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Ludendorff: The Soldier and the Politician

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

On December 20th, the eve of the winter solstice, Erich Ludendorff, Feldherr des Weltkriegcs and foremost neo-pagan of Germany, died in a Catholic hospital at Munich, surrounded by attendant sisters of mercy. The irony of the event is symbolic of that tragic frustration of final achievement which followed Ludendorff throughout his life, for he was destined in all things to fall just short of victory. With the possible exception of the Austrian Field Marshal Conrad von Hotzendorf, whose brilliant conceptions were brought to nothing because in the Austro-Hungarian army he had not the proper instrument with which to transform his ideas into facts, Ludendorff was the ablest military strategist produced by the War, and certainly one of the greatest routine military organizers that the world has ever seen. Yet throughout the most important period of his life—and for the last two years of Wilhelm IPs reign Ludendorff dominated Germany as had none other since Bismarck—he was his own worst enemy, nullifying as a politician what he had achieved as a soldier, a political Hyde forever warring against a military Jekyll.

Born at Kruszewnia in Posen in 1865, Erich Ludendorff was the eldest son—his younger brother became the eminent astronomer of Potsdam—of a minor official in the Prussian state railways administration. He received his early education at the Cadet School at Ploen and the Lichterfelde Military Academy, and was gazetted a lieutenant in the Marine-Infantry in 1882, at the age of eighteen. Throughout his school years his more aristocratic contemporaries never allowed him to forget that he lacked the “von” of nobility before his name, and this snobbismus spurred Ludendorff, like the young Bonaparte at Brienne, to a fierce application to his studies in order to excel the efforts of his fellows and thereby command their deference.

This passion for work and attention to detail won the recognition of Ludendorff’s superiors. He rose rapidly through the regimental ranks, was promoted captain in 1893, and the same year received his first taste of work on the General Staff, later being attached to the Fourth Corps headquarters at Magdeburg. But he was still unknown, and his appointment as a major to a permanent post on the Great General Staff in 1906 came as a surprise to all in the military world, save to that inner circle of officers who continually sought outstanding talent.

But this passionate addiction to work took toll of Ludendorff in other ways. His spirit became closed to all appreciation of natural beauty or intellectual attainment. With his mind enmeshed in a net of military detail, he was impervious to the finer humanities. No streak of aestheticism coloured his nature and he lacked even a sense of humour. “He was a man blind in spirit,” his medical director once confessed. “He had never seen a flower bloom, never heard a bird sing, never watched the sun set. I used to treat him for his soul.”

When, in 1905, the younger Moltke, nephew of the great Field Marshal, was appointed to succeed Count von Schlief-fen as chief of the General Staff, he found that the two officers who must necessarily receive high appointments were two lieutenant-colonels, Erich Ludendorff and Wilhelm Groner. The latter, the son of a paymaster in the Wurt-temberg Army, had distinguished himself by his coolness of judgment and his genius for organization. Two years younger than Ludendorff, he had become an instructor at the Kriegsakadamie, and his courses were eagerly followed by the younger officers who came under his influence, amongst whom were numbered many who later achieved fame and notoriety, including Willisen, Schleicher, and Hammerstein. To them he seemed inspired, and undoubtedly much of the ability which they later displayed was attributable to their early training under Groner.

Between Ludendorff and Groner a sharp rivalry grew up. Neck and neck, they easily outdistanced all others in competing for the “plum” position on the General Staff, the head of the Operations Section. But after lengthy consideration Groner was passed over, for the sole reason that his father had been a warrant-officer, and he was not, therefore, of the military caste. Ludendorff was not an officer’s son either, but there had been officers in his family for generations, and this turned the scale in his favour. He became Chief of Operations, and to Groner fell the parallel post of Chief of Transport.

In this important position Ludendorff must share with Moltke the vital and fundamental changes in mobilization and operations which the latter authorized in the famous Schlieffen Plan in 1908-1909. Groner bitterly opposed these innovations—the sudden attack on Liege, the weakening of the right wing, the abandonment of the strategic retreat through Alsace-Lorraine, and the proposed attempt to break through between Toul and Epinal. Ludendorff sanctioned them, however, only on condition that the army itself was increased in numbers. He always maintained that had his advice been followed, three new corps would have been added in 1912, and that with this additional strength the revised scheme of operations could have been carried out according to plan. He attributed his transfer to regimental duties to his insistence on the increase of the army at this time.

Whatever the cause, the general mobilization of July, 1914, found Ludendorff Deputy-Chief of the Staff of the Second Army, which was carrying out the assault on Liege. By a sudden and daring decision to take command of a regiment that had been brought to a standstill, and by launching a surprise attack, he was able to achieve the spectacular capture of the citadel almost single handed, though the forts still held out for two days longer. For this gallant feat, the only occasion during the War in which he actually commanded troops, Ludendorff was decorated by the Kaiser with the coveted Pour le Merite cross.

When the defeat and collapse of the Eighth Army in East Prussia sent a thrill of apprehension through the Imperial General Headquarters at Coblenz, Moltke inevitably turned to Colonel Ludendorff to redress the balance of disaster. “I know of no other person whom I trust so implicitly as yourself,” he wrote. “Perhaps you may succeed in saving the position in the East . . . your energy is such that you may still succeed in averting the worst.” And General von Stein added his appeal. “Your place is on the Eastern Front . . . the safety of the country demands it.”

Such was the mission with which Ludendorff was entrusted on his appointment as Chief-of-Staff of the Eighth Army, with Colonel-General Paul von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg as the “dear old Excellency” who should be his nominal commander, the foil for his brilliance and the shield for the flame of his genius. This “marriage of minds,” which was effected at the railway station of Hanover in the early hours of August 23, 1914, is without exact parallel in history. Personally unknown to one another, and utterly dissimilar in character, each provided the necessary complement of the other. Ludendorff was the dominant husband of the union, Hindenburg the placid wife; Ludendorff was the motive force in the partnership, Hindenburg the balancing factor. The calmer nature of the older man served as a corrective for the younger’s eager temperament, at once more brilliant and less stable. Ludendorff could stand the strain of responsibility when things went well but in moments of crisis he was liable to nervous distraction; Hindenburg preserved a stoic impassivity in the face of both triumph and disaster. Together they formed the most amazing military combination in history.

Their joint fame became world-wide a week later, after the great victory of Tannenberg, though no impartial student of that campaign can escape the conclusion that the strategic laurels for the Russian defeat belong to the senior staff officer, Colonel Hoffmann; while the point-blank refusal of that vigorous tactician, General von Francois, to carry out Ludendorff’s orders contributed largely to the cutting off of the enemy’s retreat. Popular opinion, however, is but little affected by historical accuracy, and the names of Hin-denburg and Ludendorff became inseparably linked with the destruction of Samsonov’s army at Tannenberg, and with the subsequent rout of Rennenkampf at the Battle of the Masurian Lakes. The winter campaign in Poland, which, after many vicissitudes, ended in the capture of the fortress of Lodz and the general retirement of the Russian armies, added greatly to their already glowing prestige and gave, both to themselves and to the general public at large, a disproportionate idea of their achievements. For the numerical superiority of the defeated Russian armies blinded many to their great weakness in guns and munitions and the poverty of their leadership.

Throughout the year 1915 and the first half of 1916, Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and Hoffmann, now welded into the single symbol HLH, were in bitter conflict with the new Chief of the General Staff, von Falkenhayn, who had succeeded Moltke after the disaster of the Marne. They had forced the Russians back as far as Vilna, but the enemy had always escaped from their enveloping movements. A Cannre victory had eluded HLH, and they demanded additional troops for a drive to the north against Minsk, which should sever the Russian rail communications. This was rejected by Falkenhayn, who judged rightly that the War must be fought to a finish in the West, believing that, even were Russia forced to make a separate peace, Great Britain and France would continue the struggle. He elected to make a gigantic effort to take Verdun, and his withdrawal of troops and guns from the East rendered it impossible for HLH to make any further advance. They were driven on to the defensive by the Russian attacks of March and April, 1916, and though they were able to hold their own, they were unable to prevent the Austrian defeats at the hands of the Russians between the Pripet and the Carpathians.

The opposition of Palkenhayn to the “Easterners” resulted in an extraordinary exhibition of military intrigue and barratry. Ludendorff and Hoffmann lost no opportunity in egging on Hindenburg to flout and thwart the orders of the Chief of the General Staff, while Falkenhayn, in his turn, responded with pinpricking pettiness and obstinacy. The conduct of both sides was mean and picayune and redounded to the credit of neither party, for neither appeared to recall that the duty of a soldier is to fight the enemy and not his comrades.

But the tide was running strongly against Falkenhayn, and when the failure of the Verdun offensive was followed by the entry of Rumania into the war on the side of the Allies a full two months before he had expected it, the Kaiser yielded to the voice of popular demand, and on August 29, 1916, summoned Hindenburg and Ludendorff to the Supreme Command of the German armies in the field.


A definite period closed for Ludendorff on August 29. Hitherto his undoubted genius had been exercised only in a limited sphere, for the High Command in the East, though semi-autonomous, was concerned merely with the problems of its own strategy. The consideration of national politics and the organization of the national resources had played no part in the world of HLH, whose political activities had been confined to their intrigues against Falkenhayn. They had been soldiers pure and simple; their great and deserved reputation had been built up on their military attainments alone. Now all this was changed. A stroll in the gardens of the Castle of Pless on an afternoon in high summer had altered the destinies not only of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, but of Germany and of Europe. Had he but known it, Wilhelm II in that brief conversation had sealed the fate of his country, his throne, and his house. For from the moment of his appointment Ludendorff conceived himself as the chief power in the Reich. It had been the original intention to appoint the Marshal and Ludendorff as Chief and Second Chief of the General Staff, but to this Ludendorff objected. For him the word “second” no longer existed with regard to rank, and he insisted on the title of First Quartermaster-General. But before he accepted the position at all, he made it clear to the Kaiser that he must have “joint responsibility in all decisions and measures that might be taken,” and the Kaiser had given him assurance on this point.

Here was the direct corollary of the “marriage of minds” between Hindenburg and Ludendorff. After two years of close co-operation the personality of the Marshal had become so dependent upon, and merged into, that of his lieutenant that he accepted almost unquestioned the views of Ludendorff. The combination from a military aspect proved vastly effective, but politically it was utterly unfortunate; for while in the direction of operations these two worked in complementary accord, in political affairs Hindenburg, knowing and caring nothing of state affairs, was glad to leave their conduct exclusively to Ludendorff—and Ludendorff had very definite ideas regarding the place of the Supreme Command in the government of the country. “Not only had I to probe deeply into the wider workings of the war-direction, and get a grasp of both the great and small matters that affected the home life of the people,” he wrote, “but I had to familiarize myself with great world questions which raised all sorts of problems.” The result of this inquiry and familiarization was the conclusion that, for the winning of the war, the entire resources and government of the country must be placed unreservedly and without stint at the disposal of the Supreme Command, who assumed responsibility for all actions taken but whose decisions must not be criticized or questioned. The military condominium of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, under the instigation of the latter, became an imperium in imperio, with the First Quartermaster-General negotiating independently with the Emperor, the Chancellor, the Foreign Office, the party leaders in the Reichstag, industrial magnates, and trade union officials, in fact with everyone who had to be subordinated to the will of G. H. Q.

Gradually a complete dictatorship was built up on the interpretation which Ludendorff placed upon the word “responsibility.” For example, when the Imperial Chancellor pursued some policy of which the Supreme Command disapproved, or which they considered injurious to the conduct of the War, they declared they could not assume “responsibility” for such action and asked leave to resign. But it was the Chancellor who resigned. By exercise of this method of “persuasion” Ludendorff forced everyone from the Emperor down to give way to him. On some occasions he obtained Hindenburg’s approval for his actions; frequently he made use of his name in negotiation; always his final argument was, “The Field Marshal and I will resign.”

In claiming these supreme powers Ludendorff was not actuated by personal ambition. Ruthless and arrogant he was, but not personally ambitious. His was the dynamic will of the fanatic, which drives straight to its goal without a thought for those who stand in its path. Himself steeped in the disciplinary obedience of the military tradition, he regarded Germany as a vast machine respondent to his will rather than as a highly sensitive and complex industrial organism, and he demanded from it that same willingness to achieve complete victory which he regarded as inherent in the German army. His handling of the “home-front” was characterized by a lack of understanding which led at last to failure and breakdown, and is in marked contrast with the successful degree of co-operation which the more sympathetic personality of Groner was able to establish between capital and labour.

In his consideration of the wider questions of national policy which affected other countries Ludendorffs limitations became still more definite. There was a marked inability to see the part in relation to the whole, a tendency to pursue a policy for its short-term advantages, regardless of what its ultimate repercussions might bring, and, above all, an assumption of omniscience which would brook no correction or opposition. It was this obstinate conviction which deprived Germany of the services of her two most enlightened war-time statesmen, Bethmann-Hollweg and Kuhlmann, both of whom were sacrificed by Wilhelm II at the command of Ludendorff.

The results of such a situation could not but be disastrous, for while the strategic genius of the Supreme Command was achieving military successes, their political ineptitude prevented these successes from being exploited diplomatically; and, since Germany was virtually in the state of a beleaguered fortress, the advantages gained were really only in the nature of sorties which, though they forced the enemy to retire, could not raise the siege. Thus, though the armies of the Central Powers crushed Rumania, held Russia, created the supposedly impregnable Siegfried Stellung, repulsed with bloody loss the Nivelle Offensive, and inflicted a heavy defeat on the Italians at Caporetto, their efforts and sacrifices were nullified by the political policies dictated by the Supreme Command.

The movement towards a separate peace with Tsarist Russia, fostered with such care on both sides, was brought to a sudden end in November, 1916, by the insistence of the Supreme Command on the proclamation of the Kingdom of Poland in the hope of raising a Polish Army to fight for Germany. In effect nothing of the sort occurred; the Poles regarded this recognition of their independence as but their natural due and showed a definite disinclination to shed their blood for Germany. Grasping at a shadow, Ludendorff had missed the substance, for the advantages of a separate peace with Russia, unattended by the dangers of Bolshevism, were obvious.

Four months later, in February, 1917, a further blunder of major importance attended the efforts of the Supreme Command to control policy. In face of the expressed objection of the Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, and regardless of the vast potentialities involved, Ludendorff and Hindenburg forced the reluctant Kaiser to declare for unlimited U-boat warfare against neutrals and belligerents alike, in a desperate attempt to break the stranglehold of the Allied blockade. The effect of this action on non-belligerent powers had been considered, and it was agreed that there were sufficient troops available to repulse any attempt of Danish and Dutch divisions to invade Germany by way of retaliation. As for the United States, it was not even considered worthwhile to regard them from a military point of view, for even if American troops should succeed in crossing the Atlantic —on the impossibility of which the Chief of the Naval Staff staked his reputation—the value to the Allies of these raw untrained forces would be negligible. In any case it was hoped to bring England to her knees before any such eventuality could possibly take place. In both these expectations the Supreme Command were disappointed. England, though hard pressed, was not driven to surrender, and the United States declared war on April 7. Three months later the first American troops landed in France, and by November they were in the firing line. In addition, the Allied blockade, now strengthened by the co-operation of the American navy, became more complete than ever.

In the summer of 1917 a not unpromising offer of mediation on the part of the Pope was rejected by Michaelis, the puppet Chancellor whose appointment Ludendorff and Hindenburg had contrived as a successor to Bethmann-Holl-weg, simply because the Supreme Command refused to consider the restoration of Belgian independence.

But the most outstanding example of the defeat of the soldier by the politician was in the case of the peace of Brest-Litovsk. With the object of assisting the collapse of Russia, the Supreme Command facilitated the return of Lenin to Petrograd, little thinking the virus of Bolshevism which they were injecting into the body politic of an enemy state would infect the army and civilian population of Germany. So quickly did the poison spread that by December, 1917, Russia was suing for a separate peace. Germany’s Foreign Secretary, von Kiihlmann, realized what the soldiers would not admit, that a victory in the field was no longer possible for Germany, and sought therefore to prepare the way for a general peace of negotiation, but Ludendorff insisted on the imposition of peace terms so starkly brutal and annexationist in character that the world stood aghast at their rapacity.

In every sense the effect was disastrous. The Allied Governments were made aware of the kind of peace they might expect from a Germany dominated by the Supreme Command, and were confirmed in their belief that the war must be fought to the bitter end to accomplish the defeat of Germany. Moreover, the publication of the Brest peace terms decided President Wilson to devote all the vast resources of America, in men, money, and munitions, to the Allied cause. A degree of co-operation was established between America and the nations of the Entente which all previous negotiation between them had failed to achieve, and the artificer of this unity of purpose was Ludendorff.

Furthermore, the direct results to Germany of the treaty were entirely negative. The hope of securing large supplies of food from the Ukraine for the hungry population of the Central Powers was doomed to disappointment, and in addition it was discovered that a victor’s peace must be enforced. Germany had separated from Russia the provinces of Courland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Livonia with a view to incorporating them within the Empire, and a garrison had to be kept in these territories. She had recognized the independence of the Ukraine and of Georgia, and was therefore obliged to uphold with bayonets their shadow governments, which would otherwise be overthrown by the Bolsheviks. An army of occupation was maintained in Rumania, and German expeditions were sent to Finland, Baku, and the Donetz Basin. The original object of concluding a separate peace with Russia had been to enable the German army in the East to be transferred to the Western Front to take part in the final offensive against the Allies which Ludendorff planned for the Spring of 1918, and on which he was prepared to stake all in a final gamble for victory. Yet when the great attack was launched on March 21, a million men were still immobilized in the East, and half that number on the Western Front in the early stages of the Kaiserschlaeht might easily have turned the scale in favour of Germany. It was not until late summer, when the German losses had reached stupendous figures, that Ludendorff made his final withdrawals from East, but then they came a few at a time and too late.

Despite the failure of the offensive in the spring and summer, it was not until September 28 that Ludendorff would admit the necessity of an armistice, though he knew after August 8—”the black day of the German Army in the war” —that his “gambler’s throw” had failed and the initiative had passed into the hands of the Allies. And again his political sense failed him. Realizing that a democratization of the German political structure was a necessary preliminary for peace, he commanded a “Revolution from Above” and a proposal for an armistice on the basis of Mr. Wilson’s Fourteen Points, still ignorant of the fact that, since the Peace of Brest-Litovsk, this programme no longer represented “a full recitation of the conditions of peace.” In vain Prince Max of Baden pleaded for a preliminary period of negotiation, pointing out that so sudden a conversion to peace and democracy on the part of Germany indicated too openly a death-bed repentance. Ludendorff, in the last act of his supremacy, and haunted by the spectre of a complete breakdown of the army in the field, bore down all opposition and insisted upon the dispatch of the fatal telegram of October 4. Too late he became aware of the powers which he had conjured up against Germany. When the conditions of the pre-armistice agreement arrived from Washington, making it clear that in accepting them Germany would render herself unable to re-open hostilities, Ludendorff, aghast, repudiated his part in urging the opening of negotiations and declared for a war a outrance.

He fell, at last, a victim to the “Revolution from Above” which he himself had ordered. The responsibility for the conduct of the war had passed by the reforms of October, 1918, from the Supreme Command to the Cabinet, and on October 26, the Chancellor confronted the Kaiser with the choice which Ludendorff had so often put before him during the past two years. Either the Cabinet or the First Quartermaster-General must resign, and in this case Wilhelm II had no choice in making his decision. Ludendorff’s own weapon of an ultimatum had been turned against him. Two days later his request for permission to resign was granted, and he passed from active service, to be succeeded by his old rival, Groner. When the Revolution of November broke out in Germany he fled to Sweden wearing civilian clothes and disguised with blue glasses.


Ludendorff’s post-war career, after his return to Germany in February, 1919, did little to add to his reputation. He allied himself with the ultra-Nationalist elements of the Right, refusing to be reconciled in any way with the Weimar Republic, and he never missed an opportunity of adding a new weapon to his armoury of hate. One evening in the autumn of 1919, Ludendorff was dining with the head of the British Military Mission, Major-General Sir Neill Malcolm, and his officers, and was expatiating, with his usual vitriolic eloquence, on the way in which the Supreme Command had been betrayed by the revolution on the “home-front.” His style of speech was turgid and verbose, and in an effort to crystallize the meaning into a single sentence, General Malcolm asked him: “Do you mean, General, that you were stabbed in the back?” Ludendorff’s eyes lit up and he leapt upon the phrase like a dog on a bone. “Stabbed in the back?” he repeated. “Yes, that’s it, exactly, we were stabbed in the back.” And thus was born a legend which has never entirely perished.

Ludendorff was involved in the Kapp Putsch of 1920, and played a more courageous role than Adolf Hitler in the abortive rising at Munich in 1923, an event which brought him much personal popularity among the reactionaries. A year later he was elected to the Reichstag as the leader of “the National Socialist Party of Liberty,” and remained a deputy for four years. His popularity as a political leader, which at the start had been immense, soon waned, and when, at the close of 1924, Adolf Hitler was released from prison and began laboriously to build up his political machine, his followers turned with relief from the strict militarism of Ludendorff to the easier discipline of the Fiihrer.

The final political folly came in 1925 when Ludendorff was ignominiously defeated in the first presidential ballot on the death of Ebert, and though he remained in the Reichstag until the general election of 1928, he played but a minor role in national and party politics, emerging only to campaign vigorously against the Young Plan. He never forgave Hindenburg for accepting this reparation agreement and the bitter estrangement continued until the Marshal’s death.

Four years of unprecedented strain and responsibility during the War had left their mark on Ludendorff. Though he withdrew to his tents in Munich, he lived a life of tempestuous isolation. His public utterances grew wilder and less comprehensible, and his attacks upon his former colleagues, Hindenburg and Hitler, became more and more savage in invective. There were those who said that he had actually suffered a stroke at Spa on the night of September 28, 1918; others attributed his morbid brooding and fierce outbursts to the effect of an automobile accident shortly before his resignation, in which he had been rendered unconscious. His later eccentricities took the form of a vehement onslaught on Christianity and the belief that the downfall of European civilization was being encompassed by an unholy alliance of the Catholic Church, World Jewry, and the Grand Orient.

The attacks on Christianity lost nothing in robust virility or vivid imagination, but they came to be taken less and less seriously. Ludendorff’s own sincerity in proclaiming himself “a heathen—and proud of it” is, however, undoubted, and to the end his energies were unflagging. For him the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish activities of the Nazis proceeded all too slowly, and his criticism of their lack of thoroughness led more than once, after the Revolution, to the suppression of his newspaper. Unabashed, he never surrendered his liberty of thought and expression, and almost alone in the Third Reich spoke his mind without incurring personal interference. He refused in all cases to be patronized by the new rulers of Germany, and when, on his seventieth birthday, Hitler sought to make him a Field Marshal, he refused the honour, creating for himself the unique title of “Field Lord of the World War.”


As a soldier Ludendorff will always be assured of a high reputation, for more than any other of the military commanders of the World War he left his mark upon modern warfare. Almost alone among his contemporaries he recognized that, even under the conditions of trench warfare, the element of surprise was still a possibility, and in his search for the achievement of surprise he developed a new offensive technique.

Had Ludendorff added to his undoubted gifts the power of devolution he would unquestionably have been a great commander. He had collected round him one of the most brilliant staffs assembled during the War at any headquarters. Men such as Bauer, Bruchmuller, Geyer, and Wetzell were acknowledged experts in their own fields, and yet, as Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria has shown in his memoirs, Ludendorff was perpetually interfering in details which could and should have been left to staff officers and army commanders. It was this inability to decentralize which imposed so crushing a burden of responsibility upon him throughout the War. The normal duties of a high commander are sufficiently onerous without adding to them those of subordinates, and when to these is added the assumption of responsibility for the conduct of internal policy and national affairs, the load becomes more than any human being can carry and preserve full sanity.

For it was this passion for supreme control which led Ludendorff into the uncharted seas of political vagary and intrigue, and he provides a striking example of the dangers of an expert, brilliant in his own calling, translated to an unaccustomed sphere. He demanded unquestioning support from the “home-front” without trying in return to understand its problems. He bullied where he should have cajoled and alienated where he should have found allies. His unbounded confidence in himself and in his judgment was matched only by his complete contempt for the abilities and morale of his opponents, whether military or political, and the wisdom of a great soldier was rendered sterile by the unwisdom of a poor politician.


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John Ongley's picture
John Ongley · 6 years ago

No footnotes?


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