Untitled Book Review
THIS season we are invited to regard the prose portraits of two living men, each of whom by strength of mind and the confidence he inspired in others worked masterfully to save his country in time of peril. When mutiny was running through the French army in 1917 it was Maréchal Pétain who personally visited every division and by talking to officers and men restored that confidence which had been so badly drained at Verdun. With Ludendorff in full flight in 1918 and the Kaiser already across the border, it was Hindenburg who led home the defeated German army and then stood up in his boots to take what was coming. This is the kind of action that breeds legends — if not biographies.
Maréchal Pétain’s little volume, Verdun (The Dial Press, $4.00), is all too brief: what there is of it is admirable. It is not a detailed narrative of operations, nor a critical study, nor in any way a personal narrative, but a retrospective survey of the main outlines of Verdun — the battle — and of its place in the 1916 campaign. What one misses most (from this standpoint) is that no account has been taken of the detailed studies from German sources; Pétain’s view of the decisions and plans of the German Command would be more valuable than anyone else’s, and in 1930 the absence of any such comment is a shortcoming. As a French account, it is striking above all for the ungrudging recognition of what the enemy accomplished. In place of the usual jeering references to German troops driven forward to slaughter. Mareehal Petain dwells on the valor and skill of the German infantry in the same tone and spirit he shows to his own men; with equal poise, he points out the competent arrangements of the German Command, and singles out for praise by name the lieutenant of the Brandenburg regiment who took Douaumont. This ‘change’ of tone is a change only from the bellicose rhetoric accepted as a journalistic convention then and ever since; it is exactly the same tone as one found in the French army while the war was on. Coming from Marechal Pétain to-day, it expresses no remote historical detachment, but the feeling, the true voice of the French soldier.
Of his own men Pétain says: ‘They were soldiers in the highest sense of the word, grim and resolute, accepting in their day’s work both danger and suffering. When their time came to enter the line, they advanced with unfaltering steps to meet their fate, fully knowing what was in store for them.’
‘What was in store for them’ — the whole experience of Verdun is fused into this single phrase; and Pétain allows it to be tarnished by no gesture of patriotic rhetoric or military glory. The underlying note of his record is not a pæan of triumph but a reminder to his countrymen of what the battle really amounted to. For three months, while all France chanted On ne passera pas, Pétain watched with anxiety as the balance wavered.
To judge from these two German biographies which appear by coincidence this season. The Biography of President von Hindenburg, by Rudolph Wetersletten (Macmillan, $2.50), and Hindenburg: The Mon and the Legend, by Margaret Goldsmith (Morrow, $3.50), Hindenburg must be preparing to run for a second term, so sharply do these two books recall the ardent biographies of presidential candidates compiled in the midst of an election campaign. Their translation into English is a tribute to the substantial impression Hindenburg has made in the popular mind in all countries. The persistence of this prestige is its most striking feature. It is far higher to-day than in the days of the original legend, when it was supposed that he was one of the greatest of strategists; the sacrifice of that illusion has in no way lessened his credit. How far Hindenburg exerts an influence as Reichspräsident neither volume undertakes to inquire; the second of the two dismisses his post-war career in a couple of pages; the other offers merely a selection of quotations from his addresses on such occasions as the laying of corner stones. Hindenburg, in short, has reached a personal position far above that of his elected office; like an English royal figure he has a status which requires no external personal characteristics — and in quite that mood we read contentedly that he is fond of children and believes in hard work and virtue.
It is worthy of note that the biographers have been unable to glean any personal details, and even in regard to the war they are unable to offer any new light as to what Hindenburg’s contribution actually was. They have been content to follow the narrative of his own Memoirs, retouching it vigorously wherever necessary. We read that, in the pre-war arrangements with France, Russia had promised to advance with 8,000,000 men soon after the fifteenth day of mobilization; and this same boldness of conception marks the treatment of the whole strategic panorama. It is a return to first principles. While the Official Histories emerge laboriously and all unnoticed, Parson Weems points out the path to popularity. The 8,000,000 Russians stand fairly well for the Hindenburg cherry tree.
In both volumes, singularly enough, the hero is set forth as a figurehead — even in so many words. ‘Hindenburg is the right man in the right place. . . . At the death of Ebert, the country needed a popular figurehead.’ Now as before, apparently, what is required for the popular fancy in Germany is an idol — and, after KingStork, King Log. The Kaiser provided a full dose of dynamic force and brilliant talents, but while be fades into the oblivion of Doom his placid successor is extolled even above Bismarck. ‘Future generations of Germans will certainly remember and honor the name of the less impressive and powerful Hindenburg above the once all-important name of Bismarck. For in the pages of history Bismarck’s work will resemble simply a flash in the pan, the result of which scarcely outlasted his lifetime.’
The Treaty of Versailles, Hindenburg’s contribution, will no doubt be the more permanent achievement.
T. H. THOMAS