Over many of the darkest, bloodiest and most portentous events of the 20th Century looms the presence of one man: Erich Ludendorff. His influence is with us still.
Born in 1865, near what is now the Polish city of Poznań, Ludendorff was the son of minor Prussian nobility when that part of the world was still German territory. Entering the German military at an early age, he soon made a name for himself as a strict, humorless, but gifted officer.
Especially capable in the area of detailed logistical planning, he was promoted to the High Command Staff of the German Imperial Army in Berlin, where he was instrumental in helping Alfred von Schlieffen develop the detailed military timetable for rapid mobilization and attack that many historians believe lead inevitably to the start of World War I in 1914.
With the start of that War, Ludendorff quickly rose to prominence. His early victory at the fortress of Liège in Belgium opened the way into France for the German armies and made him a national hero. Later, on the eastern front, he and Paul von Hindenburg decisively defeated the Russia armies in a series of battles that effectively neutralized Russia as a source of concern for Germany.
Transferred from victory in the east to break the bloody deadlock of trench warfare that had developed on the western front, Ludendorff and Hindenburg eventually became de facto military dictators of Germany, controlling not just Germany’s military strategy, but its economic and political activities as well.
In this role as a Supreme Warlord, Ludendorff was instrumental in military and political decisions that continued to haunt Europe and, indeed, the world for the remainder of the 20th Century.
In 1916 he orchestrated the transport of Vladimir Lenin into Russia from his exile in Switzerland on a special sealed train for the purpose of fomenting revolution inside Russia. The result was a communist, expansionist and oppressive Soviet Union with which Germany and the West had to contend for the next six decades.
He was an advocate for the development and use of the world’s first chemical weapons in the form of poison gas, a scourge the world continues to face.
And he successfully forced through a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against the ships of neutral nations that continued to trade with France and Great Britain during the war. This decision soon brought America into the war on the side of the Allies and ultimately resulted in Germany’s loss of the war, but it was also an early example of the concept of “total war,” including war against civilian populations, which would become one of the dark hallmarks of the 20th Century.
At the end of the war, as a defeated Germany descended into revolution and chaos, Ludendorff feared for his life. He fled to the safety of neutral Sweden, famously wearing a false beard and blue-tinted glasses as he crossed the German border. While in exile he wrote his war memoirs and developed a conspiracy theory that sought to excuse his own role in Germany’s defeat. Germany, he declared had not been defeated on the battlefield, but had been “stabbed in the back” by Germany’s liberal political elements and Germany’s Jews.
Upon his return to Germany, he continued to use his position and influence to push this untrue conspiracy and became deeply involved in far right political circles within Germany. In 1923 he lent his name and prestige to the cause of a young, relatively unknown street politician named Adolf Hitler. When Hitler and his National Socialist Workers’ Party attempted a putsch against the German government in Munich, Ludendorff walked in the front ranks with Hitler as they marched on the government center. Police fired on the marchers and the putsch collapsed, but Ludendorff, who was acquitted of treason in the trials following the failed coup attempt, continued to facilitate as much as possible the rise of the radical right and the secret rearming of Germany. While never a formal member of the Nazi Party, Ludendorff sat for a period of time in the German Reichstag as a member associated with the Nazis. He even stood as an early candidate for the German Presidency on behalf of a coalition which included the Nazis.
In addition to his support and nurturing of the German radical right, Ludendorff’s personal beliefs and actions became increasingly bizarre in the years after the war. He developed an intense hatred for both Christianity and the Jews, claiming that the influence of both groups, which he equated, inevitably weakened societies and led to their collapse. He apparently became a devotee of Wotan, the Norse God of War, engaging in neo-pagan rites and rituals. Along with his wife, Ludendorff became involved with a number of esoteric and mystical societies, founding one, The Society for the Knowledge of God, that continues to this day.
It is possible that Ludendorff’s bizarre ideas and behavior after the war were due to a destablized mental state. In the last year of the war, Ludendorff’s stepson had been killed in combat, the second of his three stepsons to be killed, and just one of the hundred of thousands who died in the last German offensives. But Ludendorff, who had sent so many young men to their deaths, was stricken by the loss. He personally traveled to the front to identify the decaying body as it was exhumed from its shallow battlefield grave for reburial. As the likelihood of a German defeat became clear, he suffered a mental breakdown and received treatment from a physician who diagnosed him as suffering from what we would now call battle fatigue or PTSD. After a short period of enforced rest and treatment he returned to his duties, but from that time forward associates detected in him increasingly erratic and unpredictable thoughts and behavior.
Despite the fact that he never truly recovered from the accumulated traumas of the war, after the war he continued to develop and advocate for the concept of total war, stating that the normal condition between nations was one of permanent warfare. He urged the complete subordination of all aspects of German society to a permanent wartime footing.
Although willing to use Ludendorff for his own purposes, it is likely that Hitler viewed Ludendorff as a rival for leadership of the right wing nationalist forces in Germany, and the two eventually fell out. When Hindenburg, who had gone on to become President of the new German Republic and the Grand Old Man of German politics, named Hitler as Chancellor in 1933, it is reported that Ludendorff told Hindenburg that Hitler would bring Germany to unimaginable depths of ruin and that future generations would curse him for the choice.
Ludendorff died in in 1937. He did not live to see his predictions come true. But the next war, which Ludendorff’s own actions and ideas had done so much to bring about, was fought along the lines he had envisaged. World War II was a conflict of total war waged by all sides, including the murder of millions of Jews and others by Germany, and the fire bombing of German and Japanese cities by the Allies. In many ways, his concept of unrestricted and total warfare, which some consider to have been the product of his disordered post-war mental condition, can be viewed as a basis for the eventual use of nuclear weapons in 1945 and the subsequent permanent state of hostilities and huge national military expenditures that existed throughout the ensuing decades of the cold war between East and West.
Today, Erich Ludendorff is rightly considered one of history’s villians. His virulent anti-semitism, his glorification of war and conflict as the ultimate meaning of life, his humorless disregard for the real human consequences of his actions and ideas, make him easy both to criticize and caricature. The recent fictional portrayal of him as an arch villian in the Wonder Woman movie franchise, while exaggerated and glamorized for Hollywood, does, in fact, rather accurately present a number of his actual views and beliefs.
But what is perhaps most telling, and most troubling, about the catastrophic life of Erich Ludendorff is not his ultimate descent into seeming irrationality, but the fact that many of his most dangerous, lethal and unbalanced views played such an outsized role in the history of the last century, and that they continue to have such a resonance in this one.