Book Review: The First Nazi
The First Nazi:
The Man Who Made Hitler Possible
by Will Brownell and Denise Drace-Brownell
with Alex Rovt
Erich Ludendorff, the autocratic and forbidding Quartermaster general of the German forces during the height of the First World War and the architect of some of that army’s most expensive victories and defeats, is the biographical turning-point of The First Nazi, a new book by Will Brownell, Denise Drace-Brownell, and Alex Rovt. Because Ludendorff was megalomaniacal, virulently anti-Semitic, and came to believe the army was the state, our authorial team declare that without his baleful trailblazing, there would have been no Adolf Hitler and quite possibly no Second World War.
It’s an audaciously broad claim, especially for short book constructed entirely of breathless prose based on secondary sources, but there’s some merit to it. Ludendorff was a full-blown psychotic, and full-blown psychotics have a tendency to want to find and train their successors. Certainly all the elements of Ludendorff’s own madness are present in Hitler even as early as the 1920s, and the two men had plenty of personal contact (although seemingly key to their book’s central thesis, this contact is given curiously short shrift by our authors). The claim that Ludendorff was “the first Nazi,” while obviously semi-metaphorical, has a good deal of attractive simplicity.
In fact, “attractive simplicity” runs throughout this book, which is garrulous, discursive, and melodramatic by turns. The writing team here opts for a direct, quick-feeling narrative style that’s long on shock and sometimes short on facts, a style designed to be page-turningly vivid, as in this description of Ludendorff’s offensive pushes on the front in 1916:
Ludendorff kept fighting, without and objective, in an orgy of blood. He did not change an iota of his strategy. Eventually the commander in chief of the Allied Forces, Ferdinand Foch, would stop and ask, “Does Ludendorff known his profession?” Foch meant that Ludendorff had a powerful army that was being sent forth without a target, goal, or purpose.
Because he had convinced himself that the German army was invincible, we’re told, Ludendorff “felt in his bones that they had to win.” People’s guts and bones and hearts are consulted quite often throughout The First Nazi, which makes for colorful reading, however much more serious history buffs will wish some German military archives had been consulted instead. Readers get a great deal of anecdotal commentary on how dastardly Ludendorff could be in his military operations:
[He] had planted countless booby traps, explosive devices hidden in barrels of flour, inside sides of ham, and under pillows and mattresses. Most devilish were those planted inside pianos. The moment one played a particular key, the piano detonated. Ludendorff pretended that his extreme measures were merely targeting the military, but this was rot. Soldiers on military campaigns are not known for stopping to play the piano. Ludendorff was trying to kill civilians too.
And our authors warmly analyze the man’s mental state before the First World War, during its bloodbaths (many of which he himself orchestrated), and in its aftermath, when Ludendorff was the chief spokesman for the “stabbed in the back” version of the German defeat, a poisonous bad sportsmanship that laid all Germany’s woes at the feet of international Jewry. The parallels with Hitler are clear enough, although the book does far less work than it should on establishing actual lines of cause and effect.
“Can a nation become insane?” our authors quote an American editorial as asking in 1918. “Every effort of our own to find a rational explanation for the conduct of the German people results in the conclusion that it is an indubitable case of mutual aberration. Their methods of reasoning cannot be reduced to any accepted form of logic. Their conclusions do not inevitably follow from their premises … They neither think nor act like normal people.” The First Nazi does its best to delve into that mutual aberration, and although its best can certainly be bettered – the English-speaking world is still waiting for its first full-dress scholarly biography of Ludendorff – it makes an easy starting-point for the curious.