I walked away from Wonder Woman thinking about a man.
That's a bit of a faux pas. Wonder Woman is a spectacular superhero movie with themes that resonate especially with women and girls, yet I can't stop thinking about its portrayal of General Ludendorff, the gas-sniffing villain played by Danny Huston. Ludendorff is a well-chosen counterpoint to Diana, at every moment embodying the traditional old-world patriarchy she struggles against. In a broad sense, Diana is not fighting a villain, but the very concept of the First World War—and Ludendorff, who will do anything to win, serves as an admirable stand-in for the men who egged the world onto slaughter. But the reason I can't let him go is because Ludendorff was a real person. And in portraying a historical figure as a literal comic book villain, Wonder Woman raises interesting questions about how filmmakers portray history on screen.
Of course, any exploration of this topic has to center around one question: who was Erich Ludendorff, and did his character mirror the man portrayed in the film?
Wonder Woman's Ludendorff is a proto-Nazi, a cold-blooded officer who personally executes his own soldiers as an example to others. This Ludendorff has little to no respect for life, is obsessed with winning the war, and thinks nothing of casualties. He'll kill his own commanders in order to stop an armistice, use poison gas to murder enemies, and hatch bizarre plots with a mad doctor.
Strangely, though that characterization is wrong in its specifics, it's fairly correct in the broad sense. The historical Erich Ludendorff was a brilliant general who fought for victory at any cost, a man who descended into madness and conspiracy, and indeed a was a dyed-in-the-wool Nazi during the early days of Hitler's rise.
Wonder Woman's Ludendorff is a proto-Nazi, a cold-blooded officer who personally executes his own soldiers as an example to others.
Erich Ludendorff was born into a middle-class family in 1865, and even as a child he showed an obvious drive to succeed. He finished top of his class at Cadet School and graduated from a top-flight military university. Commissioned in 1885, he shot upward in rank and spent 1904-1913 in Alfred von Schlieffen's General Staff in Berlin, designing the opening moves of the coming First World War.
But this devotion to duty and workaholic nature had a dark side. Ludendorff seemed largely uninterested in other people. He had followers rather than friends, and even as a child refused to play with schoolmates. Though a devoted husband and stepfather—he married a wealthy woman when he was 45—he was known for being humorless and uncompromising, with a nervous temperament. Aides always knew Ludendorff was mired in anxiety when he would sit quietly at dinner, rolling hunks of bread into balls with his fingers.
Were he any other man, these might be dismissed as quirks or character flaws—but during the First World War, they turned deadly. Ludendorff may not have shot his own men as depicted in Wonder Woman, but he did show a casual disregard for the human costs of the war. He was among the worst of the behind-the-lines generals, thinking of casualties as mere statistics and at peace with monstrous new weapons like gas bombardments.
Though Ludendorff was a staff officer when the war started, he quickly made a name for during the Battle of Liège. The Kaiser gave Ludendorff a medal for the action and appointed him as chief of staff to General Paul von Hindenburg, posting both men to the Eastern Front to turn back the Russian invasion of Prussia.
A week after arriving, the Germans under Hindenburg encircled and destroyed the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg, taking 92,000 prisoners. The press hailed Hindenburg as a hero and Ludendorff as a strategic genius, but the two began squabbling over the credit almost immediately. For the next two years, Hindenburg and Ludendorff presided over a largely successful campaign in the East, which provided a contrast to Germany's grinding defeat at Verdun in the west.
Though they were rivals, Hindenburg and Ludendorff needed each other. Ludendorff proved himself a consummate military planner and administrator, able to pull off monumental feats of coordination and logistics. Hindenburg served as the stolid figurehead, keeping the ship stable when the nervous, impatient, and second-guess-prone Ludendorff threatened to upset the apple cart.
After the disaster at Verdun, Kaiser Wilhelm II knew that new leadership was needed at the German Supreme Command—a military body that controlled the country during wartime. In August of 1916, the Kaiser gave Hindenburg and Ludendorff joint leadership over the country and tasked them with turning the war around.
But while Hindenburg again served as figurehead, the day-to-day operations of the war were actually conducted by Ludendorff—making him essentially Germany's military dictator. Ludendorff set to work, drafting government policy and minimizing the Kaiser and undermining civilian officials. His main task was to throw every element of the German state behind the war effort, a political posture he, in later writings, dubbed "total war."
But despite Ludendorff's record of military success, his nearsightedness in the political arena triggered a host of disasters. He knocked Russia out of the war, and forced them into a treaty so shockingly putative that it caused the Allies to slap Germany with the similarly harsh Treaty of Versailles. Instead of freeing up troops for the Western Front, Russia's defeat tied German troops into garrisoning Eastern Europe. His unrestricted U-boat campaign, targeting neutral ships as well as enemies, helped push America into the war.
Ludendorff and his command regularly scoffed at the possibility that Americans could mobilize in time to make much difference, yet soon the US Navy had arrived to fill gaps in the British blockade. His decision to send Lenin to stir up trouble in Russia plunged the country into revolution, emboldening German labor organizers and socialists who'd chafed under Ludendorff's restrictive new labor laws. Morale may have been grim and determined at the front, but at home Germans were short on food, sick of the war, and angry at the stagnation in the aristocratic class system.
If Ludendorff had sued for peace while Germany was in a position of strength, the country might've avoided political collapse. Instead, he threw everything into a last spring offensive—the one depicted in Battlefield 1's Kaiserschlacht campaign—that started with one of the largest gas bombardments of the war.
He came up short. He didn't have the troops, and by that time 300,000 American infantrymen were arriving every month. When British tanks broke through in the Battle for Amiens, German forces finally retreated in what Ludendorff referred to as "the black day of the German army." Ludendorff's mental health began to fail, exacerbated by seeing one of his stepsons exhumed from a battlefield grave. A month later, Pershing's American offensive pushed the Germans out of positions south of Verdun that they'd held since 1914.
Yet on Ludendorff's orders, news of battlefield defeats were hidden from both the army and public. On September 27th, 1918, Berlin newspapers printed front-page stories that Germany was on the verge of winning the war.
The next day, Ludendorff suffered a mental breakdown. He locked himself in his study and raved for hours, screaming about how the Kaiser, the navy, the politicians and even public were to blame. At 6:00 PM he quietly walked downstairs and told Hindenburg that the military position was untenable. Germany must seek an armistice.
But Ludendorff's plan for that armistice was naïve and unnecessarily complicated. He installed a civilian government and invested the Reichstag with real power, believing a democratic Germany could get a better deal. He also opened negotiations with President Wilson, thinking the Americans would offer terms that let Germany keep conquered territory in Poland and Alsace-Lorraine.
He was wrong. Wilson demanded unconditional surrender, offering terms more in line with those Ludendorff had himself foisted on Russia. And ironically, the German military situation seemed to be improving.
With his initial plan failing, Ludendorff promptly reversed himself, ordering the civilian government to reject the armistice he'd personally ordered them to seek. He wanted to continue the war. Instead, they forced him to resign and opened negotiations with the Allies. This is the point in the war when Wonder Woman takes place, with the world teetering on the brink of peace and Ludendorff convinced Germany can still win better terms. In the film, Diana kills him during an attempt to gas London—but in reality, he donned a disguise and fled to Sweden as the German government fell apart.
In Ludendorff's absence, Germany suffered a period of instability. Strikes and food riots, often led by Communist instigators, ground cities to a halt. Political murder and street-fighting entered the mainstream. Rightwing militia groups that paved the way for Hitler's SA and SS sprang up to "keep order."
With conservative forces rallying against the resurgent left, Ludendorff returned to Germany where he was consumed with thoughts of the war. Germany, after all, did not seem like a country defeated. On the contrary, it had won a string of victories. Most of the fighting had occurred outside its borders. It still occupied several conquered territories. Added to this, Ludendorff's censorship meant ordinary citizens didn't realize how desperate the military situation had become. Back in Berlin, Ludendorff told anyone who would listen that the Armistice—the one he had orchestrated and advocated—was the fault of politicians who'd betrayed German armies in the field.
"You mean you were stabbed in the back?" asked one British officer, trying to make sense of Ludendorff's rambling explanation. Ludendorff agreed enthusiastically, and adopted the phrase. It soon became a rallying cry for the rightwing fringe.
After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, conservative opposition parties—including the Nazis—grew in strength with rhetoric about punishing these "November criminals" who had betrayed Germany. More often than not, it was not simply liberals and democrats who were blamed, but Jews.
Now back in German politics, Ludendorff's apartment became a meeting place for the extreme right. He participated in the abortive Kapp Putsch, fleeing to Munich after the coup fell apart, and quickly fell in with the Nazis. When Hitler staged his 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, he planned for Ludendorff to take over the military. Though it's unlikely Ludendorff knew of the plot in advance, he was an enthusiastic participant once informed. When police opened fire on the Nazi marchers—and everyone else scattered—Ludendorff kept marching directly into police lines and offered himself for arrest.
He attended the resulting trial in full dress uniform, practically daring the court to imprison one of Germany's most famous war heroes. But as usual, Ludendorff's plan backfired: he was declared innocent, but only because the court ruled that that he had been "emotionally overwrought" and not responsible for his actions during the putsch. Ludendorff stormed out of the court, calling the acquittal "a disgrace to the uniform and decorations that I wear."
But charges of insanity would become a common occurrence for the general.
He embarked on a brief political career, winning a seat in the Reichstag for one of the far-right parties that formed after the government barred the Nazis. He tried unsuccessfully to bring the splintering ethno-nationalist movement under one banner, and at Hitler's urging ran for president in 1925. He lost, badly, winning just over 1% of the vote. It soon became clear that Hitler had predicted the defeat, hoping to embarrass and diminish a possible challenger. To add to his humiliation, Ludendorff's rival Hindenburg won the presidency.
Ludendorff's behavior became more erratic. Years before, he had begun a romantic affair with psychologist Dr. Mathilde Kemnitz, a Nazi hanger-on with delusional theories that Word War I had been orchestrated by an alliance of Jews, Catholic Jesuits, and Freemasons. Former friends distanced themselves from him, with even the Nazis eventually declaring him too extreme. He eventually divorced his long-suffering wife and married Kemnitz.
The couple began publishing bizarre pamphlets insisting that Hitler had turned the German government over to Jewish-controlled Catholics, and how Freemasonry "breaks the race consciousness, the national pride, and the masculine will of men and makes them 'artificial Jews,'—a tool of the Jews that has no will of its own." In place of organized religion, they experimented with neo-pagan blood-and-soil beliefs that they hoped would serve as a national religion that tied Germans to their ethnic roots.
This strange chapter in Ludendorff's life parallels his relationship with Doctor Poison in Wonder Woman. In both instances we see Ludendorff working in secret with a woman, delving the mysteries of life and death with a hint of sexual tension underlying their scenes. And in both real life and the film, neither side of the relationship appears quite sane.
After the Nazis solidified their power, the regime occasionally acknowledged Ludendorff and used him during public events. During a photo op on the general's 70th birthday in 1935, Hitler surprised the increasingly senile Ludendorff with a promotion to Field Marshal. Ludendorff exploded, angrily insisting that the rank of Field Marshal should only come from success of the battlefield. He would, however, accept his own self-created title: "Field Lord of the First World War."
He died two years later in a Catholic hospital, tended to by nuns from a religion he'd attacked for over a decade. It was an ignominious end for a man who had ruled Germany, and one he decidedly deserved. Hitler, by then dictator, organized a lavish state funeral for the man who had helped him achieve power. In death, he was a prop.
It was the undignified death that Ludendorff deserved. In Wonder Woman, Diana cuts him down at the height of his power. He's still a respected, if corrupted, general—not an insane old man who helped the Nazis to power. This is the bizarre contrast of Wonder Woman: it turns Ludendorff into a villain that's cartoonishly evil, yet removes him before he can commit his worst sins. The film defames with one hand and absolves with the other.
And while it raises interesting questions about whether WWII was different in the DC Universe, I can't fault it too heavily. The film, after all, isn't bad as a "child's first war film." Much like my generation got their first glimpse of WWII from the Indiana Jones movies, Wonder Woman will likely introduce a new generation to the Great War. I expect that more than a few parents ended up fielding questions about trench warfare, mustard gas, and the Ottoman Empire in the theater lobby. And frankly, more than a few straight historical movies—from Braveheart, to The Patriot, to Gladiator—have fudged the death of their real-life villains for dramatic effect. Given that Wonder Woman gives speaking roles to Greek gods, it seems unfair to hold it to a higher standard.
Plus, it's hard to hate a movie where a Jewish actress rams a sword through a prominent Nazi.
Did that happen? Nope. But the world might be better if it had.