In theaters this Friday we’ll see Wonder Woman take flight in her first solo movie. And the movie has an unusual touch: bad guy Erich Ludendorff, played by Danny Huston, is an all-too-real historical figure. And contrary to what Hollywood tends to do to real-life figures, Ludendorff is a figure already tailor-made for movie villainy.
Ludendorff is best known for becoming the de facto most powerful man in Germany in World War I — and a primary source of Germany’s ruin during the war. Ludendorff was an advocate for “total war,” where the government was run by the military as a dictatorship, and the economy was built entirely around war. This meant that everyone was a soldier, and that philosophically, there were no “innocent civilians,” just human resources the enemy war machine hadn’t exploited yet. Ludendorff was loud, friendless, a blatant credit hog, and even his own wife viewed him as completely humorless. And, naturally, he wanted to apply his idea of total war to Germany.
Ludendorff had military success, early on, notably on the Eastern Front, where he and Paul Von Hindenberg bedeviled the German Army with some brilliant tactics. And, in abstract strategy, Ludendorff was arguably everything he sold himself as: He and his staff invented an “elastic defense” that had the enemy penetrate a lightly defended line and stumble into artillery traps. That brilliance meant Ludendorff was put in charge of the army, a position he used to leverage control of the economy of Germany. But his arrogance was poisonous and led to a series of missteps. For example, Ludendorff ignored the warnings that unrestricted submarine warfare would antagonize the US, and the country joined the Allies in 1917, making Germany’s defeat certain.
At home, he ruined the German economy, by insisting that everything be poured into the war effort first, and everything else second, and flinging blame everywhere but on himself when things went wrong. This was dangerous not least because starvation was a real risk. Germany had been blockaded in 1914, and that meant food production in particular had to be carefully managed to keep it from collapsing into a black market. Instead, Ludendorff ignored it and the home front fell apart as the price of food skyrocketed. By the end of World War I, Ludendorff, who’d insisted that he was solely responsible for the war, got his wish: The people of Germany blamed him for everything that had gone wrong, and drove him out of the country.