Recognized as a strategic military mastermind, Erich Ludendorff was a prominent general and war hero who played a crucial role in shaping and overhauling Germany’s World War I tactics. His innovative approaches to modern warfare left a lasting impression, but controversy surrounds him due to his association with Adolf Hitler and his support of the Nazi Party.
Early Life and Career
Ludendorff was born April 9, 1865, in Kruszewnia, near Posen, Prussia (now Poznan, Poland). The son of a former aristocrat and Prussian Army officer, he attended a cadet corps school and prestigious military academy and, upon graduation, received a commission as a second lieutenant in the Prussian Army in 1885.
His military history, theory studies, operational experience, and leadership skills helped Ludendorff quickly rise through the ranks. In 1908, he was appointed to the Great General Staff, Germany’s highest military planning and coordination body. He significantly contributed to revising the Schlieffen Plan—a strategy to defeat France by mobilizing through Belgium before facing Russia on the Eastern Front—and played a role in capturing the Belgian fortress at Liege. However, his demands for extreme nationalist policies resulted in a transfer to the infantry.
World War I and the Battle of Tannenberg
With the outbreak of WWI in 1914, Ludendoff was appointed quartermaster in chief of Germany’s Second Army and later became chief of staff to General Paul von Hindenburg, who commanded the German Eighth Army and later served as Germany’s president.
Facing a Russian advance on the Eastern Front, Ludendorff and Hindenburg devised what historians have deemed a brilliant strategy to counter the threat: Encircle and trap the Russians, cutting them off from supply lines and making it impossible to escape.
The Battle of Tannenberg, which took place August 26-30, 1914, resulted in a significant victory for Germany. The Russians suffered heavy casualties, thousands were taken prisoner, and the battle severely affected Russia’s war effort. It also bolstered Ludendorff’s reputation as a military strategist and leader throughout Germany.
In 1916, Hindenburg promoted him to quartermaster general, making him his second-in-command and placing him in charge of Germany’s military supply lines and logistics. Their victories in the east led to the creation of Ober Ost, a military state of occupation with extensive power that would later influence Hitler.
In a June 1917 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, famed journalist and war correspondent H.L. Mencken wrote that while Hindenburg may have been Germany’s idol, Ludendorff was the brains behind the operation.
“The army is the source of all law, of all rights, of all privileges, even of all livelihood. And the army is Ludendorff,” he wrote. “... The doctrine of Ludendorff is simple: the whole energy of the German people must be concentrated on the war. All other enterprises and ambitions must be put out of mind. All business that is not necessary to the one end must be abandoned.”
In January 1917, Ludendorff’s support for resuming unrestricted submarine warfare by the German Navy, which included targeting merchant and passenger ships from both enemy and neutral countries, led the United States to side with the Allies and enter the war in April 1917.
The Ludendorff Offensive
During the war, Ludendorff launched a massive campaign known as the Ludendorff Offensive, or Spring Offensive, in 1918. Serving as chief quartermaster general of the German Army, he served as the architect of the operation to break the stalemate along the Western Front. The objective: Deliver a decisive blow to the Allies by rupturing their lines, breaking their morale, and forcing them to negotiate with Germany before the arrival of American troops.
On March 21, 1918, Ludendorff’s attack began with a massive artillery bombardment against the British Army, followed by a coordinated German assault that resulted in initial success. However, logistical challenges, exhaustion, and the arrival of more American troops allowed the Allies to launch counterattacks that integrated infantry, artillery and air support operations, ultimately stalling the Germans. By mid-July, Germany’s last major offensive of the war was over. The failure marked a turning point in the war in favor of the Allies and delivered a mighty blow to Ludendorff’s reputation.
Following the collapse of the German Empire, he resigned his post on October 26, 1918, before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles armistice. Ludendorff fled to Sweden to avoid repercussions but soon returned to Germany.
Ludendorff’s innovative, strategic military tactics left a lasting impression on modern warfare techniques. His concepts of combined operations, decentralized command structures for faster battlefield decision-making, and his implementation of the “total war” concept, which involved mobilizing a nation’s resources and population entirely for the war effort, became widely adopted.
However, his political endeavors began to overshadow his military achievements. After Germany’s World War I defeat, Ludendorff, angered by the armistice, helped create the “stab-in-the-back” theory that blamed Jews, communists, liberals and democrats for Germany’s WWI defeat–later exploited by Hitler to advance the Nazi Party agenda.
Aligning himself with nationalist and right-wing circles, Ludendorff joined Hitler in the failed Beer Hall Putsch coup attempt in 1923, aiming to overthrow the Weimar Republic. Although he faced treason charges during the ensuing trial, he was acquitted. He unsuccessfully ran for president against Hindenburg, now his enemy, in 1925, and despite earlier support for the Nazi Party, Ludendorff distanced himself from it by 1933 when Hitler took command of Germany. His espousal of anti-Semitic and anti-democratic ideals further contributed to his controversial legacy.
Ludendorff died of cancer on December 20, 1937, in Munich, Germany, at the age of 72.
“Erich Ludendorff was a war hero, a dictator, a right-wing activist, a failed putschist, a presidential candidate, a publisher, and a would-be prophet,” Jay Lockenour writes in Dragonslayer: The Legend of Erich Ludendorff in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich. “... He fashioned a life story that secured his place as one of the most prominent (and despicable) Germans of the twentieth century.”
“Erich Ludendorff,” U.S. Holocaust Museum.
“Erich Ludendorff: Successful Tactician, Failed Strategist,” Military Strategy Magazine.
“Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937),” BBC.
“Ludendorff,” by H. L. Mencken, The Atlantic.
Dragonslayer: The Legend of Erich Ludendorff in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich, by Jay Lockenour, Cornell University Press.