Hitler & Clausewitz:
The Philosopher as War Cry, Part Four
Conclusion: Freedom or Death
After his death, Clausewitz had a public destiny rare for generals, let alone theorists. He was not only enthusiastically celebrated in the Third Reich, a regime firmly dedicated to many of the Prussian virtues, but, for better and for worse, his words proved to be of foundational importance for Hitler and his own life’s work.
Gauging Hitler and his officers’ actual knowledge of Clausewitz, and the latter’s influence on their conduct, is difficult. What is not in question is that two of Clausewitz’s most eloquent sayings were repeatedly cited to justify Hitler’s actions, all the way to their grim conclusion. I am inclined to agree with Baldwin’s suggestion that “Hitler used Clausewitz as a source and justification for his thoughts in a fundamentally different sense than he did any of his other purported spiritual predecessors.”
The Formule regarding the primacy of politics in war justified the military’s submission to Hitler’s biocentric vision of politics, with conventional war giving way to ethnic war (I do not say “race war,” for Hitler’s Eastern policy was more motivated, it seems to me, by a partly subjective ethnic identification than with strictly racial criteria, which would have recognized the genetic proximity of Slavs). More striking still, the Bekenntnis served as a kind of incantation for Hitler, as the ultimate justification for his struggle in his most decisive and darkest hours – during his 1923 trial, in Mein Kampf, in the Second Book, in major Party speeches, after the fall of Mussolini, and in his final Political Testament. The watchword was always the same: the honor of a struggle depends in no way upon its outcome, there is no shame but submission, and renewal is always possible if only there is the will.
In the last days of the Reich, Clausewitz’s words provided Hitler with comfort and justification to refuse surrender and fight on even as victory became materially impossible, in the increasingly dim hope that Fortune would grant a reprieve (that the Western Allies would lose heart, that they would fall out with the Soviet Union, or whatever). This came at an enormous cost: “Of a total of 5.3 million German soldiers killed during the Second World War, no fewer than 3.3 million died in 1944 and 1945. This means that during the final 18 months of the conflict there were almost twice as many casualties as during its first four years.”
The images of Hitler bestowing medals and embracing his Youth, even boys, readying them to fight on, have something at once touching and horrifying about them. There was also a tragic and heroic glory in the awesome sacrifice of these men, young and old, to save their fatherland. These sacrifices were in vain, however, and one can also understand those Germans, above all Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who wished to end the destruction by surrendering, and who considered Hitler’s continued resistance to be criminal. For Hitler, on the other hand, the Germans’ sacrifice provided a heroic example of dogged resistance which, like the Spartan King Leonidas and his famous three hundred warriors, would ring forever. As he said in his Political Testament, these were “six years of war, which in spite of all setbacks will go down one day in history as the most glorious and valiant demonstration of a nation’s life purpose.”
Of course, Hitler was hardly alone in this dialectic of violence, notably in Roosevelt’s doctrine of demanding unconditional surrender – as though a politician such as Hitler, who had built his entire career on the denunciation of the “November Criminals” and Marxism, could be expected to prematurely and unconditionally surrender to a liberal-Communist coalition. As the novelist Ernst Jünger wrote in his diary at the end of the war: “Unconditional surrender, that is the counterpart to total war.” There indeed is a sense in which the Allied war effort had overwhelmed any political aims: the extermination of National Socialism became an end in itself, no price being too high in terms of the massacre of innocents (fire-bombing, mass rape, ethnic cleansing, etc.) or of handing over half of Europe to Communist totalitarianism. Clausewitz also writes on the possibility of war overcoming politics: “That the political point of view should end completely when war begins is only conceivable in contests which are wars of life and death, from pure hatred.”
Clausewitz and Hitler were literally of another age. The call to resist at any cost was futile given that the Western Allies, strangely and in contradiction to traditional balance-of-power politics, had decided to destroy the German Reich at any cost, even handing over Central and Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union, a far larger and more powerful empire. Only during the Cold War, which would last half a century, did the Western Allies concede to creating a rump German state in the form of the Federal Republic. By then, the Hitlerian code of honor had been rendered incomprehensible in a postwar Germany thoroughly purged of any national spirit, left bereft of any will-to-life by revulsion at the real and imagined excesses of National Socialism, by a foreign-imposed systematic reeducation program, and, perversely, the sheer material comfort enabled by the Wirtschaftswunder. Attachment to honor, even in doomed struggle and unto death, is alien to our extremely comfortable and liberal generation of today, wedded to materialism and comfort. We imagine this ethos more among the Japanese samurai. Yukio Mishima’s heroic suicide is a rare example that might still speak to us. But such honor is by no means alien to the Western tradition, for instance being evident in the chivalric tradition of the Middle Ages and in the Stoic philosophy and way of life of the Romans.
As Christopher Bassford concedes, Clausewitz scholars have been reticent to explore the influences and possible parallels between Clausewitz’s life, thought, and code of honor and that of Hitler. This is inexcusable. For my part, not being fluent in German, I cannot read the Bekenntnis and fully judge for myself. What is clear, however, is that many scholars have focused upon On War to such an extent that they give the impression of its author as an almost ethereal being. This is not the case: Clausewitz was a man of flesh and blood, passionately and even fanatically committed to his fatherland.
Such codes of honor are by no means “nihilistic,” as the liberals often claim. If anything the exact opposite is true. Willingness to sacrifice oneself on grounds of honor and principle can inspire others, making those principles ring forever. This manly disposition reflects an old tribal ethics that is deeply embedded, I am sure, in human nature. Furthermore, an exalted tradition of honor-bound resistance has historically enabled nations to renew themselves, so long as the people itself remained, when the occupying empire inevitably crumbled. One thinks of those European nations, such as Poland, the Baltic countries, or Romania, which survived under foreign domination by always endeavoring to maintain their identities. To this day, the Poles and Hungarians honor their great uprisings against foreign domination, in 1944 and 1956 respectively. Even though these efforts were in vain in their immediate contexts, their heroic sacrifice continues to inspire.
In conclusion, one must remember that the demoliberal and Communist Allies, the egalitarians, by no means restricted their struggle to the destruction of Hitlerism. As Churchill told the British Parliament on September 21, 1943, “The core of Germany is Prussia. There is the source of the recurring pestilence.” Less than four years later, the occupying Allied powers declared:
The Prussian State, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany, has de facto ceased to exist.
Guided by the interests of the preservation of peace and security of peoples, and with the desire to assure further reconstruction of the political life on a democratic basis, the Control Council enacts as follows:
The Prussian State together with its central government and all its agencies is abolished.
Thus, what was at stake in both world wars was not merely Hohenzollern autocracy, German imperialism, or National Socialism, but the Prussian tradition itself. And what was Clausewitz but the flower of Prussiandom? Even a man as compromised as François Mitterrand would bemoan the death of Prussia in his memoirs and wish for her rebirth as an integral part of Europe’s return to sovereignty.
For both Clausewitz and Hitler, freedom meant, among other things, soldier-citizenship in a strong state, being willing and able to risk one’s life in war. As Clausewitz wrote to his wife regarding the humiliation he felt after Jena: “This peace brings only submission, and I will always refuse it. If I cannot live, free and respected, as a citizen of a free and respected State, and enjoy in your arms the golden fruits of peace, then let it flee forever from my heart.” And: “No man feels more than me the need for the honor and dignity of the nation.” Hitler too, like millions of other Germans, had intimately felt the humiliating injustice of the peace of Versailles and the daily foreign impositions of the Weimar Republic. In his very first speech as the newly-elected Reich Chancellor on February 10, 1933, Hitler told his countrymen, “There came a time when one could be proud to be German only if one looked to the past, but had to be ashamed when looking upon the present.” In the war for the honor and sovereignty of the fatherland, both Clausewitz and Hitler might have claimed the popular watchword, “Freedom or death!” But for them, this was no idle phrase, but one written with one’s blood.
1. Baldwin, “Clausewitz in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History, p. 11.
2. Bernd Wegner, “The Ideology of Self-Destruction: Hitler and the Choreography of Defeat,” German Historical Institute London Bulletin, 26, no. 2 (2004), pp. 18-33, 23.
3. Something even a man as compromised as François Mitterrand could recognize. Guillaume Durocher, “François Mitterrand: European Statesman, Anti-American, & Judeophobe,” Counter-Currents, August 18, 2015.
4. Baldwin, “Clausewitz in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History, p. 15.
5. Clausewitz, On War, Book 8, Chapter 6B, p. 359.
6. I refer you to the innumerable comments of philosophers on the necessary role of suffering in moral education, particularly Boethius and Schopenhauer. Or put another way: observe that Westerners are ever more reduced to a coddled existence within the walls of “schools” and “the office.” Is such a limited experience likely to increase or decrease their moral character and courage?
7. Christopher Clarke, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (New York: Penguin, 2007), Introduction.
9. Durocher, “François Mitterrand,” Counter-Currents.
10. In his conclusion to his last great academic study, dedicated to Clausewitz, Raymond Aron meditates on “the grand illusion” of Europeans tempted by “the farewell to arms.” Aron concludes that the freedom of citizenship could in no way be separated from the willingness to be a soldier, particularly citing his own case as a citizen of a French Republic existentially threatened by the Cold War and as a Jew whose State of Israel was equally endangered by the Arabs. Raymond Aron, Penser la guerre, Clausewitz (Paris: Gallimard, 1976).
11. Quoted in ibid., Vol. 1, pp.13-14.
12. Quoted in ibid., pp. 14-15.
13. Original text: “Es kam die Zeit, da man sich nur dann mit Stolz zum Deutschen bekennen durfte, wenn man den Blick in die Vergangenheit richtete, sich aber schämen mußte, wenn man die Gegenwart besah.”
14. In this I am not saying anything original. Hitler’s published collection of wartime speeches was after all entitled The Greater-German Freedom Struggle. When I learned of this title years ago without knowing its context, I found this incomprehensibly cynical. (I have William L. Shirer’s handiwork to blame for that.) Obviously, one must first know that Western tradition which understands freedom as a collective condition of the community, before this truism was forgotten due to the rise of the demagogic solipsism which is individualism. This is reflected in the folk proverb, “No man is an island.”
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