WWI: The Silent Dictatorshop

I. Politics and War

The relationship of politics and war is a close one. War is supposed to be an extension of politics. It is to be the last resort, when diplomacy has failed. But we know from recent experience that war creates its own politics, that the relationship can be reversed. In Germany during world war one we have a classic example of militarism dominating statecraft.

During the first two years there were few clashes between military and civilian authorities. Moltke and Falkenhayn were too busy with military operations to get involved in political issues, while Bethmann-Hollweg made sure never to interfere in military matters. But this collaboration was purely accidental and began to change once the civilian leaders faced up to the problems created by military events in 1914 and 1915. The great battles of those years made it plain that Germany could not attain a decisive victory as planned and might have to end the war on unfavorable terms by negotiation.

But the concessions necessary to make negotiations feasible were unacceptable to the High Command for strategic, political and social reasons. When Hindenburg and Ludendorff assumed leadership of the army they did not hesitate to make their opposition to a politically negotiated peace felt. They had their way for some good reasons:

l) they were supported by powerful interest groups. ranging from imperialist-minded industrialists to conservative aristocrats;#2) the public generally misinformed and ignorant of military matters, had great confidence in their military leadership, more so then in the civilian government.

II. "Silent Dictatorship."

In the rancorous political struggle, which began at the end of 1916, Hindenburg and Ludendorff created for themselves such a prominent position of power that this period has been referred to as the "silent dictatorship." They were able to create and break chancellors, have private servants of the emperor dismissed if their views differed from their own and to determine the objectives and tactics of the Foreign Office.

Yet, despite their unprecedented power they were unable to solve the problem created by the failure of the Schlieffen Plan. They blindly insisted on total victory, even when the strength of the enemy made that impossible. They sacrificed everything for military expediency and usually discovered when it was too late that their most brilliant strikes worked to the advantage of the Allies without bringing Germany any of the advantages which were expected. In the end, when all hope of negotiation had vanished, they risked everything on a desperate, ill-conceived and ill-prepared campaign. That offensive of 1918 was not coordinated with a political move, nor was the German public prepared for the drastic results if it should fail. The consequences were predictable. It brought both defeat and revolution. Perhaps Clemenceau was right after all: war is too serious a business to be left exclusively in the hands of generals.

During the war the larger cities of Germany erected wooden statues of Hindenburg in which donors of a small war contribution were allowed to drive nails. It was more than a vulgar stunt. The statues of saints and kings in the Middle Ages were made of wood. You can still see them in the cathedrals. The people had come to look on the General Staff as an institution from which even the impossible could be expected. These statues seemed to represent something greater than the ordinary run of men.

In those declining years of the Hohenzollern regime, the big, broad shoulders of the man who was the last chief of the royal Prussian General Staff did seem to be in some way not a mere man, but an embodiment in human form of the remaining strength of the state, a refuge to the faltering and hope to those of little faith.

Yet Hindenburg was an anachronism. He said often that he felt most at home in the time of Bismarck and William I. But Ludendorff was made of different stuff. His brutal powers of work and his extraordinary organizational skill, combined with unflinching single-mindedness, suggests the modern conception of expert. This kind of man functions best when guided by some person of broader, more balanced outlook. Despite the fact that Hindenburg does not quite fit the latter category, these two men worked together fairly well, although their partnership was less ideal than people assumed.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff had little in common except their background. Both cams from impoverished Junker families. Hindenburg had spent his whole life in the army, slowly moving up from lieutenant to commander of an army corps. His world remained that of the army and the General Staff. He had no general cultural appreciation and admitted that he had never read a decent book except military tomes. He was characteristic of the German military, very conscious of rank, tactful and dignified, a Christian in outlook, sober in habit, unimaginative and marked by a certain peasant-like narrowness of mind. He was untouched by the liberal arts and yet you would expect a certain kind of creativity and imagination from a truly great general.

Ludendorff too went though the hard school of the cadet corps and then became an infantry officer. At the war Academy he had an interesting instructor, General Heckel, who had reorganized the Japanese Army. Meckel recommended him to the General Staff, to which he became much more attached than Hindenburg. The dark-blue uniform, with its silver embroidered collar and the trousers with carmine stripes symbolized social rehabilitation ha Ludenndorff--not just a successful military career. His work was his world and he saw everything through the eyes of a General staff officer. He was possessed by ambition, aggressive and sublimely self-confident. On occasion he was quite willing to violate traditions which were fundamental to that very General Staff which had kept him spiritually confined.

After the famous battle against the Russians, he was heard to say: "When I won the battle of Tannenberg," .... an unforgivable sin according to the General staff code. He considered Hindenburg to a man of straw, a serviceable symbol. Hindenburg, on the other hand, recognized the superior technical competence of his advisor and was quite willing to be a mere symbol for Ludendorf's prowess.#

III. Role of the General Staff

When these two men took over the military establishment, the General Staff was already assuming an increasingly large role in German public life. It concerned itself with the press, films, general propaganda, armaments and food. The emperor and the chancellor seemed to have abdicated responsibility in many areas and made no effort to resist increasing military influence. The Reichstag did not do much better. It had been used to docility under Bismarck and could not shake that tradition until the very end of the war. The leaders of the various political parties either revered the military or did not have the courage to challenge it.

Such a situation was fertile ground for military dictatorship. Ludendorff was certainly bursting with plans that could only be associated with dictatorial rule. He had schemes for raising the birth rate, for reducing draft evasion, for improving housing, for combating venereal disease, for stopping the flight from the land, settling returning soldiers in rural areas. He wanted pre-military training of youth, a national propaganda office to fight subversive agitation. Above all he urged the introduction of compulsory labor for persons between fifteen and sixty and mobilization of female labor for munitions.

Although he rejected formal military dictatorship, he was not averse to economic dictatorship in the hands of the military. This is more or less what happened, for the General War Office under General Groener gradually began to control food, raw materials and munitions. The first great achievement of the Hindenburg-Ludendorff regime was the stimulation of war-related production. Along with that came the auxiliary service law of December 1916, which brought a great many women into the factories. But it should not be forgotten that this law also brought thousands of war prisoners and requisitioned laborers from Poland and Belgium into the war-making machine.

This may not constitute outright military dictatorship, but it came close to it. Some have called it war socialism. War socialism was sufficient to mobilize labor, but it was not able to mobilize the spiritual forces of the masses. All attempts at social reform, particularly the liberalization of the Prussian franchise, were resisted, while war profiteering became flagrant and widespread.

Ludendorff's first ventures into politics were a fiasco. He was behind the proclamation of an independent Polish kingdom, believing that it would provide Germany with 15 to 20 divisions to fight Russia and the allies. It did not work and Ludendorff should have known that it would not work. He came from Posen and must have known from personal experience the abiding hatred of the Poles for the Germans.

His adamant insistence on unrestricted submarine warfare was a similar blunder, as was his role in the attempt at negotiation. Be always insisted that the language of any peace proposal be as strong as possible in order to avoid the appearance of weakness. In the submarine issue he blindly accepted the optimistic predictions of the navy leaders. He completely failed to understand America and refused to take Wilson's mediation attempts as anything but shadow-boxing.

IV. Bethmann-Hollweg forced to resign

Ludendorff soon realized that as long as Bethmann-Hollweg was chancellor, his idea of total war could never be realized. Bethmann was too humanitarian for that. There were many others, particularly the rabid annexationists, who thought Bethmann too moderate and phlegmatic. They and Ludendorff wanted a genuine war chancellor. Ludendorff was urged to take the job, but refused and instead began to play politics to have Bethmann removed. In the end both Hindenburg and Ludendorff threatened resignation to get Bethmann dismissed. His successor, the unknown Food Minister, Dr. Michaelis, was approved by the military potentates when they were told that he was a man who would take a grip.p on things. So now the generals were determining major political appointments.

But Ludendorff was not content with this arrangement and sought further support for his wild annexationist aims in the newly-founded Fatherland Party. This conservative and imperialist coalition was organized by Admiral Tirpitz and Wolfgang Kapp, a Prussian official who tried to stage a military coup in 1920. But Ludendorff's hope that this new movement, based on crude power politics, would create a surge of patriotism and morale at the front was sadly misplaced. It was totally alien to the masses of people. The average man was more concerned with survival during this third year of war than with Ludendorff's gargantuan imperialist aims.

His war aims now included strategic belts of territory in Poland, Lithuania, Courland and Eastern France. He wanted to incorporate Belgium in the German Empire, which would probably be followed by isolated Holland. Denmark would have to be bound to Germany economically and an alliance was to be struck with Japan. A compact, large colonial empire was to he created in central Africa. Lloyd George once asked Foch what he thought of Ludendorff. General Foch replied that he was a fine soldier. He did not say a fine general, since Ludendorff was nothing more than a good soldier. His political perspicacity was very limited.

In traditional tactics of open warfare the German General Staff had no equal. This was demonstrated by Falkenhayn and Mackensen in Rumania at the end of 1918. But in the Balkans like everywhere else the German armies were able to push the ring of encirclement back, but nowhere were they able to break the ring and score a decisive long-range break-through. Ludendorff's concept of mobile defense was clever and kept the enemy from breaking through as well, but the only result of that was attrition warfare, a relatively stationary front line.

The Revolution in Russia and the entrance of the Americans into the war brought no change in German military tactics or strategy. Even the novel introduction of the tank by the British left the German generals unaffected. Hindenburg simply said that the German infantry could get along without such things. Only one man in the General Staff, colonel Bauer, saw the revolutionary potential of the tank, but he got no where in persuading the generals to build it. The British for that matter were not able to fully exploit the new weapon either.

Ludendorff had promoted revolution in Russia and agreed to transport Lenin to St. Petersburg with the idea of making a settlement in the East and shift massive troops to the battle in the West. But the forcefully extracted Treaty of Brest Litovsk took longer to extract than he anticipated. The seizure of territory in the East, particularly the Ukraine, required more forces than he realized. The anticipated supply of much-needed food from the Ukraine was also a disappointment.

It was suggested that Germany give up Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine in order to negotiate with the West in favor of a major thrust in the East, but Ludendorff refused to countenance the idea. The attempted penetration into the Middle East and eventually into India, also became a fading dream when Turkey collapsed, thanks to British victories. When there was collective disobedience in the German fleet and desertions increased, along with strikes at home, Ludendorff's only answer was stricter discipline and drafting of strikers.

While the British and French were waiting for the Americans to arrive, Ludendorff resorted to "buffalo" tactics, continuous violent frontal assaults. They were unimaginative, costly and counter-productive. Ludendorff rejected any kind of flanking movement, as in Italy for instance, and stubbornly held to the view that only an attack on the strongest part of the front would create moral shock and military success.#

V. The great final battle

The great final battle which the General Staff had talked about for some time, eventually became Ludendorff's last card. He wrote to the emperor that he could guarantee success as long as the peace would justify the cost. He wanted this last offensive to be accompanied by a diplomatic offensive, but that never materialized. That too was the result of his own doing. Having intimidated the civilian government into submission, there were no men capable enough of mounting such a concerted diplomatic offensive.

The great military offensive of 1918 turned out to be of less stellar proportions than the amount of men and guns would have suggested. Ludendorff was utterly without comprehension of the fact that an army that had gone through four years of terrible battles could no longer put up the performance of the men of 1914. He had become a typical chair-borne general, who conducted operations from office desks. Clausewitz had designated strategy as the art of applying available means. Ludendorff could no longer distinguish between what was possible and what was not. Everything was possible if you barked out the order for it in a loud, gruff tone of voice.

When the foreign minister, von Kühlmann, declared in June 1918, that some kind of overture had to be made to the allies, since Germany could not overwhelm the coalition lined up against her, Ludendorff and Hindenburg had him dismissed. On the home front hunger and disillusionment spread. While the furious battles in France were depleting German reserves, Ludendorff called for 200,000 more men. But they could not be found. On the 8th of August the British General Rawlinson delivered a severe defeat to the Germans with six or seven divisions completely overrun. It was the beginning of the end. Retreating German soldiers received new replacements. with the cry of "strike-breaker." It was the revolt of desperate men who had given their last once of strength. Allied superiority in tanks and aircraft were becoming irresistible.

Ludendorff called the 8th of August the blackest day of the German Army, but that appellation should have been applied to the military leadership and not the rank and file. On the l3th of August a conference was held at Spa with Ludendorff, Hindenburg, Hertling, the new chancellor, Hintze, the new foreign minister, and the emperor present. Ludendorff called for a vigorous defense and held on to Belgium. Hindenburg agreed to send out unofficial peace feelers, although a formal offer of peace was to wait until a military victory of one kind or another. Apparently Ludendorff was only looking for a respite and some inkling of what the Allies would propose, and then finally mount the last blow. He could not conceive of any peace except a victorious and dictated one.

By September the Balkan front collapsed beginning with Marshal d'Esperey's break-out from Salonika. The Austrian emperor petitioned for peace and the Bulgarian army mutinied. The news from the Balkans created a sudden wave of pessimism in the German High Command and Ludendorff startled everyone by demanding an immediate armistice. He was even willing at this stage to negotiate on the basis of Wilson's 14 Points. The last-ditch battle now was reserved only for an extreme eventuality. He still held on to the notion that negotiations could save the conquered territory in the east. But hostilities had to be broken off. Both Hindenburg and Ludendorff thought it below their honor to have anything to do personally with the armistice.

Meanwhile Hertling resigned and the liberal-minded Prince Max of Baden was called in to handle an almost impossible job: introducing a last-minute parliamentary constitution under the threat of revolution and meeting Ludendorff's impatient demand for an immediate armistice under threat of a total collapse of the Western Front.

In the meantime while the battle continued, Wilson's conditions for an armistice became clear. When Ludendorff realized that the American president's terms meant virtual surrender of all military means of defense he balked and appealed to the Army over Hindenburg's signature to reject the offer and fight on. Prince Max considered this to be an obvious disavowal of his authority and demanded that Ludendorff withdraw the appeal. The latter then had no choice but to resign. Hindenburg, however, stayed on and resolved not to interfere anymore with the armistice arrangements.

The emperor eventually resigned too under pressure from Wilson. In theory the demise of the monarchy also meant the end of the Prussian Army, the General Staff and the military cabinet, as well as all other extra-constitutional elements directly dependent on the monarch. Strangely enough some continuity was maintained with the continuance of the army which found the way to adjust to a new era. When the request was made to determine whether the troops would fight to preserve the monarchy or to crush the threatening revolution, the replies were very ambivalent. The emperor made reference to the soldier's oath, but General Groener, Ludenforff's successor told him, that under present circumstances that oath was a myth. With those words the world of Prussia and its army was shattered, although the General Staff did not disintegrate.

VI. The "stab in the back" legend

The Social Democratic deputy Scheidemann proclaimed the Republic after the chancellor announced the abdication of the emperor. The Center Party deputy Erzberger headed the armistice delegation because it was thought that the Allies would prefer to deal with civilians. In this way the ground was laid for the legend that the army had not capitulated and that victory had been snatched from it by weak-kneed civilian politicians.

Ludendorff was in a Berlin boarding house when he heard the news. His reaction was one of rage and moody introspection. He began to look for mystical powers which had brought about the collapse. He thought he found them in Jews, Freemasons and Jesuits. When an English general visited him, he ranted and raved about the government and people who had left him in the lurch. The English general asked: ''Are you endeavoring to tell me general, that you were stabbed in the hack? Ludendorff replied with alacrity: "That's it! They gave me a stab in the back--a stab in the back!"

Send comments and questions to Professor Gerhard Rempel, Western New England College.