In September 1916, newly minted Supreme Army Commander Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff, toured the front lines at the Somme and Verdun. After that journey, a subdued Hindenburg worriedly noted that his soldiers “hardly ever saw anything but trenches and shell holes…for weeks and even months.” He confessed he “could now understand how everyone, officers and men alike, longed to get away from such an atmosphere.” In these dispiriting conditions, soldiers had “to renounce that mighty spiritual exaltation which accompanies a victorious advance…. How many of our brave men have never known this, the purest of a soldier’s joys.”
Accustomed to a war of consequences, if not always decision, on the Eastern Front in 1914 and 1915, Hindenburg may well have seconded Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener’s famous declaration that, with respect to combat on the Western Front, “This isn’t war.” Rather than free flowing and glorious, combat on the Western Front had become oppressive and joyless. In the aftermath of the Schlieffen Plan’s failure and the indecisive “race to the sea” in 1914, remorseless attritional warfare in France and Belgium served to weaken German vigor. Confined to underground bunkers or exposed to merciless storms of steel rained down on them by opponents who could afford to throw a greater weight of shells, Germany’s soldier-heroes wasted away.
A simple balance sheet showed that continued attritional exchanges would drain Germany of men and materiel before they drained Entente forces. The twin bloodlettings of Verdun and the Somme ended up costing Germany nearly three quarters of a million men killed or wounded. Taken together, Ludendorff confessed, they came close to destroying the army in 1916.
Annihilation bred alienation. German soldiers openly referred to Verdun as a “regular hell” whose horrific persistence generated indiscipline, demoralization, and increased rates of desertion. Despite his public description of Verdun as the “beacon light of German valor,” Hindenburg privately recognized that the results did nothing to redeem the enormous exertions and sacrifices of his army. Yet despite their reservations about its grinding effects on German troops, Hindenburg and Ludendorff continued to believe they could master the Western Front, thereby producing total victory for the Second Reich.
They believed so because to admit otherwise was to tacitly admit defeat. Like Hindenburg’s predecessor, Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the general staff, they not only believed they were fighting for the very existence of Germany as a strong and independent nation-state but also to preserve the Prussian military elite’s dominance over German society. They further saw the Western Front as a test of personal as well as collective worthiness.
For the bourgeois Ludendorff, by achieving total victory he could prove himself worthy of aristocratic distinction—and be recognized, celebrated, and ennobled as one of Germany’s all-time military heroes. Mastering the Western Front was for him the ultimate personal and professional challenge, a fact reflected in his memoirs when he referred to preparations for the spring offensive of 1918 as “the biggest task in history.”
Hindenburg as well was driven by self-image, a predictable trait for a man who proudly traced his lineage to the Teutonic knights of the Middle Ages and who was immoderately fond of posing for martial portraits. For him, the only conceivable path to victory was complete trust in the nerve and spiritual unity of his men.
“Great is the task that still confronts us,” he declared to The New York Times in March 1915, “but greater [still is] my faith in my brave troops.” Patriotic postcards repeated his stirring aphorisms like Einig im innern, sind wir unbesieglich: that, as long as Germans remained united in spirit, they could not be vanquished. More than mere slogans, these words signaled Hindenburg’s absolute commitment to victory—one that he believed could only be achieved by military means.
Indeed, Hindenburg owed his position to the fact that ordinary Germans had inextricably linked his name with victory. His meteoric rise to the top of Germany’s military hierarchy in 1916 was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. He was recalled from retirement and obscurity in 1914, at the age of sixty-six, and given command of the Eighth Army on the Eastern Front. Together with Ludendorff, his chief of staff, Hindenburg destroyed the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg, then turned and sent the Russian First Army reeling eastward at the Masurian Lakes. Hailed as the savior of Prussia, he quickly became compared to the heroic Siegfried on coins commemorating those battles.
By October 1914, Hindenburg was the most celebrated man in Germany, eclipsing Kaiser Wilhelm II in the eyes of a German public thirsting for victories after setbacks in the West. By November, he was a field marshal. Towns adopted his name, ships were named after him, and shops stocked Hindenburg cigars, soaps, and other ephemera in his honor. The myth of Hindenburg even stretched across the Atlantic to American shores, where he was mischaracterized as the “German Cincinnatus.” There was nothing of the citizen-soldier about Hindenburg or Ludendorff: Both were Prussian warriors, through and through.
In retrospect, it was none too surprising that Germany’s two warlords sought military solutions to what were in fact broader geo-strategic problems. Then-Captain Charles de Gaulle, who was held from 1916 to 1918 as a POW in Germany, astutely noted Hindenburg’s broad popular appeal and Ludendorff’s “warrior puritanism,” with its call for greater and greater sacrifice in the cause of ultimate victory. Under their leadership, Germany became a machine for waging war and little else—a reductive approach that could be justified only by total victory in the West: a result revealingly known as a “Hindenburg peace.”
To win, Hindenburg and Ludendorff knew they had to prevail despite the stagnated conditions and enormous wastage of trench warfare. Their winning recipe was based on the German army’s self-perceived military advantage: its warrior ferocity and improvisatory skills as demonstrated specifically in well-planned and vigorous attacks. The coming offensive was to be a total warfare of the mind in which skill, spirit, and especially will would ultimately end a “forever war” of materiel in Germany’s favor, or so Hindenburg and Ludendorff hoped. Nevertheless, it remained to be seen whether these ingredients would provide a recipe for victory.
In seeking total victory, Hindenburg and Ludendorff oversaw the gradual erosion of civilian authority. Politicians who raised objections, such as Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (who resigned in July 1917), were outmaneuvered. Although nominally in charge, Kaiser Wilhelm dared not challenge the “silent dictatorship” being forged by his warlords.
Without any significant civilian check to their authority, Hindenburg and Ludendorff proceeded to invert Clausewitz’s famous dictum that warfare must serve politics. For the duumvirate, politics—indeed all elements of the fatherland—had to serve war.
Before they could launch a decisive offensive on the Western Front, however, Hindenburg and Ludendorff recognized that the German army had to regain its vitality. In late 1916, they reversed Falkenhayn’s injunction to hold everything and counterattack always. Instead, the Western Front in 1917 became a theater to be endured and even reduced as Germany sought victory elsewhere, whether by defeating the Russian army or by knocking Britain from the war through unrestricted submarine warfare.
That spring, Germany’s warlords approved a “scorched earth” withdrawal to the Siegfried Line (known among the Entente powers as the Hindenburg Line). Code-named Operation Alberich after the malicious dwarf of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, it was an operational masterstroke, but it was also a contingent one. Hindenburg and Ludendorff approved it, but reluctantly. By nature, both men were risk takers who believed in the ability of tough-minded men to seize the moment and inspire others to victory, as they themselves had done at Königgrätz in 1866 and Liège in 1914. For them, Alberich was an expedient spoiling action while Germany focused on the ultimately unsuccessful U-boat campaign against Britain and the successful elimination of Russia in 1917.
Expedient it was, but economizing on forces through strategic withdrawal and a defensive posture did not mean abandoning offensive spirit. Well-timed counterattacks remained a major feature of Germany’s defensive posture in the West in 1917, notably at Passchendaele (Third Ypres) and Cambrai. Meanwhile, the duumvirate continued to look ahead to 1918 and a massive offensive in which the tactical skills and conquering zeal of German soldiery would produce total victory.
Indeed, as early as January 1917, recalled Colonel Fritz von Lossberg, Ludendorff committed himself to defeating Germany’s enemies in the West through such an offensive. Its necessary preconditions included total mobilization of the economy (the ill-fated Hindenburg Program); extended conscription; Vaterländischer Unterricht, or “patriotic instruction,” whose goal it was to convince Germans that only one war outcome—decisive victory—was acceptable; and the silencing of “defeatist” elements in the Reichstag and elsewhere. Focused on the primacy of sacrificial effort and national unity, Germany’s preparations did not include a wholehearted embrace of Materialschlacht (material warfare) or of machinery as an arbiter of final victory.
In fact, while not demodernizing, the post-Verdun German army had clearly fallen behind the Entente forces in crucial weaponry such as motor transport, aircraft, and tanks. Resource constraints exacerbated by the Entente naval blockade, unrealistic industrial production goals, and three years of constant warfare all told on German economic productivity.
So too did Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s blithe dismissal of machines as determiners of victory. In one famous instance, Ludendorff dismissed tanks as psychological weapons, readily neutralized as long as German soldiers held their nerve and mastered their “tank-panic.” Such a view was consistent with his and Hindenburg’s belief in the decisiveness of intangibles like initiative and drive—the determined effort to take the fight to the enemy and conquer.
They codified their hyperaggressive posture in a January 1, 1918, directive on “The Attack in Positional Warfare.” A restatement of Germany’s offensive determination, it marked a return to grandiose campaigns fought on German terms. It was meant as well to reinvigorate morale at a time when nearly one in ten German soldiers sought to shirk duty as their units redeployed from service in the East to the West. Vigorous and violent action in 1918, Hindenburg and Ludendorff concluded, was the best and only way to redeem the dispiriting attritional exchanges of 1916 and 1917.
Total victory in the West was also needed to consolidate a burgeoning empire in Eastern Europe. Germany’s exploitation and evisceration of Romania and tsarist Russia in 1917 could only be preserved with the enforced acquiescence of France and Britain, now joined by the United States, brought into the war in April 1917 by the failed gamble of unrestricted submarine warfare. Having prevailed in the East, Hindenburg and Ludendorff envisioned an Ostimperium stretching as far as the Caspian Sea. When asked why he insisted on occupying the Baltic States, Hindenburg famously declared he needed them “for the maneuvering of my left wing in the next war.”
Such posturing was breathtaking in its audacity, but it needed victory in the West to give it permanence. It also entailed a paradox: To secure the East, Germany had to retain a million troops there, just when its warlords were seeking victory in the West—a victory intended to secure Entente compliance to this eastern imperium. Would the reduced means deployed to the Western Front in the winter of 1917-1918 nevertheless be adequate to the ends desired the following spring? No one knew for sure.
Furthermore, Germany had been unable to win in the West with the element of surprise in 1914, when war enthusiasm and national unity had been at their peak. How then was the army to win in 1918? Entente forces were tired but still resolute, and the American Expeditionary Forces, still trickling across the Atlantic, promised to become a flood by early summer. With an optimism born of desperation, Hindenburg and Ludendorff saw a window of opportunity that promised to remain open until the spring. By shifting forty-four divisions—nearly equal to three complete armies—from the Eastern Front to the West, they hoped to attain enough of an advantage to split the British and French armies in the area of the Somme, forcing the former to reel back toward the English Channel, leaving a shaken French army all alone to defend Paris.
The enablers of this strategy were a self-styled breed of elite men: the storm troopers. Sometimes described as soldier-workers in an industrialized war, storm troopers actually constituted highly skilled and motivated teams of warrior-craftsmen. Rather than minions of military machines, they were the masters. What elevated them in Hindenburg’s and Ludendorff’s eyes was their ability to suppress the alienation of industrialized warfare, not by mastering machines but by mastering themselves. Their personal panoply of grenades, light machine guns, trench mortars, and flamethrowers merely served to accentuate, not actuate, their war-fighting spirit and skills.
To Germany’s warlords, violent offensive action in 1918 was needed not just to preserve victory in the East but also to reinvigorate Germany’s commitment to the war, both at home and at the front. In October 1917, Ernst Jünger, the archetypal storm trooper, encountered the first war-hardened noncom he could recall who showed shameless indifference in combat—a worrying sign, he wrote, of “erosion of the war ethos.” That same month Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria noted that units in his army were breaking down under the constant strain of defensive operations in the West.
Hindenburg’s message to the army late in 1917 indirectly referred to this growing war-weariness. “Take no thought for what is to be after the war!” the field marshal enjoined his troops. “This only brings despondency into our ranks and strengthens the hopes of the enemy.” Rallying the troops with commands Jünger’s fellow storm troopers would have reveled in, Hindenburg snapped: “Muscles tensed, nerves steeled, eyes front! We see before us the aim: Germany honored, free, and great!”
Recalling his soldiers’ mind-set late in 1917, Ludendorff revealed the tenor of his own thoughts when he wrote, “In the West the Army pined for the offensive” and that his soldiers “thought with horror of fresh defensive battles and longed for a war of movement.” The longing was Ludendorff’s own. Confronted by blasted landscapes and implacable enemies in the West, Ludendorff calmed his doubts by returning to what he did best: mastering a situation through command of tactics and operational minutiae. Moreover, no longer was he mastering minutiae in defense, as in 1917, but commanding elite storm troopers in relentless attacks.
Ludendorff, in other words, played to his strengths. No one worked harder than the “robot Napoleon” in preparing the German army for zero hour on March 21. Seventeen-hour workdays were routine for him as he moved hundreds of thousands of men and millions of shells into position. German strength in the West peaked at four million effectives as the army prepared its first major offensive there since Verdun in February 1916. If the battle was lost, it would not be from any lack of dedication or devotion to duty.
But Hindenburg and Ludendorff soon learned that even the furor teutonicus had its limits. During the opening stages of Operation Michael (the first of five “Ludendorff Offensives”), soldiers’ glory was indeed revived as seventy-one divisions in three German armies surged forward. Its shattering opening salvo, orchestrated by the maestro of German artillery, Colonel Georg Bruchmüller, included seven thousand guns firing a million shells. On witnessing this intense barrage, Jünger spoke of a front “wrapped in a sea of smoke and flame.”
The shells fell mainly on a British Fifth Army that was still recovering from the previous year’s slaughter at Passchendaele. Quickly exploiting a dazed and temporarily demoralized foe, German units surged forward and advanced fourteen miles in a single day—a feat not seen in the West since the early weeks of the war.
Initially these stunning results appeared to vindicate Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s pursuit of total victory. Caught up in the moment, the kaiser boasted that the war was over, with the English utterly defeated. He impetuously decorated Hindenburg with the Iron Cross with Golden Rays, known as the Blücher Cross, since only Prussian General Gebhard von Blücher had previously been honored with it. Basking in public glory, Hindenburg privately grumbled to his wife: “What is the use of all these orders? A good and advantageous peace is what I should prefer. It is not my fault in any case if the struggle ends unfavorably for us.”
Quick to take credit for victory at Tannenberg in 1914, Hindenburg was even more adept at sidestepping blame for the possible failure of what became known as the Kaiserschlacht. For if Germany with seven fresh armies could not defeat Entente forces in 1914, how could total victory be secured with only three armies on the move in 1918? Meanwhile, the initial German advance, impressive as it was, soon fizzled. Storm trooper tactics and determination had enabled breakthroughs, but Germany lacked cavalry and tanks, relying instead on increasingly footsore soldiers for exploitation. Casualties mounted, horse-drawn artillery got bogged down moving across a tortured landscape, and exhausted men paused to loot the far richer stores (including alcohol) of British depots.
A telling anecdote recounted by British prisoner C.R.M.F. Crutwell was the first impression of a British soldier captured in the opening stages of Operation Michael. Instead of losing hope, the Briton quickly took cheer. His impromptu tour of German depots and rear areas convinced him Entente forces had already won the war, so “astonishing” was the contrast between the high quality and sheer availability of Entente equipment, transport, and other military gear versus that possessed by his impoverished German captors.
Within ten days, the duumvirate admitted Operation Michael had failed. Amazingly, Ludendorff had allowed the offensive to fan out in three directions, dissipating its power. Meanwhile, the nature of the terrain and features of this area—its rivers, towns, forests, and canals—allowed a shaken but not broken British Expeditionary Force to establish lines of resistance, forcing storm trooper units either to flow around them or to pull up and wait for the slower-moving artillery. A golden opportunity to seize Amiens, one of two critical nodes in the British force’s rail network, was at first not seen, and then lost as German forces took the path of least resistance.
In retrospect, Ludendorff’s famous statement that spring that he would “punch a hole” in the Entente lines and from there improvise a way to victory clearly constituted strategic bankruptcy. He retrogressed to being a regimental colonel, losing himself in tactical details while micromanaging and second-guessing his subordinates. He had forgotten his craft and lost his way. “Je me demande si Ludendorff connait son métier” (“I wonder whether Ludendorff knows his profession”), Marshal Ferdinand Foch wondered aloud in his headquarters at the time.
Despite compelling evidence to the contrary, Ludendorff and Hindenburg remained convinced that attacking was the strongest form of war. Their unwavering commitment to the offensive was a manifestation of a pervasive and overly aggressive German military culture facing an existential crisis.
Never again in 1918 would Germany possess the same hitting power. Yet even after their colossal military gamble failed, there was no civilian authority remaining in Germany to force Hindenburg and Ludendorff to alter course. Making war had become the only policy, as Hindenburg and Ludendorff persisted in launching four more offensives that ultimately drove their men to the wall. While the German army grew ever weaker, Entente forces grew stronger as they coordinated their war-making efforts under Foch, selected as the Allied generalissimo during the crisis of March, and as the “Yanks and tanks” took to the field in ever increasing numbers.
The details of the subsequent Ludendorff offensives are less important than their lack of positive strategic results. Even worse, by June a depleted German army now had to defend a front of 510 kilometers instead of the 390 kilometers it defended in mid-March, and largely without the force-multiplying benefits of the Hindenburg Line. Having suffered a million casualties since March—especially severe among the highly trained and difficult to replace storm trooper units—the army would suffer grievously that summer from the lack of such benefits.
Exhaustion and a sense of betrayal soon infected the army, a mood caught after the war by Erich Maria Remarque’s book All Quiet on the Western Front. In its pages, a disillusioned Paul Baumer intoned: “It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country it’s better not to die at all.” Such statements, near heresy in 1914, accurately captured the sentiment of many a German soldier in the late spring and summer of 1918. Another evocative depiction of this mood can be seen in Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s film Westfront 1918, in which a German soldier named Karl returns home on leave only to find his wife relieving her loneliness in another man’s arms, and his mother, weakened by hunger, suffering in a bread line. Feelings of home front hopelessness aggravated the impact of physical exhaustion and the loss of friends and comrades at the front.
Increasingly, many German soldiers turned to shirking, downing their rifles and hiding in attics and other havens behind the lines. That July, Ludendorff recorded an “increasing incidence of unauthorized leave, acts of cowardice and refusal to follow orders in the face of the enemy on the western front.” A low estimate for these shirkers was three-quarters of a million, but perhaps as many as a million men found reasons to evade frontline action, not out of disloyalty or cowardice but because they considered their efforts wasted in a war now irretrievably lost.
Of course, many German soldiers continued to fight and die under very disagreeable conditions, but they did so for little outward purpose and with no favorable end in sight. In this context, demoralization was the rational response of men who had given their all, only to discover the odds at which they fought had grown too long.
Signs of war exhaustion were there for Hindenburg and Ludendorff to see, but the generals refused to entertain them. They could not say they were not warned. Suspecting that his reports of frontline exhaustion were being toned down before they reached the duumvirate, Colonel Albrecht von Thaer journeyed in early May to headquarters to report in person. Hindenburg listened silently to Thaer’s description of soldier breakdowns and weakening morale but dismissed them as localized. Most other reports he received, he assured Thaer, spoke of “very good” and even “splendid” morale. Comforting Thaer, Hindenburg told him that the confident climate of OHL, the German high command, would mend his frayed nerves.
Thaer’s audience with Ludendorff was even more unsettling. Ludendorff dismissed as “prattle” Thaer’s description of weakening morale and inadequate replacement soldiers. More honestly, perhaps, Ludendorff growled: “What would you have me do? Pursue peace at any price?” Ducking responsibility, Ludendorff declared the army needed tougher commanders, not changes in strategy. Having staked everything on their men’s tactical prowess and conquering zeal, Hindenburg and Ludendorff denied the reality staring them in the face: that they had driven their army past endurance.
Ludendorff’s personal wake-up call, which he described as the “Black Day of the German Army,” came on August 8, 1918, at Amiens, when German units gave up en masse after a punishing Entente combined-arms assault. As his army staggered under coordinated Entente attacks, Ludendorff became unnerved.
Previous signs of mental debility included his morbid attachment to the body of a beloved stepson, killed in the offensives Ludendorff himself had orchestrated. In July he had openly and harshly criticized a suggestion made by Hindenburg regarding a counteroffensive during the Second Battle of the Marne: a shocking breakdown in self-discipline. Staff officers witnessed in disbelief the scene of their bourgeois chief of staff snapping impertinently at their beloved field marshal, a man senior to him in age, rank, and social status.
Ludendorff soon regained a semblance of calm, but it was the calm of the fatalist. On September 29 he told his staff that the army “faced not merely defeat, but imminent annihilation.” Officers were thunderstruck; a few colonels and generals openly sobbed. Thaer accosted Ludendorff after the meeting and implored, “Can it be true?” Ludendorff could only nod his head in reply.
With total victory at all costs now impossible to achieve, making peace at any cost became inevitable. Nevertheless, Hindenburg and Ludendorff continued to vacillate between seeking an armistice and “going French,” the latter a reference to a proposal to issue calls for a revolutionary levée en masse of anyone left standing and able to pull a trigger that would end in a climactic Endkampf. As late as October 18, Crown Prince Rupprecht wrote that Ludendorff still refused to see the seriousness of the German army’s condition.
Saner heads soon recognized that the likely result of an Endkampf would be the invasion, devastation, and dismemberment of Germany. Eight days later, Ludendorff was out. The kaiser willingly accepted his resignation. Hindenburg stayed on to oversee a beaten army’s return to a defeated Reich.
That the German army had become too worn down, physically and spiritually, to continue as an effective fighting force was a fact that shook Ludendorff and Hindenburg to their cores. Instead of preserving victories achieved on the Eastern Front in 1917, the Ludendorff offensives of 1918 squandered them.
Even worse, the army did not lose in territorial terms. Rather, it lost in the realm of the spiritual, in the contest of wills, precisely where it was supposedly at its strongest vis-à-vis the enemy. The search for scapegoats was the predictable next step, since Germany’s warlords refused to face a bitter truth: that will and bravery alone could not guarantee victory, and that German soldiery had ultimately been overmatched and defeated in the field.
The irony was that the catastrophic results of 1918 vouchsafed Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s previous criticism of Falkenhayn’s costly offensives in the West. Seeking to win the war by tactical virtuosity brought to fever pitch by a lust for victory was a familiar and reassuring formula to these men. As initially impressive as the breakthroughs were that spring, they ultimately exhausted the troops and bred a new spirit of futility and defeatism, both at the battle front and on the home front. Instead of a site of victory, the Western Front became a tomb for German imperial ambitions—and a hecatomb for German soldiery.
In retrospect, the Western Front of World War I was for Germany much like its Eastern Front of World War II. This was the battleground where the German army committed the bulk of its soldiers but also the front where Germany never achieved decisive results, and it was the front where committed opponents broke the back of the German army by ultimately outgunning, outnumbering, and even outthinking and outfighting it.
Vanquished in the field, the German army was further betrayed by its warlords, who in 1919 absolved themselves of responsibility for its collapse—a collapse that was the price of their vainglorious and ultimately tragic pursuit of total victory. Indeed, their unbounded appeals to the sacrificial bravery of their soldiers left behind a dangerous legacy.
Despite near superhuman efforts, the army had failed. Citizens who had endured severe privation to feed and support that army were equally shocked. As they grappled for explanations, rightists encouraged them to focus yet again on zeal. This time, however, it was a supposed lack of zeal and tenacity that was the problem, not within the army itself or among solid burghers at home but rather among elements within German society that rightists reviled. In their eyes, these elements—socialists, war profiteers, Jews—were unworthy of being treated as true Germans.
The malicious Dolchstoßlegende or “stab-in-the-back” myth promoted by Hindenburg and Ludendorff in 1919 completed the tragedy. Because of this myth, many Germans redirected their animus from military leaders to war profiteers; to socialists who had presciently called for peace negotiations; and to Jews, even though the latter had made war sacrifices proportional to their representation in German society.
Remarkably, despite his central role in overseeing Germany’s military collapse, Hindenburg emerged with his reputation intact, even enhanced. For some he came to embody their sense of the war as tragedy, a fact captured by his niece when she wrote after the war that to Germans “he seemed to rise out of an old legend of our forefathers. He incorporated the soul of our nation, without being in the least self-conscious of it. And one felt awed at its tragic presence.”
But it was Erich von Falkenhayn who captured a more telling tragedy when he wrote in 1919: “Rhetoric, self-adulation and lies plunged Germany into the deepest abyss, when they stifled the sense of reality in our once strong and good people. The continuance of their rule threatens to make us slaves for ever.”
An even deeper tragedy was that in the 1920s the Nazis seized upon the stab-in-the-back myth and took it to heretofore unimaginable extremes. Once the Nazis gained power in 1933, with President Hindenburg overseeing Adolf Hitler’s legal installation as chancellor, the so-called “November criminals” of 1918 were initially judged not worthy to live normal lives. They were among the first to be arrested and displayed in the new Nazi concentration camps.
Soon the Nazis judged them unworthy to live at all. As the historian Holger Herwig once provocatively asked, “Is it too far off the mark to suggest that the ‘twisted road to Auschwitz’ began with the Dolchstoßlegende?”
The flip side to this myth was Ludendorff’s postwar claim that “the majority of the German people were ready and willing to sacrifice the last of their strength for the army.” Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s refusal to face facts—that, in their blind pursuit of total victory, they had driven their men beyond endurance—paradoxically enabled a horrific new zeal: that of the Freikorps and later of Hitler and the Nazis, bent on murdering those persons and peoples who were allegedly responsible for sapping Aryan warrior spirit.
Crafted in the context of their own insecurities, ambitions, and sense of alienation, Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s seductive false promise of total victory was papered over by self-serving lies and delusion. These lies contributed in no small measure to the murderous reality of a second, even more tragically devastating world war.
This article was written by William J. Astore and originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of MHQ Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ magazine today!