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.
Ludendorff returned to Germany in 1919 and began attempting to shuck the blame for his failure, most notably by promoting the “stabbed in the back” myth. Ludendorff insisted that it wasn’t his relentless political and economic meddling that had ruined Germany, but rather that traitorous Germans, usually Jewish Germans, had secretly undermined the war effort. He quickly became friends with Hitler, who was pushing the same ultra-nationalist far-right rhetoric. In fact, it was Ludendorff who attempted to get the German army behind Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. Ironically, Ludendorff later alienated the Nazis because he was too much of an extremist even for them, publishing tracts insisting the world’s problems were caused by secret conspiracies of Jews, Christians, and Freemasons. There’s some argument as to whether Ludendorff had become disillusioned with Hitler, or if Hitler has simply seen Ludendorff as a useful stooge to be disposed of when he was no longer useful, but it didn’t matter: Ludendorff passed away in 1937.
Ludendorff’s name is largely unknown outside Germany, thanks in part because Kaiser Wilhelm II served as the face of Germany in World War I. In fact, aside from an obscure propaganda movie, Wonder Woman will mark the first time Hollywood’s featured him in a movie. That’s no coincidence: Patty Jenkins has discussed Wonder Woman is an agent of peace, and Ludendorff is a human embodiment of warfare. To the end, he seemed to sincerely believe that war was man’s highest calling, that everything should be built around it. Ludendorff, in reality and on the screen, represents everything Wonder Woman is against. It’s that rare moment where history provides a worryingly perfect villain.