Jay LockenourMay 19, 2021
The Legend of Erich Ludendorff in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich
Cornell Studies 2021
Erich Ludendorff is a contentious figure in military history. Focused, energetic, and hailing from humble origins, Ludendorff rose through the ranks of the largely aristocratic late-nineteenth century German officer corps to play a leading role in the First World War. As a field officer at Liège and Tannenberg, as a driving force behind the development of the Siegfried Line, and as the architect of the 1918 German Spring Offensive, Ludendorff consistently demonstrated a formidable military acumen and a penchant for tactical, if not always strategic, innovation. Over the past century, that wartime record garnered more than its fair share of respect—and not an insignificant amount of awe—from numerous First World War scholars. Those who look upon Ludendorff’s martial prowess with admiration, however, face a dilemma: how to reconcile Ludendorff’s military achievements with his abhorrent post war activities and beliefs. The one-time Quartermaster General of the German Army did not acquit himself well in the post war world. Germany’s surrender in November 1918 strongly contradicted Ludendorff’s reputation as a Feldherr or “Battle Lord.” Trying to comprehend that disconnect led Ludendorff down a path of antisemitism, conspiratorial thinking, right wing nationalist politics, fringe spirituality, personal and professional conflict, and flirtation with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.
Overwhelmingly, Ludendorff’s biographers have explained away these sordid details by attributing them to a nervous breakdown Ludendorff suffered in August 1918. But, writing in his most recent work, Dragonslayer: The Legend of Erich Ludendorff in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich (Cornell University Press, 2021), historian Jay Lockenour argues that questions of Ludendorff’s sanity are besides the point. Whether sane or not, Ludendorff was an influential figure in Weimar and Nazi Germany—a position he maintained, Louckenour contends, through the conscious construction of a mythic identity that personified far right politics, pagan spirituality, and the German public’s thirst for revenge.
Meticulously researched and lucidly argued, Dragonslayer reveals the true extent of Erich Ludendorff’s impact on the political cultures of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. It is a must read for scholars of the First World War and for curious readers interested in understanding the evolution of Germany from nascent republic to Fascist dictatorship in the lead up to the Second World War.
Jay Lockenour is Associate Professor of History at Temple University. He is author of Soldiers as Citizens and former host of the New Books in Military History podcast.