Ludendorff, Erich (1865–1937)

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German general and politician.

Erich Ludendorff never seemed comfortably integrated into any of the three German regimes his career in one way or another did so much to shape—the late Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Third Reich. The problem seems not to have been lack of opportunity. Of not just common but unprosperous origins, Ludendorff had risen through German military schools, including the prestigious Kriegsakademie, to positions on the Imperial General Staff as early as 1904. A brigade commander in August 1914, he achieved instant fame by the storming of the Belgian city of Liège. With glory came appointment as Eighth Army chief of staff on the eastern front as the immediate subordinate of Paul von Hindenburg. Together the two won the greatest German victories of World War I, the battles of Tannenburg (August 1914) and Masurian Lakes (September 1914). Yet the elderly, aristocratic Hindenburg became the national hero rather than the commoner who had risen from the ranks.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff maintained a genuine partnership through most of the war, though many considered Ludendorff the real brains of the pair. Certainly, he thought more deeply about the complex consequences of mobilization for "total" war. Ludendorff masterminded the somewhat misnamed "Hindenburg Program," which aspired to the total mobilization of the German economy. More effectively than any other senior commander of the Great War, Ludendorff thought through a way to break through the stalemate of trench warfare. Rather than trying to rupture the enemy position through a massive artillery barrage that chewed up no-man's-land and gave the enemy plenty of time to bring up reinforcements, followed by an "over-the-top" assault of averagely trained infantry, Ludendorff laid the groundwork for the blitzkrieg tactics of the next war. A short but ferocious barrage would open up holes in the opposing lines large enough for specially trained Sturmtruppen (storm troopers) to race through. Their mission was not to gain ground but to sow confusion in enemy communications. Only after they had done so would the mass of infantry advance to complete the breakthrough.

Yet Ludendorff's greatest defeat proved the direct consequence of his greatest triumph. In planning for what became known as the "Ludendorff Offensive" beginning on 21 March 1918, Ludendorff forbade his subordinates to use the word strategy. Indeed, tactical breakthrough not further defined became strategy. "We will make a hole," Ludendorff famously posited, "and the rest will take care of itself." Prospects for success on the western front were further dimmed by the need to maintain some one million German soldiers along the eastern front to guarantee the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 3 March 1918. The result over the spring and summer of 1918 was a series of breakthroughs along the western front, none of which made the Germans effective masters of the strategic situation. By the summer, when the Allies counterattacked under the strategic direction of the French marshal Ferdinand Foch and were assured reinforcement by a seemingly unlimited supply of American soldiers, the fate of the entire German war effort seemed sealed. The common-born Ludendorff, whose origins no one in the disintegrating Kaiserreich had forgotten, proved easily expendable in the closing weeks of the war. He fled to Sweden and immediately began to write his exculpatory memoirs.

In the traumatic early years of the Weimar Republic, Ludendorff became the darling of the radical nationalists. He schemed behind the scenes to overthrow the republic in the Kapp Putsch of March 1920. At about this time, he befriended an aspiring extreme right-wing conspirator named Adolf Hitler. In November 1923 the pair and a band of like-minded plotters seized a Bürgerbräukeller (beer hall) in Munich where the Bavarian prime minister was addressing a meeting, in hopes that a Nazi seizure of power in Bavaria would swiftly extend to Germany as a whole. The plot failed, somewhat ludicrously, when German troops proved loyal to the regime. Having failed to overthrow the hated republic in the streets, Ludendorff decided to join it. He ran successfully for the Reichstag as a National Socialist deputy in 1924, and unsuccessfully for president against his former superior Hindenburg in 1925. Yet Ludendorff proved ill-suited to party politics. He divorced his wife in 1926 and married Mathilde von Kemnitz, who encouraged his increasingly confused mix of politics, military affairs, and German mythology. He wrote a steady stream of vituperative indictments of Jews and Freemasons as the perpetrators of Germany's woes.

Yet having done all he could do to undermine confidence in republican democracy, Ludendorff seemed no better suited to what followed it. He became increasingly critical of Hitler as a petty tyrant who pandered to the masses. Ludendorff rightly predicted national disaster when Hitler came to power in January 1933. He died a curiously marginal figure in 1937.

See alsoHindenburg, Paul von; Hitler, Adolf; World War I .


Asprey, Robert B. The German High Command at War: Hindenburg and Ludendorff Conduct World War I. New York, 1991.

Craig, Gordon A. Germany, 1866–1945. Oxford, U.K., 1978.

Ludendorff, Erich. My War Memories, 1914–1918. London, 1920.

Leonard V. Smith