When Lies Become History
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
My understanding was that the two Russian generals hated each other and would not support one another at Tannenberg/Masurian Lakes. A German colonel on Hindenberg's staff saw the two arguing at a railway station pre-war. It got so bad they got into a fistfight. So, he knew they would never support each other and planned the German counterattack accordingly. And it worked.
Cool story. But it never happened.
The version above comes from an internet post by a wargame/history magazine editor, but it’s a pretty commonly told tale: that Russian generals Alexander Samsonov and Pavel von Rennenkampf engaged in a fistfight at a railway station at Mukden during the Russo-Japanese War, and their mutual hatred would fuel the Russian defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg a decade later. It appears in many books – some of them good ones – and many articles.
In short, the story goes like this: in August 1914, two Russian armies invaded Germany’s easternmost province, East Prussia. One outnumbered German army, the Eighth, defended the province. After some initial Russian successes, the Germans managed to inflict a massive defeat on the Russians by defeating one enemy army in detail, and then turning on the other. During the first phase, the attack on Samsonov’s Second Army, the Germans could not be sure that Rennenkampf’s First Army would not fall on their exposed rear flank. Supposedly due to knowledge of the two generals’ fisticuffs, the German attack went forward with well-placed confidence as Rennenkampf did not come to Samsonov’s aid.
The fistfight story appears to originate with Barbara Tuchmann’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Guns of August. Citing Max Hoffmann, an Eighth Army staff officer, she writes:
Hoffmann claimed to have personal knowledge of a private quarrel between Rennenkampf and Samsonov dating from the Russo-Japanese War, in which he had been Germany’s observer. He said that Samsonov’s Siberian Cossacks, after a brave fight, had been obliged to yield the Yentai coal mines because Rennenkampf’s cavalry division had remained inactive despite repeated orders and that Samsonov had then knocked Rennenkampf down in a heated quarrel on the platform of the Mukden railway station. (Tuchmann, Guns of August, p. 345)
Hoffmann, in his memoir The War of Lost Opportunities, does tell a story of the two generals having a personal feud. As is often his way, Hoffman embroiders the story to put himself at center stage since he passed the information on to his bosses:
I would therefore like to mention the reports, which cannot be quite disproved, that Rennenkampf did not go to assist Samsonov from personal enmity against him. We must naturally conclude that he did not realize what importance the effects of his decision, nor what the extent of Samsonov's defeat would be. I know that a personal enmity existed between the two men, it dates from the battle of Liauyang, where Samsonov with the Siberian Cossack Division was defending the Yentai coal mines, but notwithstanding the distinguished bravery of his Cossacks he was obliged to evacuate them as Rennenkampf, who was on the left flank of the Russians with his detachment remained inactive notwithstanding repeated orders. Witnesses told me that after the battle, there had been some very biting explanations between the two leaders in the Mukden station.
So with Hoffmann we do have a quarrel, not expressly described as public but possibly so, and definitely not described as a physical confrontation. And he also injects some weasel language: in the way of gossip-mongers around the world, he’s not claiming the story is true, he’s just saying it can’t be proven false.
Hoffmann spoke Russian fluently and spent five years in the general staff’s Russian intelligence division, so he was well-placed to hear of an incident. But did it actually happen as he says? Hoffmann’s work is riddled with self-aggrandizing exaggerations, many of which have been accepted by popular historians and game designers. By attributing the victory at Tannenberg to his insider information – something no one else on the Eighth Army staff could have provided – Hoffmann thereby stakes a claim to the victory that would not otherwise be within the grasp of a mere lieutenant colonel, no matter how talented. So Hoffmann had motive to invent the story.
Jean Savant, in his detailed 1938 biography of Pavel Rennenkampf, Un Souvenier sur Paul de Rennenkampf, thoroughly demolishes any thought of a physical or even verbal confrontation, noting that Rennenkampf had been wounded in action and was not even present in Mukden to confront Samsonov. However, Rennenkampf did apparently have a public argument with his (and Samsonov’s) corps commander, Pavel Mishchenko. Even so, there are a number of further embellishments floating around out there: that the two generals fought with their fists, that one boxed the other’s ears, that the fight took place “in front of their men.” Holger Herwig, in his Biographical Dictionary of World War I, even claims that Hoffman witnessed the fight himself – pretty difficult for Hoffman to pull off, as he was attached to the Japanese Army at the time.
There does appear to be a grain of truth at the center of the story: Rennenkampf and Samsonov belonged to different factions of the Russian general officer corps. Hoffman, one of the German Army’s leading experts on the Russian Army, was well-placed to know all about that service’s bitter factional politics.
Samsonov was a protégé of War Minister Vladimir A. Sukhomlinov, and after commanding a cavalry division against the Japanese had performed well in a series of district commands. Rennenkampf, for his part, gravitated to the Grand Duke Nicholas, the Tsar’s first cousin (once removed) and extremely influential in military affairs. Nicholas had never held a field command, serving as the inspector general of cavalry from 1895 to 1905, and afterwards as commander of the St. Petersburg Military District. From that post he heaped scorn on Sukhomlinov, repeatedly interfering with the War Minister’s attempts to modernize the army. The paper-exercise war games set up by the War Minister, for example, were dismissed by the Grand Duke as “making generals sit for exams” and cancelled by the Tsar at the Grand Duke’s urging. Factions sprung up around each man, with their partisans sniping bitterly at one another.
When the Russian Army mobilized, the two factions had to be given equal representation. So when First Army command went to one of the Grand Duke's men, Second Army had to go to a Sukhomlinovite. Rennenkampf at First Army had a chief of staff from the Sukhomlinov faction, while Samsonov's chief of staff came from the Nicholas faction.
All of this would have been well-known to Hoffmann, but difficult to describe in the heat of the moment. Making up a fictional fight might have seemed an easier means of describing the enemy generals’ rivalry in the confusion of a frantic headquarters. And from there the lie took on a life of its own, as such things often do. Tuchmann expanded the “biting explanations” to a physical assault (though she does not claim a fistfight took place), and Herwig added some more embroidery by placing Hoffmann impossibly at the scene.
Did Rennenkampf indeed refuse to assist Samsonov’s army simply due to factional politics? That also seems unlikely: well before the front command began pressing First Army to move to Samsonov’s aid, Rennenkampf and his staff were pondering a retreat from East Prussia. They believed the Germans in front of them had been defeated and were withdrawing in disorder, not to attack Samsonov instead, and First Army’s own supply system had collapsed. Rennenkampf had refused to move forward well before Samsonov’s distress became apparent; he did not suddenly become sluggish when Second Army needed help.
Why the story has survived isn't exactly clear - it's been debunked by many authors. Dennis Showalter in Tannenberg: Clash of Empires, to cite just one example, does a thorough job of it.
“A lie travels halfway around the world while truth is still putting on its shoes.” Usually attributed to Mark Twain, sometimes to Winston Churchill, actually written by Charles Spurgeon.
Save poor Samsonov! Order August 1914 right now!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold would have saved Samsonov.