Total War Comes to Europe

On the Western Front a hundred years ago, a furious and decisive campaign was in progress. The great German Spring Offensive, often and rightly called the Ludendorff Offensive, was well into the process of launching about three million combat troops against the Allied lines. The Offensive would last from March 21 to July 18, 1918. The combined butcher’s bill for both sides in the three-month struggle would amount altogether to over a million and half men killed, wounded, captured, or missing. The twin objects of the German assault were to break the stalemate and end the war. The attack achieved the former, briefly, but its ultimate failure led to the Allied victory.

Significantly, the battle was a product of the total war idea and the omnipotent state that had matured during the war. In 1916, the civilian leadership of Germany invited the successful Eastern Front team of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his “Quartermaster,” General Erich Ludendorff, to take control of the High Command. The two had accepted on the condition that they would be given wide-ranging powers in civilian affairs as well as military. In August 1916, the High Command announced a total war plan dubbed the Hindenburg Program — largely shaped by Ludendorff — which introduced “total war” in myriad forms. Economic and industrial intervention became absolute. The state both operated and controlled industrial output, manipulated the economy to focus predominantly on war production. The accelerated the closing of “inessential” firms. Industries—though technically still privately owned—were centralized and conglomerated around favored companies. Inflationary finance was maximized, as were confiscation and other forms wealth transfers to the…

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