Hitler & the Bekenntnis: A Mantra of Resistance & Renewal
Perhaps more significant still than Hitler’s use of the Formule, is his citing of Clausewitz to assert the ethical validity of resistance at any price, even doomed resistance. Of all Clausewitz’s writings, Hitler was most fond of quoting the Bekenntnis of 1812, a document once famous in Germany but largely unknown elsewhere. After Prussia’s catastrophic defeat at Jena in 1806, the country was halved in size and forced into submission to France. In 1812, with the Prussian government accepting to collaborate with France in the assault on Russia, a hot-blooded Clausewitz wrote the “Profession of Faith” on behalf of himself and other Prussians who rejected this course. Clausewitz affirms that honor and patriotism must override the “false wisdom” of cautious submission to foreign domination; resistance is justified by the honor it saves, not by its outcome:
I believe and declare that a people should value nothing more highly than the dignity and freedom of its existence; that it should defend these to the last drop of blood; that it has no holier duty to fulfill; no higher law to obey; that the shame of a cowardly submission can never be erased; that this drop of poison in the blood of a people is passed on to its descendants and will lame and undermine the strength of future generations; that honor can only be lost once; . . . that even the loss of freedom after an honorable and bloody battle secures the rebirth of the people and is the seed of life from which, one day, a new tree will strike firm root; I declare to this world and to posterity that I consider the false wisdom that wants to withdraw from danger to be the most pernicious sentiment that fear and anxiety can instill . . . that I would be only too happy to find a glorious death in the magnificent fight for the freedom and dignity of the fatherland!
Clausewitz then affirms the honor of even doomed resistance, the heritable shame of willing submission, and the continued possibility of renewal even in defeat. He would put these words into practice by resigning from Prussian service to assist the Russian army against Napoleon, before rejoining Prussia after it had switched sides in 1813. Thus, like Hitler, Clausewitz affirmed that loyalty to the nation and state did not mean obedience to an unworthy government.
The Bekenntnis cannot be dismissed as an “immature” work of Clausewitz’s youth, for there are similar, if more dispassionate, passages in On War. In particular, Clausewitz argues that mobilization for further resistance is always justified in war, insofar as one either prepares a military reversal or strengthens one’s position in peace negotiations. He writes:
No state should believe its fate, that is, its entire existence, to be dependent upon one battle, let it be even the most decisive. If it is beaten, the calling forth of fresh power, and the natural weakening which every offensive undergoes with time, may bring about a turn of fortune, or assistance may come from abroad. No such urgent haste to die is needed yet; and as by instinct the drowning man catches at a straw, so in the natural course of the moral world a people should try the last means of deliverance when it sees itself hurried along to the brink of an abyss.
However small and weak a state may be in comparison to its enemy, if it forgoes a last supreme effort, we must say there is no longer any soul left in it. This does not exclude the possibility of saving itself from complete destruction by the purchase of peace at a sacrifice; but neither does such an aim on its part do away with the utility of fresh measures for defense; they will neither make peace more difficult nor more onerous, but easier and better. They are still more necessary if there is an expectation of assistance from those who are interested in maintaining our political existence. Any government, therefore, which after the loss of a great battle, only thinks how it may speedily place the nation in the lap of peace, and unmanned by the feeling of great hopes disappointed no longer feels in itself the courage or the desire to stimulate to the utmost every element of force, completely stultifies itself in such case through weakness, and shows itself unworthy of victory, and, perhaps, just on that account, was incapable of gaining one.
The spirit of the Bekenntnis thus strikes me as broadly faithful to the mature Clausewitz’s thought. Hitler would cite the Bekenntnis as the foundation of all his action, as the fundamental justification of his struggle, even when this appeared doomed and futile. In the most desperate and decisive moments of his career, notably at its beginning and end, Hitler would call upon Clausewitz, saying the words of the Bekenntnis like a kind of mantra. I shall now go through the recorded instances of this.
At first sight, the failed Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923 had put an end to the hot-headed Hitler’s political career. In his final March 27, 1924 trial speech, Hitler gives Clausewitz center stage in shaming the democrats’ and socialists’ submission to the Allies and the Treaty of Versailles, and validating his attempt to topple the Weimar Republic:
There is nothing which cannot eventually be replaced, even the lost territories can be reconquered, but the wrong done to us in these five years can never be erased from our history. All that was great, noble and sacred has been defiled. They had the impertinence to put German heroes on trial, to parade them in chains, men whose only crime was that they fought for their fatherland, and who were made the object of the scorn of the entire world. Clausewitz once proudly declared: “Woe to the country which voluntarily accepts the shame of dishonor and slavery, for it is better for a nation to perish but yet maintain its honor. The shame of voluntary enslavement leads to the utter collapse of a nation.” Can anyone claim that the revolution [of 1918-1919] has succeeded when the object of the revolution, Germany, is being destroyed?
Hitler would return to this theme repeatedly. His personal notes for a speech in the 1920s read: “Who liberated Germany? 1813. Not the host of the meek, but the hardheads. Not the Simons – Wirts – Erzbergers – Rathenaus, etc., but the Blüchers, Scharnhorsts, Yorcks, and Gneisenaus. The spirit that Clausewitz expressed in a pamphlet: Clausewitz’s Bekenntnis.”
Towards the end of Mein Kampf, Hitler cites Clausewitz as evidence that a people which refuses to fight is already done for and ready for further submissions:
The armistice of November 1918 ushered in a policy which in all human probability was bound to lead gradually to total submission. Historical examples of a similar nature show that nations which lay down their arms without compelling reasons prefer in the ensuing period to accept the greatest humiliations and extortions rather than accept to change their fate by a renewed appeal to force. . . .
That is why Clausewitz in his Drei Bekenntnisse incomparable singles out this idea and nails it fast for all time, when he says “That the stain of a cowardly submission can never be effaced; that this drop of poison in the blood of a people is passed on to posterity and will paralyze and undermine the strength of later generations”; that, on the other hand, “even the loss of this freedom after a blood and honorable struggle assures the rebirth of a people and is the seed of life from which some day a new tree will strike fast roots.” Of course, a people that has lost all honor and character will not concern itself with such teachings.
Thus, the German people’s submissions to foreign demands after 1918 naturally flowed from the original submission to the armistice:
[T]he more of these dictates had been signed, the less justified it seemed, because of a single additional extortion or exacted humiliation, to do the thing that had not been done because of so many others: to offer resistance. For this is the “drop of poison” of which Clausewitz speaks: the spinelessness which once begun must increase more and more and which gradually becomes the foulest heritage, burdening every future decision. It can become a terrible lead weight, a weight which a nation is not likely to shake off, but which finally drags it down into the existence of a slave race.
Hitler would again cite Clausewitz in his unpublished Second Book in order to argue for boldness. The diplomatic neutrality advocated by some in practice only meant submission to foreign powers. Germany should instead take risks to free herself, for even defeat is nothing fatal to a people so long as it retains a healthy internal will to struggle:
[A] people that is internally very healthy will in the long run never be able to be extinguished through battlefield defeats . . . under the precondition of adequate racial significance . . . And here Clausewitz was correct when he established in his Bekenntnisse that in the case of a healthy people, such a defeat can always lead to a later renewal, but that a cowardly submission – surrender to fate without a struggle – can, in contrast, lead to ultimate destruction.
In the same book, Hitler then immediately follows by citing Clausewitz among the patriots who reformed broken Prussia after 1806. Despite occupation and collaboration with the French, Prussia was able to transform herself so as to participate on a much larger scale, despite diminished resources, in the war to overthrow Napoleon seven years later (this Prussian renewal has been an oft-cited model for the hopeful defeated, e.g. not only by Hitler but by patriots in Vichy France). Hitler wrote:
We see from our own history just how wonderful our people’s capacity for transformation is. Prussia in 1806 and Prussia in 1813. What a difference. In 1806 the state of the saddest capitulation in every nook and corner, and the shocking pitifulness of the bourgeois attitude, and in 1813 the state of the most fervent hatred against foreign domination and the most patriotic sense sacrifice for one’s own people and the most heroically courageous will to fight for freedom. What, in truth, changed at the time? The people? No, its inner essence remained the same as before; only its leadership changed hands. The weakness of the Prussian state leadership in the post-Frederician period and the ossified and outmoded leadership of the army were now followed by a new spirit. Baron vom Stein and Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, Clausewitz, and Blücher were the representatives of the new Prussian. And the world forgot in a few months that this Prussia had experience a Jena seven years earlier.
Hitler referred to Clausewitz’s Bekenntnis not only in his books but also in several of his major Party speeches, including those commemorating the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch or the Party Congress. On November 8, 1934. in the Munich Bürgerbräukeller, Hitler cited Clausewitz to explain the triumph of the National Socialist Movement despite the failure of the Putsch. Renewal was always possible, so long as one had the will to fight:
The significance of November 8 and 9, 1923 lies for us in the fact that this Movement proved its inner toughness and resilience back then. If Fate were ever to impose a similar burden upon us, we can recall the day when we believed to have already grasped hold of power only to find ourselves in prison a few hours later; the day when we were confident of having demonstrated our quick-wittedness only to wake up the next morning empty-handed. How did it happen that we were nevertheless able to overcome this catastrophe?
Back then, the Movement carried out its historic order, and there is only one thing left to say to today’s know-it-alls: either none of you has ever read Clausewitz, or if you have, you have not understood how to apply him to the present.
Clausewitz writes that reconstruction is possible even after a heroic collapse. Only cowards abandon their own cause, and that continues to take effect and spread like an insidious drop of poison. And then the realization dawns that it is still better, if necessary, to accept a horrible but sudden end than to bear horrors without end.
The September 1936 Party Congress was known as the “Rally of Honor” in celebration of the reoccupation of the Rhineland, which went unopposed by the Western powers, and hence the restoration of honor in reaffirming Germany’s right to militarily occupy her own territory. In his final speech, Hitler raised the need to train the people in the coming war against Bolshevism and quoted Clausewitz regarding the “pitiful cleverness” of those who would play it safe by compromising with an aggressor, rather than taking the risk of fighting for their liberation:
Now more than before, it is the Party’s task to ensure that hard views are established in our Volk and that above all a relentless war be declared on every trace of that pitiful cleverness Clausewitz castigated as the worst symptom of cowardice. We are approaching great historic periods; in courses of time such as these, pure cleverness has never triumphed, but invariably brave courage. Above all, the Party must embody the optimism we National Socialists know so well. Every fault can be overcome, and its manifestations are easier to eliminate than pessimism and its consequences.
In the September 1938 “Greater Germany” Party Congress, celebrating Austria’s joining of the Reich, Hitler compared the National Socialist revolution to that carried out by the Prussian patriots after the disaster at Jena in 1806:
Germany’s leadership has changed. National Socialism has built it up through a relentless process of selection. However, insofar as it still consists of members from the times of struggle, it represents a pinnacle which cannot he replaced by either external or material value or by political or military might. And this leadership has become the bearer of the German uprising. The miracle that took place between 1805 and 1813 was no different. The Prussian men and women of the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig were no different from those Prussian men and women of the days of Jena and Auerstedt. Then, too, a weak leadership of state and armed forces was replaced by a heroic one in the span of a few years. Names such as vom Stein and Blücher, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, Yorck and Clausewitz, and of countless others, alone suffice to explain the miracle of Prussia’s great rise. There is no other way of looking at the miracle of Germany’s rise today. The National Socialist Party has been the creative force behind this ascent. It has done the enormous work required so that Germany could once again find the strength to resume its position in the world.
Again, in his annual Beer Hall Putsch speech on November 8, 1938 in the Munich Bürgerbräukeller, Hitler cited Clausewitz to defend undertaking the failed coup, quoting him on the decadence of court and government officials and the false wisdom of cowardice:
“I declare and assert before all the world and posterity that, in my opinion, the faulty wisdom that seeks to back away from danger is the most immoral result of what fear and anxiety can instill in man.” I declare and assert before all the world and posterity that in 1923 I, too, acted in accordance with this conviction!
Hitler was not the only one to cite Clausewitz in this way. On April 20, 1939, Minister of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment Joseph Goebbels did the same in his annual “Our Hitler” speech on the eve of the Führer’s birthday:
Then too there were doubters who failed to see the greatness and brilliance of the Führer’s decisions during the struggle for power. They favored the false wisdom that Clausewitz discussed: they wanted nothing but to escape danger. We are therefore not surprised or anxious to see the same or similar happenings in internal German politics that we earlier saw in the National Socialist movement.
Hitler’s references to Clausewitz’s Bekenntnis reappear with the war’s turning for the worse: as the struggle appeared increasingly doomed, the sacrifice could only be justified on grounds of the honor of resistance and the shame of submission. Baldwin claims, although I cannot confirm this, that Hitler cited Clausewitz in his last address to the surrounded German army at Stalingrad, perhaps the most decisive battle of the war.
In September 1943, the Duce, Benito Mussolini, Hitler’s early model and friend, was toppled in a coup in the face of the Allied landings in Italy. This was a hard blow, showing as it did that fascism, for all its bombast and intensity, could fall. Hitler justified the continuing struggle by referring to the original outbreak of war four years earlier: “Alone and abandoned, we had to accept the declarations of war from our enemies in the year 1939. We acted in accordance with Clausewitz’s declaration that heroic resistance is at all times better than cowardly surrender.”
Hitler’s New Year’s Eve midnight address of 1944 on German radio was preceded by a reading of the Bekenntnis by the actor Heinrich George. Significantly, although the historians do not mention this and for all I know it could be an urban legend propagated by the popular film Downfall, the final military effort to save besieged Berlin was apparently called “Operation Clausewitz.” In his April 29, 1945 Political Testament, his final justification of his life’s work, Hitler cites Clausewitz as grounds for the continued resistance of German men, women, and youth:
I die with a joyous heart in view of the immeasurable deeds and accomplishments of our soldiers at the front, which I am well aware of; of our women at home, of our peasants and workers, and the unparalleled deployment, unique in history, of our youth, which bears my name.
That I express to all of them my profound heartfelt gratitude is as natural as my wish that they may under no circumstance abandon the fight. Instead they will continue to wage it no matter where against the enemies of the fatherland, loyal to the creed of the great Clausewitz. From the sacrifice of our soldiers and my own solidarity with them unto death, a seed will one day germinate in German history, in one way or another, and bring about the shining rebirth of the National Socialist movement and the realization of a true folk-community.
1. Quoted in Wegner, “The Ideology of Self-Destruction: Hitler and the Choreography of Defeat,” German Historical Institute London Bulletin (November 2004), p. 30. Apparently there is no extant English translation.
2. Clausewitz, On War, pp. 314-15.
3. Adolf Hitler (ed. Propagandaleiter), Collection of Speeches: 1922-1945 (Neues Europa), pp. 54-55.
4. Quoted in P. M. Baldwin, “Clausewitz in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History 16, no. 1 [Jan. 1981], p. 10. Werner Maser, Hitlers Briefe und Notizen: Sein Weltbild in handschriftlichen Dokumenten (Düsseldorf: Econ, 1973), p. 325.
5. Adolf Hitler (Manheim translation), Mein Kampf (London: Hutchison, 1969), pp. 610-11.
6. Ibid., p. 612.
7. Hitler, Second Book, p. 131.
8. Ibid., p. 135. Clausewitz had written about this episode in On War in relation to the dialectic between Napoleonic France and Germany, with a reciprocal rise of state power and nationalism:
After all this [the work of the French Revolution] was perfected by the hand of Bonaparte, this military power, based on the strength of the whole nation, marched over Europe, smashing everything in pieces so surely and certainly, that where it only encountered the old-fashioned armies the result was not doubtful for a moment. A reaction, however, awoke in due time. . . . The result was brilliant. In Germany, Prussia rose up the first, made the war a national cause, and without either money or credit and with a population reduced one-half, took the field with an army twice as strong as that of 1806. The rest of Germany followed the example of Prussia sooner or later . . . (Clausewitz, On War, Book 8, Chapter 3B, pp. 348-49.)
9. Max Domarus, Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations, 1932-1945 [Wauconda, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1990], p. 541.
10. Ibid., p. 841.
11. Ibid., p., 1142.
12. Ibid., p. 1236.
13. Ibid., p. 2818.
14. Baldwin, “Clausewitz in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History, p. 10.
15. “Clausewitz” may have only been the codeword for launching the final defense efforts. Erich Kuby, “Die Russen in Berlin 1945,” Der Spiegel, May 5, 1965.
16. Domarus, Hitler, p. 3056.