The Tragedy of Erich Ludendorff

In classical literature, tragedy tells how a person falls from greatness into ruin, often through arrogance and reverencing unholy things. History also tells such stories. As November 11 and the anniversary of the Great War fades into memory for another year, the tragedy of Erich Ludendorff offers a timely example.

Ludendorff was Germany’s First Quarter-Master General, a war hero, a virtuoso military planner and the virtual dictator of Germany from 1916-18. He nearly succeeded in defeating the Allies in World War I. Yet, by the time he died in 1937, he was a shrunken and bitter old man, an ideological extremist, and a hater of Christianity and Judaism, having sacrificed his energy and exceptional gifts in self-deception.

He was born in 1865 into a middle class family in Prussia, attended a cadet school and then a military academy. His fellow students, mostly aristocrats, mocked his lack of nobility. Their taunts may have spurred his unsparing application to his studies and to military life. Ludendorff declared:

Love of country, loyalty to my sovereign, appreciation of the truth that the duty of every one is to devote his life to his family and the State—these were the inherited principles which accompanied me into the world.[1]

From 1904 to 1913, he was serving on the general staff of the Imperial German Army as colonel and chief of operations,  responsible for working out the plans to advance the main German force into Belgium, and then to strike what was supposed to be a quick and decisive blow at France. This was essential in order to meet in time the great danger of a Russian invasion into the heart of Germany. German forces in the east were to be sufficient only for defence until the victory over France. Clearly Ludendorff knew he was planning for a first strike, a war of aggression. He secretly visited the Belgian fortress city of Liège in 1911. In the autumn of 1912, he recalled:

At the eleventh hour… when there was no longer any doubt as to the enemy’s intentions, and the army was working with might and main with truly German devotion to duty, I drew up a plan for..the addition of three new army corps.[2]

Contrary to the customary role of military officers, Ludendorff’s lobbied members of the German parliament behind the scenes to get what he wanted. His efforts were frowned on, and he was moved out of Berlin. As it turned out, he was posted to a corps that, when Germany went to war 1914, had the job of capturing the Belgian fortress of Liège, where the German offensive had stalled. His leadership and bravery in the field broke the deadlock and he won the highest German order of gallantry, presented by the Kaiser himself.

Ludendorff’s courage, however, served a dishonourable cause, as Germany had pledged itself to respect Belgium’s neutrality. The invasion broke that promise, and in the process, as Ludendorff knew, Germans soldiers had killed hundreds of Belgian civilians in cold blood and later looted Belgian industrial plant and equipment to support the German war effort. The Belgian campaign opened the way for the German attack on France, even though in the lead-up to the war, France had taken pains to avoid any provocative action.

After Liège, Ludendorff was sent east with General Paul von Hindenburg to command a single German army against the Russians. The two men made a formidable team: von Hindenburg, the unflappable aristocrat, embodied the ideal of a Prussian military commander, and Ludendorff proved the indefatigable and meticulous organiser. At Tannenberg, on August 24, 1914, they routed the invading Russian army, capturing 90,000 prisoners. For the next two years, they successfully forced the Russians to retreat, against all odds and expectations. They were also, in April 1915,  the first wartime commanders to use poison gas, contrary to the Hague declaration which Germany had signed in 1899[3].

Supreme command

In late August 1916, the great German offensive at Verdun in France was floundering. Germany turned to von Hindenburg as its new commander in chief and to Ludendorff as first quarter-master general. Ludendorff tried to master operations in every theatre of the war, not merely in France, Belgium and Russia. War had spread to Serbia, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and to German colonies and outposts in Africa, the Pacific and China. German submarines were sinking shipping in the Atlantic and its naval vessels had been raiding in the Pacific (see Paul Oates’ account at Quadrant Online of HMAS Sydney’s victory over the German raider Emden).

He relentlessly extended his power into political and economic affairs. He browbeat the Kaiser with threats to resign, and bullied the chancellor, the foreign minister, party leaders in the Reichstag, industrial magnates and trade union officials. To Ludendorff, the army and the nation were one and the same. Soldiers had to sacrifice themselves and so too, he believed, should civilians. Progressively, Germany became more or less a military dictatorship.

In 1918 the fortunes of war were turning against Germany. Unrestricted submarine warfare, which he supported to cut off shipping to Britain, proved a failure and provoked the United States to enter the war on Britain’s side. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia brought an end to war in the east, but Ludendorff’s insistence on German control of the Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states tied down many German troops. Germany’s allies, both the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary, grew weaker. The only hope of German victory lay in the West. In the spring of 1918, Ludendorff launched a do-or-die military offensive. It very nearly succeeded, but the Germans could not follow up on their initial gains and had to retreat. In August 1918, the Allies took the initiative and Germany’s defeat was in sight.

Ludendorff was overwhelmed by the enormity of his task. He suffered some kind of nervous collapse in August 1918, apparently after trying to run everything on about one hour’s sleep each night. He recovered, but in October 1918, he overplayed his hand. Calling forg further civilian and military sacrifices, he offered his resignation to the Kaiser when his demands were refused. This time the Kaiser accepted and Ludendorff was out of a job.

Events were now moving out of control in a bitterly divided Germany, where sailors did the formerly unthinkable and refused orders to set sail for a final battle against the Royal Navy. More soldiers deserted and supplies of war materials and food were running short. Imperial Germany was breaking down under the strain.

Germany conceded defeat. On November 9 the German Chancellor announced the Kaiser’s abdication, and on November 11 the guns stopped. A new German republic was founded under a Social-Democrat government. The remains of the Germany army was put to work in suppressing socialist insurgencies in Berlin and Bavaria, inspired by the  Bolshevik revolution whose success lay in Germany’s 1917 decision to transport Lenin from Switzerland into Russia.


A moral crisis

Ludendorff had become deeply unpopular. He was the man behind the failed war strategy and the burdensome military dictatorship. He had to be hidden by his friends and smuggled out of Germany in disguise to Sweden, where he borrowed a friend’s house and sat down to write My War Memories, 1914-1918. There was much to think about. The state which Ludendorff worshipped had failed utterly, its defeat not only military but moral. It had launched a war of aggression in which ‘Germany, inferior in numbers and with weak allies, contend[ed] against the world.’[4] Germany imposed upon its neighbours the terrible costs of defending their citizens and their sovereignty, and brought about its own ruin and that of its allies.

To identify one’s whole life and highest moral duty with a State is a perilous enterprise. The State is merely a human creation that concerns itself with immediate and practical matters. It can certainly behave morally or immorally, but it cannot be the foundation of morality itself. We have already seen examples of how Ludendorff himself was morally compromised. If the good of the State is the highest goal of a person’s life, what happens when that State fails? Those who have idolised it face a crisis. They must acknowledge the truth and seek a new foundation or deceive themselves and rummage among the pieces of their shattered idol.

Ludendorff’s memoirs are entirely unrepentant. He justified the war as necessary to overcome the intrigues of Germany’s enemies: France was planning to reclaim the territories it had lost in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870; Britain was jealous of German economic success and fearful of its military might. ‘Nobody believed in Belgian neutrality’, and Belgian resistance provoked the killing of civilians:

our troops cannot be blamed if they took the sternest measures… It is true that innocent persons may have had to suffer, but the stories of “Belgian atrocities ” are nothing but…legends.’[5]

Belgian plant and equipment was more ‘usefully’ employed ‘elsewhere’. His own military and political strategies were correct and his conduct beyond reproach. The civilians in the German government were weak and irresolute, insufficiently harsh even in their punishment of shirkers and deserters.[6] He cursed the political revolution which established a democratic republican government in place of the old regime.

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.[7]

Helots were the slaves of the ancient Greek state of Sparta, a militarised society where newborn babies unfit for future military service were killed, and boys were taken from their families and trained to endure hardship and bear arms.  ‘After our great downfall’, Ludendorff concluded his memoirs, ‘…let us learn once again to be Germans, and be proud that we are Germans.’[8] Perhaps Germany could become a new Sparta?

In February 1919, the Swedish government ordered Ludendorff to leave the country. He returned to Germany and devoted himself to a diabolical project. The British civil servant John Wheeler-Bennett wrote:

One evening in the autumn of 1919, Ludendorff was dining with the head of the British Military Mission, Major-General Sir Neill Malcolm, and his officers, and was expatiating, with his usual vitriolic eloquence, on the way in which the Supreme Command had been betrayed by the revolution on the home front. His style of speech was turgid and verbose, and in an effort to crystallize the meaning into a single sentence, General Malcolm asked him: “Do you mean, General, that you were stabbed in the back?” Ludendorff’s eyes lit up and he leapt upon the phrase like a dog on a bone. “Stabbed in the back?” he repeated. “Yes, that’s it, exactly, we were stabbed in the back.” And thus was born a legend which has never entirely perished.[9]

Ludendorff joined those who hated the postwar German Republic and worked to bring it down.

In 1920, he participated in an attempted coup to overthrow the government. It failed. Then he met the young Adolf Hitler and supported him whole-heartedly. In 1923, he joined Hitler’s plot to overthrow the Weimar Republic, the Beer Hall putsch. It also failed. This photo shows the major plotters. Adolf Hitler wears his distinctive moustache; Ludendorff, the older man to his left in uniform, wears a black spiked helmet and numerous medals. Hitler went to gaol, where he wrote Mein Kampf; Ludendorff was acquitted.

In 1924, Ludendorff entered the German Reichstag as the representative of the National Socialist party. In 1925, he ran as the Nazi Party candidate for President of Germany, but received just one per cent of the vote. He was a much-diminished man, disillusioned with politics and increasingly suspicious of Hitler. That year he left his wife and married Mathilde, a psychiatrist and political ideologist. They devoted themselves to writing virulently hostile denunciations of a supposed Roman Catholic-Jewish-and Grand Oriental alliance that aimed to destroy civilisation[10].  Here is a 1936 example:

As the state of the Romans was finally internally eroded and destroyed by Christian doctrine, all peoples and states that come into contact with Christian doctrine were and will be destroyed through it by the Jews’ desire.[11]

Even Hitler distanced himself from Ludendorff’s extreme views. From supreme power Ludendorff had fallen into political irrelevance and a totally degenerate moral creed. He died in 1937 of liver cancer, in the care of Catholic nursing sisters whose religion he still despised.

Michael Dunn is retired and lives in Sydney.


[1] E. Ludendorff, My War Memories, English translation, 1919,  vol.1 p.50

[2] Ludendorff (1919) vol.1, p.30

[3] see https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/Treaty.xsp?action=openDocument&documentId=B0625F804A9B2A64C12563CD002D66FF

[4] Ludendorff (1919) vol.1, p.1

[5] Ludendorff (1919) vol.1, pp.29, 37

[6] Ludendorff (1919) vol.2, pp 611-2

[7] Ludendorff (1919) vol.2,  p. 768

[8] Ludendorff (1919) vol.2, p. 771

[9] J Wheeler-Bennett, ‘Ludendorff the soldier and the politician’, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 1938, https://www.vqronline.org/essay/ludendorff-soldier-and-politician

[10]  Richard Steigmann-Gall, ‘Rethinking Nazism and Religion: How Anti-Christian Were the “Pagans”?’, Central European History, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2003), pp. 75-105.

[11]  Ludendorff, Judengeständnis Völkerzerstörung durch Christentum, [Jewish Confession:  Destruction of peoples through Christianity], 1936,

my own translation https://archive.org/details/LudendorffErichJudengestandnisVolkerzerstorungDurchChristentum/page/n5

  • Tony Tea

    For a reputedly shrewd military tactician, the Michael Offensive was a balls up, and reeked of last roll of the dice, a la Battle of the Bulge.

  • PT

    I agree with Tony. Ludendorff staked everything on the last throw of the dice: hoping to win in the west before the US Army was at full strength. But it failed. The British 2nd Army was pushed back, but not routed or destroyed. More tellingly was the German solution to trench warfare: which unlike the allied one with the emphasis on tanks and combined operations relied on using special forces (stormtroopers) and flamethrowers. The small unit attacks with elite troops caught the British 2nd Army by surprise. But it also took a terrible toll on the elite troops Germany launched in the attack. It wasn’t just the initial one to get the campaign moving that depended on stormtroopers, but all the attacks to keep up the German advance. The high rate of attrition amongst these men, and lack of alternative offensive capability probably doomed the offensive. It could have worked if allied morale had broken, but the odds were probably against it.

    More to the point was that when the offensive failed, Germany couldn’t win the war any longer. As it was, the Hundred Days shattered the German Army: the Hindenburg Line was taken in a day – the Royal Artillery had mastered their art, and blew it apart. The coordination between the various arms and armies of the allies was finally working as it should, whilst the blockade sapped German industry. No “stab in the back”. The Germans should have tried for a compromise peace once they had been defeated at the Marne.

  • Michael Galak

    Far from being a tragic figure, Ludendorff was an evil force, which unleashed both Lenin and Hitler onto an unsuspecting world.

  • pgang

    I’m going to disagree with Tony and PT. From a strategic perspective the operation was a must because the Americans were coming. Germany had another season of warfare left in it, tops. Perhaps Ludendorff could also sense the growing ascendency of the British on the battlefield, despite Ypres III. If anything the offensive was a victim of its own success, stretching supply too far and thinning the forces. Had it reached Amiens (and it nearly did), history might have told a very different tale. Winning wars requires taking some risk, as Monash knew full well on 8th August. Anyway the world can be thankful that he and the Australia Corps were available to stick their finger in the dyke at Villers Bretonneaux.

  • Tony Tea

    Wikipedia has a good summary of the Spring push and its flow-on effects. The offensive made large initial inroads, but as it unfolded it became obvious it was a bit of a mess which cost Germany its best soldiers for questionable gains, and which opened the front door for Foch to waltz through.

  • pgang

    Tony, it’s easy to describe the outcome and then use it to pass judgement (and I never rely on Wiki anyway). Had the Germans reached Amiens (and they nearly did), they would have resupplied and regrouped very quickly with control of the major supply infrastructure (rail), and the Somme. The Allies would have been split in two, in total disarray and unable to resupply or communicate, or to meaningfully counter-attack. The Germans would have then rolled up the French from the north, who would have been in an understandable state of panic. In the end it was a very close thing, and came down to matters of hours in moving troops into place. It was a chance Ludendorff had to take. Don’t get me wrong, he was a dreadful man, but his military prowess was up there. But the shear emergency of the situation is the reason the Australia Corps is still revered in France.

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