The German Experience with Guerrilla Wars, from Clausewitz to Hitler

Charles Melson

A long overdue study that draws on previous German writing to analyze how the West can or should (or should not) cope with the problem of small wars in lesser countries in which we nevertheless hold a stake . . .
Date Published :
May 2016
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In recent years the great powers of the West—primarily the US and UK—have most often been relegated to fighting “small wars,” rather than the great confrontational battles for which they once prepared. It has been a difficult process, with some conflicts increasingly being seen as unwinnable, or at least not worth the effort in treasure and blood, even as the geopolitical structure of the world appears to slip. It is thus worth paying heed now, to the experiences of another power which once encountered the same problems.

This work examines the German analysis to the problem, covering their experiences from the Napoleonic era to the Third Reich. Though the latter regime, the most despicable in history, needed to be destroyed by US/UK conventional force, as well as that of the Soviets, the German military meantime provided analysis to the question of grassroots—as opposed to great-power—warfare.

This work is built around the historical analysis titled Kleinkrieg, provided to the German High Command by Arthur Earhardt in 1935 (republished in 1942 and 1943) which examined insurgencies from French-occupied Spain to recurrent problems in the Balkans. It also calls upon the Bandenbekampfung (Fighting the Guerilla Bands) document provided to Germany’s OKW in 1944. In both, conditions that were specific to broader military operations were separated from circumstances in occupation campaigns, and new background in the German experience in suppressing rebellion in World War II is presented.

Edited and annotated, along with new analysis, by Charles D. Melson, former Chief Historian for the U.S. Marine Corps, Kleinkrieg expands our knowledge of the Western experience in coping with insurgencies. Without partaking in ideological biases, this work examines the purely military problem as seen by professionals. While small wars are not new, how they should be fought by a modern industrial nation is still a question to be answered. Rediscovered and presented in English, these German thoughts on the issue are now made available to a new generation of guerilla and irregular war fighters in the West.

About The Author

Charles D. “Chuck” Melson served as the Chief Historian for the U.S. Marine Corps, at Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps in Washington, DC, and the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. His military service included 25 years as a U.S. Marine. For some 23 years he wrote, co-authored, or edited official publications and series. Chuck was also a joint historian with the U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. He received the General Edwin Simmons-Henry Shaw Award for public historians, the General Leonard Chapman Medal for professional military educators, and the commemorative Rhodesian Independence Medal.



Editor’s Preface

Part One: German Counterinsurgency Revisited
Part Two: Kleinkrieg: Lessons from the Past and Possibilities of the Future
Part Three: Kleinkrieg to Bandenbekaempfung
Part Four: Fighting the Guerrilla Bands
Part Five: Small War Legacies



“Arthur Ehrhardt was almost the only German author in the interwar period to concern himself with the prospects of guerilla warfare in modern conditions.”

- Walter Laqueur author of The Guerilla Reader, Guerilla

“The German attitude to guerilla war was far more complex than stereotypical brutality for the sake of brutality.”

- Stephen G. Fritz, PhD author of Ostkrieg, Frontsoldaten

“Arthur Ehrhardt was one of the least known but among the most influential counterinsurgency theorists of the Twentieth Century. Despite being transferred to Himmler’s fanatical SS in 1944, Ehrhardt continued to be an out-of-the box thinker on revolutionary warfare, focused more on devising practical solutions against it rather than relying on rigid ideological formula.”

- Col Douglas E. Nash, USA, Ret U.S. Marine Corps History Division, author of Victory Was Beyond Their Grasp, Hell’s Gate

“The acclaimed military historian John Keegan wrote, ‘Continuities, particularly hidden continuities, form the principle subject of historical inquiry.’ It is the ‘identification of links’ between the past and present that ‘enable us to comprehend our actions in context.’ In that regard, one can find Mao Tse-tung’s operational art in the Old Testament and Arthur Ehrhardt’s treatise demonstrates that the nature of ‘small wars’ has remained constant since Clausewitz taught the subject at the Kriegsakademie. We are therefore indebted to Chuck Melson for reminding of us this fact.”

- Col Wray R. Johnson, USAF, Ret, PhD U.S. Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting, author of Airpower in Small Wars

“Kleinkrieg is a highly accessible introduction to an important, but frequently neglected, aspect of German military history as well for those interested in guerilla warfare

- Bruce I. Gudmundsson, PhD U.S. Marine Corps University, author of On Artillery, On Armor, Storm Troop Tactics

"contains a wealth of informative detail in a readable form and the fact that it pulls together several core strands and assessments of the German approach to COIN operations within one relatively succinct book is admirable. Accordingly, this work deserves to find a place on the bookshelf of any student of German military history, but especially that of anyone seeking to understand the particular issues and imperatives that have influenced the development of the German army and its doctrine for countering guerillas, partisans and irregular forces ever since 1871."

- David Stone, Author of ‘First Reich’ (2002), Fighting for the Fatherland (2006), Hitler’s Army 1939-1945 (2009), Twilight of the Gods (2011), The Kaiser’s Army 1914-1918 (2015)

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