Max Hoffman was a German staff officer who helped devise the plan that resulting in the German victory at Tannenberg in 1914, and who spent the entire First World War serving on the eastern front. He entered the army in 1887, serving on the General Staff. In 1899 he joined the Russian department of the General Staff, becoming an acknowledged expert on the subject. In 1904-1905 he accompanied the Japanese army as a military observer. There he famously saw two Russian officers, A. V. Samsonov and P. K. Rennenkampf, come to blows at Mukden and vow never to help each other again.
In August 1914 he was appointed first staff officer to the Eighth Army in East Prussia, under the command of General Max von Prittwitz und Gaffron. The Russians mobilised much quicker than the Germans had expected, and invaded East Prussia. The first major clash came at Gumbinnen on 20 August. The battle was an expensive draw, and in the aftermath Prittwitz decided to pull back across the Vistula, abandoning most of East Prussia. He quickly abandoned this idea in favour of a plan for a counterattack developed by Hoffman, but the change came too late to save Prittwitz, who was replaced by the team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff.
When Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived in the east, they accepted Hoffman’s plan. This was based on the known hostility between the two Russian generals, and the distance between their two armies. The Germans turned on Samsonov’s Second Army, crushing it at the battle of Tannenberg (26-31 August 1914). In his memoirs Hindenburg ignored Hoffman’s role in the victory, but did acknowledge that Tannenberg had been won at Mukden.
Hoffman remained first staff officer in the east under Hindenburg and Ludendorff until they were promoted to the overall command in 1916. He planned the second battle of the Masurian Lakes (7-21 February 1915), an ambitious outflanking manoeuvre that came close to destroying another Russian army. However, the main German victory in the east, the breakthrough at Gorlice-Tarnow (2-10 May 1915) was planned from the centre. Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffman played a limited role in the operations that pushed the Russians out of Poland.
In the summer of 1916 Hindenburg became Chief of the General Staff. His place in the east was taken by Prince Leopold of Bavaria. Hoffman was appointed to serve as his chief of staff, the same post that Ludendorff held under Hindenburg. Prince Leopold was not an active commander, perhaps fortunately as Hoffman described him as “likeable, relatively harmless, but rather unintelligent”.
The new team took over in the middle of the battle of Kovel-Stanislav (4 June-20 September 1916), perhaps better known as the Brusilov Offensive. They took command after the worst crisis had passed, but still had to resist another month of attacks before the Russian offensive died down.
The situation on the eastern front was transformed by the Russian Revolution of March 1917. The provisional government was determined to fight on, but the “Kerensky” offensive ended in total failure and the near collapse of the Russian army. In the aftermath of this last Russian offensive, Hoffman launched an attack on the Baltic front. Riga fell in September, and in October the Germans seized the islands of Moon, Ösel and Dagö, at the mouth of the gulf of Riga. This was the last serious action on the eastern front, for on 25 November a peace delegation from the new Bolshevik rulers of Russia crossed the German lines. On 27 November Hoffman indicated that he was willing to grant an armistice, and on 17 December that armistice came into force.
Hoffman was now faced with one of the most difficult tasks of his career. He was the main German negotiator at Brest-Litovsk, facing Trotsky. Amongst Hoffman’s problems were Ludendorff’s over-ambitious plans for expansion in the east, the need to free troops to move to the west, and Trotsky’s completely unrealistic attitude. Trotsky believed that the revolution would soon spread to Germany, if only he could delay the peace treaty for long enough. German patience ran out in February, and on 9 February a separate peace was agreed with the newly (if only briefly) independent Ukraine. Trotsky responded with his “no war, no peace” resolution, declaring the war to be over and demobilising the Russian army.
The Germans responded with an invasion of western Russia that saw Hoffman capture Pskov and Kiev, occupy the Ukraine and reach within 80 miles of Petrograd. On 3 March 1918 the Russians were forced to sign the Treat of Breat-Litovsk. This saw Finland, the Ukraine and Georgia become independent states, gave the Baltic States to Germany and split Russian Poland between Germany and Austro-Hungary.
Hoffman remained in the east until the German surrender in November 1918. He then brought his army home, remaining in the army until he retired in March 1920. In his post-war memoirs Hoffman criticized Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s management of the war. He was considered to have been one of the most intelligent members of the General Staff.