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South Korea – Communist guerrilla prisoners facing panel of police judges during their trial at National Prison, November 1952. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White [Google/LIFE]

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The Partisan as Prussian Ideal in 1813
and the Turn to Theory

It was neither a Prussian soldier nor a reform-oriented regular officer of the
Prussian general staff, but a Prussian Prime Minister, Bismarck, who in
1866 “wished to take up any weapon proffered by the unleashed national
movement not only in Germany but also in Hungary and Bohemia” against
the Hapsburg monarchy and Bonapartist France, in order to avoid defeat.
Bismarck was determined to set the Acheron flowing. He liked to employ
the classical locution Acheronta movere, but blamed it, naturally, rather on
his domestic political opponents. Acherontic plans were the farthest thing
from the minds of Kaiser Wilhelm I and the Prussian Chief of Staff Moltke;
such things must have appeared uncanny and downright un-Prussian to
them. Acherontic would also be a bit too strong a word for the feeble
attempts at stirring up revolution on the part of the German government
and its General Staff during World War I. However, Lenin’s train ride from
Switzerland to Russia in 1917 is relevant in this context. Whatever the
Germans may have thought and planned for the organization of Lenin’s
journey, it was so dreadfully/horribly outdone and overrun by the historical
effects of this attempt at revolution that our thesis on/of the Prussian
mistreatment/misconception of partisanship is thereby rather confirmed
than undermined.

[46] Still, the Prussian soldier-state had once its acherontic moment in
history. It was in the winter and early spring of 1812/13, when an elite corps
of General Staff officers sought to unleash and get under their control the
forces of national enmity against Napoleon. The German war against
Napoleon was no partisan war. It can hardly even be called a people’s war;

as Ernst Forsthoff rightly puts it, only “a legend with political undertones”
could make it that.26 One succeeded quickly in maneuvering those elemental
forces into the secure framework of the state order and of a regular war
against the French army. However, this revolutionary moment, abbreviated
as it was, has an unexpected significance for the theory of the partisan.

It is natural to think, in this connection, of a famous masterpiece of military
science, the Prussian General von Clausewitz’s Vom Kriege. And
rightly so. But Clausewitz was at the time still an epigone of his teachers
and masters Scharnhorst and [47] Gneisenau, and his book was not published
until after his death, after 1832. There is, however, another manifesto
of enmity against Napoleon stemming from spring 1813 that can be counted
among the most astonishing documents of the whole history of partisanship:
the Prussian edict on the Landsturm [national levies] of 21 April 1813.
Signed by the King of Prussia, it was published in the Prussian compendium
of laws in that very form. The fact that it is based on the model of the
Spanish Reglamento de Partidas y Cuadrillas of 28 December 1808, and the
decree known by the name of Corso Terrestre of 17 April 1809, is unmistakable.
These were not, however, signed personally by the monarch.27 It is
astonishing to see the name of the legitimate king under such an appeal to
partisan warfare. These ten pages of the Prussian Compendium of laws of
1813 (79–89) must certainly be counted among the most unusual pages of
legal code in the world.

Every citizen, so it says in the Prussian royal edict of April 1813, is
obliged to resist the intruding enemy with weapons of whatever kind. Axes,
pitchforks, scythes, and shotguns are explicitly recommended (§43). Every
Prussian is charged to obey no order from the enemy, but to harm him with
whatever means are at hand. Even if the enemy is trying to re-establish public
order, one mustn’t obey, because obedience facilitates his military operations.
It is explicitly stated that the “excesses of the unbridled rabble” are
less damaging than that state of affairs in which the enemy can dispose
freely of all his troops. Reprisals and terror in defense of the partisan are
[48] assured, and the enemy threatened with them. This document represents,
in short, a sort of Magna Carta of partisanship. In three places—the
introduction and paragraphs 8 and 52—explicit reference to Spain and its

Guerrilla War as “prototype and example” is made. Combat is justified as a
battle of self-defense that “sanctifies every means” (§7), even the unleashing
of total disorder.

 As I have said, a German partisan war against Napoleon did not come
about. The Landsturm Edict itself was already changed three months later,
on 17 July 1813, and purged of every partisan danger, of every acherontic
dynamic. What followed was played out purely in battles conducted by regular
armies, even if the troops were inspired by the dynamic of the nationalist
impulse. Napoleon could pride himself on the fact that in the many
years of French occupation, not one German civilian had taken a shot at a
French uniform.

Thus, in what does the special significance of that short-lived Prussian
ordinance of 1813 consist? In the fact that it is the official document that
legitimates the partisan in the name of national defense. It is a special legitimation,
namely, one that proceeds from a spirit and a philosophy that
were current in the Prussian capital of Berlin of that time. The Spanish
Guerrilla War against Napoleon, the Tirolean uprising of 1809, and the
Russian Partisan War of 1812 were elemental, autochthonic movements
of a pious, catholic, or orthodox people whose religious tradition was
untouched by the philosophical spirit of revolutionary France; they were
underdeveloped in this sense. In an angry letter of 2 December 1811 to his
Hamburg General Governor Davout, Napoleon called the Spaniards in particular
a treacherous, superstitious people misled by 300,000 monks, who
could hardly be compared with the diligent, hard-working, and reasonable
Germans. By contrast, the Berlin of 1808–1813 was characterized by an intellectual
atmosphere, which was on intimate terms with the French
Enlightenment: so intimate as to be equal if not superior to it.

[49] Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a great philosopher; highly educated and
genial military men like Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Clausewitz; a writer
like Heinrich von Kleist, deceased in November 1811, indicate the enormous
spiritual potential of the ready-to-act/enthusiastic Prussian intelligentsia
in that critical moment. The nationalism of this milieu of the Berlin
intelligentsia was a matter of the intellectuals, not that of a simple or
even illiterate people. In such an atmosphere in which an aroused national feeling united itself with philosophical education, the partisan was discovered
philosophically, and the theory of the partisan became historically
possible. That a doctrine of war pertains to this alliance, too, is shown in
the letter which Clausewitz wrote as “an anonymous military man”
(Königsberg, 1809) to Fichte as “the author of an essay on Machiavelli.” In
it, the Prussian officer instructs the famous philosopher respectfully that
Machiavelli’s doctrine of war is too dependent on antiquity, and that today
“infinitely more is gained by the vitality of individual forces than by artful
form.” The new weapons and masses, Clauswitz opines in this letter, do
fully correspond to this principle, and in the end it is the courage of the
individual in close combat that is decisive, “especially in the most beautiful
of all wars, conducted by a people in its own fields [Fluren] on behalf of
their freedom and independence.”

   

The young Clausewitz knew the partisan from Prussian insurrection
plans in 1808/13. In 1810 and 1811 he presented lectures at the general military
academy in Berlin on low-intensity war; he was not only one of the
most important military experts on such war in its technical sense of the
employment of lightly armed mobile troops. The guerrilla war was for him,
as for the other reformers in his circle, “preeminently a political matter in
the highest sense of the word, of an almost revolutionary character. The
declaration of arming the people, insurrection, revolutionary war, resistance
and uprising against the established order, even when it is embodied
by a foreign occupation regime—this is something really new for Prussia,
something ‘dangerous’ which—so to speak—falls outside the sphere of the
judicial [50] state.” These words by Werner Hahlweg capture the essence of
it for us. But he quickly adds: “The revolutionary war against Napoleon, as
imagined by the Prussian reformers, certainly did not take place.” A “semi-insurrectional
war,” in the words of Friedrich Engels, was all that it came
to. Still, the famous memorandum of February 1812 remains important for
grasping the “innermost incentives” (Rothfels) of the reformers;
Clausewitz authored it with the help of Gneisenau and Boyen, before he
went over to the Russians. It is a “document of sober political and general
staff–worthy analysis”; it refers to the experiences of the Spanish people’s
war and cool-headedly lets it come “to countering cruelty with cruelty, acts

of violence with acts of violence.” The Prussian Landsturm Edict of April
1813 is already clearly recognizable here.

Clausewitz must have been sorely disappointed that everything he had
expected from the insurrection “fell through.” The people’s war and partisans—Parteigänger,
as Clausewitz calls them—had been recognized by
him as an essential part of “the forces exploding in war,” and he worked
them into the system of his doctrine of war. Especially in Book 6 of his doctrine
of war (Precis of Defensive Means), and in the famous Chapter 6B of
Book 8 (War is an Instrument of Politics), he recognizes openly the new
“potential” that it represents. In addition, one finds astonishingly telling
remarks in his work, like the one about the civil war in the Vendée: that
sometimes a few isolated partisans might even be able “to lay claim to the
title of [51] army.” But he remains on the whole the reform-minded regular
officer of a regular army of his age, unable to germinate the seed which
becomes visible here or to develop it to its full potential. As we will see, that
would happen only much later, and it involved an active professional revolutionary.
Clausewitz himself still thought all too much in classical categories
when in the “wondrous triplicity of war” he attributes to the people
only the “blind natural impulse” of hate and enmity; to the commander
and his army “courage and talent” as a free activity of the soul; and to
the government the purely rational management of war as an instrument
of politics.

Within this short-lived Landsturm Edict of April 1813 is concentrated
the moment in which the partisan turns up for the first time in a new, decisive
role, as a novel and hitherto unacknowledged figure of the world-spirit
[Figur des Weltgeistes]. It was not the will to resistance of a brave, belligerent
people but education and intelligence that opened this door for the partisan,
bestowing on him legitimacy from a philosophical basis. It was here
that he was, if I may put it so, philosophically accredited and that he became
presentable [hoffähig]. Before this, he was no such thing. In the seventeenth
century he had sunk to the level of a figure in a picaresque novel; in the
eighteenth century, the age of Maria Theresa and Frederick the Great, he
was Pandarus and Husar. But now, in the Berlin of 1808–13, he was discovered
not only in his military-technical capacity but also philosophically

and valued accordingly. For one moment at least he attained to historical
stature and spiritual vocation. This was a process he would never forget.
For our theme this is decisive. We speak of the theory of the partisan.
Now, a political theory of the partisan exceeding merely military classifications
[52] had become possible in fact only through this accreditation in
Berlin. The spark that in 1808 flew north from Spain found in Berlin a theoretical
form that made it possible to preserve its flame and pass it on to
other hands. 

At first, however, even in Berlin the traditional piety of the people was
as little threatened as the political unity of the monarch and his people. It
seemed fortified rather than endangered by the conjuration and
glorification of the partisan. The Acheron that had been released receded
immediately into the channels of state order. Following the wars of freedom,
the philosophy of Hegel was dominant in Prussia. It attempted a systematic
mediation of revolution and tradition. It could be considered
conservative, and it was. But it also conserved the revolutionary sparks,
and provided, via its philosophy of history, a dangerous ideological weapon
for the forward driving revolution, more dangerous than Rousseau’s philosophy
in the hands of the Jacobins. This historical-philosophical weapon
fell into the hands of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. But the two German
revolutionaries were thinkers more than activists of the revolutionary war.
It was only through a professional Russian revolutionary, Lenin, that
Marxism became the doctrine of world-historical power that it now
appears to be.

– Carl Schmitt, The Theory of the Partisan: A Commentary/Remark on the Concept of the Political. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1963. Translated by A. C. Goodson, Michigan State University Press, 2004. p. 28-33.

Painting is: 

Ferdinand Hodler, Jena Students Depart for the War of Liberation, 1813. Oil on canvas, 1908-1909. 

Friedrich Schiller University, Jena.

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