Erich Ludendorff's Concept of Total War

The ‘Brains’ of the Imperial German war machine for the last two years of the war and progenitor of the German concept of ‘total war’ General Erich Ludendorff, the ‘Brains’ of the Imperial German war machine for the last two years of the war and progenitor of the German concept of Total War. On the right is the implementation of gas at Flanders, an extension of the idea that the war had to be fought with every tool, every tactic, every strategy that could be put forth for the very survival of the nation.


"The military staff must be composed of the right men, of the best and ablest men, efficient in the domain of war on land, on the sea, and in the air, in propaganda, war techniques, economics and politics, and they must be intimately acquainted with national life... They have no right to give orders."  - Erich Ludendorff


The last two years of the Great War for Germany are a great illustrative example as to the Ludendorff concept of ‘total war’.By late 1916, both Ludendorff and Hindenburg had effectively phased Wilhelm II and much of the Reichstag and diplomatic elements of the government from the decision making processes and were unilaterally making said decisions devoid of a clear chain of responsibility.

They were, in effect, the perpetual military dictators of Imperial Germany for the remainder of the war.


In Ludendorff’s concept of ‘total war’, the military was the goto, be all for any and all decisions, both political and diplomatic, as they had the chance, whether minute or massive, of influencing the war effort. In effect, the civilian aspects of the government only made policy in response to the needs of the military, not vice-versa, whatever the military needed it received. This concept reserved no place for strategic input by the civilian statesman in the government, the military command was the totality of power within the government and the final body of decision with any policies that had a nationwide effect.

True to the maxim of ‘Prussia is an Army with a State’, Ludendorff envisioned that the military would become the central component of the government which fell in line with his Social Darwinism which saw the notion of ‘peace’ as a temporary reality that interspliced the various period of war that came to dominate the globe and was the main diplomatic tools nations chose to wield.

Ludendorff chose to take this concept to the next level with a more real politik approach as to the strategic aims a ‘total war’ envisioned in accomplishing:

Ludendorff specified the missing strategic aim: ‘Total war is not only aimed against the armed forces but also directly against the people.’
Although the idea was ultimately legitimized by a defensive political objective –– survival of the nation –– this strategic aim had to be pursued by offensive means. The best security for the nation followed from the total annihilation of other nations. Total war thus involved the total mobilization by the total state for the pursuit of total –– political and strategic –– aims.

However horrific we might now think Ludendorff’s product was, this was a coherent and seemingly practical concept of war that was adjusted directly to political demands.

For Ludendorff, war didn’t just end with the defeat of your opponent, it had to be concluded to finality, the ultimate annihilation of any nation that threatened the very survival of one’s own.

This was a more….extreme take on the Clausewitzian principle of the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces by arguing that in the Modern Age, this goal was no longer a possibility and had to be taken one step further, the complete elimination of every citizen as an enemy and therefore a legitimate target as a potential resource for further conflict.

In essence, ‘total war’ for Ludendorff was just that, the very ‘life and death’ struggle, David and Goliath-esque conflict of nations where the stronger came out on top through the ruthless prosecution of a war that vindicated the principles of Social Darwinism.

He argued that the entire physical and moral forces of the nation should be mobilized at all times, because, according to him, peace was merely an interval between wars.

Ludendorff was a Social Darwinist who believed that war was the "foundation of human society," and that military dictatorship was the normal form of government in a society in which every resource must be mobilized.

Historian Margaret Anderson notes that after the war, Ludendorff wanted Germany to go to war against all of Europe and that he became a pagan worshiper of the Nordic god Odin; he detested not only Judaism but also Christianity, which he regarded as a weakening force.