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11-08-2015, 17:46

Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937)

Eric Ludendorff, although nominally a subordinate of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, was the most significant German leader of the war. He directed the German military effort on the eastern front during the first two years of the conflict, and controlled the entire land war from the close of 1916 until the eve of the Armistice. In the guise of assistant to Hindenburg, Ludendorff not only exercised supreme military power, he came to overshadow the political authority of Germany's prime ministers and the emperor, Wilhelm II. Ludendorff, more than any military commander in the war, became virtual dictator over the affairs of his country. The future World War I leader was the son of a small landowner with an estate near Posen. Ludendorff was born there on April 9, 1865. He became an army officer in 1883, received training at the General Staff Academy, then rotated between positions as a unit commander and staff officer. In 1904 he returned to Berlin as a member of the prestigious General Staff itself. Marked as a particularly promising officer with uncompromising views, he ignored the strength of the political opposition in the Reichstag by insisting on a large expansion in the size of the army in 1913. Exiled from the General Staff, Ludendorff greeted the war as commander of an undistinguished infantry brigade at Strasbourg. Upon the start of mobilition, he became deputy chief of staff to the Second Army, one of the key units designated to invade Belgium. He emerged as the hero of the hour in helping to capture an important stronghold defending the city of Liege, the key to the German advance through Belgium. The deteriorating situation in East Prussia gave Ludendorff the opportunity to leap to higher command. Facing a Russian advance into this region from the east and the south, a distraught General Max von Prittwitz called for a withdrawal back to the Vistula. When Prittwitz was thereupon relieved. Ludendorff received orders to restore the situation as chief of staff of the Eighth Army. The new army commander, under whom Ludendorff was to serve, was Paul von Hindenburg. The ensuing campaign brought Germany's greatest wartime victory; it established the pattern for the relationship between Ludendorff and Hindenburg; and it began Hindenburg's rise to supreme command. The German Eighth Army turned southward to annihilate the forces of General Alexander Samsonov in the Battle of Tannenberg. Meanwhile, a weak German screening force held Russian forces invading from the east. This daring plan originated with figures on Prittwitz's staff and came to fruition under Ludendorff. During the dangerous operations involved in ignoring one enemy force in order to concentrate against another, Hindenburg played the secondary but valuable role of steadying the nerves of his mercurial assistant. Over the next two years, the team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, with the latter playing the dominant part, came to control all German operations, as well as much of the Austrian effort, on the eastern front. Ludendorff clashed regularly with General Erich von Falkenhayn, the German commander- in-chief. Falkenhayn saw the western front as the war's center of gravity. He refused to provide the eastern front with the forces that Ludendorff believed would bring total victory against Russia. In August 1916, Hindenburg and Ludendorff returned to Berlin to take Falkenhayn's place. Hindenburg became chief of the General Staff, that is, supreme commander. Ludendorff, still the dominant member of the pair, took the title of first quartermaster general. Ludendorff pushed commanders in the west to develop more effective offensive tactics and to shorten the front. He seized control of the debate over the use of unrestricted submarine warfare. He accompanied this initial plunge into the political arena with "the Hindenburg program." This was a plan to put the entire adult male population from ages seventeen to sixty at the disposal of the war effort. Although milder in application than in theory, it represented an important milestone on the road to total war. In January 1917, Ludendorff got Kaiser Wilhelm II to agree to the navy's call for unlimited submarine warfare. In another political decision with momentous consequences, Ludendorff arranged for V. I. Lenin to return to Russia from his isolated place of exile in Switzerland. The Russian revolutionary was expected to help pull Germany's eastern enemy from the war. Another political move came in July: by threatening to resign, he compelled the kaiser to oust Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. The obscure Prussian bureaucrat Georg Michaelis took the now weakened post of prime minister. The issue at stake was the possibility of a negotiated peace, and Luden dorff's success kept Germany on the disastrous path leading either to total victory or total defeat. The year 1918 brought Ludendorff's final effort to win the war. The submarine campaign of 1917 had failed; the United States had responded to unlimited submarine warfare by entering the conflict; American troops were now reaching Europe in large numbers. The general overrode the objections of the foreign office and obtained the punitive Treaty of Brest- Litovsk with Russia. Ludendorff dismissed the fact that Britain and France were certain to use such a settlement to motivate their own populations into a fight to the finish. Still, the end of combat on the eastern front released large numbers of German troops for shipment to France. Ludendorff's 1918 offensive on the western front was a desperate gamble employing the last substantial resources of the German army. Successful German attacks broke enemy defenses with a skillful combination of artillery fire and highly trained infantrymen. But Germany lacked the men to split the British from the French. In a momentous, much criticized decision, Ludendorff shifted the direction of the main German advance several times to exploit momentary successes. The Allies held on, their morale bolstered by the arrival of a growing American army. The enemy counteroffensive began in August. Convinced that the gamble had failed, Ludendorff went to the brink of nervous collapse before resigning his post at the close of October. The man who had been virtual dictator of Germany fled to Scandinavia for several months after the Armistice. In the political turmoil of the postwar period, Ludendorff returned home and turned to the extreme right. He was one of several leaders of the Kapp putsch in Berlin in 1920, which sought and failed to overthrow the Weimar Republic. He then became an ally of Adolf Hitler, marching at the Nazi leader's side when Hitler tried unsuccessfully to seize power in Munich ir November 1923. Thereafter, he faded into the political background. With his mental health in apparent decline, he busied himself with the publication of anti-Catholic pamphlets. Ludendorff died in the Bavarian town of Tutzing, near Munich, on December 20, 1937.