Advance of Russian forces in East Prussia

In the first months of the war, the German army’s tactical operations proceeded according to the Schlieffen Plan, with the main strike being directed first against France. The Russian Empire’s geographical expanse meant a lengthy period of mobilization, which, in the German General Staff’s opinion, would enable them to hold eastern Germany with only one army until a victorious conclusion of the war in the West had been achieved. Contrary to pre-war predictions, two Russian armies, under pressure from their Western allies, had already advanced into East Prussia in the middle of July, and on 19 July General Paul von Rennenkampf’s (1854-1918) 1st Russian (Nemanskaia) Army had inflicted defeat upon the enemy at the Battle of Gumbinnen. The victory was not strategically important, and the Russian occupation of East Prussia produced a massive flow of refugees and popularization of the concept of the "Eastern March" suffering the "atrocities of the Russian Cossacks."[1]

The threat of losing its Prussian stronghold forced the German Staff to adjust their original plans and redeploy two divisions on the Eastern Front. The retired general Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), the embodiment of the Prussian military tradition, was named as the new commander of the 8th German Army. General Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937) was appointed Chief of Staff.

The Defeat of General Samsonov’s Army

The new German plan of operations proposed swift actions against General Aleksandr Samsonov’s (1859-1914) 2nd Russian (Narevskaia) Army, which was cut off from Rennenkampf’s units by the Masurian lakes. The events that played out 26-30 August 1914 around Allenstein were a complex mixture of luck and accident, the uncoordinated actions of the Russian front and military commands, and the military endurance and heroism of individual units. As a result the German 8th army managed to surround Samsonov’s divisions, who outnumbered them, and the general himself, realising the hopelessness of his position, ended his life by committing suicide. In the end, the Russian side lost around 120,000 men, of whom 95,000 were taken prisoner, as well as the entire army’s equipment.

The Mythologising of the Battle of Allenstein

From a strategic point of view, the battle, which was to become known as the Battle of Tannenberg, was not a key event on the Eastern Front during WWI, neither leading to the final defeat of the Russian Empire, nor even to an end to the Russian occupation of East Prussia. Rennenkampf’s forces were only expelled from the province in the autumn of 1914, and in the winter of 1914/15 a second brief incursion ensued. Nevertheless, it is difficult to overestimate the symbolic and political significance of this battle. The very name "Battle of Tannenberg" indicated the German interpretation of it as revenge for the defeat of the Teutonic Knights at the hands of the united Slavic and Lithuanian forces in 1410 (known to the Russians as The Battle of Grunwald). The very idea of the "Second Cannes" of the Eastern Front was the origin of one of the more significant German national myths of the WWI period, the Weimar Republic and the early Third Reich.

For the Russians, the defeat of the Narevskaia Army was a heavy blow to morale.[2] The "infection of the Russian colossus by the Tannenberg bacillus"[3] led to the Russians’ loss of faith in their own power and the likelihood of eventual victory. Representatives of the military elite, thanks to the work of a specialist investigative committee, assessed the reasons for defeat very realistically. Nonetheless, even before the 1917 Revolution, society began to form its own impressions, foremost among these being the perception that it was Russia’s sacrifice to save Paris, and the story of Rennenkampf’s "treachery", which fitted in neatly with the idea of a German conspiracy. After the Revolution, the reinterpretation of this negative military experience was mainly undertaken by different social and professional groups of the Soviet and Emigrant military elites.

The Tannenberg myth after WWI

In Soviet Russia the intensive study of Tannenberg by military theorists, above all by the so-called "war specialists", former officers in the old army who had defected to serve the Bolsheviks, only came to an end on the eve of a new global conflict. This degree of attention to the manouevres in East Prussia can be explained by the interest of Soviet military science in tactical preparations for a new confrontation. In general, the treatment of the Battle of Tannenberg in Soviet literature was required to demonstrate that the defeat on the Eastern Front was not due to the success of victorious German armaments, but to the mediocrity of the senior Russian military leadership. The leadership talents of the German generals were rejected, with their only achievement being seen as their ability to exploit the situation that had arisen. The main explanation of the reasons for the defeat in the works of Soviet military theorists was the revolutionary-class motif, with doubt being expressed regarding the independent decision-making of the Russian Command, who had agreed to take on the thankless task of diverting the Germans from the French theatre of military action.

The reinterpretation of the negative East Prussian experience took on particular significance for the Russian military among the émigrés. After being defeated twice in WWI and the Civil War, the symbolic and conceptual world of the Russian officer class had been shaken, and was in need of the support of a group identity in an alien cultural environment. This end was to be served by the mythologizing of the old Russian army and the self-sacrificing heroism of the Russians in East Prussia in the name of their duty to the allied cause, and it is this interpretation that has taken hold in contemporary Russian cultural memory thanks to literary works and their nostalgia for a "Lost Russia."[4]

In the German Empire the mythologizing of the events in East Prussia was aimed at forming the interconnected concepts of the Russian occupation and the triumph of German arms. The Tannenberg myth was compensation for defeat in the Battle of the Marne and the basis for the stabilization of the previously broken-down civil peace. The advent of the cult of Paul von Hindenburg – who had been named together with Ludendorff in 1916 as head of the Third High Command – contributed to the removal of the figure of Wilhelm II, German Emperor (1859-1941) from the summit of political power and the establishment of a military dictatorship. However, this was unable to prevent the revolutionizing of the home front. Nonetheless, the use of the myth’s symbolic capital for political ends allowed for the preservation of the military values of Wilhelmian society during the transition to a republican form of government. Moreover it gave birth to the fundamental concepts of the enemies of Weimar democracy: the idea of “Dolchstoβ” ("stab-in-the-back"), the concept of the "Golden Age" of the Empire and the desire for authoritarian state structures and military vengeance.

The Tannenberg myth also had great significance for the ideological integration of German society during the Weimar Republic. Economic and political crises, the republican state’s lack of legitimacy and the difficulty in establishing a democratic political culture led to the revival of authoritarian military ways. East Prussia, cut off from the rest of the country by the Treaty of Versailles (which the Germans regarded as humiliating), became the embodiment of revanchist ideas and a symbol of the victorious military experience of 1914. The mass celebrations of the anniversary of the Battle of Tannenberg, which declared Germany’s legal and historical right to the now estranged province of East Prussia, as well as the construction of the large-scale Tannenberg memorial[5] symbolized both the dislocation and the continuity in the transition from empire to republic and from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich. The mourning of fallen compatriots in WWI became one of the authoritarian nation-state’s forms of ritual theatre. Tannenberg was not merely a place of remembrance, but also a symbol of the common destiny and renewed spirit of a unified nation. The convincing victory of Field Marshall Hindenburg, who had previously played no part in active political life in the 1925 presidential elections, did not lead to the consolidation of the Weimar Republic. A cult based on nationalist myth allowed Hindenburg to exclude the parliamentary parties from power and form a government according to his own personal view of the situation (the presidential cabinets of 1929-1933).

The Tannenberg myth acquired particular significance in the establishment of the political culture of the early Third Reich, with the National Socialists’ political interpreters skilfully exploiting the military components of the myth and its authoritarian character and transforming them into the new state’s symbols of power. The belief in the steadfastness of Germany and German militarism was based on the myth of Tannenberg, which exalted the army even after its defeat in WWI. According to the German General Staff, on the eve of WWII the Eastern groups of armies were full of self-esteem. It is no accident that the provocation on the Polish border of August 1939, to mask the beginning of World War II, was named "Operation Tannenberg."[6]

Oksana Segeevna Nagornaya, South Urals Institute of Management and Economics

Section Editors: Yulia Khmelevskaya; Katja Bruisch; Olga Nikonova; Oksana Nagornaja

Translator: Trevor Goronwy