No single individual exerted greater influence on the German war effort during World War I than Erich Ludendorff. A product of the German General Staff system, Ludendorff devoted himself to the perfection of his military organizational skills; he never really cultivated any other side to himself. He is best known for his wartime partnership with General Paul von Hindenburg, an association that brought victory in the east and dominated German planning from 1916 through the end of 1918.
Ludendorff was born on April 9, 1865, in Prussian Silesia, not far from Posen. Some sources will give his name as Erich von Ludendorff, but this is inaccurate. His background was strictly middle-class, and he was never elevated to the nobility. Moreover, this background is the key to his temperament as a military leader. Like many other ranking officers in World War I with common origins, Ludendorff approached his profession with the rigorous zeal of a specialist, attempting to reduce the military arts to a science that could be perfected, and once perfected, that could offer a guarantee of success or failure, depending on how rigorously the rules were followed. Officers of this ilk were often prone toward pedestrian minds, and this would be true of Ludendorff when nonmilitary matters were concerned, but in his chosen profession Ludendorff was especially gifted, particularly with regard to the complexities of staff work, where the movements of large bodies of men and the flow of ammunition and other supplies needed to be kept straight in the chaos of battle.
Ludendorff prepared for this chosen career with the cadet system, receiving his commission in 1883. His talents did not go unnoticed, and he was drawn into the General Staff in 1894, where Generals Alfred von Schlieffen and Helmuth von Moltke the Younger helped to advance his career. By 1908, he was placed in charge of the Mobilization and Deployment Section. He served in this capacity until 1912, and in this role, he helped to put the final touches on the modified Schlieffen Plan that was executed in 1914. The responsibility for the changes to Schlieffen’s design remains with Moltke, but in a plan like this, every major change in the disposition of units and their assigned objectives carries with it a host of logistical and tactical changes that are necessary to carry it out. Here was Ludendorff’s province, and accordingly, he was one of several high-ranking officers (both in Germany and in Britain) who started taking their vacations in Belgium, using the trip as an opportunity to perform early reconnaissance.
His intemperate manner cost him this position in 1912. Ludendorff had tried, with only a minimal level of success, to gain political support for a larger army. He faced considerable reluctance from all sides, and while he made modest gains for the size of the army, he found himself reassigned to a minor command. If not for the war, he might have languished in obscurity for a long time.
With the declarations of war in 1914, men like Ludendorff were sorely needed, and he was made quartermaster general in the Second Army. His preparatory work in Belgium before the war made him an ideal candidate for this position, and the choice paid off when Second Army was slowed down by the fortifications at Liege. Ludendorff arranged for the use of heavy 305mm and 420mm artillery to batter the fortifications, and then he intervened personally, leading the troops that seized the remainders from their dazed defenders. Ludendorff became the second officer in the war to be decorated with the Pour le Mérite (or Blue Max).
Until this point, Ludendorff had been focused strictly on the problems of the Western Front, from the details of the Schlieffen Plan to the challenges that threatened to upset that plan’s rigid timetables. The essence of the Schlieffen Plan was that France could be knocked out of the war quickly, and that Germany must do everything in its power to accomplish that before the large but slow Russian war machine could be brought to bear against it in the east. This was not successful; France did not fall, and this was partially because the German advance through Belgium was slower than anticipated, while Russia proved much faster than the Germans had expected. Two Russian armies were converging on a single German army posted in East Prussia, and circumstances called for the replacement of that army’s commander.
The General Staff recalled retired General Paul von Hindenburg to assume command of 8th Army; Ludendorff was assigned to assist him as Chief of Staff. These choices proved felicitous. The pair famously met at the train station, and discussed the circumstances of their new command on the ride to the east; their views were fundamentally in accord with each other, and as it so turned out, also with the views of the talented staff officer, Col. Max Hoffmann, whose preliminary work paved the way for a smooth takeover when Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived to command 8th Army. The result was a spectacular success at Tannenberg, followed by another solid victory at the Masurian Lakes.
To the modern historian, it becomes difficult to properly apportion credit in these successes. It would seem that Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffmann all deserve some measure of credit; at the time, however, Hoffmann clearly received less than was due, with Hindenburg and Ludendorff basking in the official glory. The popular legend of Hindenburg and Ludendorff as Germany’s military saviors began at Tannenberg. Coming so quickly after his heady successes at Liege, so too did Ludendorff’s excessive sense of certainty about his own prowess. As the war developed, he began to believe that he had the answers for winning the war, if only he could compel Germany’s political and military leaders to follow his guidance. The first article of this new faith was the belief that the war could be won for Germany in the east. If only the eastern forces could be furnished with enough men and supply, Russia could be knocked out of the war, and then Germany would be free to defeat France and Britain.
Much has been written about the division of labor between Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Some consider Hindenburg a mere front, with Ludendorff doing all of the thinking for him; Ludendorff himself shared this view. There is a certain measure of truth behind this position, but it is founded more on the German staff system than it is on the personal qualities of the two men. Others point to the optics of this partnership, with Hindenburg reflecting the old order and Ludendorff representing the new men coming to prominence at the end of the Second Reich. This was undoubtedly important for the public relations value of the pair in German public opinion, but it too points to the nature of the staff system, with its need to secure the moral and intellectual aspects of military leadership.
German military thinkers understood that successful military campaigns are won with moral factors, such as courage, decisiveness and the ability to inspire men, as well as intellectual factors, from imagination to an accountant’s ability to juggle facts and figures in a fluid situation. Sadly, these abilities are not always united in the same man. The German solution was to seek them in the cooperation of two men, a commander and his staff officer. The commander was to demonstrate the moral qualities, while his staff officer was expected to master the intellectual side of military life, having been formed in the image of the General Staff. The staff officer was to formulate detailed plans, taking into consideration all foreseeable contingencies; the commander executed the plan in practice, deviating from it when circumstances necessitated this, and taking responsibility for it in the end, receiving praise or blame accordingly. Seen from this perspective, Hindenburg performed his role flawlessly, and this includes his occasional need to exert a moderating influence on his often excitable colleague. Ludendorff performed his allotted tasks exceptionally well; if they might be found lacking, it is in the kind of vision that comes from a greater measure of imagination.
From 1914 to the last months of 1917, Ludendorff crafted the strategy that defeated the Russians. The Germans enjoyed notable successes in the east, and reversals were usually attributed to deficiencies in their Austro-Hungarian allies. Along the way, Hindenburg and Ludendorff frustrated the General Staff with their demands for more men and supplies, competing as they did with equally determined demands from the Western Front. Central strategic planning became a seesaw between Westerners and Easterners in the General Staff, with Falkenhayn vacillating between the two until he became acceptable to no one. The failure of the Verdun offensive and other reversals, including the belligerency of Rumania, prompted Falkenhayn’s fall. Hindenburg was made Chief of the General Staff, with Ludendorff assisting him as Grand Quartermaster General. The division of labor between the two of them remained unchanged, however, and so Ludendorff essentially did the work of the Chief of Staff, while Hindenburg (unintentionally on his part) gradually eclipsed the Kaiser in his inspirational role.
With the full authority of the General Staff behind him, Ludendorff prioritized the Eastern Front, finally prevailing in the wake of two Russian revolutions in 1917. He can be forgiven for the lack of foresight concerning Lenin, whom Ludendorff permitted to return to Russia from his exile in Switzerland. During this time, Ludendorff also interfered increasingly with German politics, refusing to countenance official military control of the government but embracing it behind the scenes. Under Ludendorff, Germany itself became a machine to prosecute the war, with all other priorities sidelined under a regime known as War Socialism. In at least two matters, his imagination failed him: he pressed for the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, knowing that it would prompt an American declaration of war, but failing to realize that this fact would destroy Germany’s hopes of blockading Britain; and he employed new German tactics for creating a breakthrough on an unprecedented scale with his spring offensives in 1918, but he had no provision for exploiting those breakthroughs when they did occur, resulting in stagnation on new battle lines that were ripe for an Allied counterattack.
Always excitable, Ludendorff suffered a breakdown of some kind in the wake of Germany’s reversals; after his recovery, German leadership solicited his resignation on October 26, 1918. Hindenburg oversaw the armistice without Ludendorff, who went to stay in Sweden for several months. Before leaving, a spontaneous rant in a conversation with an English general gave the first voice to the famous German interwar legend of the “stab in the back.”
His political activity in the 1920’s is largely a footnote to his life, but its long-term consequences make it an important one. The sense of betrayal that he clearly felt inspired him to support political extremism, and he was drawn to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). As a Nazi, he marched in Munich in 1923, and then he was elected to the Reichstag in 1924. His political aspirations ended with an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in opposition to his former colleague, Hindenburg, and then Hitler eclipsed all other voices in the Nazi Party. Eventually, Ludendorff became disenchanted with Hitler and his party, although the reasons are not fully known. After coming to power, Hitler offered Ludendorff the Field Marshal’s baton, and Ludendorff declined. Ludendorff died on December 20, 1937.
A narrow and uncompromising man, Ludendorff was understandably drawn to extremes. On the one hand, he was possibly the greatest example of the German staff officer, eclipsing even Scharnhorst and Gneisenau from the days of the Napoleonic Wars. On the other, he carried out the iron logic of Total War to a greater extent than anyone else in World War I, while his interwar activities supported those who would carry it to further extremes during World War II.
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