Translated by Simona Draghici
The following translation from Carl Schmitt appears online for the first time in commemoration of Schmitt’s birth on July 11, 1888. The translation originally appeared in Carl Schmitt, Four Essays, 1931–1938, ed. and trans. Simona Draghici (Washington, D.C.: Plutarch Press, 1999).
In a certain sense, there have been total wars at all times; a theory of the total war, however, presumably dates only from the time of Clausewitz who would talk of “abstract” and “absolute” wars.” Later on, under the impact of the experiences of the last Great War, the formula of total war has acquired a specific meaning and a particular effectiveness. Since 1920, it has become the prevailing catchword. It was first brought out in sharp relief in the French literature, in book titles like La guerre totale. Afterwards, between 1926 and 1928, it found its way into the language of the proceedings of the disarmament committee at Geneva. In concepts such as “war potential” (potentiel de guerre), “moral disarmament” (désarmement moral) and “total disarmament” (désarmement total). The fascist doctrine of the “total state” came to it by way of the state; the association yielded the conceptual pair: total state, total war. In Germany, the publication of the Concept of the Political has since 1927 expanded the pair of totalities to a set of three: total enemy, total war, total state. Ernst Jünger’s book of 1930 Total Mobilization made the formula part of the general consciousness. Nonetheless, it was only Ludendorff’s 1936 booklet entitled Der Totale Krieg (The Total War) that lent it an irresistible force and caused its dissemination beyond all bounds.
The formula is omnipresent; it forces into view a truth whose horrors the general consciousness would rather shun. Such formulas, however, are always in danger of becoming widespread nationally and internationally and of being degraded to summary slogans, to mere gramophone records of the publicity mill. Hence some clarifications may be appropriate.
(a) A war may be total in the sense of summoning up one’s strength to the limit, and of the commitment of everything to the last reserves. It may also be called total in the sense of the unsparing use of war means of annihilation. When the well-known English author J. F. C. Fuller writes in a recent article, entitled “The First of the League Wars, Its Lessons and Omens,” that the Italian campaign in Abyssinia was a modern total war, he only refers to the use of efficacious weapons (airplanes and gas), whereas looked at from another vantage point, Abyssinia in fact was not capable of waging a modern total war nor did Italy use its reserves to the limit, reach the highest intensity, and lead to an oil blockade or to the closing of the Suez Canal, because of the pressure exerted through the sanctions imposed by the League of Nations.
(b) A war may be total either on both sides or on one side only. It may also be deliberately limited, rationed and measured out, because of the geographical situation, the war technique in use, and also the predominant political principles of both sides. The typical 18th-century war, the so-called “cabinet war,” was essentially and deliberately a partial war. It rested on the clear segregation of the soldiers participating in the war from the non-participant inhabitants and non-combatants. Nevertheless, the Seven Years War of Frederick the Great was relatively total, on Prussia’s side, when compared with the other powers’ mobilization of forces. A situation, typical of Germany, showed itself readily in that case: the adversity of geographical conditions and the foreign coalitions compelled a German state to mobilize its forces to a higher degree than its more affluent and fortunate bigger neighbors.
(c) The character of the war may change during the belligerent showdown. The will to fight may grow limp or it may intensify, as it happened in the 1914–1918 world war, when the war trend on the German side towards the mobilization of all the economic and industrial reserves soon forced the English side to introduce general conscription.
(d) Finally, some other methods of confrontation and trial of strength, which are not total, always develop within the totality of war. Thus for a time, everyone seeks to avoid a total war which naturally carries a total risk. In this way, after the world war, there were the so-called military reprisals (the 1923 Corfu Conflict, Japan-China in 1932), followed by the attempts at non-military, economic sanctions, according to Article 16 of the Covenant of the League of Nations (against Italy, autumn 1935), and finally, certain methods of power testing on foreign soil (Spain 1936–1937) emerged in a way that could be correctly interpreted only in close connection with the total character of modern warfare. They are intermediate and transitional forms between open war and true peace; they derive their meaning from the fact that total war looms large in the background as a possibility, and an understandable caution recommends itself in the delineation of the conflictual spaces. Likewise, it is only from this point of view that they can be grasped by the science of international law.
The core of the matter lies in warfare. From the nature of the total war one may grasp the character and the whole aspect of state totality; from the special character of the decisive weapons one may deduce the peculiar character and aspect of the totality of war. But it is the total enemy that gives the total war its meaning.
The different services and types of warfare, land warfare, sea warfare, air warfare, they each experience the totality of war in a particular way. A corresponding world of notions and ideas piles on each of these types of warfare. The traditional notions of “levée en masse” (levy), “nation armée” (nation in arms), and “Volk in Waffen” (the people in arms) belong to land warfare. Out of these notions emerged the continental doctrine of total war, essentially as a doctrine of land warfare, and that thanks mainly to Clausewitz. Sea warfare, on the other hand, has its own strategic and tactical methods and criteria; moreover, until recently, it has been first and foremost a war against the opponent’s trade and economy, whence a war against non-combatants, an economic war, which by its laws of blockade, contraband, and prizes, drew neutral trade into the hostilities, as well. Air warfare has not so far built up a similar fully-fledged and independent system of its own. There is no doctrine of air warfare yet that would correspond to the world of notions and concepts accumulated with regard to land and sea warfare. Nonetheless, as a consequence of air warfare, the overall configuration sways in the main towards a three-dimensional total war.
The “if” of a total war is beyond any doubt today. The “how” may vary. The totality is perceptible from opposite vantage points. Hence the standard type of guide and leader in a total war is necessarily different. It would be too simple an equation to accept that the soldier will step into the centre of this totality as the prevailing type in a total war to the same extent as in other kinds of wars previously. If, as it has been said, total mobilization abolishes the separation of the soldier from the civilian, it may very well happen that the soldier changes into a civilian as the civilian changes into a soldier, or both may change into something new, a third alternative. In reality, it all depends on the general character of the war. A real war of religion turns the soldiers into the tools of priests or preachers. A total war that is waged on behalf of the economy becomes the tool of economic power groups. There are other forms in which the soldier himself is the typical model and the ascending expression of the character of the people. Geographical conditions, racial and social peculiarities of all kinds, are factors that determine the type of warfare waged by great nations. Even today it is unlikely that a nation could engage in all the three kinds of warfare to a degree equal to the three-dimensional total war. It is probable that the centre of gravity in the deployment of forces will always rest with one or the other of the three kinds of warfare and the doctrine of total war will draw on it.
Until now the history of the European peoples has been dominated by the contrast of the English sea warfare with the Continental land warfare. It is not a matter of “traders and heroes” or that sort of thing, but rather the recognition that any of the various kinds of warfare may become total, and out of its own characteristics generate a special world of notions and ideals as its own doctrine and also relevant to international and constitutional law, particularly in the assessment of the soldier’s worth and of his position in the general body of the people. It would be a mistake to regard the English sea warfare of the last three centuries in the light of the total land warfare of Clausewitz’s theory, essentially as mere trade and economic but not total warfare, and to misinterpret it as unconnected with and markedly different from totality. It is the English sea warfare that generated the kernel of a total world view.
The English sea warfare is total in its capacity for total enmity. It knows how to mobilize religious, ideological, spiritual, and moral forces as only few of the great wars in world history have done. The English sea warfare against Spain was a world-wide combat of the Germanic and Romance peoples, between Protestantism and Catholicism, Calvinism and Jesuitism, and there are few instances of such outbursts of enmity as intense and final as Cromwell’s against the Spaniards. The English war against Napoleon likewise changed from a sea war into a “crusade.” In the war against Germany between 1914 and 1918, the world-wide English propaganda knew how to whip up enormous moral and spiritual energies in the name of civilization and humanity, of democracy and freedom, against the Prussian-German “militarism.” The English mind had also proved its ability to interpret the industrial-technical upsurge of the 19th century in the terms of the English worldview. Herbert Spencer drew an extremely effective picture of history that was disseminated all over the world, in countless works of popularization, the propagandistic force of which proved its worth in the 1914–1918 World War. It was the philosophy of mankind’s progress, presented as an evolution from feudalism to trade and industry, from the political to the economic, from soldiers to industrialists, from war to peace. It portrayed the soldier essentially as Prussian-German, eo ipso “feudal reactionary,” a “medieval” figure standing in the way of progress and peace. Moreover, out of its specificity, the English sea warfare evolved a full, self-contained system of international law. It asserted itself and its own concepts held on their own against the corresponding concepts of Continental international law throughout the 19th century. There is an Anglo-Saxon concept of enemy, which in essence rejects the differentiation between combatants and non-combatants, and an Anglo-Saxon conception of war that incorporates the so-called economic war. In short, the fundamental concepts and norms of this English international law are total as such and certainly indicative of an ideology in itself total.
Finally, the English constitutional regulations turned the subordination of the soldiers to the civilians into an ideological principle and imposed it upon the Continent during the liberal 19th century. By those standards, civilization lies in the rule of the bourgeois, civilian ideal which is essentially unsoldierly. Accordingly, the constitution is always but a civil-bourgeois system in which, as Clemenceau put it, the soldier’s only raison d’être is to defend the civilian bourgeois society, while basically he is subject to civilian command. The Prussian soldier state carried on a century-long political struggle on the home front against this bourgeois constitutional ideal. It succumbed to it in the Autumn of 1918. The history of Prussian Germany’s home politics from 1848 to 1918 was a ceaseless conflict between the army and parliament, an uninterrupted battle which the government had to fight with the parliament over the structure of the army, and the army budget necessary to make ready for an unavoidable war, that were determined not by the necessities of foreign policy but rather by compromises regarding internal policy. The dictate of Versailles, which stipulated the army’s organization and its equipment to the smallest detail, in an agreement of foreign policy, was preceded by half a century of periodical agreements of internal policy between the Prussian-German soldier state and its internal policy opponents, in which all the details of the organization and the equipment of the army had been decided by the internal policy. The conflict between bourgeois society and the Prussian soldier state led to an unnatural isolation of the War Office from the power of command and to many other separations, consistently rooted in the opposition between a bourgeois constitutional ideal imported from England either directly or through France and Belgium, on the one hand, and the older constitutional ideal of the German soldiery, on the other.
Today Germany has surmounted that division and achieved a close integration of its soldier force. Indeed, attempts will not fail to be made to describe it as militarism, in the manner of earlier propaganda methods, and to hold Germany guilty of the advent of total war. Such questions of guilt too belong to the totality of the ideological wrangles. Le combat spirituel est aussi brutal que la bataille d’hommes (spiritual combat is as brutal as the battles of men). Nonetheless, before nations stagger into a total war once more, one must raise the question whether a total enmity truly exists among the European nations nowadays. War and enmity belong to the history of nations. But the worst misfortune only occurs wherever the enmity is generated by the war itself, as in the 1914–1918 war, and not as it would be right and sensible, namely that an older, unswayed enmity, true and total to the Day of Judgment, should led to a total war.
Originally published in Völkerbund und Völkerrecht, vol. 4, 1937, this essay was reproduced in Posirionen und Begriffe im Kampf mit Weimar-Gent-Versailles, 1929–1939, (Hamburg, 1940), pp. 235–239.
1. General Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) is best known for his book Vom Kriege, never finished and published posthumously, which incidentally has been translated into English under the title On War. There are numerous versions available in print.
2. Carl Schmitt’s own political principles of “will” and “energy,” components of his qualitative concept of total state, derive from this characteristic feature of “total war”: collective determination to assume a cause considered worthwhile and unreserved commitment to its fulfillment. As a generalized rallying around and enthusiasm for a cause and a particular course of action, it is a frequent phenomenon of social psychology, yet its usually ephemeral character makes it unfit as a durable basis of any social structure. I remember the enthusiasm with which in 1982, to a man, the Argentines, for instance, rallied to the idea of going to war to free the Maldives and hurried to put it into practice, and the accompanying hatred which grew against the British. The enthusiasm cooled off quickly, but not the hatred, which lingered on. To perpetuate the enthusiasm, a plethora of other factors have to be brought in, of which, in the case of Germany at the beginning of the ’thirties, Carl Schmitt actually had not a clue.
3. The “lesson” is in keeping with the Hitlerite Frederician cult and legitimating tradition and does not claim to be historically accurate. Although a digression that seems out of place, it has a certain significance for the time it was made. In the autumn of 1936, Hitler circulated a memorandum revealing his expansionist intentions. Then in 1937, the organization of the nation to serve those intentions began, a process which coincided with the rise of the SS state. In November of the same year the German media were ordered to keep silent about the preparations for a “total war.” Bearing all that in mind, Schmitt’s short digression reads more as a warning of danger than a point of military strategy.
4 . What is interesting here is his insistence on the existential essence of the phenomenon, which is consonant with his earlier definition of the political and at the same time renders the distinction between the professional soldier and the civilian meaningless. Moreover, total enmity with its implicit elimination of the adversary excludes any prospect of a peace treaty, as the war is to go on until one of the belligerents is annihilated.
5. Das Volk in Waffen (The Nation in Arms) happens to be the title of a work on total war by Colmar von der Goltz (1843–1916), published in 1883, and which is an important stepping stone in the reflection on modern warfare that led to Ludendorff’s book.
6. At the beginning of February 1938, Adolf Hitler became commander in chief of the German armed forces, appointing General Keitel his assistant at the head of the High Command of the Armed Forces, as the War Ministry was dissolved.
7. Eventually only the Soviet Union came closest to Carl Schmitt’s expectations, while the United States waged a fully-fledged three-dimensional war, dictated by its geographical position and sustained by its vast economic and technical resources most of which remained outside the battle zone.
8. For a broader treatment of the subject-matter see Carl Schmitt’s Land und Meer, which as Land and Sea is available in an English translation (Washington, D.C.: Plutarch Press, 1997).
9. The conflict between the civil society and the military in Germany was the subject-matter of a longer essay by Carl Schmitt, published in Hamburg in 1934 under the title Staatsgefüge und Zusammenbruch des Zweites Reiches. Der Sieg des Burgers über den Soldaten (The State Structure and the Collapse of the Second Reich. The Burghers’ Victory Over the Soldiers).
10. Röhm, the ideological soldier, had been eliminated in 1934, at the same time as the political soldiers, the Generals von Schleicher and von Bredow. Furthermore, as already mentioned in note 6 above, the War Ministry ceased to exist at the beginning of 1938, while the Commander in Chief, Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg was removed from his post for having compromised himself by marrying a “lady with a past,” and his prospective successor, General von Fritsch was forced to resign on a trumped-up Charge of homosexuality. At the same time, sixteen other generals were retired and forty-four were transferred. Göring who had been very active in carrying out this “integration” got for it only the title of field marshal, as Hitler kept for himself the supreme military command.