Hitler & Clausewitz:
The Philosopher as War Cry, Part Two
Part 2 of 4 (Part One here)
Clausewitz in the Third Reich I: A National Hero
Clausewitz’s presence in this period of German history cannot be reduced to Hitler. As a Prussian patriot and the preeminent theorist of modern war, Clausewitz was unsurprisingly enthusiastically celebrated in the Third Reich. This had obvious benefits for the glorification of both Germany and warfare. Furthermore, the National Socialists were eager to portray their movement as being in the lineage of the Prussian/German tradition of politics and warfare, from Luther through Frederick the Great to Bismarck. Clausewitz was a natural part of this, and the least one can say is that much of his life and work – the dogged resistance to foreign domination, the deference to authority, the enlistment and inspiration of the masses, the necessity of violence, the importance of emotions and “moral forces,” the need for iron will, and so on – are eminently compatible with National Socialism.
On War was thus included “on the list of the first hundred books for Nazi bookstores, along with the works of such luminaries as Rosenberg, Darré, Nietzsche, Bismarck, Ranke, Wagner and Jünger.” The National Socialists argued that Clausewitz was relevant to the modern age. As one young scholar argued in his 1934 thesis on nation and state in Clausewitz’s thought, “Thus Clausewitz stretches out his hand to us over the civilian nineteenth century.”
Obviously, the political use and spreading among the population of Clausewitz’s sayings and principles inevitably led them to become, at best, vulgarized. Public culture was officially politicized in the Third Reich in the service of public aims. This included discussion of historical matters such as Clausewitz, as the German army’s officers’ publication candidly admitted in 1944:
Never before, as in these war years, has all history so clearly recognized its duty: the mobilization of the past in the interests of the preservation of the present and the future . . . In accordance with this fundamental conviction, Clausewitz is here treated in a manner which does not, of course, satisfy the historical thirst for knowledge and the requirement of completeness, but in one which may nevertheless demonstrate the continuing importance and relevance of this truly great German.
Clausewitz was then cited in numerous contexts as an inspiration, especially in military publications. His theory was quoted in support of civilian control of the military and of the rise of total war, as in the same article:
The primacy of politics over war is the axis around which Clausewitz’s thought concerning war revolved.
Thus Clausewitz had attained the peak of his conception of the uninterrupted nature of war . . . War is one side, peace the other of an indivisible historical reality . . . Thus the liberal idea that war is an unfortunate interruption of peaceful conditions . . . was overcome. Only this overcoming brought forth for the first time, as a possibility, the character of the concept “total war” as we know it today.
Clausewitz in the Third Reich II: Harmony with the Führer
The public glorification of historic German heroes and of Hitler as the Führer was omnipresent in the Third Reich, intended among other things to inspire group pride and cohesion. Hitler was on occasion compared with or even equated with Clausewitz, with varying degrees of plausibility. The Israeli historian Jehuda Wallach reports:
As early as 1937 German General [Horst] von Metzsch wrote in a book with the significant title Clausewitz Catechism that “the frequent conformity of the two great sons of the German people, Clausewitz and Hitler, is downright amazing. They are a kindred pair (Wahlverwandte).”
After the defeat of the Allies and the conquest of France in 1940, Hitler’s prestige rose to unprecedented heights, and his stunning diplomatic and military triumphs were explained in terms of adherence to Clausewitzian theory. General Fritz Willich extolled that by ruthlessly making war an instrument of policy, Hitler had succeeded in achieving largely bloodless victories:
Already before the outbreak of this war, we were witnesses to how the Führer made use of war, that is, the determination to go to war, as the most effective means of his politics, in the occupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss of Austria, in the liberation of the Sudetenland and in the annexation of the protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia. Doesn’t this correspond exactly to Clausewitz’s view when he writes: “If one concedes the influence of the political goal on war . . . then there is no longer any limit and one must put up with descending even to such wars that consist merely in threatening the enemy and in negotiations.”
The leading scholar and editor of Clausewitz, Karl Linnebach, similarly published a quite perceptive comparison of Hitlerian and Anglo-French strategy, the latter reduced by timidity (itself stemming, I would add, from a lack of moral self-confidence) to a mere economic blockade:
We can, as Clausewitz has pointed out, choose different roads in war. We can, for instance, direct our intentions to the aim of doing as much harm as possible to our enemy in the economic field. But that is not the direct road and woe to him whom the God of War finds treading it. This is exactly what happened to our enemies. The Führer has forged the sharp sword of the German army and welded the whole German nation together, into one great arm, in which – to use one of Clausewitz’ metaphors – the army formed the edge, the people the steel blade. Our enemies, on the other hand, thought that behind their protective wall of concrete and wire entanglements, an elegant rapier would suffice as a weapon. They believed that they could win the war by means of a blockade and without bloodshed. Hoping to avoid a decision by arms and not to be forced to make any sacrifices, the French Government declared at the beginning of this war, that they would be not only sparing, but niggardly with their soldiers’ blood.
However, comparisons between Clausewitz and Hitler could be less analytical and take on the form of a mystical equation, especially as the doomed war effort assumed an increasingly total and sacrificial form:
As late as in 1943 General [Friedrich] von Cochenhausen maintained in an introduction to an abridged edition of On War: “If one lets Clausewitz’ theory affect one’s senses and bring them into connection with the political and martial occurrence of the last years, then one will perceive that one’s psychical deportment and one’s notion of the nature of war has found a perfect embodiment in the Führer.”
A 1944 anthology of Clausewitz’s writings asserted:
In the current German fight for freedom, the German people . . . turns to Clausewitz, the German philosopher of war; for it has, admiringly and gratefully, experienced the unity of political combat and ingenious generalship in its Führer Adolf Hitler to an historically unique extent.
For the most part, these statements must not be taken as literal or descriptive, but as metaphorical and exhortative: the writers participate in the glorification of the Führer as their prophetic tribal chieftain in a period of civil-religious revolution and war for national survival. The assertion of a kind of transcendental harmony and unity between Clausewitz and Hitler professes the same harmony and unity between theory and action in warfare, between Germany’s past and present, and indeed proclaims the spiritual and genetic continuity of the folk-community.
Hitler & the Formule: Civilian Control & Radicalization of the Military
I have discussed Clausewitz’s place in Hitler’s private conversations and in the Third Reich, and inferred some parallels and possible influences. In the following, I will show two very specific ways in which Hitler repeatedly cited Clausewitz: firstly asserting political control of the military, secondly as the foundational justification for struggle. Both are important.
Very significant here is Clausewitz’s famous definition of war, what Raymond Aron called the Formule: “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means.” Isolated, the Formule asserts the hegemony of politics over war, but in the wider context of Clausewitz’s complex theory, this must be qualified:
- Warfare ought to be an instrument of policy.
- In war, there is a tendency for an escalation towards (but never reaching) “absolute war” (historically: total war), in which war may overwhelm politics and become war for war’s sake. (This is particularly so in the modern era, with the ever-greater ability to mobilize a society and inflict destruction, and the concurrent rise in hate-filled national passions in war.)
- While war is a tool of policy, policy must respect the possibilities of the tool: “the tendencies and views of policy shall not be incompatible with these means, the art of war in general.”
Clausewitz does not seem to have dwelt on the definition of “politics” in depth, either what it was or what it should be. It is worth noting that Frederick the Great, the most illustrious Prussian King and Clausewitz’s model of the ideal warlord alongside Napoleon, similarly prescribed that “[w]ar itself must be conducted according to the principles of policy, to inflict the bloodiest blows against one’s enemies.” However, by “policy” (la politique), Frederick exclusively means foreign policy, which is to say that war must be pursued according to the imperative of state survival in international relations.
Some have asserted that the Germans, in one or both world wars, inverted the meaning of the Formule, reducing politics to the service of the “total war” as an end in itself. I will only discuss what is certain: Hitler’s own words on the matter. On several occasions, Hitler explicitly cited the Formule to assert civilian control of the military and the radicalization of warfare to reflect his biocentric view of politics as a people’s struggle for survival.
In his unpublished Second Book on foreign policy, written in 1928, Hitler quotes the Formule in justifying a people’s launching of war in order to secure the economic means for its existence. In a January 27, 1932 speech to the Düsseldorf Industry Club, Hitler affirmed that German politics must not submit to foreign imperatives such as the Treaty of Versailles or debt obligations, but have as its sole lodestar the organization and well-being of the German people:
If anyone tells me that foreign politics are the foremost determining factor in the life of a people, then I must first ask: What do you mean by “politics”? There are a number of definitions: Frederick the Great said: “Politics is the art of serving one’s State with every means.” Bismarck stated: “Politics is the art of the possible” – based upon the concept that everything within the realm of possibility should be done to serve the State and, in the subsequent transition to the concept of nationalities, the nation. Yet another considers that this service to the people can be effected by peaceful as well as military means, for Clausewitz said: “War is the continuation of politics, albeit with different means.” Conversely, Clemenceau believed that peace today is nothing other than the continuation of the battle and the pursuit of the battle aim, although, once again, with different means. In short: politics is and can be nothing other than the realization of the vital interests of a people and the practical waging of its life-battle with all means available. Thus it is quite clear that this life-battle has its initial starting point in the people itself, and that at the same time the people is the object, the value in and of itself, which is to be preserved. All of the functions of this body politic should ultimately fulfill only one purpose: securing the preservation of this body in the future. Therefore I can neither say that foreign policy is of primary significance, nor that economic policy has priority. Naturally a people will require an economy in order to live. But this economy is also only one of the functions the body politic requires for its existence. Primarily, however, the most essential thing is the starting point itself, namely the people in and of itself.
For Hitler, politics well understood is a genetically-defined people’s struggle for survival. Adding to it the Clausewitzian Formule that war answers to policy, it follows that warfare must serve the people’s evolutionary struggle for survival.
Under Hitler’s rule, Clausewitz’s Formule was cited in asserting civilian, that is to say National Socialist, control over the conservative military establishment. By the late 1930s, the Wehrmacht was the last autonomous power center facing the regime. The historian P. M. Baldwin writes:
The document “Die Kriegsführung als Problem der Organisation” was issued by the OKW [Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or Supreme Command of the Armed Forces], over which Hitler has assumed personal control in February, on 19 April 1938, that is, shortly after the Fritsch-Blomberg affair had cleared some of the conservative underbrush out of the General Staff so that Hitler could implement his war plans unhindered. In it Clausewitz is quoted in support of the assertion that the soldier has no higher duty than to obey the dictates of the political command. “If the assertion is advanced that one cannot demand of a Commander-in-Chief of the army that he conquer in accordance with a ‘foreign concept,’ then it should be recalled that we soldiers are all bound by the duty to conquer according to the political concept of the head of state . . . To lead the complete war effort is the affair of the Führer and Reich Chancellor.” Similarly, in later disputes over Russian strategy, Hitler invoked Clausewitz to subdue his recalcitrant generals.
The OKW memorandum included an appendix, entitled “Was ist der Krieg der Zukunft?,” which referred to the Clausewitzian concept of “absolute war” and justified war as an affair of every citizen:
War in its absolute form is the violent conflict of two or more states using all means.
Despite all attempts to proscribe war, it remains a law of nature which may be checked but never eliminated, and which serves the maintenance of the people and the state or the assurance of its historical future.
This high moral aim gives war its total character and its ethical justification.
It lifts it above being a purely military act or a military duel for the sake of some economic advantage.
Stakes, winnings and losses rise to hitherto unsuspected heights. Not only damage, but the annihilation of state and people threatens the loser of any war.
Thus the war of today becomes a national emergency and a fight for survival for each individual.
Since each person has everything to win and everything to lose, each must contribute the utmost.
Any advocate of military conscription could have written such lines, with the difference that, in line with the National Socialist conception, the final aim of war is not state power, economic gain, or abstract values (“individual liberty,” “equality”), but “the maintenance of the people.” Baldwin concludes:
The use of Clausewitzian terminology at the beginning was no coincidence. The great philosopher of war was hailed also as the prophet of total war and as a star witness for the accuracy of the assertion that, “only those nations can maintain themselves which can and are determined to throw themselves completely onto the scales of war.” Total war was thought of as the practical realization of absolute war, the overcoming of the “modifications of reality.” Prompted by the strongest motives, military and political goals coincided and utmost effort was to be expended in the attempt to destroy utterly the enemy that would not hesitate to do likewise.
Hitler later cited the Formule in a December 18, 1940 annual speech to military cadets at the Berlin Sports Palace justifying Operation Barbarossa. With winter settling in and no immediate victory in sight, the Führer called on the German youth to sacrifice themselves in this titanic and brutal endeavor by participating in the German nation’s epic world-historical struggle. War is inevitable, Hitler asserted, by the multiplication of human beings and their struggle for limited living-space. While other nations built vast colonial empires, Germany had been left on the sidelines due to the division of the Treaty of Westphalia. Now Germany had a chance to a build a world-empire of her own (Hitler added that they needn’t worry about the Germans’ limited numbers: for the English, French, Great Russians, and even true Anglo-Americans formed minorities in their respective empires). Hitler said:
Behind many of you already lie arduous battles. All will have to fight such battles in the future. Those of you who have already emerged from battle know well the strenuous psychological consequences of these hours. At such moments, all phrases, all theories, die. All that remains is the harsh realization: Defend yourself! Beat or be beaten! Kill or be killed! We can emerge victorious from this arduous battle, if only we realize its unchangeable, necessary, and inevitable nature. The individual cannot shrink from it, it is the fate of the entire Volk. Hence, at this hour, I would like to speak to you on the inevitability not only of this, but of struggle as such: of the struggle which takes the life of the individual to give life to the community. War and politics have always existed interdependently. I need only mention here two historic persons who were not only close to each other in age, but also in ideology. Clausewitz: “War is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse with the admixture of different means.” Clemenceau: “For us, peace is the continuation of war.” Beyond this, we can say that politics is history in the making, while history can grant us no more than a glimpse at the course of events in the struggle for life of a people.
We can say that Hitler made ample use of Clausewitz’s famous Formule both to assert National Socialist civilian control of the military and to politicize German warfare, military struggle being also understood as ideological and biological struggle.
1. P. M. Baldwin, “Clausewitz in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History 16, no. 1 [Jan. 1981], p. 10.
3. Ibid., p. 5.
4. Ibid., p. 14.
5. Jehuda Wallach, “Misperceptions of Clausewitz’ On War by the German Military,” Journal of Strategic Studies (1986), 9, p. 218.
6. Baldwin, “Clausewitz in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History, p. 11. The Clausewitz quote is apparently from Book 8, Chapter 6A.
7. Wallach, “Misperceptions of Clausewitz’ On War by the German Military,” Journal of Strategic Studies, p. 219.
9. Baldwin, “Clausewitz in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History, p. 13.
10. One must see the carefully manufactured and edited, even “retconned,” image of the Führer as a kind of civil-religious myth, before which the historical Hitler would almost vanish, just as the historical founders of other great Weltanschauungen are largely unknown (Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed . . .). Indeed, under Allied hegemony, the historical Hitler vanishes in the opposite direction, presented not as an inspired prophet but as a murderously insane monster possessed by Satan.
11. Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1, p. 22.
12. There is recurring controversy surrounding the concepts of absolute and total war, with many Clausewitz scholars seeming to draw a radical distinction between the two. This seems unwarranted to me. Clausewitz writes quite unambiguously in Book 1, Chapter 1 of On War (the chapter considered to have been finalized before his death):
The greater and the more powerful the motives of a war, the more it affects the whole existence of a people. The more violent the excitement which precedes the war, by so much the nearer will the war approach to its abstract form, so much the more will it be directed to the destruction of the enemy, so much the nearer will the military and political ends coincide, so much the more purely military and less political the war appears to be . . . (Clausewitz, On War, p. 22)
Clausewitz is thinking in particular of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which by involving the people and threatening the existence of sovereign nations, began to “approach [war’s] abstract form.” The total wars of the twentieth century represent the same phenomenon of approaching absolute war, only heightened further by superior industrial and propaganda techniques. As our means increase, war tends to approach ever closer to “absolute war,” without ever reaching that philosophical abstraction (just as one may tend toward but never reach the speed of light or an asymptote’s end). Clausewitz also writes, “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, On War, Book 8, Chapter 6B, p. 359).
14. See Field Marshal Kleist’s comment quoted in Part One, note 3. General Erich Ludendorff, the supremely influential commander of the First World War, apparently rejected Clausewitz and said in his work Total War: “The time of cabinet wars and wars with limited political goals is over. They were often more like armed robberies than a struggle of profound moral justification as is the total war for the survival of a people” (quoted in Baldwin, “Clausewitz in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History, p. 15). Clausewitz, Winston Churchill, Jacques Bainville, and others had made similar comments on the rise of “democratic war” or “popular war” in the modern era.
Richard Breiting, an uncertain source, claims that Hitler said in 1931, “Anyone familiar with the thinking of Clausewitz and Schlieffen knows that military strategy can also be used in the political battle” (quoted in ibid., p. 11).
15. Adolf Hitler (Weinberg edition), Hitler’s Second Book: The Unpublished Sequel to Mein Kampf (New York: Enigma, 2003), p. 25.
16. I have been unable to identify the source of this paraphrase of Clemenceau, though Hitler cited it often.
17. Max Domarus, Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations, 1932-1945 [Wauconda, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1990], pp. 89-91. This speech to the German high bourgeoisie also incidentally contains Hitler’s longest comments on the subject of the white race.
18. I mention in passing: the Blomberg-Fritsch affair is a fascinating example of the “conspiratorial” and the “structural” in elite power struggles. Generals Werner von Blomberg and Werner von Fritsch were forced to resign following affaires de mœurs: Blomberg having married a former prostitute (with Hitler being a naïve witness to the wedding) and Fritsch being incorrectly accused of homosexuality by the SS. There is no evidence that Hitler orchestrated either scandal nor, as far as I am aware, that the SS falsified evidence (investigators confused Fritsch with a homosexual cavalry captain with the same last name). However, while Fritsch was acquitted, Hitler never reinstated him or restored his reputation, nor did he punish the SS officers responsible. Hitler, while not directly in charge of events, tolerated developments (including misdeeds) which happily marked a shift of power from the traditional Wehrmacht officer corps to him and the SS, which itself was more directly loyal to him. The SS, for its part, consciously or not, knew to look for scandals where this would serve its institutional interests: among their rivals in the military officer corps. After the 1933 seizure of power, which had taken place thanks to a historic compromise between the National Socialists and the conservative/military establishment, the scandals reflected a wider shift in the balance of power away from the latter. Hitler’s power rose with his prestige and popularity thanks to the Party monopoly on culture and to economic and foreign policy successes. The SS’s power naturally rose with the growing surveillance and police/prison systems. The Wehrmacht declined in influence accordingly. I believe many politico-media “scandals” in our time are explainable in the same conspiratorial/structural terms (e.g., journalists in liberal/anti-nationalist media are by inclination and interest much more likely to investigate and publicize “scandals” concerning nationalist leaders like Jean-Marie Le Pen or Donald Trump, than concerning globalist politicians).
19. Baldwin, “Clausewitz in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History, pp. 12-13.
20. Ibid., p. 14.
22. Domarus, Hitler, p. 2161. Hitler’s assertion that Clausewitz and Clemenceau were “close to each other . . . in ideology” is rather interesting, if it is not meant superficially. (Hitler had elsewhere said, if he had been born French, he would love Clemenceau.)
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