The Power of Propaganda – Tannenberg: More Than A Battle

Several years ago while planning a trip to Poland I looked into visiting the site of the famous World War I Battle of Tannenberg. This was a seminal event in the opening months of the war. In what is today northeastern Poland, the Germans surrounded and destroyed an entire Russian Army. It was one of the few tactically decisive battles of the war. Tannenberg has become the only well-known Eastern Front battle among those with even a cursory interest in the war. Surely, I thought for such an important event there would be a battlefield with historical markers or a visitor center to educate the curious. I soon discovered this not to be the case.

Map of the Battle of Tannenberg

The Battle of Tannenberg was fought over an area of hundreds of square kilometers

Lost In Space & Time – Finding Tannenberg
The problem with locating the Battle of Tannenberg is mostly one of space and time. The battle was fought across a sprawling expanse of countryside consisting of lakes and forests. It took a total of five days from start to finish. Trying to pin down a specific place and date for the decisive events is all but impossible. On the Russian side, there was more surrender than actual combat. The Russian forces ended up with 92,000 soldiers taken prisoner versus 78,000 killed and wounded. Not exactly the type of activity that gets a history buff’s heart racing. On the German side, tactical brilliance consisted of setting a trap and allowing the Russians to fall into it. There was nothing inherently dramatic about that. This was not a Napoleonic set piece battle, with two armies staring each other down. Instead it was a blundering, confused mess marked by chaos and confusion. In other words, it was mobile warfare distilled to its essence.

Since there was no dedicated visitor center or x marks the spot historic site, I surmised that the battle’s location would be at or near the village it was named for. That idea turned out to be problematic. First of all, the village of Tannenberg no longer exists on maps, since it is now located in Poland. The Polish name for the village is Stębark. Once I knew that, it was easy enough to locate the village on a map, but then it got really tricky. After a bit of research I discovered that the heaviest fighting and focal points of the battle did not take place near the village. Instead, they occurred about 20 miles (30 miles) further to the northwest, in the vicinity of the small city of Olsztyn (Allenstein). So why was the battle named for a town on the periphery of where it actually occurred? The reasons had to do with national and racial identity.

General Hindenburg fighting the Russian Bear on a commemorative medallion

Slaying the demons of Prussia’s past – a naked General Hindenburg fighting the Russian Bear on a commemorative medallion

What’s In A Name: Uses & Abuses
After the battle was won, the German high command sent their victorious dispatch from Tannenberg. It was around this time that it was decided that the battle should be named after the village. This was done to avenge a historic defeat the German’s forebears had suffered in the area over 500 years before. At the Battle of Grunwald (German name Battle of Tannenberg) in 1410 the Teutonic Knights were defeated by a Polish-Lithuanian force. It was a critical moment in the history of northeastern Europe, as it stopped the Knights’ expansion. With the rise of nationalism in the decades prior to World War I historic battles between Teuton and Slav were no longer just about the past. They were also used to influence the present. A policy of Germanization throughout Prussia brought about resistance from the Polish population. The Poles did not have the ability to fight the Germans militarily, so they held onto the next best thing, victories from many centuries before. German nationalists certainly noticed this. The victory of the German Army at Tannenberg avenged the Teutonic Knights loss. Even though it came against the Russians, they were also Slavs. No matter what nationality, Slavic peoples were seen as the common enemy of the German people.

Funeral of Paul Von Hindenburg at the Tannenberg Memorial in 1934

The Power of Propaganda – Funeral of Paul Von Hindenburg at the Tannenberg Memorial in 1934 (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2006-0429-502)

The victory, presented the Germans with a golden opportunity to showcase their superiority. Henceforth, they referred to it as the Second Battle of Tannenberg. Never mind where the battle was actually fought, Tannenberg was close enough. This was just the beginning of the name’s usage for German propaganda purposes. After the First World War ended, a defeated Germany looked to victories in battle for solace. Tannenberg resonated with much of the populace and especially the far right. Thus, one of the two victorious German commanders from the battle, Erich Ludendorff used it as the name for his extreme right wing society, the Tannenbergbund. An even greater propaganda coup was the huge Tannenberg Memorial erected by Germany in 1924 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their glorious victory. Interestingly enough, the Memorial was not located at the village of Tannenberg. Instead it was placed at Olsztynek (in German Hohenstein) 5 kilometers away. It eventually housed the tomb of Paul Von Hindenburg, Ludendorff’s fellow victorious commander from the battle. Like everything else in this once solidly Prussian territory it was transformed by World War II. Hindenburg’s remains were evacuated to western Germany in order to avoid looting by the Red Army. The Nazi’s then set off charges to demolish parts of the memorial. Later the Soviets and Poles finished its destruction.

Monumental Remains – A Hidden Legacy
After several weeks’ worth of research I decided to skip visiting the Tannenberg battlefield. My problem was also one of space and time. It would have taken days to cover the areas where fighting occurred. There was little possibility of finding any tangible evidence of the battle. The only sites I could find were not associated with the battle, but instead the memorial. Its former location can be roughly discerned by rubble strewn about in a vacant field that outlines the site. There is also a bit of the old memorial’s stone and granite standing in the town square of Olsztynek today. It was used in the Soviet World War II memorial, a subliminal, hidden legacy of German militarism.

A Shot In the Woods – Solzhenitsyn, Knox & Tuchman on the Suicide of General Samsonov

“His sense of ease grew and grew. He had lived out a long life of army service in which danger and the risk of death were inevitable; now that he had reached the moment of death and was ready for it, he realized as never before how easy, how much of a relief it would be. The only problem was suicide was counted a sin…He began now with the set prayers, then none at all: he simply knelt, breathing and looking up into the sky. Then casting aside restraint, he groaned aloud, like any dying creature of the forest: ‘O Lord, if Thou canst, forgive me and receive me. Thou seest – I could do no other, and can do no other now.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, August 1914

All the night of the 29th-3Oth they stumbled through the woods that fringe the north of the railway from Neidenburg to Willenberg, moving hand in hand to avoid losing one another in the darkness. Samsonov said repeatedly that the disgrace of such a defeat was more than he could bear. “The Emperor trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” He went aside and his staff heard a shot. They searched for his body without success, but all are convinced that he shot himself. – Sir Alfred Knox, With the Russian Army: 1914 – 1917 

Riding through the woods that fringed the railroad, he and his companions reached Willenberg, only seven miles from the Russian frontier, but the Germans had arrived there before them. The General and his group waited in the forest until before nightfall and then, as it was impossible to proceed over the swampy ground in the dark on horseback, continued on foot. Matches gave out and they could no longer read their compass. Moving hand in hand to avoid losing each other in the dark, they stumbled on. Samsonov, who suffered from asthma, was visibly weakening. He kept repeating to Potovsky, his chief of staff: “The Czar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” After covering six miles, they stopped for a rest. It was then 1:00 a.m. Samsonov moved apart into the thicker darkness under the pines. A shot cracked the stillness of the night. Potovsky knew exactly what it meant. Earlier Samsonov had confided his intention of committing suicide, but Potovsky though had argued him out of it. He was now sure the General was dead.” – Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

The three excerpts given above are separate accounts of the same event: the suicide of Russian general Aleksandr Samsonov in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Russian Second Army which he commanded at the Battle of Tannenberg. The battle was the first major clash on the Eastern Front during World War I. In the space of just five days, Samsonov’s army lost 140,000 killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Of his original force, a mere 10,000 escaped. Samsonov was also killed, not by an enemy bullet, but by his own hand. The difference between the excerpts offers a concise study of how history is shaped and interpreted.

Aleksandr Samsonov - ill-fated commander of the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg

Aleksandr Samsonov – ill-fated commander of the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg

History Being Made & History Being Made Up
The first of the three excerpts, comes from one of the least known works of famed Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, his novel August 1914. It is a fictionalized account in which Solzhenitsyn took creative liberties with what he had read about the suicide. One of Solzhenitsyn’s main sources was Sir Alfred Knox’s With the Russian Army 1914 – 1917 who provides the second excerpt. Knox actually appears as a character in Solzhenitsyn’s novel. That being said, there is a vast difference between the two. Knox’s account is seemingly factual, while Solzhenitsyn’s is very loosely connected to the facts. This is the difference between how history is made (or written) and how it is made up.

That is not to suggest there is anything wrong with what Solzhenitsyn has done. If anything, his psychoanalytical approach gives the reader a window into the mindset of Samsonov in the moments just before he committed the ultimate act. Even for those who last saw Samsonov, they could not possibly know exactly what was going through his mind while under such shocking distress. It is rather obvious from what transpired that Samsonov was deeply disturbed and not thinking straight in the wake of the battle. He must have felt that his life’s work as a soldier and leader had all been a terrible failure. There was only one way out for this career soldier – by taking a bullet. In Solzhenitsyn’s retelling, death was the best option left to Samsonov. The key words in the excerpt are: “how much of a relief it would be.” Death offered not only an escape, but also redemption. It was the only thing left that could alleviate his suffering.

August 1914 - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's great novel on the Battle of Tannenberg

August 1914 – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s great novel on the Battle of Tannenberg

After Such a Disaster – Tragic Loyalty
Knox’s account is the most reputable English language source on the event. At a glance, it comes across as a first-hand observation and is seemingly factual. It is actually based on what Knox heard, not what he exeprienced. He was not actually there. He had heard from people who had intimate knowledge (or said they did) of what occurred. From Knox, we get an idea of the chaotic effort to escape by Samsonov and his staff. Crucially from a purely historical standpoint, he gives us the telling quote “The Emperor trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” Those words followed Samsonov to the grave and would provide the most intimate part of the incident. The way in which Samsonov is viewed historically has much to do with this quote. It shows him as a tragic, loyal figure rather than an inept and overwhelmed commander. Which was he? Most likely a little bit of both. He was in over his head, probably should have never been appointed to such a high command and though loyal, had little idea of how to lead an army. In sum, Knox presents us with a confused and lost man, whose shame will not allow him to face the light of another day.

Sir Alfred Knox - gained first hand experience with the Russian Army and a second hand account of General Samsonov's suicide

Sir Alfred Knox – gained first hand experience with the Russian Army and a second hand account of General Samsonov’s suicide

Swallowed By Darkness – The Moment & the Man
The final excerpt is from perhaps the most famous work on the beginning of World War One, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. Tuchman’s book deals very little with events on the Eastern Front, but it does cover the Battle of Tannenberg. She does a fabulous job of setting the scene for Samsonov’s final act. Whereas Solzhenitsyn is concerned with the psyche of Samsonov, Tuchman sets up the suicide with a foreboding description of the natural surroundings which the ill-fated Samsonov and his staff find themselves lost within. A cloistered world of darkness and nightfall, covered with woods, swampy ground and pines. It is a world that closes in on Samsonov. He ends up both literally and figuratively swallowed by the darkness.

The Guns of August - Barbara Tuchman's classic work on the beginning of World War One

The Guns of August – Barbara Tuchman’s classic work on the beginning of World War One

Each of the excerpts lends a different perspective to the suicide of General Aleksandr Samsonov. Solzhenitsyn is psychoanalytical and spiritual. Knox is tragically descriptive. Tuchman’s piece is filled with a deep and ambient darkness. From these unique passages we have the same event cast in radically different forms. Through these writings we see history being created, molded and reimagined. Solzhenitsyn, Knox and Tuchman may have been distant in space and time from Samsonov, but through their writing they managed to resurrect both the moment and the man.

The Triumph of Tragedy: Russia’s Role in Saving France During the Great War

“I will never forget that the Russian people gave millions of lives.” Those were the words of French President Francois Hollande in late May as he referenced the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II. What Hollande was basically stating in so many words was that the Soviets were a major force in freeing France from German occupation during the war. This happened not by design, but by accident. That is an understatement of historic proportions. Eighty percent of German casualties during World War II occurred on the Eastern front while fighting the Soviet Army. If the Soviet’s had not provided the manpower or in a more cynical sense, the human material, the Nazis still might occupy France.

Russian Infantry during the Brusilov Offensive - heading toward victory and tragedy

Russian Infantry during the Brusilov Offensive – heading toward victory and tragedy

The Russian Army – A Miracle in Defeat
On June 6th, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Hollande will host Russian President Vladimir Putin at a state dinner in Paris. Surely, Hollande will use this occasion to once again remark on the great sacrifice of the Russian people during the war. A topic Hollande will most likely overlook though, is the Russian sacrifice for the Allied cause – namely France – during the First World War. The Russian army helped save France on at least two occasions during that conflict. The first was at the beginning of the war, when the Russians supported their French ally by mobilizing at what was for them, breathtaking speed. They quickly invaded East Prussia, which caused an outcry among German civilians. The fatherland was under threat from the eastern menace. This led the Germans to draw off forces from their attack on France in order to deal with the Russian threat from the east. The German forces sent to the Eastern Front arrived too late in order to make any real difference in the fighting. Nevertheless, an entire Russian army was destroyed at the Battle of Tannenberg.

Despite the ineptitude of their high command, the Russian forces in the east were still enough to keep tens of thousands of German forces tied down there. These same forces were of no use to the German Army as it attempted to sweep across northern France and destroy the French Army. The German juggernaut soon ground to a halt as its forces became overextended and exhausted. At the same time, the French won possibly their most crucial victory of the war, what has come to be known as the Miracle of the Marne. There would have been no miracle without support from their Russian ally. President Hollande will almost certainly fail to mention the Russian role in saving France during those late summer days in 1914.

Today, the First World War is still a controversial subject in Russia. The twelve million troops of the Russian Imperial Army fought with valor and courage on one of the most expansive war fronts in human history. From the shores of the Baltic to the beaches of the Black Sea the fearless Russian peasant was cannon fodder for a Tsarist Army that bled mother Russia white. In the process, the Russian Empire slid into dissolution and cataclysm while their Allies emerged victorious at the end of the war. World War One brought Russia two revolutions that then led to an ultraviolent Civil War, followed by the tyranny of Bolshevism. Hollande will almost certainly avoid reference to Russia in the Great War and Putin will be glad he did.

Alexei Brusilov - the best Russian Field Commander of World War One

Alexei Brusilov – the best Russian Field Commander of World War One

The Shock of Success – Brusilov’s Moment
A lesser known, but no less notable Russian sacrifice during the war that assisted the French cause immeasurably was the Brusilov Offensive which occurred in the middle of 1916. During the winter and spring of 1916, the French were stretched to the limit by the battle of Verdun. The army was literally hanging by a thread as it neared the limit of its manpower. The French high command, both political and military, literally begged their allies to engage Germany in battle so as lessen the pressure on the French forces holding on at Verdun. The British would not answer the call until they were completely prepared for what would become their disastrous campaign on the Somme in July. The Russians, despite their mass retreat in 1915, as well as the horrific debacle at Lake Naroch in March 1916, answered the French call for help. On June 4, 1916 a Russian Army on the southwestern portion of the Eastern Front began what would become one of the most shockingly successful campaigns of the entire war.

General Aleksei Brusilov, the ablest Russian field commander of the war, used innovative tactics to confound the Austro-Hungarian Army. Rather than carry out the usual, prolonged artillery barrage, followed by a massive human wave attack on a narrowly confined sector, Brusilov instead had his army attack all along the front after a short, precise artillery barrage. Since attacks were occurring in multiple areas it was very difficult for the Austro-Hungarians to know where to place their reserves to halt a breakthrough. Russian assault troops punched through, widened and exploited gaps that had been created in the enemy lines. Brusilov’s tactics turned out to be successful beyond even his wildest imagination. The Russians opened gaping holes and then quickly poured in reserves to further exploit them. Suddenly, their forces which had been stuck in a quagmire for months on end broke out into the open and were highly mobile. The Austro-Hungarians barely had time to react. Soon they were in a retreat, which was only exacerbated by panic. The result was that hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarian forces were captured as well as two entire armies rendered unfit for combat.

Graves at Verdun - tragic monuments to the war of attrition

Graves at Verdun – tragic monuments to the war of attrition

Saving the French – Losing the War
The German high command’s focus turned away from Verdun. They had little choice but to transfer divisions away from the western front to the east in order to save the Austro-Hungarians from complete collapse. German forces soon came to the rescue, but it was a close run operation. Unfortunately, for Brusilov his troop’s incredible success meant they also outran their supply lines. He then reverted back to the same old deadly tactics of endless artillery barrages followed by narrow, suicidal attacks. The Brusilov Offensive, the greatest Russian triumph of the war, was a pyrrhic victory. By the end of the offensive, the Russians had gained hundreds of square miles of territory, but in the process lost upwards of 1.4 million men. Success was almost indistinguishable from defeat.

The victory that the Russians had gained helped their French ally much more than it ever would themselves. For the rest of the war, the Austro-Hungarians were never capable of independently carrying out an attack on the Eastern Front. Yet this meant that now the Russians would face more of their formidable German foe. Meanwhile in the west, the French gained the most from Russian efforts. The Germans had to give up the fighting at Verdun. The plan had been to defeat the French through a colossal battle of attrition. If the Germans had just been fighting the French or only on the Western Front this might have worked. Fighting the Russians as well made the German Army’s task almost impossible. The Russians had hundreds of thousands of men to battle Germany and its allies. These men might as well have been fighting and dying for France. The greatest Russian success of the war in retrospect was saving the French.

The Triumph of Tragedy
As France prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of both its victorious and tragic effort during the Great War, it will certainly focus on the eventual triumph of its forces during that defining conflict. Meanwhile in Russia, if the war is remembered at all, it will commemorate the tragic waste of the common Russian soldier’s life. The Tsarist Empire they fought for was ultimately lost. The war then led to a revolution that brought even greater suffering. As for any success, it ended up benefiting an ally who would soon forget Russia’s sacrifice and suffering. In France today, few remember, let alone know of the critical role Russia played in helping save it during the war. That is truly tragic.