Germany is a country of tradition, contrast and discipline mixed with a craving for modernity and change. The actual Chancellor is a lady from the Centre/Right who was in her youth a devoted Communist. In the First and Second World Wars almost all of the ‘officer class’ were titled irrespective of whether Germany was a monarchy or a republic. Rare it was to find a senior army officer without a von in his name. Only recently retired was Freiherr Bertoldt von Stauffenberg, a Count as well as being a son of the heroic leader of German military resistance against Adolf Hitler, recently ‘immortalized’ by Mr Tom Cruise in a rather bad film called Valkyrie. Cruise, who is not very tall, played Klaus von Stauffenberg, who was tall. Actually Rommel was one of the few very senior officers in the Second War who was not a von.
Erich Ludendorff was not a von either, though he came from a military background. Born in 1865 his dynamism and capacity for concentration attached to a fine physical presence ensured rapid promotion in the Imperial General Staff: he was a ‘fighting gentleman’ who led his troops to take the Belgian fortress of Liège at the beginning of the Great War. This was noticed by the eagle-eyed General Hindenberg (who was a von) and got him promoted to the Staff.
Ludendorff used his mastery of strategy to crush two Russian armies at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. He maintained German superiority on the Eastern Front until September of 1916, when von Falkenhayn was fired and replaced as supreme commander by Hindenberg. Our subject became his Senior Quarter-master General.
Recovery was need after the assault on Verdun, and Ludendorff withdrew German soldiers to the Hindenberg Line (q.v.), having decided on more defensive tactics. This gave him time to become more political than military. He exercised more influence in domestic matters than the Chancellor. Truth to tell he became something of a military dictator. He demanded total mobilization of the civilian community, bringing all Germans into the war, like it or not: there was compulsory factory and agricultural work for women on call-up, restriction on workers’ rights, and German universities were closed. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg complained loudly of Ludendorff’s ‘dictatorial thirst for power and consequent intention to militarize the whole political scene’. The answer came in Ludendorff’s favour – the setting up of a supreme war office but endowed with even more powers, especially over industry and labour. Munitions production increased greatly as a result.
Ludendorff then turned to the subject of submarine production, and unrestricted use in war, beginning in 1917. He became a hero of the Left when he took part in the successful plan to spirit Lenin through Germany back to Russia in a sealed train. Lenin organised the Russian Revolution (with others) and thus caused Russia’s withdrawal from the war against Germany.
When the terrible October Revolution ended Ludendorff orchestrated the punitive terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918) which gave the Allies a clear idea of what would happen in Europe if Germany won the War. He had by no means finished. In the late spring of 1918 Ludendorff began a great offensive with the intention of securing a German victory in France before American soldiers (he United States had entered the War in late 1917) could tip the balance in favour of the Allies. Three and a half million troops were involved in five separate offensives between March and July 1918 but the operation failed. Nothing deterred, Ludendorff asked the Chancellor to approach President Wilson for an armistice based on his ‘Fourteen Points’. As intelligent as ever, he realised that better terms might be agreed should Germany become a parliamentary democracy, though in the past he had been opposed to all and any reforms. To promote the notion of a civilian government negotiating both armistice and peace, he resigned. Privately, he said that eventually he would ‘climb back into the saddle and govern according to old ways’.
Faithful to his own words, when the War was over Ludendorff encouraged opposition to the Weimar Republic, took part in a putsch in 1920, and was seen by many Germans as a master of ‘the stab in the back’ kind of politics, though he of course did not see it that way. In the Munich Putsch in 1923, when he was nearing sixty years old, he marched in the front line of the demonstrators. When the police fired at them, far from flinging himself to the ground, he marched calmly on. The officers who arrested him told him he was very brave. He was taken to court but acquitted rapidly and was soon a member of the National Socialist Party, representing it in the Reichstag from 1924 to 1928.
Probably suffering from dementia, he declared that Germany had not lost the War, and that supernatural forces had been used by the Allies to ensure their victory. He was thus an embarrassment to the Nazis he had vigorously supported. Considered insane, he died in 1937 before the commencement of the Second World War in which, though he was over seventy, he would undoubtedly have fought.