Erich Ludendorff, circa 1930.
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Ludendorff was born in Kruszewnia near Posen, Province of Posen (now Poznań, Poland), the third of six children of August Wilhelm Ludendorff (1833-1905), descended from Pomeranian merchants, who had become a landowner in a modest sort of way, and who held a commission in the reserve cavalry. Erich's mother, Klara Jeanette Henriette von Tempelhoff (1840-1914), was the daughter of the noble but impoverished Friedrich August Napoleon von Tempelhoff (1804-1868), and his wife Jeannette Wilhelmine von Dziembowska (1816-1854) — she from a Germanized Polish landed family on her father's side, and through whom Erich was a remote descendant of the Dukes of Silesia and the Marquesses and Electors of Brandenburg. He is said to have had a stable and comfortable childhood, growing up on a small family farm. He received his early schooling from his maternal aunt and had a flair for mathematics.
His acceptance into the Cadet School at Plön was largely due to his excellence in mathematics and extraordinary work ethic that he would carry with him throughout his life. Passing his Entrance Exam with Distinction, he was placed in a class two years ahead of his actual age group, and thereafter was consistently first in his class. Heinz Guderian attended the same Cadet School, which produced many well-trained German officers.
Despite Ludendorff's maternal noble origins, however, he married outside them, to Margarete née Schmidt (1875–1936).
In 1885 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 57th Infantry Regiment, at Wesel. Over the next eight years he saw further service as a high lieutenant with the 2nd Marine Battalion at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, and the 8th Grenadier Guards at Frankfurt (Oder). His service reports were of the highest order, with frequent commendations. In 1893 he was selected for the War Academy where the commandant, General Meckel, recommended him for appointment to the General Staff. He was appointed to the German General Staff in 1894, rising rapidly through the ranks to become a senior staff officer with V Corps HQ in 1902–04. In 1905, under von Schlieffen, he joined the Second Section of the Great General Staff in Berlin, responsible for the Mobilization Section from 1904–13. By 1911 he was a full colonel.
Ludendorff was involved in testing the minute details regarding the Schlieffen Plan, assessing the fortifications around the Belgian fortress city of Liege. Most importantly, he attempted to prepare the German army for the war he saw coming. The Social Democrats, who by the 1912 elections had become the largest party in the Reichstag seldom gave priority to army expenditures, building up its reserves, or funding advanced weaponry such as Krupp's siege cannons. Funding for the military went to the Kaiserliche Marine. He then tried to influence the Reichstag via the retired General Keim. Finally the War Ministry caved in to political pressures about Ludendorff's agitations and in January 1913 he was dismissed from the General Staff and returned to regimental duties, commanding the 39th (Lower Rhine) Fusiliers ar Dusseldorf. Ludendorff was convinced that his prospects in the military were nil but took up his mildly important position.
Barbara Tuchman describes Ludendorff in her book The Guns of August as Schlieffen’s devoted disciple who was a glutton for work and a man of granite character. He was deliberately friendless and forbidding, and remained little known or liked. Lacking a trail of reminiscences or anecdotes as he grew in eminence, Ludendorff was a man without a shadow.
However, John Lee (p.45) states that while Ludendorff was with his Fusiliers "he became the perfect regimental commander......the younger officers came to adore him."
In April 1914 Ludendorff was promoted to Major-General and given the command of the 85th Infantry Brigade, stationed at Strassburg.
With the outbreak of The Great War, Ludendorff was first appointed Deputy Chief of Staff to the German Second Army under General Karl von Bülow. His assignment was largely due to his knowledge and previous work investigating the dozen forts surrounding Liege, Belgium. The German assault in early August 1914, according to the Schlieffen Plan for invading France, gained him national recognition.
The Germans experienced their first major setback at Liege. Belgian artillery and machine guns killed thousands of German troops attempting frontal assaults. On 5 August Ludendorff took command of the 14th Brigade, whose general had been killed. He cut off Liege and called for siege guns. By 16 August all forts around Liege had fallen, allowing the German First Army to advance. As hero of Liege, Ludendorff was awarded Germany's highest military decoration for gallantry, the Pour le Mérite, presented by the Kaiser himself on 22 August.
Russia had prepared for and was waging war more effectively than the Schlieffen Plan anticipated. German forces were withdrawing as the Russians advanced towards Königsberg in East Prussia. Only a week after Liege's fall, Ludendorff, then engaged in the assault on Belgium's second great fortress at Namur, was urgently requested by the Kaiser to serve as Chief of Staff of the Eighth Army on the Eastern Front.
Ludendorff went quickly with Paul von Hindenburg, who was recalled from retirement, to replace General Maximilian von Prittwitz, who had proposed abandoning East Prussia altogether. Hindenburg relied heavily upon Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann in planning the successful operations in the battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. After the Battle of Lodz in November 1914 Ludendorff was promoted to Lieutenant-General.
In August 1916, Erich von Falkenhayn resigned as Chief of the General Staff. Paul von Hindenburg took his place; Ludendorff declined to be known as "Second Chief of the General Staff" and instead insisted on the title First Generalquartiermeister, on condition that all orders were sent out jointly from the two men. Together they formed the so-called Third Supreme Command. The "Third OHL", (Oberste Heeresleitung or "Supreme Army Command"), was effectively a military-industrial dictatorship, which largely relegated Kaiser Wilhelm II to the periphery. They meddled with domestic politics and forced government ministers to resign, including Imperial Chancellors Bethmann-Hollweg, Michaelis and Hertling. Afterward, they held an effective veto over appointments in the state hierarchy.
Ludendorff was the chief manager of the German war effort, with the popular hero von Hindenburg his pliant front man. Ludendorff advocated unrestricted submarine warfare to break the British blockade, which became an important factor in bringing the United States into the war in April 1917.
Russia withdrew from the war in 1917 and Ludendorff participated in the meetings held between German and the new Bolshevik leadership. After much deliberation, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March 1918. That same spring Ludendorff planned and directed Germany's final Western Front offensives, including Operation Michael, Operation Georgette and Operation Bluecher; although not formally a commander-in-chief, Ludendorff directed operations by issuing orders to the staffs of the armies at the front, as was perfectly normal under the German system of that time. This final push to win the war fell short and as the German war effort collapsed, Ludendorff's tenure of war-time leadership faded. On 29 September the Kingdom of Prussia assumed its pre-war authority, which lasted until Kaiser Wilhelm II's abdication. Ludendorff (1920) states that he had prepared a letter of resignation on the morning of 26 October but changed his mind after discussing the matter with von Hindenburg. Shortly afterward, he was informed that the Kaiser had dismissed him at the urging of the Cabinet and was then called in for an audience with the Kaiser where he tendered his resignation. Ludendorff fled Germany for Sweden.
In exile, he wrote numerous books and articles about the German military's conduct of the war while forming the foundation for the Dolchstoßlegende, the Stab-in-the-back myth, for which he is considered largely responsible. Ludendorff was convinced that Germany had fought a defensive war and in his opinion, Kaiser Wilhelm II had failed to organize a proper counter-propaganda campaign or provide efficient leadership.
Ludendorff was also extremely suspicious of the Social Democrats and leftists, whom he blamed for the humiliation of Germany through the Versailles Treaty. Ludendorff also claimed that he paid close attention to the business element (especially the Jews), and saw them turn their backs on the war effort by letting profit dictate production and financing rather than patriotism. Again focusing on the left, Ludendorff was appalled by the strikes that took place towards the end of the war and saw the homefront collapse before the front, with the former poisoning the morale of soldiers on temporary leave. Most importantly, Ludendorff felt that the German people as a whole had underestimated what was at stake in the war: he was convinced the Entente had started the war and was determined to dismantle Germany completely. In what has proven to be somewhat prophetic, Ludendorff wrote:
By the Revolution the Germans have made themselves pariahs among the nations, incapable of winning allies, helots in the service of foreigners and foreign capital, and deprived of all self-respect. In twenty years' time, the German people will curse the parties who now boast of having made the Revolution.
Ludendorff eventually returned to Germany in 1920. The Weimar Republic planned to send him and several other noted German generals (von Mackensen, among others) to reform the National Revolutionary Army of China, but this was cancelled due to the limitations of the Treaty of Versailles and the image problems with selling such a noted general out as a mercenary. Throughout his life, Ludendorff maintained a strong distaste for politicians and found most of them to be lacking an energetic national spirit. However, Ludendorff's political philosophy and outlook on the war brought him into right-wing politics as a German nationalist and won his support that helped to pioneer the Nazi Party. Early on, Ludendorff also held Adolf Hitler in the highest regard. In Fritz Thyssen's 1941 book, I Paid Hitler, Thyssen recalled a conversation he had with Ludendorff in 1923:
"There is but one hope", Ludendorff said to me, "and this hope is embodied in the national groups which desire our recovery." He recommended to me in particular the Overland League and, above all, the National Socialist party of Adolf Hitler. Ludendorff greatly admired Hitler. "He is the only man", he said, "who has any political sense. Go and listen to him one day."
At Hitler's urging, Ludendorff took part in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The plot failed but Ludendorff was acquitted in the trial that followed. In 1924, he was elected to the Reichstag as a representative of the NSFB (a coalition of the German Völkisch Freedom Party and members of the Nazi Party), serving until 1928. He ran in the 1925 presidential election against former commander Paul von Hindenburg and received just 285,793 votes. Ludendorff's reputation may have been damaged by the Putsch, but he conducted very little campaigning of his own and remained aloof, relying almost entirely on his lasting image as a war hero, an attribute which Hindenburg also possessed.
By appointing Hitler Chancellor of the Reich, you have handed over our sacred German Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I prophesy to you this evil man will plunge our Reich into the abyss and will inflict immeasurable woe on our nation. Future generations will curse you in your grave for this action.
Although the original copy of the telegram has yet to be found, one of the first sources to mention the memo was Hans Frank, who served as Reichsminister and General Governor of Poland during the Nazi Era. He wrote about the note in his memoirs, appearing shortly before his execution as a war criminal. Perhaps a more reliable account was that of Captain Wilhelm Breuker, a close associate of Ludendorff's. When Breuker wrote his memoirs in 1953, he also attested to the existence of the telegram.
In his later years, Ludendorff went into a relative seclusion with his second wife, Mathilde von Kemnitz (1874–1966), writing several books and leading the Tannenbergbund. He concluded that the world's problems were the result of Christians, Jews, and Freemasons; together with Mathilde, he founded the "Bund für Gotteserkenntnis" (Society for the Knowledge of God), a small and rather obscure esoterical society that survives to this day.
In an attempt to regain Ludendorff's favor, Hitler paid Ludendorff an unannounced visit in 1935 and offered to make him a field marshal. Infuriated, Ludendorff thundered back: "a field marshal is born, not made." When Ludendorff died in Tutzing in 1937, he was given a state funeral attended by Hitler, who declined to speak.