Hindenburg retired from the army for the first time in 1911, but was recalled shortly after the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He first came to national attention at the age of 66 as the victor of the decisive Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914. Upon being named Germany's Chief of the General Staff in August 1916, his popularity among the German public increased exponentially to the point of giving rise to an enormous personality cult. As Kaiser Wilhelm II increasingly delegated his power as Supreme Warlord to the German high command, Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff ultimately formed a de facto military dictatorship that dominated German policymaking for the rest of the war.
Hindenburg retired again in 1919, but returned to public life in 1925 to be elected the second President of Germany. In 1932, Hindenburg was persuaded to run for re-election as German President, although 84 years old and in poor health, because he was considered the only candidate who could defeat Hitler. Hindenburg was re-elected in a runoff. He was opposed to Hitler and was a major player in the increasing political instability in the Weimar Republic that ended with Hitler's rise to power. He dissolved the Reichstag twice in 1932 and finally, under pressure, agreed to appoint Hitler Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. Hindenburg did this to satisfy Hitler's demands that he should play a part in the Weimar Government, since Hitler was the leader of the Nazi party which had won the largest plurality in the November 1932 elections (no party achieved a majority). In February, he signed off on the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended various civil liberties, and in March he signed the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave Hitler's regime arbitrary powers. Hindenburg died the following year, after which Hitler declared himself Führer, or supreme leader, which superseded both the President and Chancellor.
Paul von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg was born in Posen, Prussia (Polish: Poznań; until 1793 and since 1919 part of Poland), the son of Prussian aristocrat Robert von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (1816–1902) and his wife Luise Schwickart (1825–1893), the daughter of medical doctor Karl Ludwig Schwickart and wife Julie Moennich. His paternal grandparents were Otto Ludwig Fady von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (1778–18 July 1855), through whom he was remotely descended from the illegitimate daughter of Count Heinrich VI of Waldeck, and his wife Eleonore von Brederfady (died 1863). Hindenburg was also a direct descendant of Martin Luther and his wife Katharina von Bora, through their daughter Margareta Luther. Hindenburg's younger brothers and sister were Otto, born 24 August 1849, Ida, born 19 December 1851 and Bernhard, born 17 January 1859. One of his first-cousins was the great-grandmother of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad. His family were all Lutheran Protestants in the Evangelical Church of Prussia, which since 1817 included both Calvinist and Lutheran parishioners.
Paul was proud of his family and could trace ancestors back to 1289. The dual surname was adopted in 1789 to secure an inheritance and appeared in formal documents, but in everyday life they were von Beneckendorffs. True to family tradition his father supported his family as an infantry officer, he retired as a major. In the summer they visited his grandfather at the Hindenburg estate of Neudeck in East Prussia. At age 11 Paul entered the Cadet Corps School at Wahlstatt (now Legnickie Pole, Poland). At 16 he was transferred to the School in Berlin, and at 18 he served as a page to the widow of King Frederick William IV of Prussia. Graduates entering the army were presented to King William I, who asked for their father’s name and rank. He became a second lieutenant in the Third Regiment of Foot Guards.
When the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 broke out Hindenburg wrote his parents: "I rejoice in this bright-coloured future. For the soldier war is the normal state of things…If I fall, it is the most honorable and beautiful death". During the decisive battle at Königgrätz he was knocked unconscious by a bullet that pierced his helmet and creased the top of his skull. Wrapping his head in a towel, he continued to lead his men, winning a decoration. He was battalion adjutant when the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) broke out. After weeks of marching, the Guards attacked the village of Saint Privat (near Metz). Climbing a gentle slope, they came under heavy fire from the superior French rifles. After four hours the Prussian artillery came up to blast the French lines while the infantry, filled with the "holy lust of battle, " swept through the French lines. His regiment suffered 1096 casualties, and he became regimental adjutant. The Guards were spectators at the Battle of Sedan and for the following months sat in the siege lines surrounding Paris. He was his regiment’s elected representative at the Palace of Versailles when the German Empire was proclaimed on 18 January 1871; he was an impressive figure: 195 cm (6 feet 5 inches) tall with a muscular frame and striking blue eyes. After the French surrender he watched from afar the suppression of the Paris Commune.