Home / Politics / Hitler & Clausewitz: The Philosopher as War Cry, Part One

Hitler & Clausewitz: The Philosopher as War Cry, Part One

Young Clausewitz.

Part 1 of 4

All intellectuals dream that their ideas will not be confined to the dead letters of books accumulating dust on library shelves, but should possess the world. An underexplored but highly fertile field in this respect is the influence of the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz upon the German dictator and warlord Adolf Hitler. This is an extremely controversial issue. Clausewitz is the preeminent military theorist, rivaled in fame only by the ancient Chinese sage Sun Tzu. His influence is profound, being cited by figures as varied as Moltke the Elder, Lenin, and Mao, and by military schools and doctrinal publications across the Western world up to the present day.

However, Clausewitz’s influence on Hitler is less well-known. He famously defined war as “a mere continuation of policy [Politik, also meaning ‘politics’] by other means”[1] and theorized the escalation of violence towards “absolute war.” In a twentieth century scarred by the world wars, Clausewitz has thus been accused of being an apologist for cynical great-power politics and a precursor to the total war practiced by Hitler and others.

The question of Clausewitz’s influence is even more significant from a Hitlerian perspective: war-readiness was central to Hitler’s conception of domestic policy, and the German Führer played a leading role in the European catastrophe which was the Second World War as a conquering warlord of Napoleonic proportions. If Clausewitz as a military theorist had a significant influence on Hitler as a statesman and commander-in-chief, this indicates a profound influence upon the course of the twentieth century.

This is not a simple topic. Historians are not even in agreement as to how closely Hitler, a noted bookworm, knew Clausewitz and his notoriously “interpretable” (not to say ambiguous) incomplete great work, On War.[2] Certainly, Hitler owned copies of Clausewitz’s works and was fond of quoting certain passages.[3] Some assert Hitler was very familiar with Clausewitz’s thought, others that the military theorist’s name was a mere weapon used by Hitler to impose his will in private discussions and public exhortations.[4] It is also rather difficult to gauge Clausewitz’s influence on German military officers at the time. One also hears attempts to absolve Clausewitz as blameless for (as it is said) Hitler’s, following Ludendorff’s actions in the First World War, “turning Clausewitz on his head” by submitting politics to war as an end in itself.[5]

In this essay, I thus propose to explore the relationship between Clausewitz and Hitler, minimizing speculative inference between the theorist’s work and the politician’s actions, and rather focusing on what is undeniable: what officials in the Third Reich and Hitler actually said about Clausewitz. As we shall see, Clausewitz was celebrated throughout the National Socialist period in Germany, and he was among the intellectual sources most cited by Hitler, alongside Frederick the Great, Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Ludendorff. Above all, Hitler made references to Clausewitz publically to argue for his political control of the military and, most significantly, as the ultimate justification for his political and military struggle.

In justifying both his struggle and the war effort, Hitler repeatedly cited not On War, but a work of Clausewitz’s which is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world: the Bekenntnis of 1812 (variously translated as “Political Declaration,” “Confession,” or “Profession of Faith”). This was Clausewitz’s impassioned plea, on behalf of himself and other Prussian patriots, to reject collaboration with then-dominant Napoleonic France and embrace resistance for honor’s sake. Clausewitz embraced struggle even if it were doomed, and even if it meant disloyalty to a cowed Prussian government (against the orders of his King, Clausewitz served in the Russian armed forces against Napoleon and was only later allowed to regain a Prussian commission). As the historian Christopher Bassford concedes, Clausewitz scholars have been reticent to explore this connection between the theorist and the Führer:

When [Clausewitz] returned from a comfortable and educational internment in France in 1808, he joined energetically with Scharnhorst and other members of the reform movement, helping to restructure both Prussian society and the army in preparation for what he felt to be an inevitable new struggle with the French. His duties included planning for a national insurrection against the French occupation, an enterprise that would involve a “people’s war” (along the lines of the brutal guerrilla struggle in Spain) in conjunction with operations by the much-reduced Prussian army. His enthusiasm for active resistance to the French was not, however, shared by the King, who was more concerned with maintaining his position in the much-reduced Prussian state than with any patriotic crusade. Major Clausewitz’s disillusionment reached a peak when occupied Prussia agreed to provide an army corps to Napoleon to assist in the 1812 invasion of Russia. Along with about thirty other officers, he resigned from Prussian service. He then accepted a commission in the Russian army in order to continue the resistance against Napoleon. . . .

Policy considerations also can demand actions that may seem irrational, depending on one’s values. Clausewitz’s desire that Prussia turn on Napoleon before the 1812 campaign would have demanded virtual state suicide in the short run, but he felt that the state’s honor – and thus any hope for its future resurgence – required it. Clausewitz saw both history and policy in the long run, and he pointed out that strategic decisions are seldom final; they can often be reversed in another round of struggle. This side of Clausewitz is uncomfortable for modern Anglo-American readers because it seems to reflect a romantic view of the state as something that transcends the collective interest of its citizens. It can provide a philosophical basis for apocalyptic policies like Hitler’s and Japan’s in World War Two. Most modern readings of Clausewitz, including my own, tend to skate over such aspects of On War. They are simply too alien to the spirit of our age to have much meaning.[6]

But we must not skirt away from a topic simply because it is “uncomfortable” or “controversial.” One must follow the truth wherever it may lead. If Clausewitz contributed to Hitler’s refusal to surrender, this is no small thing (even if, obviously, we can hardly hold Clausewitz accountable for Hitler’s interpretation).

With all this in mind, I will then provide an overview of parallels between Hitlerian and Clausewitzian thought, of recorded instances of Hitler’s use of Clausewitz in private conversation, and of Hitler’s official and repeated use of two important Clausewitzian doctrines: on the supremacy of the political over the military, and on the honor of resistance as an end in itself.

The Philosopher of War & The Warlord

A full presentation of Clausewitz’s theory of war and, implicitly, statecraft, and their eventual influence on Hitler, cannot be attempted here.[7] That said, there are obvious parallels and common themes in Clausewitzian and Hitlerian thought. Clausewitz meditates upon the emergence of the European military monarchies in the modern era and their perfection into martial nation-states. This referred to the rise of France under Louis XIV and especially under the Revolutionaries and Napoleon. The nation-state, by engaging the masses and enlisting the entire society, had revolutionized war, ended the old practice of “moderate” wars (“diplomatic” wars, “war in lace”), and brought war closer to the extremes of its Platonic ideal, what Clausewitz called “absolute war.”

In his time, Clausewitz had been traumatized by the rise of Napoleonic France and her triumph over the old conservative monarchies, and especially his beloved Prussia. He urged responding through memetic imitation: Prussia needed to adopt similar modernizing reforms, so that she would be able to respond in kind. In politics, discussed primarily in writings other than On War,[8] Clausewitz was then a patriotic populist, a modernizing meritocrat who wished to adopt elements of the English parliamentary system, but also a Prussia authoritarian who recognized the primacy of the state, especially as regards survival in international relations, over liberal and constitutional niceties.

Concerning the warlord, Clausewitz cited Frederick the Great and Napoleon as models above all others, stressing not book-learning and logic, but practice (war being an art, not a science), iron will, and inspired intuition. Though stressing the need for passion, Clausewitz warned, like Plato, that reason should always reign, and said the commander should not be too hot-headed, too taken away by imagination, or too obstinate. More generally, Clausewitz’s famous logical method in On War, proceeding by dialectical extremes, can in some ways be compared to Hitler’s method, though the theorist is ever dispassionate, while the firebrand is ever furious.

Concerning passion, however, I cannot omit the fact that both Clausewitz and Hitler shared a visceral contempt for Polish Jewry. Like so many of the great men of the West who expressed themselves on the topic, Clausewitz was highly critical of Judaic ethics and Jewish behavior. In the 1810s, Clausewitz joined “the Christlich-Deutsche Tischgesellschaft [Christian-German Table Society], a group whose members and guests met every second Tuesday to discuss literature and politics.”[9] These included poets and philosophers, notably Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Peter Paret, a biographer of Clausewitz, reports:

“Philistines,” women, and Jews were excluded [from the Table Society]. The anti-Jewish clause in its statutes was not central to the group’s concerns; rather it reflected an increasingly common association between the culture and political patriotism of the German Romantics and anti-Semitism . . . Nevertheless, it raises the question of Clausewitz’s anti-Semitism, which on the slim evidence available is perhaps best answered by saying that he was antagonistic to Jews when he thought of them as Jews, but could be on good terms with Jews who had become assimilated. On the occasion of Napoleon’s first abdication he characterized the emperor as being “as tough as a Jew, and equally shameless.”[10]

However, Paret is even more disturbed by the fact that Clausewitz’s disgust for Polish Jewry was so great that the Prussian, in a remarkable premonition, fantasized “a thousand times” that it be annihilated through fire:

Infinitely more disturbing to generations whose experience or historical consciousness had been marked by the Third Reich is a passage in a letter written two years earlier, when Clausewitz was traveling through Poland on his way to Russia. “The whole experience of the Poles,” he wrote his wife, “is as though bound and held together by torn ropes and rags. Dirty German Jews, swarming like vermin in the dirt and misery, are the patricians of this land. A thousand times I thought if only fire would destroy this whole anthill [Anbau] so that this unending filth were changed by the clean flame into clean ashes.” The prophetic nature of this statement is less significant as evidence of his attitude than its brutality, which is rare in Clausewitz’s writings . . .[11]

This was mere imagination. Clausewitz cannot be considered an intellectual precursor to the Final Solution. But can we then say that Clausewitz’s feelings and Hitler’s actions both reflected the same visceral and absolute abhorrence for the Jewish way of life, which is ever-present deep in the Germanic collective unconscious?

Clausewitz in Russian uniform.

More generally, I can only speculate on what Hitler took from Clausewitz and what similar conclusions he arrived at independently. There is much to be said of the view that Hitler, a man in a hurry and a man of will, would pick up good ideas and slogans from great figures here and there, and use these to construct and impose his own worldview, rather than to really engage with abstract theory or worry about the details of attribution.

A striking example of this is provided by David Irving, who reports that Hitler was much enamored with an apparently apocryphal saying attributed to Clausewitz:

‘Clausewitz was right,’ [Hitler] exulted to his adjutants upon leaving another military display in East Prussia [in August 1938]: ‘War is the father of all things.’ This was Hitler’s favourite quotation. He repeated it in his secret speeches on May 20, 1942, on January 27, 1944, again on June 22, 1944, and in his war conference of January 9, 1945 – when even his most ardent followers had long grown tired of Hitler’s war.[12]

In fact, the saying is one of the most venerable of the Western tradition, being one of the surviving fragments of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. He had said, “War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen.”[13] One can see why this saying would resonate with Hitler’s worldview. This went beyond the mere observation that “war is the mother of invention,” that human beings are often most creative in the life-and-death circumstances of war. Rather, many philosophers had observed that violent change and the struggle of conflicting forces for domination was intrinsic to universal nature, including both animal and human nature.[14] This became scientifically established with Darwin’s discovery of the ruthless reality of “survival of the fittest” as being central to biological evolution. The old proverbs had long observed that “nature is cruel,” as “the law of the jungle” is cruel, but Darwin had shown that this very cruelty had been the fundamental driver of biological progress, culminating in human rationality and consciousness.

There are various reports of Hitler referring to Clausewitz in his private conversation with his subordinates (though not, strikingly, in his informal Table Talk). Generally, Clausewitz is raised in these settings when Hitler is struggling to impose his will or inspire hope. Hitler is supposed to have said on August 23, 1941, “My generals know Clausewitz, but they understand nothing about war economy. Moreover, I know Clausewitz, too, and his word: One first has to knock to pieces the hostile field armies, then to occupy the enemy’s capital.”[15]

When the war turned for the worse, Hitler enlisted Clausewitz in the effort to keep wavering allies in the struggle. In this new form of warfare, it was all or nothing, or so he told Regent Miklós Horthy of Hungary and Field Marshal Ion Antonescu of Romania in 1943:

Already Clausewitz had quite rightly labeled this uncompromising war of allies against a merciless enemy as the natural form of war and had distinguished it from those wars which are conducted like a joint-stock company, in which, instead of capital, one contributes 30,000 or 40,000 men. We must stake everything; we have everything to win or everything to lose.[16]

This paraphrase of Clausewitz’s thinking on absolute war certainly has some merit and, in any event, resonated with Hitler’s “all-or-nothing” temperament. Concerning his interlocutors, Hitler was of course correct: either the Axis won, or their persons, regimes, and a half-century’s national freedom were done for. But no doubt, by 1943 it was already too late.

One occasionally finds mention of Clausewitz in the mouths of secondary officials. Irving reports that after the Allied landings of D-Day and before the Battle of the Bulge, Clausewitz was again recruited in the service of hope:

Back in Berlin Goebbels found a minute from [Eugen] Hadamowsky reminding him of Clausewitz’s dictum that the most dangerous point for an attacker was when victory seemed in sight: the attacker relaxed his efforts while the defender redoubled his. Clipped to the memo was a British news dispatch: The London Daily Mail was bragging, ‘Militarily, the war in the west is over.’ It was the same blunder that the Germans had made at Moscow in 1941.[17]

General Heinz Guderian, the famous Panzer commander, wrote in his memoirs that on December 10, 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler referred to Clausewitz to impose his views:

There is no need for you to lecture me! I have been leading the German army in the field for five years now and I have gathered more practical experiences than the gentlemen of the general staff ever will. I studied Clausewitz and Moltke and read all of Schlieffen’s operational plans. I am much better informed than you are![18]

All this provides a sense of the relationship between Clausewitzian and Hitlerian thought, both being part of a wider nation-state-building tradition in Germany and Europe, and of how the Führer referred to the theorist.

 

Notes

1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Ware, England: Wordsworth, 1997), Book 1, Chapter 1, p. 22.

2. Clausewitz himself wrote in a letter towards the end of his life concerning his unfinished magnum opus: “Should an early death interrupt my work then what is here will, of course, only deserve to be called a shapeless mass of thoughts . . . subject to endless misunderstanding” (quoted in P. M. Baldwin, “Clausewitz in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History 16, no. 1 [Jan. 1981], pp. 5-26, 10).

3. Timothy Ryback reports that Hitler owned a copy of On War in the early 1920s and later owned an apparently unread collection of Clausewitz’s writings entitled War and State (Timothy Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped His Life [London: Vintage, 2010], pp. 50, 194). David Irving writes that Rudolf Hess and Hitler were given a copy of On War to read in Landsberg Prison in 1924. David Irving, Hess: The Missing Years, 1941-1945 (London: Focal Point, 2010), p. 12.

4. E.g., Werner Maser and Bernd Wegner claim Hitler had closely studied Clausewitz, while Jehuda Wallach calls this “a legend.”

5. The evidence regarding Hitler and his generals’ knowledge of and faithfulness to Clausewitz is so anecdotal, and the scholarly opinions expressed so subjective and apparently arbitrary, that I mention them only in these footnotes. One often encounters Clausewitz’s name in various verbal joustings, to lend the speaker’s argument credibility. For example, on August 22, 1939, with the threat of war looming, the British ambassador reminded Hitler of Clausewitz’s observation that war is always full of surprises (Max Domarus, Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations, 1932-1945 [Wauconda, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1990], p. 1677).

Clausewitz’s practical influence over the German officer corps is uncertain. David Irving reports on Field Marshal Erwin Rommel: “When his cadets quoted Clausewitz at him – Clausewitz was the staff officers’ military gospel – Rommel would snap back: ‘Never mind what Clausewitz thought, what do you think?’” (David Irving, The Trail of the Fox: The Search for the True Field Marshal Rommel [London: Focal Point, 2005], p. 27). American generals, such as Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, were also familiar with Clausewitz, and would sometimes cite him in arguments. David Irving reports that in September 1944:

Eisenhower kept talking about the future “great battle of Germany.” He pontificated to them about Clausewitz, the great Prussian military philosopher – who had commanded forces, as Patton remarked in rejoinder, that were neither mechanized nor one quarter so numerous as the 450,000 men under his command alone. (David Irving, The War Between the Generals [London: Focal Point, 2010], p. 270)

Field Marshal Paul von Kleist made perhaps the longest comments on Clausewitz and German generalship. Speaking to British historian Liddell Hart in a Soviet prison after Germany’s defeat (he would die in captivity), Kleist claimed that Clausewitz had been celebrated but not read by the German officers, and that Hitler had inverted Clausewitz’s dictum by subjecting politics to war:

Clausewitz’s teachings had fallen into neglect in this generation – even at the time when I was at the War Academy and on the General Staff. His phrases were quoted, but his books were not closely studied. He was regarded as a military philosopher, rather than as a practical teacher. The writings of Schlieffen received much greater attention. They seemed more practical because they were directed to the problem of how an army inferior in strength – which was always Germany’s position in relation to the whole – could overcome enemies on both sides who, in combination, were superior in strength. But Clausewitz’s reflections were fundamentally sound – especially his dictum that war was a continuation of policy by other means. It implied that the political factors were more important than the military ones. The German mistake was to think that a military success would solve political problems. Indeed, under the Nazis we tended to reverse Clausewitz’s dictum, to regard peace as a continuation of war. Clausewitz also, was prophetically right about the difficulties of conquering Russia. (B. H. Liddell Hart, The German Generals Talk [New York: Quill, 1979], p. 194.)

These matters are made more complicated by the fact that many historians quote Hitler, to this day, from sources generally considered unreliable, or even make outright falsifications: I speak of Herrmann Rauschning’s “interviews” and François Genoud’s “political testaments.” I will ignore attempts to infer a Clausewitzian influence from such sources. I note in passing that Genoud’s texts are somewhat amusing insofar as they read, in a fairly convincing style, like what a postwar European fascist would have wished Hitler had said, rather than the sort of thing he actually said.

6. Christopher Bassford, “Clausewitz and His Works,” clausewitz.com, 2016.

7. A systematic comparison between Clausewitz’s and Hitler’s writings, speeches, and generalship would be an excellent subject for a German-speaker’s Ph.D. thesis. I am unequipped for exploration of such slippery grounds. For example, consider General Erich von Manstein’s suggestions to Hitler on February 17, 1940 concerning revising the planned invasion of France:

  1. The aim of the Western offensive must be to bring about the decision on land. The political and military stakes are too high for partial objectives such as are contained in the existing plan of attack, namely, the destruction of as large part of the enemy force as possible in Belgium and the occupation of parts of the channel coast.

From the outset, therefore, those directing the operations must aim at the destruction of the French powers of resistance. [. . .]

The Führer expressed his agreement with these statements. (J. Noakes & G. Pridham [eds.], Nazism 1919-1945, vol. 3 [Exeter: University of Exeter, 2001], p. 164)

Can one detect a Clausewitzian influence here?

8. In this respect, I have to say I am a bit disappointed that so much of the Anglo-American scholarship focuses almost exclusively on On War, as though that were Clausewitz’s only work, seeming to revere the document as the ultimate, almost mystical exposition of this admittedly supremely important matter. The draft of On War makes up only three of the ten volumes of Clausewitz’s collected works. From what I can gather, Clausewitz’s other writings, including his letters, studies, and articles, contain highly interesting political and historical insights and opinions.

9. Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 212-13.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid. It is noteworthy that, one hundred years later, the young Captain Charles de Gaulle would feel the same revulsion for Polish Jewry. Detached as an adviser to the Polish army after the First World War, de Gaulle wrote to his mother that the Jews “were hated to the death by all the society’s social classes, all enriched by the war, which they have profited from on the backs of the Russians, the Boches [Germans], and the Poles, and fairly inclined towards a social revolution in which they would amass considerable money in exchange for a few low blows.” Christian Makarian, “Du Général au particulier,” L’Express, November 9, 2006.

12. David Irving, Hitler’s War (London: Focal Point, 2002), p. 113.

13. “Heraclitus (fl. c. 500 B.C.),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

14. The entry for “The Philosophy of War” of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy observes:

An alternative definition of war is that it is an all-pervasive phenomenon of the universe. Accordingly, battles are mere symptoms of the underlying belligerent nature of the universe; such a description corresponds with a Heraclitean or Hegelian philosophy in which change (physical, social, political, economical, etc) can only arise out of war or violent conflict. Heraclitus decries that “war is the father of all things,” and Hegel echoes his sentiments. Interestingly, even Voltaire, the embodiment of the Enlightenment, followed this line: “Famine, plague, and war are the three most famous ingredients of this wretched world . . . All animals are perpetually at war with each other . . . Air, earth and water are arenas of destruction.” (From Pocket Philosophical Dictionary).

15. Quoted in Jehuda Wallach, “Misperceptions of Clausewitz’ On War by the German Military,” Journal of Strategic Studies (1986), 9: pp. 2-3, 213-239, 218. Compare with this passage of On War:

Once the great victory is gained, the next question is not about rest, not about taking breath, not about considering, not about reorganizing, etc., etc., but only of pursuit of fresh blows wherever necessary of the capture of the enemy’s capital, of the attack of the armies of his allies, or of whatever else appears to be a rallying-point for the enemy. (Clausewitz, On War, Book 8, Chapter 9, p. 370.)

16. Baldwin, “Clausewitz in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History, pp. 14-15. Compare with Clausewitz:

The more a general takes the field in the true spirit of war as well as of every contest, with the feeling ad the idea, that is the conviction, that he must and will conquer, the more he will strive to throw every weight into the scale in the first battle, hope and strive to win everything by it. (On War, pp. 245-46)

17. David Irving, Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich (London: Focal Point, 1996), p. 484.

18. Quoted in Domarus, Hitler, p. 2975.