Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff

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Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff

The German general Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff (1865-1937), a brilliant strategist and successful field commander, directed Germany's total war effort during the last 2 years of World War I. He later promoted the rise of Hitler.

Erich Ludendorff was born on April 9, 1865, in Kruszewnia in the chiefly Polish-populated Prussian province of Posen. He was the son of an impoverished former cavalry officer. Educated in military schools, Ludendorff entered the German army in 1882, where his fine performance earned him an assignment to the general staff in 1894. He at once gained the confidence of its chief, the younger Count Moltke, and as chief of mobilizations from 1908 to 1912 Ludendorff was largely responsible for Germany's preparations for war.

The first month of World War I witnessed the meteoric rise of the young staff officer. As deputy chief of staff of the 2d Army, Ludendorff immediately made a name for himself by taking the key Belgian fortress of Liège by means of a bold coup. This move earned him the highest German military award. Weeks later Ludendorff won his greatest victory as chief of staff for 8th Army commander Paul von Hindenburg at Tannenberg on the Eastern front against the advancing Russians. During the next 2 years Ludendorff remained in the East, overseeing a series of German victories, yet frustrated in his hopes of launching a decisive campaign against the Russians.

After the failure of Erich von Falkenhayn's Supreme Command in the murderous battle for the key French fortress of Verdun (1916), Hindenburg and Ludendorff were called to the Supreme Command, the latter as first quartermaster general. In this position Ludendorff gained increasing control of the German war effort, not only in its military phases but also in its economic and political ones. In January 1917 Ludendorff ordered unrestricted submarine warfare over the objections of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. This move soon brought the United States into the war against Germany. After peace moves began in the German Parliament in the summer of 1917, Ludendorff brought about Bethmann Hollweg's dismissal, replaced him with a nonentity, and began a program of total mobilization (Hindenburg Program) and national emergency service. In February 1918 Ludendorff dictated the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to the defeated Russians. After the German position in the war had become hopeless in the West in the summer of 1918, Ludendorff suddenly demanded armistice negotiations and a democratization of the government. In the face of President Woodrow Wilson's reply, however, Ludendorff called for a last-ditch national resistance. He resigned when he was overruled by the new chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, and thereby he shirked all responsibility for Germany's defeat.

In the postwar years Ludendorff vociferously spread the "stab in the back" legend that blamed German Socialists and Democrats for the defeat. Ludendorff then became active in "folkish" ultranationalist movements, and he participated in the Nazis' Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. Ludendorff entered Parliament as a Nazi in 1924, and he ran for president on the Nazi ticket in 1925.

With his second wife, Dr. Mathilde von Kemnitz, Ludendorff later founded the mystico-religious Aryan-German Tannenberg League, which actively campaigned against Jews, Marxists, Freemasons, and Jesuits. Ludendorff set down his political views in numerous writings, particularly in his openly militarist The Nation at War (1936). Highly acclaimed by the Nazi regime but isolated in his own mystical politics, Ludendorff died in Munich on Dec. 20, 1937.

Further Reading

Ludendorff's autobiographical accounts include My War Memoirs, 1914-1918 (trans. 1919) and The General Staff and Its Problems, translated by F. A. Holt (2 vols., 1920). The memoirs of his first wife, Margarethe Ludendorff, My Married Life with Ludendorff (1930), were translated by Raglan Somerset; those of his second wife are unavailable in English. The standard biography in English is D. J. Goodspeed, Ludendorff: Genius of World War I (1966).

Additional Sources

Parkinson, Roger., Tormented warrior: Ludendorff and the Supreme Command, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978; New York: Stein and Day, 1978, 1979.

Venohr, Wolfgang., Ludendorff: Legende und Wirklichkeit, Berlin: Ullstein, 1993. □