.
  2. ^ Kowner, Rotem (2006). Historical Dictionary of the Russo-Japanese War. The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-4927-5., p. 149.
  3. ^ Trumpener, Ulrich (2008). "Carl Adolf Maximilian Hoffmann". In Zabecki, Maj. Gen. David T. (ed.). Chief of Staff. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press. pp. 122–133.
  4. ^ Tuchman, Barbara (1962). The Guns of August. New York: Random House. pp. 80–81. ISBN 0-345-47609-3.
  5. ^ Ludendorff, Erich (1919). Ludendorff's own story. 1. New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 68.
  6. ^ Hoffmann, General Max (1999) [1924]. The war of lost opportunities. Nashville TN: Battery Press. pp. 76–78.
  7. ^ Hoffmann, 1999, pp. 107–109.
  8. ^ Hoffmann, 1929, p. 103.
  9. ^ Hoffmann, 1929, p. 143.
  10. ^ Hoffmann, 1999, p. 157.
  11. ^ Hoffmann, 1929, 1, p. 146.
  12. ^ Trumpener, 2008, pp. 125-126.
  13. ^ Hoffmann, 1999, p. 162.
  14. ^ Hoffmann, 1999, p. 167.
  15. ^ Hoffmann, 1999, p. 167.
  16. ^ Hoffmann, 1929, p. 166.
  17. ^ Hoffmann, 1999, p. 212.
  18. ^ Czernin, Count Ottokar (1919). In the World War. London: Cassall. p. 219.
  19. ^ Wheeller-Bennett, John (1967). Hindenburg. The wooden titan. London: Macmillan. pp. 128–131.
  20. ^ Hindenburg, Paul von (1921). Out of my life. New York: Harper & Brothers.
  21. ^ Kitchen, Martin (1976). The Silent Dictatorship. The Politics of the German High Command under Hindenburg and Ludendorff, 1916-1918. London: Croom Helm. p. 168.
  22. ^ Hoffmann, 1999, p. 215.
  23. ^ Trotsky, Leon (1919). From October to Brest-Litovsk. Brooklyn NY: The Socialist Publication Society. p. 87.
  24. ^ Kitchen, 1976, p. 241.
  25. ^ Hoffmann, 1999, pp. 237–240.
  26. ^ Hoffmann, 1999.
  27. ^ Hoffmann, Max (1926). An allen enden Moskau. Das problem des Bolschewismus in seinen jüngsten Auswirkung. Berlin: Verlag fur Kulturpolitik.
  28. ^ Hoffmann, Max (1926). Tannenberg wie es wirklich war. Berlin: Verlag für Kulturpolitik.
  29. ^ Hastings, Max (2013). Catastrophe 1914: Europe goes to war. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 275. ISBN 978-0-307-59705-2.
  30. ^ Trumpener, 2008, p. 123.

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