When in February 1918, the liberal German politician Prince Max of Baden asked his country’s military dictator, Erich Ludendorff, what would happen if the latter’s spring offensive failed, he replied, “Then Germany will just have to suffer annihilation”.
General Ludendorff’s response, which offended Prince Max’s sensitive liberal tastes, would be repeated almost verbatim by Hitler a generation later, and it reveals the all-or-nothing nature of the Ludendorff autocracy. Yet the general knew that Germany’s enemies, all imperialist powers (France, Britain and America), were simply not going to grant the Germans a reasonable peace, as was borne out in stark fashion at Versailles.
Having Hindenburg at his side throughout the war strengthened Ludendorff’s position; Hindenburg’s role may have been less pronounced but, unlike Ludendorff, he was hardly ever ruffled and had nerves of steel.
Expansionist aims of the most powerful man
By the winter of 1914, Ludendorff was already one of the most powerful men in Germany. As the months advanced, he would increasingly become the sole centre of real power in the country, and also across the vast occupied territories where his influence extended.
Ludendorff’s war aims consisted of establishing what would be a Greater Germania, the pre-eminent force on the European mainland, and in that scenario second only to the United States in terms of global power. Britain, formerly the dominant power, had been in decline since about 1871. She was overtaken that year as the world’s largest economy by America, with the gap widening as time wore on.
Come the turn of the 20th century, German industrial growth including steel and pig iron production had likewise surpassed Britain. The German Empire’s industrial capacity was, by 1905, the second most advanced on earth, though still appreciably behind America. France was trailing badly – French regression can be traced to the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, which bled France white, leaving the country shaken and diminished, culminating in the 1815 exile of Napoleon Bonaparte.
German expansionist dreams vs burning French Desire
French woes deepened in the early 1870s when Prussia decisively defeated her in the Franco-Prussian War. France was thereby stripped of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which the new German Empire annexed, the ultimate humiliation for France. The burning French desire, to recover Alsace-Lorraine, was a central factor in the eruption of hostilities in the late summer of 1914.
Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg shared his partner General Ludendorff’s expansionist dreams. The two men agreed firmly on the extension of Germany’s frontiers as far as conceivably possible, with their gaze fixed mainly to the East. They intended to Germanise and colonise large areas of central and eastern Europe, such as Poland along with the Baltic countries of Lithuania and Latvia.
Ludendorff’s war aims consisted of establishing what would be a Greater Germania, the pre-eminent force on the European mainland, and in that scenario second only to the United States in terms of global power.
Among people and wolves
On 19 December 1917, Hindenburg said that he wanted the Baltic regions for strategic purposes in the next war.
As the fighting continued from its opening months, Germany’s eastern divisions were capturing significant chunks of territory from the Russians, who still fought well. By the end of September 1915, however, the Imperial Russian Army had lost almost two million men in less than 14 months of fighting. As the Germans marched further eastwards, in late October 1915 Ludendorff and Hindenburg, in order to be closer to the front, moved from their previous headquarters at Lötzen (north-eastern Poland) and relocated to Kovno (central Lithuania).
During breaks in the fighting, Ludendorff could occasionally be seen by the locals in Kovno walking around the town, in his military attire and Pickelhaube, the spiked helmet – while the few German armoured vehicles patrolling Kovno’s streets would honk their horns at Ludendorff, as they drove past him, and he would wave back at them. Hindenburg was more likely to be spotted in the forests of Augustovo or Bialoviesa, hunting for game with his rifle, but he complained that “The wolves seemed to have a preference for slipping away beyond the range of my gun.”
‘A low-lying, fertile land, of great strategic relevance’
Ludendorff in particular wanted to annex the ancient province of Courland – in western Latvia – a low-lying, fertile land, of great strategic relevance and resting on the Baltic Sea, with Scandinavia slightly further on. A German merchant service in the Baltic waters astride Courland was, as Ludendorff wrote, “of paramount importance to us, on account of the importation of iron ore from Sweden”.
Courland had a history of Germanic rule dating to the 13th century, and was home to tens of thousands of Baltic Germans. It gave Ludendorff considerable satisfaction when, in the late summer of 1915, forces under his command-captured Courland from the Russian Empire.
The burning French desire, to recover Alsace-Lorraine, was a central factor in the eruption of hostilities in the late summer of 1914.
Act of betrayal
On 27 August 1916 Romania, a country of considerable importance, declared war on the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, causing something close to panic in Berlin. Just the day before, General Erich von Falkenhayn had assured Kaiser Wilhelm II that Romania would stay neutral. Romania’s declaration of war was a sure indication that neutral nations, whose interests were at stake, believed Germany was heading for defeat. Furthermore, Romania contained huge quantities of oil and wheat.
Two years into the war Romania’s decision to join the Entente, of Russia, France and Britain, was also an act of betrayal, for Romania had signed a defensive alliance on 30 October 1883 with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
This pact, which had been at Romania’s behest because of her bitterness against Russia for taking Bessarabia, was renewed as late as 1913. Encouraged by Western diplomats, the Romanians wanted to take the famous province of Transylvania from Hungary.
No match for Germans
On the night of 27 August 1916, around 750,000 Romanian troops began marching on Transylvania through the high Carpathian mountain passes. A paltry six German-led divisions initially opposed the Romanian Army, but within a week, due to efficient staff work and logistical operations, Ludendorff bolstered this force to 16 divisions.
The Romanians soon proved no match for the Germans. By mid-November 1916, remnants of Romania’s divisions were driven northwards into the hilly region of Moldavia, but they escaped outright destruction to fight another day. On 6 December 1916 the German Field Marshal, August von Mackensen, rode in triumph through the streets of Bucharest on his white horse.
The Romanian campaign raised morale in Germany, improved the country’s standing in Europe; and most critically of all for Ludendorff and Hindenburg, allowed them to resume exploiting Romania’s raw materials; without which the Germans could not continue the war.
General Ludendorff’s response, which offended Prince Max’s sensitive liberal tastes, would be repeated almost verbatim by Hitler a generation later, and it reveals the all-or-nothing nature of the Ludendorff autocracy.
‘I felt as though a weight had been removed from my chest’
By December 1917, the Ludendorff dictatorship was in control of all of central Europe and most of Eastern Europe; while Belgium was long under German military occupation, and the Germans also had a firm foothold in eastern France.
Since the conflict’s outset, Berlin had poured millions of marks into trying to foment revolution in Tsarist Russia, a nation, which had been under Romanov dynasty rule for over 300 years. In October 1917, Vladimir Lenin’s taking of power in Russia signalled the end of the Kremlin’s involvement in World War One.
Soviet Russia concluded an armistice with the German Empire on 15 December 1917, and Ludendorff wrote how, “I felt as though a weight had been removed from my chest”. He could finally begin directing his military resources towards one front, a grand luxury, which the Allies were much accustomed to.
Took on the might of Russia, France and Britain
For three years, Germany had survived fighting on two broad fronts against the might of Russia, France and Britain because, as the Canadian historian Lt. Col. Donald J. Goodspeed outlined, “All through the war, the Germans – and Ludendorff especially – placed a far higher premium on brains than did the Allies”. Moreover, Lt. Col. Goodspeed recognised “the excellence of the German Army, which was a very serious and professional organisation. It was not by any means the largest army on the continent, but it was by all odds the best”.
The truth is often unpopular, and it should be acknowledged too that Ludendorff himself was quite clearly the most formidable commander of World War One. In the end, only the combined strength of the British, French and American armies would leave him checkmated.
Ludendorff’s offensive and defensive doctrines demonstrated more imagination and military talent in comparison to his rivals – such as the inflexible British commander Douglas Haig, perhaps unfairly nicknamed “Butcher Haig”. Yet he needlessly sent hundreds of thousands of British soldiers into death traps, where German mowed them down machine-gun and rifle fire.
Romania’s declaration of war was a sure indication that neutral nations, whose interests were at stake, believed Germany was heading for defeat. Furthermore, Romania contained huge quantities of oil and wheat.
Ludendorff and Hindenburg: the A team
By contrast Ludendorff had no issue in altering his tactics if required, or to recognise ability in others and to reward it. He had an eye for talent, and designated greater and greater responsibilities to first class officers, like Max Hoffmann and Georg Bruchmüller.
Unlike his British counterparts, Ludendorff regularly visited the front line to view conditions with his own eyes, and to interview officers involved in the fighting. Having Hindenburg at his side throughout the war strengthened Ludendorff’s position; Hindenburg’s role may have been less pronounced but, unlike Ludendorff, he was hardly ever ruffled and had nerves of steel. In difficult moments, he always calmed and reassured the more easily agitated Ludendorff.
Read more: The day Hitler lost the Second World War
In their colonial territories, British and French generals were long used to beating badly equipped and unprepared forces, often consisting of once peace-loving indigenous groups. The Allied command structure placed too much emphasis on rank and correct age, ignoring ability due to engrained military protocol and short-sightedness.
Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years and has had articles published with American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain, and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.