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Erich Ludendorff

Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937), Prussian general, who was associated with Hindenburg in the Higher Command of the German armies, first on the eastern front and afterwards throughout the whole theatre of the World War, was born at Kruszevnia near Posen on 09 April 1865. He was for a long period employed in the work of the general staff, and from 1904-13 he was in what was called the Ausmarschabteilung, the department which drew up the plans for the transport, disposition and advance of the troops to be employed in a prospective campaign. In 1908 he was appointed chief of this department.

It was he who worked out the last great German Army bill, passed by the Reichstag in 1913. Almost all the proposals he had recommended were adopted without question, but three new army corps for which he had pressed were not even proposed by the War Minister. He believed that it was his insistence upon this particular proposal that led to his being removed from the general staff and sent to Dusseldorf to command the 39th Fusilier Regiment. (It may be noted here that, when he resigned on Oct. 26 1918, he was made hon. colonel of this regiment, which, until its dissolution by the republican Government, bore his name.) In April 1914 he was promoted to the command of a brigade at Strassburg.

At the outbreak of the Great War Ludendorff was at once made chief quartermaster of the II Army under Gen. von Emmich, and proceeded to the western front, where he took part in the assault upon Liege. He accompanied the advance of the 14th Bde. of infantry, as a spectator, but, when its commander fell, he took command of it as the senior officer present and led it in a night march (Aug. 5-6) past the forts to the heights of La Chartreuse outside Liege. On Aug. 7, while the forts were still untaken, he entered the town of Liege with his troops and himself knocked at the door of the citadel, which was surrendered to him without a blow by its garrison of several hundred Belgians. For this feat he received the Prussian Ordre Pour le Merite. He afterwards advanced with the II Army as far as the Somme.

On 22 August 1914 Ludendorff was sent to the eastern front as chief of the general staff of the VIII Army in East Prussia, with Hindenburg in command. His first meeting with Hindenburg was when the latter joined him in the train at Hanover on his way to East Prussia. The battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, which cleared East Prussia of the Russian invaders, at once placed Hindenburg and Ludendorff on a pinnacle by themselves in the estimation of the German people. In Nov. 1914 Hindenburg was appointed chief in command over the armies of the East (Oberosl), with Ludendorff as his chief-of-staff.

On Aug. 29 1916 Hindenburg was made chief of the general staff of the whole army, and Ludendorff, who had been advanced to the rank of general of infantry, remained in closest association with him, as chief quartermaster-generaL The tale of his work, in conjunction with Hindenburg, of his successes and failures, belongs to the military history of the World War. In particular his name will always be associated with the great German offensive of the spring and summer of 1915 and with the collapse of that brilliant and audacious enterprise, followed by the disastrous German retreat, the overtures for an armistice and the dissolution of Germany's military power. Ludendorff's attitude towards the Government of Germany and his repeated political interventions form a very important chapter in the events which led up to the German collapse in the autumn of 1918.

The motives of his political action are clearly revealed in his book Meine Kriegserinnerungen (1919). He maintains that he never desired to interfere in internal politics. He even complained in his book that successive chancellors and ministers forced him and Hindenburg into a false position by constantly adducing their approval for ministerial measures. The truth is that the whole German system, especially in time of war and in the absence of a commanding political personality like Bismarck, inevitably led to encroachments of military influence. Ludendorff denied that he brought about the fall of Bethmann Hollwcg; but he was in communication with those leaders of parties whose views approximated to his own, and, after the Crown Prince, who was also in frequent communication with him, had seen the political leaders and had satisfied himself that they would offer no objection, the Emperor accepted his Chancellor's resignation.

Ludendorff asserted in his book that he did his best to keep on terms with successive Imperial Chancellors. But he recalled that the machinery of the Government worked slowly, while he and his officers at the front were full of ardor and eagerness. There was often a delay of weeks in getting urgent things done, "and thus," he says, "the tone of communications between the front and Berlin sometimes became stern (hart)." In another place he speaks of "the struggle with the Government to obtain what the army required in order to achieve a final and decisive victory." Of Count Hertling he says, "Hertling was no War Chancellor." The kind of War Chancellor Ludendorff would have liked is revealed in his exclamation of despair: "Who was going to be Imperial Chancellor after the Emperor had repeatedly declared against Prince Biilow and Grand Adml. Tirpitz?"

Ludendorff seemed to forget that the country, as represented by the majority, of the Reichstag, would have none of either of these candidates and that the Emperor, in addition to being himself alienated from Bulow, was becoming more and more dependent upon public opinion and more and more afraid of it. Ludendorff, on the other hand, whenever he refers to the Reichstag or to the leaders of parties, shows that in his conception their business was to rouse patriotic feeling in the country and to get the masses into a mood which would make them support the military leaders' conduct of the war through thick and thin. Thus he pointed out to the politicians of the Reichstag in July 1917 that the so-called Peace Resolution would have a depressing effect throughout Germany, and that in enemy countries it would produce an impression of German weakness. Perhaps he was right. In any case it was impossible for the Allied and Associated Powers to be content with the status quo ante; and the German supporters, of the Resolution themselves departed from the principle of "no annexations and no indemnities" whenever successes of the German arms encouraged them to believe that Germany might be able to make more advantageous terms. Instances of this were the Peace of Brest Litovsk and the Peace with Rumania. In the negotiations for the first of these Ludendorff was impatient of Count Czernin's Austrian policy as regards Poland, and he desired the extension of German territory and influence on her east ern frontiers both as a military precaution and as a defence against the spread of Bolshevism.

In pursuance of his idea of improving the spirit of the army, Ludendorff caused to be organized under the superintendence of a Lieut.-Col. Nicolaia scheme for giving what was called "patriotic instruction" to the soldiers at the front. The services of a large number of invalided officers and others were enlisted to carry out this scheme. It ultimately developed in many instances into a system of espionage upon the political opinions of the soldiers, and the removal of Nicolai and other officers who were engaged in this work was one of the demands which the leaders of the majority in the Reichstag had put forward when, in Oct. 1918, they compelled the Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, to break with Ludendorff and to bring about his resignation.

Ludendorff had further attempted to extend his system of "patriotic instruction" to the interior of the country through the medium of the generals in command of the reserve corps formations. This home propaganda brought him and his subordinates into conflict with the Social Democrats, who were daily strengthening their hold upon the masses and were influencing them in favor of a "peace by understanding." The Independent Socialists were going still farther and were agitating in the trenches and on the ships of the navy for a military strike, such as actually took place at Kiel in the first week of Nov. 1918 as a prelude to the German Revolution. There were similar demonstrations at various points on the western front, where new recruits abused regiments going into action as "strike-breakers" and "blacklegs."

The most debated episode of Ludendorff's career is his action on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 1918 in pressing upon the Government the immediate necessity of making overtures for an armistice. The view of the German republicans is that the retreating German armies on the western front were on the brink of a great disaster, that Hindenburg and Ludendorff were aware of this, and that they urged the necessity of an armistice in order to escape the worst. Ludendorff's contention amounted to a plea that he wanted an armistice on reasonable terms in order to enable the German army to be withdrawn to the frontier, where it might have time to reconstitute itself if necessary, with a view to resisting oppressive terms of peace by standing on the defensive. He seems to imply that he did not realize that neither the Allied Powers nor President Wilson would have agreed to an armistice of this kind.

When Ludendorff saw the kind of terms which the Allied and Associated Powers were going to impose, he changed his attitude and desired the German Government to hold out. He had also, he says, formed the conviction by the end of September 1918 that the Allied and Associated Powers were not in a position to press home an immediate and decisive attack. It was mainly the attempt to urge his changed views upon the Government of Prince Max of Baden that led to that Government's insistence upon Ludendorff's resignation being accepted by the Emperor on Oct. 26 1918. The immediate occasion of what amounted to his dismissal was a General Army Order, which had been issued on Oct. 24, informing the troops that President Wilson's final terms for an armistice were dishonourable to Germany and that the army must fight to the last gasp. This order was contrary to what Ludendorff knew to be the policy of his Government and he found it necessary in his book to make excuses for having caused it to be promulgated.

It was really as far back as Aug. 8 1918, as Ludendorff himself testifies, that he had lost confidence in the possibility of compelling the Allies by military pressure to accept what they would have regarded as a "German peace." After the German lines between the Somme and the Luce had been broken through by the British on Aug. 8, he had a conference (on Aug. 13) in the presence of the Emperor with the then Foreign Secretary, Adml. von Hintze, and advised overtures for peace, which Hintze proposed to initiate through the mediation of the Queen of Holland. According to Ludendorff, it was the delay of the Government in prosecuting these overtures that had made him impatient at the end of Sept. when he urged the immediate necessity of an armistice.

It has even been alleged that in Aug. 1918 Ludendorff, under the influence of events at the front, had had a complete nervous breakdown.

As a military organizer and resourceful man of action in the field. Ludendorff has, perhaps, had no equal since Napoleon. He did not, however, possess Napoleon's insight into the necessities of domestic politics, while he shared Napoleon's inability, under the stress of action and the spur of ambition, to realize either the limits of military success or the spirit of the nations he was attempting to crush. He was not exempt from personal vanity. Complaining of the action of the republican German Reich in altering the name of the popular contribution (Kriegsspende) of 150,000,000 marks, collected for war invalids, from "Ludendorff Fund" to "People's Fund," he says: "Could not the Republic have continued to let it bear my name - this fund which, precisely on account of its bearing my name, had brought in so much money and was so beneficial?"

He was a master of caustic retort. Prince Max of Baden, instigated by his Socialist colleagues in the Government, had complained that the table of the officers at the front was in glaring contrast with the poverty of the common soldiers' rations, and had suggested that the officers should be content with the same food as their men. Ludendorff replied that the staff could not do its brain work on the common soldier's rations, but he would undertake to try to live on these rations, if Prince Max and the members of his Government would do likewise." Prince Max, Ludendorff reports, "did not care to eat the soldiers' rations," and, accordingly, the subject was dropped.

After the revolution, Ludendorff knew that his influence in the country was gone and that he even ran the risk of being impeached by the revolutionary Government for having prolonged the war, as well as for his political activities. He, therefore, like Tirpitz, went abroad, choosing Sweden as his place of refuge, and did not return to Berlin till the spring of 1919. His behavior after his return was ambiguous. He refrained from placing himself at the head of any reactionary movement, but he was always in evidence whenever such movements seemed likely to achieve any success.

The reactionaries continued to regard him as one of their main hopes, and during some of their manifestations of 1919 he showed himself in the streets and was cheered by exofficers and royalist crowds. During the days of the Kapp coup d'etat (March 1920) he was a frequent visitor at the headquarters of Kapp's usurping "Government." After the failure of Kapp and his associates, Ludendorff betook himself to Bavaria, which, under the Government of Herr von Kahr (1920-1) and under a formal state of siege, was administered in a reactionary spirit. Bavaria thus became a refuge for Prussian plotters like Col. Bauer, Major Pabst and Capt. Ehrhardt, whose Marine Brigade had supported Kapp. The Prussian refugees seem to have enjoyed the protection of this Bavarian Government, and it was among them that assassinations like those of Gareis, the Bavarian Independent Socialist leader, and of Erzberger, the Democratic Catholic leader, were planned. It is unlikely that Ludendorff was associated with these particular schemes, but his name and his influence were identified with the royalist parties, whose unmeasured agitation favoured the wildest plots and contributed to the spirit which led to assassinations like that of Erzberger.

By 1923 Ludendorff exercised control over the whole reactionist movement throughout Germany. He was the supreme agitator-in-chief of the royalist factions. Hitler was the strong man in Bavaria as leader of the Bavarian Nationals, who were out for a monarchical government; and he was always in close touch with Ludendorff. In early 1923 General Ludendorff inspected several detachments of the Fatherland League troops (unofficial royalist army). After the men had goose-stepped past him, he addressed them: " The time is soon coming when the whole German people will be called on to free our country from the foe, when we can again serve in the good cause of our old ruling house, which we formerly so loyally and honorably served."

Forgetting his own calls for surrender, he helped foster the myth of the 'stab in the back', which took the blame for the defeat away from the German army. He was a strong advocate of a war of revenge against France and Britain, and an early supporter of Adolf Hitler. He played a part in Hitler's failed Bear Hall Putsch (9 November 1923), the failure of which disillusioned him to a certain extent with Hitler. Ludendorff gave the Nazi Party the credibility it did not have at that time by joining the Munich Putsch. Here was a famed military commander joining a still relatively unknown political party and leader. Ludendorff remained a Nazi, was a National Socialist member of the Reichstag (1924-28), although estranged from Hitler. Ludendorff ran unsuccessfully for president in 1925 as the Nazi candidate, though he polled an embarassing one percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, he and his second wife, Mathilde, were proponents of a new "Aryan" racist religion. By 1928 the utterances of Ludendorff indicated that he classed as "pests" not only Freemasons but Jews, Catholics, Protestants and "all enemies of the German people and their religion." The "German people" seem to include only those who are ready to enter with von Ludendorff into the "German religion" which he described as one founded upon the worship of Wotan and other ancient "strong" Teuton gods. By then he had been cold-shouldered by all of the political associates who, less than a year earlier, acknowledged his leadership as head of an extreme Monarchist faction in the Reichstag.

In his later years, many believed Ludendorff to be little more than an eccentric. He rejected Hitler's offer to make him a field marshall in 1935. Ludendorff died in 1937. The Nazi elite, including Hitler, attended the funeral.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:55:02 ZULU