According to wiki, up until 1918, Gefreiter was the only rank to which an enlisted soldier could be promoted.

Sounds strange. Is it true?

Where did Germans take their Corporals, Sergeants and Feldwebels?

Couldn't a soldier that already had become a Gefreiter be promoted further even if he had accomplished something big? Even during the Great War?

I remember from Hindenburg biography that he despised Hitler for reaching only Gefreiter rank in such a great war. I think, German marshal should know the rules...

  • I don't know, but from reading that article - I would guess the NCO's were "Kapitulants", the Long-Term Volunteer Enlistee's who had elected to continue service beyond their initial conscription.
    – Kobunite
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 11:22
  • @Kobunite Thank you. I have read the article, too. The problem is, how erroneous is it. As for your message, I know that volunteers had special rights to become an officer later. But never had I read that you had to be a volunteer to become a corporal.
    – Gangnus
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 11:44
  • Besides policy I am reminded of something I have read: there was on average a height difference in the British army (and I assume also a similar different in the German army) of 7 inches (a lot!) between officers and enlisted men. If this was true, I would guess that few soldiers had the "command presence" or whatever they called it to be promoted by tall officers. And I would bet it was only the unusually tall enlisted man who made it to officer level. Besides height, I would guess being illiterate, which was common in those days, would prevent promotions even if technically possible.
    – Jeff
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 5:46
  • @Jeff Very interesting. so, fulfilling a feat was not enough, you had to be tall. It is so extremely stupid and disgustful, that is very probable. But: 1. AFAIK, Germany was literate already at WWI. 2. The question is not about becoming an officer, but about becoming a corporal at least. 3. Mass representatives of every nation are stupid enough, but mostly every nation has its own mental problems. 4. Germany, being much smaller that empires it fought against, and having a very weak ally, was almost equal in war. So, it had to be more effective and less stupid - for compensation.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 7:39

2 Answers 2


Having done a bit more research I have found this page concerning Awards and Promotions on a website regarding Werner Voss.

The website states that, as would be standard, all soldiers started of with the rank of "Soldat" or a unit based equivalent.

It also states:

Furthermore German Soldiers progressed through the ranks at a very slow pace. Typically a Soldat would not be eligible for promotion to Obergefreiter until he had been in the Army for six years.

Given that wiki page you quoted mentions that the standard conscription period was 2-3 years it would appear that NCO's of a rank exceeding Gefreiter (Obergefreiter and above) would be drawn from the pool on Long-Term Volunteer Enlistee's, as I mentioned in my comment.

EDIT I have found the following quote on greatwar.com, which also states that only career soldiers could be promoted.

A private in the German Army made about $5.10 US per month(30- day month), whereas a US soldier made 30.00/month w/an extra $6.00 if on "foreign" service. This was comparable to other European Army pay, and it taught the soldier to spend his money on necessities and hardened them for tough times in the field. Promotions were reserved for the career soldiers. Seldom did a two year recruit receive any rank. The unit commander made all recommendations for promotions when a vacancy appeared, which was then approved by the regimental commanders. One year volunteers with excellent records and at least 9 months service could be promoted.

Elsewhere in the article it states that on the outbreak of war all conscripts were obliged to serve until their 45th birthday (A reasonably standard measure, the same happened elsewhere). This change effectively put them on a par with the long term volunteers, as far as term of service is concerned.

  • 1
    I thought the same thing, to be honest, but this is all I could really find. It does say that it typically took 6 years, and WW1 was anything but typical.
    – Kobunite
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 15:22
  • So, it seems, the wiki errs: that rule worked only in peace times. So, it could not work till 1918, but only till 1914.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 11:55
  • 1
    Yeah, that does seem to be the case. It might be that it took them until 1918 to formally change the rule and before that they just ignored it - but that's just a guess.
    – Kobunite
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 12:02

...Gefreiter was the only rank to which an enlisted soldier could be promoted.

The term "enlisted" is somewhat confusing here, as it translates poorly to the system of the German army.

In the Anglo-American system, you have two "classes": enlisted, and commissioned officers.

In the German system, you get three "classes": Privates, NCO's ("Unteroffiziere"), and officers.

If all you do is serving your conscription term (as the German army was a conscript army), you'll receive your basic training, then serve as a Private (Soldat / Gefreiter), and that's it. Insofar the Wiki page is correct -- you don't get promoted from Gefreiter to Unteroffizier.

So where do the NCO's come from? Easy: If you voluntarily extend your term, you'll receive your basic training, then receive NCO training, and rise to NCO rank (with accordingly better pay).

(This is, by the way, still the case in the German army today, even as conscription is suspended at this time. If you want to become Unteroffizier or higher in rank, you have to volunteer for a longer time of service and go through more extensive training.)

Of course, while the above was "the rule", there were always exceptions. A promising Private could be asked to attend NCO or even officer's training. Privates that had proven themselves in action could receive a battlefield promotion, although I would expect them to be sent back to receive the appropriate training at the next opportunity.

I was unable to come up with statistics on how often these things happened.

The best I could come up with during an ad-hoc web research was this paper (on page 21 ff.) talking about how, after WWI, the number of volunteers for officer's training did not meet the requirements. (The prestige of being a military officer had suffered badly, and a future in the shrinking military was an uncertain prospect in the early Weimar Republic.) So they filled vacancies in officer's training with promising NCO's and Privates, to the point where, in 1928, 3.5% of the officers corps (117 individuals) were former NCO's.

This is about NCO's reallocated to officer's training, not about Privates / Gefreite getting battlefield promotions to NCO rank. But I think it gives a general hallmark on both the existence and relative rarity of cross-career "jumping".

  • And that remained true during WWI? Then why Hindenburg thought that Hitler could get higher rank?
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 13:27
  • @Gangnus Looking down on somebody does not necessarily mean the one being looked down on missed an opportunity. Many nobles looked down on the common folk, although being born common folk is surely nothing one could somehow influence.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 13:36
  • @Gangnus: If you refer to the quote about Hindenburg referring to Hitler as the "Böhmischer Gefreiter", that was a rather different context. He wasn't despising Hitler for not having made an (impossible, or at least improbable) promotion. It was rather the combination of Hitler's non-aristocratic upbringing (most aristocrats ending up in the officer's corps), not having shown ambition (or having received training) for leadership earlier in his life, and a rather unremarkable military career as well as not having made much of an impression on Hindenburg as a person.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 13:38
  • I am not talking about a short citation. I have read Hin. biography, in which there were many words on how Hindenburg despised Hitler and why. It could be possible, that Hin. biographists misinterpreted the memories of Hin. secretaries and friends because they did not know the rule... But I would rather check if the rules remained the same during WWI. I hardly believe in that.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 13:45
  • (ctd.) Compare this with Hindenburg -- from a noble family, son of an officer and estate owner, attendant of a cadet school, personal page of Queen Elisabeth of Bavaria, served as officer in the Battle of Königgrätz 1870, commander-in-chief of the 8th army at the Battle of Tannenberg and eventually Field Marshal... the two could not have been more different in background.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 13:47

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