April 9, 1865
December 20, 1937
By August 1916 the German army was struggling to survive a war it thought it should be winning. The great assault on the French fortresses at Verdun—which German general Erich von Falkenhayn (1861–1922) thought would "bleed France white" and crush the Allies' will to fight—had turned into a six-month-long bloodbath. German military and political leaders pushed Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859–1941), the German emperor, for a change. Late in August, the kaiser called on the country's two most illustrious military leaders: General Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) and his second in command, General Erich Ludendorff. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had become heroes by beating the Russians on the Eastern Front; now they would be given unprecedented powers to direct the German war effort on the crucial Western Front. For the next two years, Hindenburg and Ludendorff squeezed every last drop of effort from the German army and the German people in the attempt to conquer the Allies.
Destined to Be a Soldier
Erich Ludendorff was born to be a soldier: Both his father and maternal grandfather had been officers in the Prussian cavalry. But Erich Ludendorff was not born to be a general. In Prussia (the dominant state in the cluster of Germanic states that would unify into the nation of Germany in 1871) generals came from the nobility. A person of noble birth was marked by the designation "von" before his last name. Ludendorff, born on April 9, 1865, was a commoner, raised in a struggling family that lived in the province of Posen. To reach the top of the German armed forces, he would have to work unrelentingly—and that is what he did.
At the age of twelve Ludendorff entered cadet school at Holstein. Ludendorff was mocked by his fellow cadets because his last name lacked the "von" of nobility, and he was driven to his physical limit by the demanding Prussian officers who ruled the school. Perhaps because of these difficulties, Ludendorff became ever more focused and severe, devoting all his waking hours to making himself the best possible soldier. After graduating from the Lichterfelde Military Academy in Berlin at the top of his class, Ludendorff won a commission as a lieutenant in 1882. Just twelve years later, after passing every test that was placed before him, Ludendorff was appointed to the prestigious German general staff, the group of officers who prepared war plans and strategy for the commanding general of the army. At the age of twenty-nine, Ludendorff had become one of Germany's premier soldiers.
"A Man of Iron Principles"
For the next twenty years, Ludendorff devoted himself to understanding every area of the German military. In 1908 he was appointed to lead the mobilization and deployment (gathering and transport of military supplies) division of the general staff, a position for which he had been trained by Field Marshal Count Alfred von Schlieffen (1833–1913), the mastermind of German war plans. Ludendorff longed for the day when his years of study and preparation would place him in the position of leadership that he felt he so richly deserved.
Ludendorff's years of devotion to the military had made him an unpleasant man. German officers were known for their arrogance and their rudeness to their subordinates, but Ludendorff was more rude and arrogant than most. RobertB. Asprey, author of The German High Command at War, describes Ludendorff as "generally tense, cold as a fish, a monocled [an eyeglass for one eye] humorless eye staring from a heavily jowled red face as he barked orders in a high, nasal voice, his second (and later third) chin quivering from the effort. He was rigid and inflexible in thought, given to sudden rages, a table banger, frequently rude to subordinates, often tactless to superiors." According to Red Reeder, author of Bold Leaders of World War I, Ludendorff's medical director said that the general's devotion to work was so intense that "He has never seen a flower bloom or heard a bird sing." According to Asprey, Ludendorff's wife described her husband as "a man of iron principles."
Trial by Fire
Ludendorff greeted the coming of World War I in August 1914 with excitement and anticipation: He had been training for this moment all his life. Joining in the German effort to cross Belgium and storm into France, Ludendorff was made first quartermaster general. He was in charge of providing food, clothing, transportation, and supplies to the troops attacking the Belgian fortress city of Liège. Observing the battle from behind the lines, Ludendorff grew impatient when the superior German army could not break through the well-fortified Belgian lines. When a battlefield general was killed in action, Ludendorff moved to the front lines to take his place. Seizing a captured Belgian car, Ludendorff drove toward a small tower that the Germans had been trying to capture. According to Reeder, "Ludendorff jumped out. He drew his sword as if he were attacking the fort singlehanded. He pounded on the gate with the hilt of his weapon and shouted, 'Surrender! In the name of Kaiser Wilhelm.'"
Ludendorff's bold action energized the German troops, who soon overwhelmed the outnumbered Belgians. It also earned Ludendorff the nickname of "Hero of Liège" and a prestigious military medal, the Ordre pour le Mérite, from Kaiser Wilhelm II. Perhaps most important, Ludendorff's leadership at Liège convinced Chief of the General Staff Helmuth Johannes von Moltke (1848–1916) that Ludendorff's skills were needed in a spot where German soldiers were not faring so well: the Eastern Front.
Tannenberg and Beyond
In August 1914, the Russian army had surprised the Germans with an unexpectedly strong attack on Germany's easternmost province of Prussia, home of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Even worse, the German general in charge had panicked and ordered his army to retreat. Ludendorff seemed the perfect man to coordinate the troops and supplies that would be needed to stop the Russian advance. However, because he was not nobility, he could not command an army. So the German general staff tapped retired general Paul von Hindenburg to take the command, with Ludendorff as his chief of staff. Though the two men had never met, they soon learned to work together well: Ludendorff made all of the important plans and decisions, and Hindenburg gave the orders.
Within days of taking charge, Ludendorff had reorganized the German war effort and launched an attack on the Russians. Exploiting Russian mistakes and a deep hatred between two Russian generals, Ludendorff and Hindenburg's troops soon routed the Russians, taking ninety thousand Russian prisoners and causing another fifty thousand Russian casualties in the Battle of Tannenberg. This battle was one of the most decisive victories in a war that soon became known more for its stalemates than for its dramatic triumphs. But Ludendorff and Hindenburg did not stop there. For the next two years they drove Russian troops backward all across the Eastern Front, scoring a string of victories that stood in sharp contrast to the deadlock along the Western Front. By 1916 many within the German military believed that only Hindenburg and Ludendorff—widely known as "The Duo" or simply "HL"—could win the war on the Western Front.
When Ludendorff and Hindenburg were asked to lead the German war effort on the Western Front in August 1916, they were given unprecedented powers. Hindenburg was named chief of the general staff, and Ludendorff became his first quartermaster general—a title he preferred to "second general" because he did not want to be second at anything. The two believed that the only way to win was with the all out support of the entire German people and the fullest extension of German military efforts. With the kaiser's support, Ludendorff and Hindenburg schemed to remove any general or politician who opposed their plan for winning the war. By February 1917 they had removed the statesmen who opposed unrestricted submarine warfare. In that same month they sent out German submarines to try to disrupt English shipping so severely that England would be driven from the war. By July 1917 Ludendorff and Hindenburg told Kaiser Wilhelm II that he must get rid of the chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg (1856–1921), who wished to negotiate for peace, or else they would resign. Bethmann Hollweg was forced out, and Ludendorff and Hindenburg assumed nearly complete control of the German government. From that point on, Germany was in essence a military dictatorship, with Ludendorff calling all the shots.
Ludendorff and Hindenburg were not directly involved in planning battles, and they rarely traveled to the front to see soldiers in action. Instead they stayed at their comfortable headquarters and made plans that they asked others to carry out. In 1917, as the Russian government collapsed, they helped political leader Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) enter Russia so he could lead a socialist revolution there. This was a strategic move by Ludendorff and Hindenburg since they knew that the socialists would not support the war. After leading a successful overthrow of the Russian government, Lenin's negotiator, Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) signed a peace treaty with Germany in 1918 that removed Russia from the war. By eliminating the fight against Russia on the Eastern Front, Ludendorff and Hindenburg could turn their full attention to the fighting on the Western Front.
The Last Offensive
For spring 1918, Ludendorff and Hindenburg planned a huge German offensive that they hoped would finally force the Allies to retreat. Ludendorff wanted to strike quickly, before American forces could arrive to fortify the Allied troops. Beginning on March 21, 1918, the Germans launched their spring offensive with fierce attacks on the Somme River, the Belgian town of Ypres, and the Chemin des Dames. They had great success, pushing the Allies back more than forty miles in some places, but at a stunning cost—the Germans lost more than six hundred thousand men in less than three months of fighting. Even so, Ludendorff and Hindenburg ordered the onslaught to continue. Two more major assaults were launched in June and July, and both were disasters. The Allies stood firm and in some places pushed the Germans back. German soldiers, convinced that their leaders were sending them to slaughter, deserted in great numbers. By mid-July the German push had turned into a massive German retreat. On hearing of the setbacks, the German Chancellor, Georg von Hertling, wrote that "even the most optimistic among us knew that all was lost," as quoted in Martin Gilbert's The First World War.
Though they were far from the battlefields, Ludendorff and Hindenburg recognized that the end was near for the German war effort. According to James Stokesbury, author of A Short History of World War I, when Ludendorff learned of the German retreat in late July 1918, he went to see Hindenburg and asked him what Germany ought to do. "Do? Do!" Hindenburg bellowed. "Make peace, you idiot!" But it was not that easy. Ludendorff knew that Germany needed to enter peace negotiations in a position of power. To do so, they would have to hold their ground on the Western Front and convince the Allies that Germany was an equal in power and not a defeated nation. Ludendorff and Hindenburg tried to marshal the remaining German troops to keep the enemy from entering Germany.
Through the late summer and into the early fall, Ludendorff and Hindenburg engineered a slow retreat in which the German army contested every inch of ground that they gave away. But with American troops adding fresh strength to the Allied line, the German cause was hopeless. Ludendorff grew increasingly distraught. According to Asprey, Hindenburg's physician became "concerned with Ludendorff's erratic ways marked by vicious outbursts of temper, restless nights broken by angry telephone calls to individual commanding generals, on occasion too much drinking, and crying spells." By late September generals began to report that Germany was facing total defeat. When one such report came in, writes Asprey, "There is some evidence that Ludendorff suffered a genuine fit, foaming at the mouth and collapsing on his office floor."
Though Ludendorff desperately tried to find some grounds on which to negotiate peace, it soon became clear that the Allies would not bargain with the military dictators who had led the German war effort. On October 25, 1918, in a humiliating interview with Kaiser Wilhelm II, Ludendorff was forced to resign. On November 9, Hindenburg resigned and the kaiser abdicated (gave up his throne). A new chancellor (a high state official) was appointed to negotiate peace terms, and Germany signed an armistice (peace treaty) on November 11, 1918. Despite the best efforts of Ludendorff and Hindenburg, the Germans had lost.
Ludendorff was not well liked in immediate postwar Germany. Threatened by revolutionaries who blamed Germany's problems on the generals, he fled the country wearing a wig and colored glasses and settled in Sweden. While in Sweden Ludendorff wrote his memoirs, in which he offered what has become known as the "stab-in-the-back" thesis, an explanation for the German defeat that suggests that unpatriotic forces in Germany kept the great nation from winning the war. This theory made Ludendorff popular with the nationalists (supporters of state power) who were coming to power in Germany during the early 1920s. Ludendorff moved back to Germany and participated in two attempts to unseat elected officials; the second attempt, in 1923, was organized by a young political agitator named Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). Ludendorff soon joined Hitler's National Socialist (or Nazi) Party, got elected to parliament, and campaigned for president in 1925. He was easily defeated by his former comrade—the man he had accused of betraying him and the nation—Paul von Hindenburg.
Defeated in politics as he had been in war, Ludendorff adopted strange and extreme beliefs. He subscribed to the mystical teachings of his second wife, Motile von Kemnitz, and began publishing a series of essays arguing that Jews and Freemasons (members of a fraternal organization) were to blame for keeping Germany from its rightful role as a world leader. Eventually he became so extreme and erratic in his pronouncements that even Hitler withdrew his support. Ludendorff died quietly on December 20, 1937, unmourned by a country that had once hailed him as a military hero.
For More Information
Asprey, Robert B. The German High Command at War: Hindenburg and Ludendorff Conduct World War I. New York: William Morrow, 1991.
Ludendorff, Erich. Kriegfuhrung und Politik. Berlin: E. S. Mittler and Sohn, 1922.
Parkinson, Roger. Tormented Warrior: Ludendorff and the Supreme Command. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978.
Reeder, Red. Bold Leaders of World War I. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.
Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War I. New York: William Morrow, 1981.