Last time I wrote, I marveled at how public servants like George H.W. Bush and Henry Kissinger serve as examples of stoicism and resolve in turbulent times. Such narratives are both inspiring and educational. In my management program, we often use case studies to learn best practices, or what to do. The Bush and Kissinger stories serve as best practices for public servants (for the most part). Sometimes we learn from them the worst practices, or what we shouldn’t do. What I’m reading now, The First Nazi, the story of Erich Ludendorff, serves as an example of a public servant gone awry.
Aside from laying the strategic vision for the rise of the Nazi Party, General Ludendorff was an obstinate German military leader. Some of the stranger quirks of his personality include rejecting Christianity because “it made men too kind” and not making contingency plans in the event that he lost a battle. That first characteristic is merely cold-hearted; the second is downright reckless. Though that recklessness is a theme throughout The First Nazi and throughout the life of Ludendorff himself. The book hits home the message that blind allegiance to ideology, even in the smartest of leaders, can lead to problems and, in the case of Nazi Germany, the very worst of human tragedy and cruelty.
For Ludendorff, the ideology of choice was military might. Diplomacy and negotiation, even with the Kaiser himself, took a backseat, if included at all. The result, as you know, was a Germany surrounded by the end of World War I, with decades of reconstruction and economic malaise to follow. Such cultural decadence and bitterness led to the overt display of nationalism and racism by people like, you guessed it, Adolf Hitler, whom The First Nazi claims Ludendorff made possible.
As I noted earlier, such stories and such men do not make for pleasant reading. Yet, I’m drawn in to this book. Why? A couple of years ago, my father took me on a trip to Central Europe. We visited the storied Berlin that stood at the apex of world history so many times. We also visited Dachau, a concentration camp the sight of which left me feeling sick the rest of the day. And we made our way through countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, home to some of the first people to fall under Hitler’s Reich and then to the Soviet Union after the Second War.
As I acknowledged in the last post, international political turmoil is more often the norm than the exception. More often than not, as evidenced by World War I, World War II, and even the Cold War, inflexible idealists like General Ludendorff or Josef Stalin lie at the heart of such turmoil. Understanding why good leadership matters, and why character in public servants matters, is why we read and revisit history.
Until next time,