Roger Parkinson is a historian and biographer who has written on a wide array of subjects ranging from the Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, to the German military theorist, Karl von Clausewitz. Now he has turned his attention to Erich Ludendorff, the most important German General of World War I. It must be said at the outset that this book adds little to our knowledge of Ludendorff. It is based on skimpy research, utilizing a limited number of secondary sources and a few memoirs, most notably those by Ludendorff, General Max von Hoffmann, and Ludendorff’s first wife, Margarethe. Nor does Parkinson use memoirs with much critical skill. He cites Ludendorff’s retrospective judgments as evidence of his thinking during the war. Confidence in Parkinson’s grasp of German history is shaken on the first page by the statement that in 1865 “Friedrich III and his wife Victoria . . . ruled in Berlin.” For a biography, the book is short and provides only the main outlines of Ludendorff’s career. D. J. Goodspeed’s Ludendorff: Genius of World War I is a better popular biography.
In light of this, why did Parkinson write the book? He believes that Ludendorff has either been too much ignored or unfairly reviled by historians, especially British ones. Although Parkinson is aware that Ludendorff had his weaknesses, this biography attempts to rehabilitate him. Few readers will be convinced.
Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff was born in 1865 in Posen, the son of a small landowner who was descended from a family of Pomeranian merchants. As a youth, Ludendorff was a loner, a hardworking student who showed unusual self-discipline and excelled in school, especially in mathematics. From the age of twelve, Ludendorff’s education was entirely military. It would be interesting to consider the role Ludendorff’s nonaristocratic background and military education played in his later career, but Parkinson does not analyze these important factors.
After he was commissioned as an officer, Ludendorff’s voracious appetite for work and his great administrative abilities caused him to rise rapidly to the rank of colonel and a key position in the General Staff in which he was closely involved in the modifications of the Schlieffen Plan introduced by Chief of the General Staff, Helmut von Moltke. However, Ludendorff revealed his impatience with politicians early; dissatisfied with the Reichstag failure to increase the size of the army as much as he thought necessary, he became involved in private political intrigue. When the War Ministry discovered this, Ludendorff received an official reprimand and was soon shifted to a much less important position. More significant in the long run, this episode caused Emperor William II to conceive an enduring dislike of Ludendorff. The outbreak of war in 1914 rescued Ludendorff from oblivion, and it is a tribute to his ability that he was able to exploit so effectively the opportunities brought by war.
Parkinson is at his best describing military history. He describes battles with clarity and precision and also shows a balanced judgment in which he gives Ludendorff due credit without belittling the roles of those around him, especially General von Hoffmann. Nevertheless, Parkinson suffers from the occupational disease of military historians—a tendency to elevate the battles they are describing to world historical significance. For example, Parkinson suggests that had Ludendorff not won at Tannenberg, Germany would have lost the war in 1914, there would have been no Russian Revolution, no Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and no crisis of the world order in the twentieth century. The hyperbole aside, the idea that the Russian “steamroller” could have rolled on to Berlin even if it had escaped defeat at Tannenberg simply repeats the illusions of 1914.
When the Schlieffen Plan failed to bring victory in the west, and when Ludendorff himself was transferred to the Eastern Front, he began to urge that priority be shifted to the east where the opportunity for a rapid victory seemed more promising. This brought him into conflict with Erich von Falkenhayn, who had replaced Moltke as Chief of Staff, and with the Emperor, who supported Falkenhayn. Although other examples of attempted invasions of Russia, both before and after this war, suggest that quick victory in Russia may have proved elusive, Parkinson argues that Ludendorff’s strategy was sound and might have won the war for Germany.
Falkenhayn’s influence, however, prevailed until he squandered it at Verdun. The mounting casualties forced a reluctant William II to sack Falkenhayn and call on the heroes of Tannenberg, General Paul von Hindenburg and Ludendorff. These two men worked together extraordinarily well, Hindenburg providing prestige and popularity, Ludendorff providing brains and hard work. No one has ever doubted that Ludendorff was the dominant partner.
The new commanders immediately halted the wasteful bloodletting at Verdun, executed a well-organized withdrawal to the Hindenburg line, and adopted a basically defensive strategy in the west. However, there was no smashing offensive in the east, and the war seemed more stalemated than ever. Ludendorff had drawn the proper military conclusions from the experience of the war’s first two years; but Germany was unable to draw the proper political...
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