Ludendorff & Liege

Erich Ludendorff

In previous submissions, I dealt with two themes found in Patty Jenkins’s new film, Wonder Woman. My third and final examination of the most prominent World War 1 elements in this film concerns one of the primary villains, German general Erich Ludendorff.  In the film, Ludendorff is a somewhat one-note villain with an obsession for poison gas and an unyielding love of war. In a monologue to Wonder Woman, he says, “You know your ancient Greeks? They understood that war is a god. A god that requires human sacrifice. And in exchange, war gives man purpose. Meaning.”[1]  While the character is only a caricature of the real historical figure, there is something of this reflected in the nature of the actual Ludendorff.

Ludendorff was born in 1865 into a family of Prussian nobility, and at an early age was raised to adhere to a strict love of country and military.  He joined the German military in 1885, and by 1911, he had risen to the rank of Colonel.  He served under Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of Germany’s infamous “Schlieffen Plan,” and so admired him that he mimicked Schlieffen.  Barbara Tuchman wrote that “… he modeled himself on Schlieffen’s hard, shut-in personality. Deliberately friendless and forbidding, the man who within two years was to exercise greater power over the people and fate of Germany than anyone since Frederick the Great, remained little known or liked.”[2] He was, nevertheless, regarded as an extraordinarily talented individual, and it was noted that while he was “piercingly intelligent and exceptionally hard-working”[3] he was also “prone to panic under pressure.”[4] His rise was slowed by a personal dispute with the Minister of War in 1913, in which he was demoted to a regimental command, but he was soon promoted to Deputy Chief of Staff to the Second Army.

Battle of Liege

Ludendorff’s military ascendancy received a massive boost during the German occupation of Belgium. At the city of Liege, Ludendorff led an assault to occupy the city, and was wildly successful. He recounted taking the citadel there: “Thinking that Colonel von Oven was in possession of the citadel, I went there with the brigade adjutant in a Belgian car which I had commandeered. When I arrived no German soldier was to be seen and the citadel was still in the hands of the enemy. I banged on the gates, which were locked. They were opened from inside. The few hundred Belgians who were there surrendered at my summons.”[5] He received for this the Pour le Mérite, one of Germany’s highest medals of honor.

The Eastern Front

Early in the war effort, things were not going well for Germany on the Eastern Front. Russia had mobilized sooner than expected and German failures in the east led to the sacking of two generals in the Eighth Army. “With the Eastern Front in danger of collapse, someone bold, strong, and decisive was needed at once to take over command.”[6] General Hermann von Stein wrote to Ludendorff; “You may be able to save the situation in the East. I know of no other man in whom I have such absolute trust.”[7]  The German High Command decided on a pair of generals, Paul von Hindenburg as commander, and Ludendorff as the chief of staff.  Although they had never met prior to this posting, their partnership was wildly successful.  Hindenburg, for his part, came to rely so completely on Ludendorff’s input that he was nicknamed “’Marshal Was-sagt-du’ because of his habit, whenever asked for an opinion, of turning to Ludendorff and asking ‘Was sagt du?’ (What do you say?)”[8]  The high point of their collaboration on the Eastern Front came at the Battle of Tannenberg, in which the German Army captured 92,000 Russian prisoners. Although Ludendorff owed much of the success to other members of the staff, he was widely praised for his involvement.

Quarter-Master General

In August of 1916, German Chief of Staff Falkenhayn, was replaced by Hindenberg, and Ludendorff was made Quartermaster General of the entire German army. They shared responsibility, although it would eventually come to be Ludendorff who held most of the reins of power. Although their appointment was a military one, the German government had become weak, and soon their military duties bled over into control of much of the nation’s private sectors as well. Ludendorff and Hindenberg believed that all of Germany, including citizens, should take part in the war effort, and they conscripted some 700,000 Belgians into civilian labor.

They also ran into opposition in German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, who they believed showed weakness in his efforts to seek peace.  Ludendorff would write later, “In Berlin they believed, or deceived themselves into believing, that the hostile nations were longing to hear words of reconciliation and would urge their governments toward peace.”[9]  Bethmann, in particular, opposed the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, a practice that threatened to bring the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. Eventually, the rift became so bad that Ludendorff and Hindenburg told Kaiser Wilhelm that unless Bethmann stepped down, they were prepared to render their own resignations.  Bethmann resigned, and unrestricted submarine warfare was resumed.

By the end of the Battle of Lys, in April of 1918, it had become clear that the German military could not withstand much more. It was a “turning point not only in German military fortunes, but in German battlefield morale. Many soldiers were depressed and exhausted, seeing no further prospect of breaching the Allied line.”[10] As the war neared its end Ludendorff showed signs of the excessive strain he was under.  Most did not believe Germany could still win, but Ludendorff urged them not to surrender. Peter Hart writes, “By this time, Ludendorff was suffering the after-effects of a partial mental breakdown and seemed unable to maintain a consistent approach from one day to the next.  Finally, he offered his resignation after a dispute with the Kaiser on 26 October.”[11]

Ludendorff’s post-war career was a decidedly downward spiral. Although he was honored for his war service, his dissatisfaction with the Weimar Republic grew, and he was part of Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. He also developed strong theories regarding war, arguing that Germany did not so much lose World War 1 as they were betrayed by republicans and radicals at home, as well as politicians who were not fully in support of the war effort.

He also formulated the doctrine of total war, in which he argued that all facets of a society should be mobilized in a war effort, and that any part of a nation’s society or infrastructure is a legitimate target for destruction. It is this Ludendorff who most likely aligns with the caricature in Wonder Woman.  Ludendorff was a complicated figure; brilliant but aloof, a master tactician, but ultimately unable to withstand the strain that came with the burden of the role that he was given. He died of liver cancer in 1937.

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[1] Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins (2017: Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers Pictures, 2017) Theater.

[2] Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1962.) pg. 168

[3] Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.) pg. 85

[4] Ibid, pg. 88

[5] Von Ludendorff, Erich. Ludendorff’s Own Story: August 1914 – November 1918.  (New York: Harper Brothers Publishers, 1919). Google Books. pg. 58-59

[6] Tuchman, pg. 282

[7] Ibid, pg. 282

[8] Ibid, pg. 284

[9] Ludendorff, pg. 6

[10] Gilbert, Martin.  The First World War: A Complete History.  (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 1994). Pg. 418

[11] Hart, pg. 462