‘The Most Powerful Man in Germany’ – 10 Fascinating Facts About Erich Ludendorff

An undercover Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) comes face to face with Germany’s wartime dictator, Erich Ludendorff. (Image source: Warner Bros)

“A picture perfect martinet and hardline disciplinarian, Ludendorff would become the de facto military dictator of Germany in the final year of World War One.”

EVERYONE’S FAVOURITE ass-kicking Amazon princess is back and poised to take movie houses by storm this weekend with the release of the summer blockbuster Wonder Woman.

The film, which is set during the First World War, sees the bronze-bodice-clad titular superheroine leave her paradise island home of Themyscira to help smash the German army on the Western Front, thus bringing an end to the conflict.

Despite the fanciful storyline, at least one real-life historical figure pops up in the picture — Erich Ludendorff serves as the movie’s highest ranking antagonist.

It’s not hard to see why screenwriters cast the Prussian-born general as one of the film’s villains.

A picture perfect martinet and hardline disciplinarian, Ludendorff would become the de facto military dictator of Germany in the final year of World War One. By 1918, little was going on at home or the front that the 53-year-old general didn’t influence or control in some fashion.

“One thing was certain,” he once wrote of his role, “all the power must be in my hands.”

And his mark on history didn’t end with the Armistice. After the war, Ludendorff would rage against the Weimar Republic, hatch wild conspiracy theories about the world’s religions and have a hand in bringing Hitler and the Nazis to power.

No surprise screenwriters would wish to turn this Teutonic autocrat into a big-screen bad guy. Here are 10 fascinating facts one of the First World War’s most powerful figures.

Erich Ludendorff. (Image source: WikiCommons)

He was the son of an aristocrat

Born on April 9 1865 in Posen, Prussia (modern-day Poznan, Poland), Erich’s family was part of the noble Junker class of pre-1914 Germany. An excellent student with a flair for mathematics, the future army general was fast tracked through military school, earning his commission as a junior infantry officer at the age of 18. By all accounts he was the model of efficiency and rose through the ranks quickly. He was appointed to the general staff in 1894.

The Schlieffen Plan called for German troops to hook around the French lines and take Paris from behind. (Image source: WikiCommons)

He helped bring the Schlieffen Plan to life

By 1904, Ludendorff found himself working on the staff of Alfred von Schlieffen, the mastermind behind the pre-war German strategy that called for the Kaiser’s army invade France by way of a flanking attack through Belgium. By 1911, Ludendorff, now a colonel, was tasked with ironing out the specific details of how the Schlieffen Plan would be executed if and when war broke out. In this role, he secretly visited France and Belgium to personally scope out local terrain and defences. He paid particular attention to Liège, a Belgian city that was home to a series of forts the German army would smash in the opening weeks of the First World War.

Ludendorff lobbied the German government to enlarge the army in 1913, much to the ruling party’s annoyance. (Image source: WikiCommons)

His big mouth sometimes got him into trouble

As a rising star in the army, Ludendorff ignored the convention that barred military officers from politics. In 1913, he roundly criticized ruling Social Democrats for investing too heavily in the navy, maintaining that for the Schlieffen Plan to succeed, Germany’s ground forces would need more manpower. The government grudgingly provided funds for four new corps, but wanted the outspoken Ludendorff booted from the general staff. He was transferred to the command of an infantry regiment. “I attributed the change partly for my having pressed for those additional army corps,” he later complained.

A dramatic depiction of Hindenburg and Ludendorff at Tannenberg. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The war saved his career…

With the outbreak of war in 1914, Ludendorff was appointed to the staff of the Second Army. His first-hand knowledge of the fortifications surrounding Liège would prove invaluable during the 11-day battle to take the city. For his personal role in the bombardment and assault, Ludendorff would win the Pour le Mérite or “Blue Max.” A national hero, he was reassigned to the Eastern Front, where the Russian army was poised to invade Germany. Appointed chief of staff to Paul von Hindenburg, the 67-year-old general who had been called out of retirement, the two would preside over the decisive 1914 victory at Tannenberg.

“If things go badly [Ludendorff] loses his nerve.” (Image source: WikiCommons)

… but it also revealed his flaws

Despite his initial battlefield successes, Ludendorff soon developed a reputation for being overly cautious. While outwardly heralded as one of the Kaiser’s most capable generals, the brass murmured different opinions. On occasion, Hindenburg, who had been promoted to field marshal, admonished his subordinate for balking in the face of Russian resistance. Even the German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, complained that “if things go badly [Ludendorff] loses his nerve.” Despite this, the general also had a ruthless side. He proposed annexing the occupied territories in Russia from the Baltic to the Crimea, displacing the inhabitants, whom he wrote off as inferior, and repopulating the regions with German settlers.

(L to R) Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II, General Ludendorff, January 1917. (Image source: WikiCommons)

He became Germany’s unofficial ruler

By late 1916, Hindenburg was promoted to the head of Germany’s supreme military command or Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL); Ludendorff would accompany him to serve as adjutant, general der Infanterie and quartermaster general. Privately, it was agreed that Hindenburg, now almost 70, would be little more than a figurehead; Ludendorff would actually run the war. He quickly gained a reputation for micromanagement, much to the irritation of commanders on Germany’s many fronts. The generals snidely referred to Ludendorff’s interminable telegrams as “paper barrages.” His power would soon extend into civil society, as well. As the overseer of the militarization of the wartime national economic plan, dubbed the Hindenburg Program, Ludendorff’s control soon expanded into almost every facet of German life. He set industrial policy, reigned in the labour force, oversaw national propaganda and even had a hand in replacing the German chancellor and a number of cabinet ministers with more agreeable officials. Although still nominally second in command to Hindenburg, the aged field marshal had little interest in mastering government policy and left it to Ludendorff, who relished his status as the most powerful man in Germany. He controlled everything from baking and finance to food rationing and the nation’s railroads. “Curious tales are told of his omnipresence,” wrote American journalist H.L. Mencken in a 1917 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. “One hears of Ludendorff whenever German officers utter more than 20 words about the war. [He] is unquestionably the new Moltke. Is he also the new Bismarck, so long awaited, so diligently sought in vain?”

Revolution racked the Fatherland in 1918 as the Central Powers collapsed. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The war shattered him

By 1918, the pressure of planning the widening war (America was now fully committed to the fight) and managing the home front was wearing Ludendorff down. He reportedly got by with only an hour of sleep a night. Two of his three stepsons (he’d married a divorced mother of four in 1900) had been killed in action. And by the war’s final summer when it was clear that defeat was inexorable, the general slipped into a downward spiral of despair. He exhibited violent mood swings, lashed out at Hindenburg and even reportedly broke down in tears before his subordinates. Some speculated that he was in the throes of a nervous breakdown. With the nation facing imminent military and economic collapse, Ludendorff became a lightning rod for criticism from all quarters. By the end of September, Germany’s new chancellor lobbied the Kaiser for Ludendorff’s head. The general stepped down and fled the country in disguise. He remained in exile in Sweden until early 1919.

The ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth, one that Ludendorff helped establish, became a powerful narrative for the Nazis. (Image source: WikiCommons)

He helped popularize the ‘stab in the back’ myth

Ludendorff, like many others in Germany, seethed over his country’s downfall in 1918. While dining with a British general Sir Neill Malcom in Berlin a year after the Armistice, the retired Ludendorff griped that the Kaiser’s army might very well have defeated the Allies in the war’s final months were it not for revolutionaries, subversives and defeatists on the home front. The Englishman casually characterized the description of events as a “stab in the back.” Ludendorff instantly seized on the analogy and made it a rallying cry for the German right.

Ludendorff (centre right) and Adolf Hitler (right). (Image source: WikiCommons)

He ran with a bad crowd

Ludendorff, when not writing books and articles defending the German war effort, threw himself into the hotbed of post-war German politics, where he became involved with the right-wing para-military Freikorps movement. He took part in the 1920 failed Kapp Putsch that sought to replace the Weimar Republic with a hard-line military dictatorship. Then in 1923, he fell under the sway of the up-and-coming leader of Germany’s National Socialist party, Adolf Hitler. When the Nazi’s mounted their famous Beer Hall Putsch in November of that year, the future Fuhrer promised Ludendorff command of the army. With the insurrection underway in the streets of Munich, he personally confronted the police and soldiers sent to restore order. He was arrested without incident but later acquitted.

Ludendorff died in 1937 as an embittered crank. (Image source: WikiCommons)

He ended his days as a crackpot conspiracy theorist

In 1924, Ludendorff turned his attention to public office, winning a seat in the Reichstag representing the hard right, anti-Semitic German Völkisch Freedom Party. The following year he ran for president, but was trounced at the polls by his old comrade Hindenburg. Defeated embittered and nursing a grudge against his old boss, Ludendorff became a prolific writer publishing a series of firebrand books and articles in which he advocated, among other things, for resuming total war against the Allied powers, while raging against Free Masonry, Jews and even Christianity. He reportedly began worshiping pagan gods from Norse mythology and together with his second wife formed a religious movement dubbed Society for the Knowledge of God. It still exists to this day. Too weird even for the Nazis, Ludendorff and Hitler gradually drifted apart. Supposedly, the night in 1933 during which Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, Ludendorff fired off a grim telegram warning President Hindenburg of the dangers posed by the Nazi leader. “I solemnly prophesy that this accursed man will cast our Reich into the abyss and bring our nation to inconceivable misery,” he wrote in the cable. “Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done.” Many claim the story to be nothing but fiction. Interestingly enough, the Fuhrer, always eager to celebrate German militarism, used the occasion of Ludendorff’s 70th birthday to offer the retired general an honorary field marshal promotion. He continued to churn out books and articles until his death in 1937 of cancer. He was 72 years old.


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