Erich Ludendorff embodied the strengths and weaknesses of the imperial German army in the twentieth century. He is frequently described as representing everything negative in the rising generation of officers: bourgeois by birth, specialist by training, and philistine by instinct. Appointed head of the Mobilization and Deployment Section of the General Staff in 1908, he was a leading advocate of expanding the army. The War Ministry’s reluctance to support that policy reflected concerns wider than the often-cited reluctance to risk diluting the officer corps with social undesirables. Ludendorff did succeed in getting army estimates increased in the face of a Reichstag whose parties, from Right to Left, above all disliked voting for taxes. He paid the price of his convictions in 1913 by being transferred to command an undistinguished regiment in the industrial city of Dusseldorf–a kind of punitive assignment frequently used to teach recalcitrants their manners.
When war broke out in August 1914, Ludendorff was restored to favor as deputy chief of staff to the Second Army. On August 8, he proved he was more than a desk soldier, rallying demoralized troops to play a crucial role in the capture of the Belgian fortress of Li[egrave]ge. On August 22 he was assigned as chief of staff to the Eighth Army in East Prussia.
Ludendorff’s exact role in planning and executing the Battle of Tannenberg remains debatable. What is certain is his emergence as a national hero whose symbiotic relationship with Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg seemed to symbolize the synthesis of the best of the old Germany and the new. Hindenburg supplied the character, Ludendorff the intelligence. Both men grew increasingly committed to an “eastern” solution to the strategic dilemma Germany faced by the end of 1914. Ludendorff had entered the war as a committed “westerner.” But in the aftermath of the victories of Tannenberg, the Masurian Lakes, and in southern Poland, he could hardly be blamed for wondering what might be achieved with even a few fresh corps.
Personal ambition reinforced professional conviction. Ludendorff’s increasingly open coveting of Erich von Falkenhayn’s post as chief of the General Staff earned him widespread enmity among his colleagues and, in 1915, relegation to the sidelines as chief of staff to a mired German-Austrian army operating in a secondary theater.
But eventually, Falkenhayn proved the author of his own downfall when he launched the attack against Verdun in January 1916. Combined with the Allied offensive at the Battle of the Somme six months later, the result was the kind of attritional war that Germany had little chance of winning.
On August 29, 1916, Hindenburg was appointed chief of the General Staff with Ludendorff as his deputy. It was clear where the real power rested: Ludendorff was responsible for developing and enacting the Hindenburg Program, designed to put what remained of Germany’s human and material resources entirely at the service of the war effort. Ludendorff took the lead in overhauling the army’s tactical doctrines. Going in person to the front to discover what was going wrong, he sponsored a system of flexible defense that took heavy toll of the French and the British armies in 1917. Ludendorff also played an active part in German politics. His involvement was facilitated by the inability of Kaiser Wilhelm II to fulfill the role of a pivot figure, above the everyday frictions between soldiers and statesmen, and by the fierce rivalry among the political parties, which prevented the emergence of any effective civilian rival. In July 1917, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was dismissed. His nondescript successors did little but dance to Ludendorff’s piping.
The general was for a time successful in orchestrating public support for the war effort. Trade unions and industrialists alike accepted an arms program so comprehensive that within months the impossibility of its execution was obvious. They accepted the starvation of their families in the Hunger Winter of 1917. They accepted the militarization of everyday life to a degree unthinkable in 1914. But this effort could be no more than temporary: the last spark of an exhausted system.
Ludendorff was committed less to ruling Germany than to winning the war. The defeat of the Italians at Caporetto in October 1917 and the collapse of Russia’s provisional government at almost the same time offered opportunities for negotiation. Even the submarine campaign of 1917 might have been turned to advantage. At the start of 1918 Germany had the option of offering to end unrestricted submarine warfare and withdraw from all or part of its western conquests. Instead, with Ludendorff in the driver’s seat, the Second Reich sought to integrate central and eastern Europe into an empire, a stable base for the next round of conflict for world power, while still fighting flat out in the west.
The German army had developed a set of offensive tactics that initially broke open every front to which they were applied. Ludendorff, however, possessed no equivalent strategic concepts. “Punch a hole and let the rest follow,” the famous aphorism for the German offensive of March 1918, brought initial victories that neither troops nor generals could exploit (see Ludendorff Offensive). Instead, exhausted frontline units were driven back by massive Allied counterattacks. His artifice at an end, Ludendorff first called for peace, then argued for a fight to the finish, and finally on October 26, 1918, resigned his post and fled to Sweden. Apart from a figurehead role in the Munich putsch of 1923, his postwar political career was inconsequential.
From 1914 to 1918 Erich Ludendorff remained prisoner of his faith in the decisive battle. He refused to face the fact that a great power’s armed forces could not be crushed by the combinations of mobility and firepower existing between 1914 and 1918; instead, he continued to insist that he had never been given quite enough resources to achieve the triumph glimmering over the horizon. For all his native ability and General Staff training, Ludendorff never rose above the mental level of an infantry colonel.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.