Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff is a German general and the celebrated victor of the Battle of Liège and the Battle of Tannenberg. In August 1916, his appointment as quartermaster general (Erster Generalquartiermeister) made him the leader (along with Paul von Hindenburg) of the German war efforts during the Weltkrieg. In the years 1916 to 1923 Ludendorff ruled as de-facto dictator of the German Empire until his arrest and resignation following the Osthilfeskandal in 1923.
Ludendorff was born on 9 April 1865 in Kruszewnia near Posen, Province of Posen, Kingdom of Prussia, the third of six children of August Wilhelm Ludendorff (1833–1905). He had a stable and comfortable childhood, growing up on his families' small farm, and enrolling in the Hauptkadettenschule near Berlin in 1882.
In 1885, Ludendorff was commissioned as a subaltern into the 57th Infantry Regiment, then at Wesel in the Rhine Province. He rose rapidly and was a senior staff officer at the headquarters of the Fifth Corps from 1902 to 1904. Next he joined the Great German General Staff in Berlin, which was commanded by Alfred von Schlieffen, and lobbied vigorously for an expansion of the military in 1913, shrugging off informal restrictions regarding the involvement of military personnel in politics.
At the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914, Ludendorff was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff to the German Second Army under General Karl von Bülow. His assignment was largely due to his previous work investigating defenses at Liège, Belgium. At the beginning of the Battle of Liège, Ludendorff was an observer with the 14th Brigade, which was to infiltrate the city at night and secure the bridges before they could be destroyed. The brigade commander was killed on 5 August, so Ludendorff led the successful assault to occupy the city and its citadel. In the following days, two of the forts guarding the city were taken by desperate frontal infantry attacks, while the remaining forts were smashed by huge Krupp 42-cm and Austro-Hungarian Skoda 30-cm howitzers. By 16 August, all the forts around Liège had fallen, allowing the German First Army to advance. Celebrated as the Victor of Liège, Ludendorff was awarded Germany's highest military decoration for gallantry, the Pour le Mérite, presented by Kaiser Wilhelm II himself on 22 August.
German mobilization earmarked a single army, the Eighth, to defend their eastern frontier. Two Russian armies invaded East Prussia earlier than expected, the Eighth Army commanders panicked and were fired by the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL), the German Supreme Army Command . The OHL assigned Ludendorff as the new Chief of Staff, while the War Cabinet chose a retired general, Paul von Hindenburg, as commander. They first met on their private train heading east. They agreed that they had to annihilate the nearest Russian army before they tackled the second. On arrival, they discovered that General Max Hoffmann had already shifted much of the 8th Army by rail to the south to do just that, in an amazing feat of logistical planning. Nine days later the Eighth Army surrounded most of a Russian army at Tannenberg, taking 92,000 prisoners in one of the great victories in German history. Twice during the battle Ludendorff wanted to break off, fearing that the second Russian army was about to strike their rear, but Hindenburg held firm.
Then they turned on the second invading army in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes; it fled with heavy losses to escape encirclement. During the rest of 1914, commanding an Army Group, they staved off the projected invasion of German Silesia by dexterously moving their outnumbered forces into Russian Poland, fighting the Battle of the Vistula River, which ended with a brilliantly executed withdrawal during which they destroyed the Polish railway lines and bridges needed for an invasion. When the Russians had repaired most of the damage the Germans struck their flank in the Battle of Łódź, where they almost surrounded another Russian Army. Masters of surprise and deft maneuver, they argued that if properly reinforced they could trap the entire Russian army in Poland. During the winter of 1914-15, they lobbied passionately for this strategy, but were rebuffed by the OHL.
Early in 1915, they surprised the Russian army that still held a toehold in East Prussia by attacking in a snowstorm and surrounding it in the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes. The OHL then transferred Ludendorff, but Hindenburg’s personal plea to the Kaiser reunited them. Erich von Falkenhayn, supreme commander at the OHL, came east to attack the flank of the Russian army that was pushing through the Carpathian passes towards Hungary. Employing overwhelming artillery, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians broke through the line between Gorlice and Tarnów and kept pushing until the Russians were driven out of most of Galicia, the Austro-Hungarian southern part of partitioned Poland. During this advance Falkenhayn rejected schemes to try to cut off the Russians in Poland, preferring direct frontal attacks. Outgunned, during the summer of 1915 Russian commander Grand Duke Nicholas shortened his lines by withdrawing from most of Poland, destroying railroads, bridges, and many buildings while driving 743,000 Poles, 350,000 Jews, 300,000 Lithuanians and 250,000 Latvians into Russia.
During the winter of 1915-1916 Ludendorff's headquarters was set up in Kaunas. They occupied Lithuania, western Latvia, and all of Russian Poland, an area almost the size of France. Ludendorff demanded Germanization of the conquered territories and far going annexations, offering land to German settlers. Far-reaching plans envisioned Courland and Lithuania turned into border states ruled by German military governor commander answerable only to German Emperor. He proposed massive annexations and colonisation in Eastern Europe in the event of the victory of the German Reich and was one of the main supporters of the Polish Border Strip. As to the various nations and ethnic groups in conquered territories, Ludendorff believed they were "incapable of producing real culture".
On 16 March 1916 the Russians, now with adequate supplies of cannons and shells, attacked parts of the new German defenses, intending to penetrate at two points and then to pocket the defenders. They attacked almost daily until the end of the month, but the Lake Naroch Offensive failed, “choked in swamp and blood”, The Russians did better attacking the Austro-Hungarians in the south. The Brusilov Offensive cracked their lines with surprise hurricane bombardments followed by well-schooled assault troops probing for weak spots. The breakthrough was finally stemmed by Austro-Hungarian troops recalled from Italy stiffened with German advisers and reserves. In July Russian attacks on the Germans in the north were beaten back. On 27 July 1916 Hindenburg was given command of all troops on the Eastern Front from the Baltic to Brody in the Ukraine. They visited their new command on a special train, and then set up headquarters in Brest-Litovsk. By August 1916 their front was holding everywhere.
While the war in the East went mostly in favor of the Germans, the war in the West was stuck in an eternal stalemate. Falkenhayn, who did not achieve what he had promised, namely kicking the French out of the war within the first few months, was replaced as Chief of the General Staff (OHL) by Hindenburg on 29 August 1916. Ludendorff was again appointed Hindenburg's chief of staff as first Quartermaster general, and additionally he was promoted to General of the Infantry.
Reichskanzler Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was not sure about this decision; He argued that Ludendorff was only doing great at a time of success, and that he would lose his nerve as soon as things would begin to go badly. With Romania joining the war on the Allied side, the Russians were not the only problem on the Eastern Front anymore, but thanks to clever strategies, a Romanian invasion of Transylvania was repelled. Then Romania was invaded from the south by German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Ottoman troops commanded by August von Mackensen and from the north by a German and Austro-Hungarian army commanded by Falkenhayn. Bucharest fell in December 1916. Ludendorff had planned, controlled and orchestrated this operation out of Brest-Litovsk by sending telegrams to everyone involved and giving commands.
His position as Quartermaster general made Ludendorff one of the most influential men in all of Europe; While Hindenburg was representing the General Staff to the outside world, Ludendorff pulled the strings in the background. Over time, the military had grown so powerful, that it even eclipsed the Reichskanzler and Kaiser Wilhelm himself.
Hindenburg was eventually given titular command over all of the forces of the Central Powers. Ludendorff's hand was everywhere. Every day he was on the telephone with the staffs of their armies and the Army was deluged with "Ludendorff's paper barrage" of orders, instructions and demands for information. His finger extended into every aspect of the German war effort. He issued the two daily communiques, and often met with the newspaper and newsreel reporters. Before long the public idolized him as the German Army's mastermind.
Rise to Power
Ludendorff had one goal: "One thing was certain – the power must be in my hands." As stipulated by the Constitution of the German Empire the government was run by civil servants appointed by the Kaiser. On Ludendorff's behalf however, the economy became more and more controlled by the OHL, as he was confident that army officers were superior to civilians. The Kaiser didn't protest and slowly lost the control over German affairs, leading to his retreat from public.
As overseer of the German economy, Ludendorff aligned himself with Germany's most important industrialists and began setting overambitious targets for military production, the so-called "Hindenburg Programme". His plan was to double German industrial production and to greatly increase the output of munitions and weapons. Implementation of the program was assigned to General Wilhelm Groener, a staff officer who had directed the Field Railway Service effectively.
Despite being so powerful, Ludendorff never had thoughts of becoming Reichskanzler himself. Instead, he planned to get rid of Reichskanzler Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and replace him with candidates who were more open to Ludendorff's own ideas of ruling a country; Bethmann-Hollweg had been a long-time adversary of Ludendorff and a great thorn in his side, as he stopped Ludendorff from becoming even more influential. In early 1917, a situation to sideline Bethmann-Hollweg would finally arise.
de facto-Dictator of the German Empire
In early 1917, a conference was held in the castle of Pleß, in Silesia. The Kaiser, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and many high ranking military officials including Hindenburg and Ludendorff once more met to argue about starting unrestricted submarine warfare. While the OHL, the Reichstag and many army officials were in favour of it, von Bethmann-Hollweg as well as the head of the Imperial Naval Office Eduard von Capelle strictly opposed the move and warned the Kaiser once more to not agree to it. The Kaiser, wary of Ludendorff's growing influence, ultimately decided against it. Ludendorff, greatly disappointed by the Kaiser's reasoning and decision making, acknowledged that he needed to get rid of Bethmann-Hollweg. From this point on Ludendorff and his clique of high ranking military and navy officials decided to discredit Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg at every single turn.
Later that year, the Kaiser and the chancellor met to debate on what wargoals Germany should pursue in the case peace could be signed. Von Bethmann-Hollweg was against annexations and in favour of a status quo ante bellum, but remained very vague, much to the Kaiser’s disliking. Ludendorff, hearing of the Kaiser’s disappointment in the Chancellor, decided to start an intrigue against Bethmann-Hollweg. He successfully made the Kaiser believe that the war is lost if the chancellor stays. The Kaiser, disappointed by von Bethmann-Hollweg’s past advice on the war and convinced by both the Reichstag and Ludendorff, finally decided to dismiss the chancellor – unsure of whom would follow him. Bethmann-Hollweg would be replaced with Georg Michaelis, who would be obedient to the will of the army.
At this point, the civilian government had effectively lost all its power. If anyone of them would speak out against any of the moves of the OHL, they’d have to sign their resignation at the very same day. Michaelis eventually resigned and was replaced by Georg von Hertling, another OHL puppet.
With the government effectively out of the way, Ludendorff thought about how to get rid of the Kaiser in the most easiest way. Wilhelm II had grown "soft" in his view, being more and more open to cooperate with the democratic opposition, which could be a risk for Ludendorff's influential position. The opposition wanted to end the war as soon as possible, and Ludendorff knew: Without the war, he would be essentially powerless. Therefore, he tried to find measures to undermine the political system of the German Empire.
He would find this measure with the foundation of the DVLP (Deutsche Vaterlandspartei) in July 1917; A staunchly right-wing movement founded by Alfred von Tirpitz, Johann Albrecht von Mecklenburg, Wolfgang Kapp, Alfred Hugenberg and other prominent members of the German far right. Ludendorff never was directly involved with the movement, but supported them secretly, as they were great supporters of his dictatorship. The DVLP despised the soft Kaiser as well and wanted to replace him with a more reactionary strongman, like Crown Prince Wilhelm or Hindenburg, with Ludendorff controlling everything from behind the scenes. They also were supporters of Ludendorff's ambitious annexation plans in Africa and the East. With the DVLP as a new contender in the German political party landscape, Ludendorff finally had a base of broad public support in form of a political party.
Around the same time, Ludendorff issued a memorandum outlining the intentions of the OHL towards Poland. Germany would annex a “border strip” of approximately 20,000 square kilometers, expel the existing Polish inhabitants and resettle the area with ethnic Germans. Poles living in Germany itself or other German-occupied areas were to be encouraged to move to the newly established Kingdom of Poland.
Manifestation of Power
Ludendorff was responsible for the huge territorial losses forced on the Russians in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. During the peace negotiations with the Russians his representative kept demanding the economic concessions coveted by German industrialists. The "Victory in the East", as it was stylized in government-approved media, the repelling of the Great Allied Spring Offensive and the victory over Greece after an successful Operation Teutoburg in mid-1918 increased Hindenburg's and Ludendorff's popularity and influence even more.
However, despite the German successes on the field, the common people became more and more weary of the war. Many citizens started to support more radical organizations that proposed to finally end the war, among them the popular socialist USPD. In late autumn of 1918, the radical left decided that the right time had come to overthrow the government and prepared for a peaceful revolution. Massive nationwide anti-war demonstrations and strikes against the government broke out, lasting from late August to early September 1918. The OHL tried to break the strikes, by arresting various radical socialist leaders, to no avail. On 9th September, Spartacists engaged in combat and took over various government buildings throughout the Empire. They were quickly crushed by the 11th, with the event being dubbed as the 'September Insurrections.'
With the Socialist Revolution stopped in the last second, a wave of "Red Scare" swept throughout the Empire. Ludendorff knew that the left had to be silenced if he wanted to pursue his visions further. In the following month the Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) was passed by a majority in the Reichstag, granting the Reichskanzler the ability to pass laws without the agreement of the parliament. The law was used for the first time on the same day by Chancellor von Hertling, on the behalf of General Ludendorff, to ban all socialist parties (excluding the SPD) on the 14th of October.
On 10th of December the sickly Reichskanzler Hertling asked for his resignation. The Kaiser allowed it and named, under pressure of Ludendorff, Paul von Hindenburg as Hertling's successor. The OHL now had established full control over the Empire; Never had Ludendorff and Hindenburg been so strong. As long as the war would drag on in favor of Germany, they would be the highest political instance within the whole Central Powers, with noone to challenge them.
The Flight of Icarus
With enough reserves, both in material and manpower, the Great German and Austrian Spring Offensive was launched on 2nd March 1919. It would be another success for the powerful duo - By mid 1918, Italy had capitulated after an Austro-German offensive has reached Venice, and by August, an armistice between the Central Powers and France was signed, with German soldiers parading through Paris like in 1870/71. In December, the rest of the European Entente agreed to sign a ceasefire as well. Everything went exactly as Ludendorff and Hindenburg had envisioned it. At the Versailles Peace Conference, the French were forced to make high concessions, including giving up all of their Sub-Saharan colonies, paying high reparations and much more. At this point, Germany had become the most powerful nation in Central Europe, mainly because of the deeds of Hindenburg and Ludendorff.
However, new problems soon arose. Germany and her allies were now completely isolated within Europe - And almost all of their neighbors were trapped in an internal bloody civil war. Russia had been a battlefield of ideologies since 1917, while Italy had been struck by revolutionary fervor in mid-1918, so heavy, that Austria was not even able to make their demands. France soon followed, with the revolution breaking out shortly after the Versailles Peace Conference. A new, more radical era had began: The old Concert of Europe would be gone forever, and Germany would have to adapt to that.
Additionally, the war in East Asia was not over as well. Japan had refused to withdraw from German territory and sign the ceasefire, therefore, Germany was far from finally ending the war.