Oberste Heeresleitung

Hindenburg, Wilhelm II, Ludendorff, January 1917

The Oberste Heeresleitung (German pronunciation: [ˈoːbɐstə ˈheːʁəsˌlaɪtʊŋ], Supreme Army Command or OHL) was the highest echelon of command of the army (Heer) of the German Empire. In the latter part of World War I, the Third OHL assumed dictatorial powers and became the de facto political authority in the empire.

Formation and operation

After the formation of the German Empire in 1871, the Prussian Army, Royal Saxon Army, Army of Württemberg and the Bavarian Army were autonomous in peacetime, each kingdom maintaining a separate war ministry and general staff to administer their forces. On the outbreak of war, the Constitution of the German Empire made the Emperor Commander-in-Chief of the combined armies (Oberster Kriegsherr, Supreme Warlord).

Upon mobilizing in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, the Großer Generalstab (Great General Staff) formed the core of the Supreme Army Command, becoming the General Staff of the Field Army. The Emperor's role as Commander-in-Chief was largely ceremonial and authority lay with the Chief of the General Staff, who issued orders in the Emperor's name. The pre-war Chief of the General Staff was Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke (The Younger) and the Oberste Heeresleitung was the command staff led by Moltke as Chief of the General Staff of the Army.[1]:180

For most of the war, OHL was located at Spa in Belgium. In addition to the General Staff of the Field Army, the Supreme Army Command consisted of the Emperor's Military Cabinet, the Intendant General (responsible for supply), senior advisers in various specialist fields (Artillery, Engineers, Medicine, Telegraphy, Munitions and Railways) and representatives from the four German War Ministries and representatives of the other Central Powers. The Emperor was also Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial German Navy, which was led by the German Imperial Admiralty Staff and from August 1918 by the Seekriegsleitung (SKL, Naval Warfare Command). Co-ordination was poor at the beginning of the war between OHL and SKL, the navy did not even know about the Schlieffen Plan, an initial attack on France through Belgium.

Moltke suffered a health breakdown during the First Battle of the Marne and was replaced by the Prussian Minister of War and General of Infantry Erich von Falkenhayn, first informally in August and then officially on 25 October 1914.[1]:179 After the failure of Falkenhayn's strategy at the Battle of Verdun and the entry into the war of the Kingdom of Romania on the Allied side in August 1916, Falkenhayn was replaced on 29 August by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg.[1]:451

Third OHL

Hindenburg's command became known as the Dritte OHL (Third OHL) but Hindenburg was "neither the intellectual centre of the strategic planning [...] nor of the new war economy",[1]:513 as proposed in the Hindenburg Programme of 31 August 1916. He was mostly a figurehead and a representative of the military command to the public. Control was mainly exercised by his deputy, General of Infantry Erich Ludendorff, who held the title Generalquartiermeister (First Quartermaster General).[lower-alpha 1][1]:513-514 The duumvirate increasingly dominated decision making on the German war effort, to an extent that they are sometimes described as de facto military dictators, supplanting the Emperor and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, whom they managed to have replaced with Georg Michaelis in the summer of 1917.[lower-alpha 2][2]:19–20

The OHL, through the Hindenburg Programme, a total war strategy, sought decisive victory. Ludendorff ordered the resumption of the unrestricted U-boat Campaign, which, along with the Zimmermann Telegram, provoked the United States to enter the war. The OHL ensured safe passage for Vladimir Lenin and his associates from Switzerland to Russia. After the October Revolution, the OHL negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to free troops for the 1918 Spring Offensive on the Western Front. As the tide of the war turned against Germany with the Allied Hundred Days' Offensive, in late September 1918, Ludendorff called for the "parliamentisation" of the German government and immediate armistice negotiations. When he reversed course and demanded the fight to be resumed in October, Ludendorff was sacked and replaced by Lieutenant-General Wilhelm Groener. Hindenburg remained in office until his resignation from the armed forces in the summer of 1919.

Armistice and dissolution

With the war over in November 1918, the OHL was moved from Spa to Schloss Wilhelmshöhe in Kassel, to supervise the withdrawal of the German armies from the occupied territories.[3] As the German Revolution began, Hindenburg and Groener advised the Emperor to abdicate. Groener subsequently came to an agreement with the Social Democrat leader Friedrich Ebert known as the Ebert–Groener pact under which the Army leadership agreed to back the new republican government. The final location of the OHL was at Kolberg after February 1919 as the military focus had shifted to preventing territorial encroachment by the Second Polish Republic.[3]

In July 1919, the Supreme Army Command and Great General Staff were disbanded by order of the Treaty of Versailles. For a few days, Groener had replaced Hindenburg as Chief of the General Staff, after the latter resigned in late June. He resigned from his position as head of Kommandostelle Kolberg (as the staff had become on the formal dissolution of the OHL) in September 1919.[4]


  1. Unlike in other armies, the German Generalquartiermeister was not responsible for supply but was the deputy to the Chief of Staff
  2. On 31 October 1917, Georg Michaelis was forced to resign as Chancellor of the German Empire and was replaced with Georg von Hertling. On 30 September 1918 after Bulgaria's capitulation and with both the capitulation of Austria-Hungary and the collapse of the western front imminent, the OHL endorsed Prince Maximilian of Baden as replacement for von Hertling.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Leonhard, Jörn (2014). Die Büchse der Pandora: Geschichte des Ersten Weltkriegs [Pandora's Box: History of the First World War] (in German). C. H. Beck. ISBN 978-3-406-66191-4.
  2. Haffner, Sebastian (2002). Die deutsche Revolution 1918/19 [The German Revolution, 1918–19] (in German). Kindler. ISBN 3-463-40423-0.
  3. 1 2 "Biografie Wilhelm Groener" [Biography of Wilhem Groener] (in German). Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
  4. "Biografie Wilhelm Groener (German)". Deutsches Historisches Museum. Archived from the original on July 11, 2014. Retrieved 22 May 2013.

Further reading

External links

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