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Carl von Clausewitz

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Carl von Clausewitz

Carl Philipp Gottfried von[1] Clausewitz
Portrait while in Prussian service, by Karl Wilhelm Wach
Born (1780-06-01)1 June 1780
Burg bei Magdeburg, Prussia
Died 16 November 1831(1831-11-16) (aged 51)
Breslau, Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland)
Years of service 1792–1831
Rank Major-General
Unit Russian-German Legion (III Corps)
Commands held Kriegsakademie

Carl Philipp Gottfried (or Gottlieb) von Clausewitz[1] (; 1 June 1780 – 16 November 1831)[2] was a Prussian general and Hegelian because of his references to dialectical thinking but, although he was probably personally acquainted with Hegel, there remains debate as to whether or not Clausewitz was in fact influenced by him.[3] He stressed the dialectical interaction of diverse factors, noting how unexpected developments unfolding under the "fog of war" (i.e., in the face of incomplete, dubious, and often completely erroneous information and high levels of fear, doubt, and excitement) call for rapid decisions by alert commanders. He saw history as a vital check on erudite abstractions that did not accord with experience. In contrast to the early work of Antoine-Henri Jomini, he argued that war could not be quantified or reduced to mapwork, geometry, and graphs. Clausewitz had many aphorisms, of which the most famous is "War is the continuation of politics by other means."[4]


Clausewitz's Christian names are sometimes given in non-German sources as Karl, "Carl Philipp Gottlieb," or "Carl Maria." He spelled his own given name with a "C" in order to identify with the classical Western tradition; writers who use "Karl" are often seeking to emphasize his German (rather than European) identity. "Carl Philipp Gottfried" appears on Clausewitz's tombstone.[5] Nonetheless, reputable Clausewitz experts such as Peter Paret and sources such as Encyclopædia Britannica still use Gottlieb instead of Gottfried, presumably based on their reading of handwritten birth records.[6]

Life and military career

Clausewitz was born on 1 June 1780 in Burg bei Magdeburg, Prussia, the fourth and youngest son of a middle-class family, though it made claims to noble status, which Carl accepted. His grandfather, the son of a Lutheran pastor, had been a professor of theology. Clausewitz's father was once a lieutenant in the Prussian army and held a minor post in the Prussian internal revenue service. Clausewitz entered the Prussian military service at the age of twelve as a Lance-Corporal, eventually attaining the rank of Major-General.[7] Clausewitz's family claimed descent from the Barons of Clausewitz in Upper Silesia, though this is now doubted by scholars.[8]

Clausewitz served in the Rhine Campaigns (1793–1794) including the Siege of Mainz, when the Prussian army invaded France during the French Revolution, and served in the Napoleonic Wars from 1806 to 1815. He entered the Kriegsakademie (also cited as "The German War School," the "Military Academy in Berlin," and the "Prussian Military Academy") in Berlin in 1801 (age 21), probably studied the writings of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, and won the regard of General Gerhard von Scharnhorst, the future first chief of staff of the new Prussian Army (appointed 1809). Clausewitz, Hermann von Boyen (1771–1848) and Karl von Grolman (1777–1843) were Scharnhorst's primary allies in his efforts to reform the Prussian army between 1807 and 1814.

Clausewitz served during the Jena Campaign as aide-de-camp to Prince August. At the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt on 14 October 1806 – when Napoleon invaded Prussia and defeated the massed Prussian-Saxon army commanded by Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick – he was captured, one of the 25,000 prisoners captured that day as the Prussian army disintegrated. He was 26. Clausewitz was held prisoner with his prince in France from 1807 to 1808. Returning to Prussia, he assisted in the reform of the Prussian army and state.

Marie von Clausewitz (née, Countess von Brühl)

On December 10, 1810 he married the socially prominent Countess Marie von Brühl, whom he first met in 1803. She was a member of the noble German von Brühl family originating in Thuringia. The couple moved in the highest circles, socializing with Berlin's political, literary and intellectual elite.

Opposed to Prussia's enforced alliance with Napoleon I, he left the Prussian army and served in the Russian army from 1812 to 1813 during the Russian Campaign, including the Battle of Borodino. Like many Prussian officers serving in Russia, he joined the Russian-German Legion in 1813. In the service of the Russian Empire, Clausewitz helped negotiate the Convention of Tauroggen (1812), which prepared the way for the coalition of Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom that ultimately defeated Napoleon and his allies.

In 1815, the Russo-German Legion was integrated into the Prussian Army and Clausewitz re-entered Prussian service. He was soon appointed chief of staff of Johann von Thielmann's III Corps. In that capacity, he served at the Battle of Ligny and the Battle of Wavre during the Waterloo Campaign in 1815. The Prussians were defeated at Ligny (south of Mont-Saint-Jean and the village of Waterloo) by an army led personally by Napoleon, but Napoleon's failure to destroy the Prussian forces led to his defeat a few days later at the Battle of Waterloo, when the Prussian forces unexpectedly arrived on his right flank late in the afternoon to support the Anglo-Dutch-Belgian forces pressing his front. Clausewitz's unit fought at Wavre, preventing reinforcements from reaching Napoleon at Waterloo.

Clausewitz was promoted to Major-General in 1818 and appointed director of the Kriegsakademie, where he served until 1830. In that year he returned to duty with the army. Soon afterwards, the outbreak of several revolutions around Europe and a crisis in Poland appeared to presage another major European war. Clausewitz was appointed chief of staff of the only army Prussia was able to mobilize, which was sent to the Polish border. He died after commanding the Prussian army's efforts to construct a cordon sanitaire to contain the great cholera outbreak in 1831 (the first time cholera had appeared in Europe, causing a continent-wide panic).

His widow edited, published, and wrote the introduction to his magnum opus on the philosophy of war in 1832, on which he had started working in 1816, but had not completed.[9] She wrote the preface for On War and by 1834 had published several of his books. She died two years later.

Theory of war

Clausewitz was a professional combat soldier who was involved in numerous military campaigns, but he is famous primarily as a military theorist interested in the examination of war, utilizing the campaigns of Frederick the Great and Napoleon as frames of reference for his work.[10] He wrote a careful, systematic, philosophical examination of war in all its aspects. The result was his principal book, On War, a major work on the philosophy of war. It was unfinished when Clausewitz died and contains material written at different stages in his intellectual evolution, producing some significant contradictions between different sections. The sequence and precise character of that evolution is a source of much debate, as are exact meaning behind his seemingly contradictory claims (discussions pertinent to the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war are one example). Clausewitz constantly sought to revise the text, particularly between 1827 and his departure on his last field assignments, to include more material on "people's war" and forms of war other than high-intensity warfare between states, but relatively little of this material was included in the book.[9] Soldiers before this time had written treatises on various military subjects, but none had undertaken a great philosophical examination of war on the scale of those written by Clausewitz and Leo Tolstoy, both of which were inspired by the events of the Napoleonic Era.

Clausewitz's work is still studied today, demonstrating its continued relevance. More than sixteen major English-language books that focused specifically on his work were published between 2005 and 2014, whereas his 19th-century rival Jomini faded from influence. Lynn Montross, writing on that topic in War Through the Ages (1960), said; "This outcome... may be explained by the fact that Jomini produced a system of war, Clausewitz a philosophy. The one has been outdated by new weapons, the other still influences the strategy behind those weapons." Although Jomini also wrote extensively on war, he was primarily a historian and journalist and did not attempt to define war. Clausewitz did, providing (and dialectically comparing) a number of definitions. The first is his dialectical thesis: "War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." The second, often treated as Clausewitz's 'bottom line,' is in fact merely his dialectical antithesis: "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means." The synthesis of his dialectical examination of the nature of war is his famous "trinity," saying that war is "a fascinating trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason."[11] Thus the best shorthand for Clausewitz's trinity should be something like "violent emotion/chance/rational calculation." However, it is frequently presented as "people/army/government," a misunderstanding based on a later paragraph in the same chapter. This misrepresentation was popularized by U.S. Army Colonel Harry Summers' Vietnam-era interpretation,[12] facilitated by weaknesses in the 1976 Howard/Paret translation.

The degree to which Clausewitz managed to revise his manuscript to reflect that synthesis is the subject of much debate. His final reference to war and Politik, however, goes beyond his widely quoted antithesis: "War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase "with the addition of other means" because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs. The main lines along which military events progress, and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace."

Clausewitz introduced systematic philosophical contemplation into Western military thinking, with powerful implications not only for historical and analytical writing but also for practical policy, military instruction, and operational planning. He relied on his own experiences, contemporary writings about Napoleon, and on deep historical research. His historiographical approach is evident in his first extended study, written when he was 25, of the Thirty Years War. He rejects the Enlightenment's view of the war as a chaotic muddle and instead explains its drawn-out operations by the economy and technology of the age, the social characteristics of the troops, and the commanders' politics and psychology. In On War, Clausewitz sees all wars as the sum of decisions, actions, and reactions in an uncertain and dangerous context, and also as a socio-political phenomenon. He also stressed the complex nature of war, which encompasses both the socio-political and the operational and stresses the primacy of state policy.

The word "strategy" had only recently come into usage in modern Europe, and Clausewitz's definition is quite narrow: "the use of engagements for the object of war." Clausewitz conceived of war as a political, social, and military phenomenon which might — depending on circumstances — involve the entire population of a nation at war. In any case, Clausewitz saw military force as an instrument that states and other political actors use to pursue the ends of policy, in a dialectic between opposing wills, each with the aim of imposing his policies and will upon his enemy.[13]

Clausewitz's emphasis on the inherent superiority of the defense suggests that habitual aggressors are likely to end up as failures. The inherent superiority of the defense obviously does not mean that the defender will always win, however: there are other asymmetries to be considered. He was interested in cooperation between the regular army and militia or partisan forces, or citizen soldiers, as one possible — sometimes the only — method of defense. In the circumstances of the Wars of the French Revolution and with Napoleon, which were energized by a rising spirit of nationalism, he emphasized the need for states to involve their entire populations in the conduct of war. This point is especially important, as these wars demonstrated that such energies could be of decisive importance and for a time led to a democratization of the armed forces much as universal suffrage democratized politics.

While Clausewitz was intensely aware of the value of intelligence at all levels, he was also very skeptical of the accuracy of much military intelligence: "Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain.... In short, most intelligence is false." This circumstance is generally described as the fog of war. Such skeptical comments apply only to intelligence at the tactical and operational levels; at the strategic and political levels he constantly stressed the requirement for the best possible understanding of what today would be called strategic and political intelligence. His conclusions were influenced by his experiences in the Prussian Army, which was often in an intelligence fog due partly to the superior abilities of Napoleon's system but even more to the nature of war. Clausewitz acknowledges that friction creates enormous difficulties for the realization of any plan, and the fog of war hinders commanders from knowing what is happening. It is precisely in the context of this challenge that he develops the concept of military genius, whose capabilities are seen above all in the execution of operations.

Principal ideas

The young Clausewitz

Key ideas discussed in On War include:

  • the dialectical approach to military analysis
  • the methods of "critical analysis"
  • the economic profit-seeking logic of commercial enterprise is equally applicable to the waging of war and negotiating for peace
  • the nature of the balance-of-power mechanism
  • the relationship between political objectives and military objectives in war
  • the asymmetrical relationship between attack and defense
  • the nature of "military genius" (involving matters of personality and character, beyond intellect)
  • the "fascinating trinity" (wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit) of war[14]
  • philosophical distinctions between "absolute" or "ideal war," and "real war"
  • in "real war," the distinctive poles of a) limited war and b) war to "render the enemy helpless"
  • "war" belonging fundamentally to the social realm—rather than to the realms of art or science
  • "strategy" belonging primarily to the realm of art, but is constrained by quantitative analyses of political benefits versus military costs & losses
  • "tactics" belonging primarily to the realm of science
  • the importance of "moral forces" (more than simply "morale") as opposed to quantifiable physical elements
  • the "military virtues" of professional armies (which do not necessarily trump the rather different virtues of other kinds of fighting forces)
  • conversely, the very real effects of a superiority in numbers and "mass"
  • the essential unpredictability of war
  • the "fog" of war[15]
  • "friction" - the disparity between the ideal performance of units, organisation or systems and their actual performance in real world scenarios (Book I, Chapter VII)
  • strategic and operational "centers of gravity"[16]
  • the "culminating point of the offensive"
  • the "culminating point of victory"

Interpretation and misinterpretation

Clausewitz used a dialectical method to construct his argument, leading to frequent misinterpretation of his ideas. British military theorist B. H. Liddell Hart contends that the enthusiastic acceptance by the Prussian military establishment – especially Moltke the Elder, a former student of his [17] – of what they believed to be Clausewitz's ideas, and the subsequent widespread adoption of the Prussian military system worldwide, had a deleterious effect on military theory and practice, due to their egregious misinterpretation of his ideas:

As so often happens, Clausewitz's disciples carried his teaching to an extreme which their master had not intended.... [Clausewitz's] theory of war was expounded in a way too abstract and involved for ordinary soldier-minds, essentially concrete, to follow the course of his argument – which often turned back from the direction in which it was apparently leading. Impressed yet befogged, they grasped at his vivid leading phrases, seeing only their surface meaning, and missing the deeper current of his thought.[18]

As described by Christopher Bassford, then professor of strategy at the National War College of the United States:

One of the main sources of confusion about Clausewitz's approach lies in his dialectical method of presentation. For example, Clausewitz's famous line that "War is a mere continuation of politics by other means," ("Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln") while accurate as far as it goes, was not intended as a statement of fact. It is the antithesis in a dialectical argument whose thesis is the point – made earlier in the analysis – that "war is nothing but a duel [or wrestling match, a better translation of the German Zweikampf] on a larger scale." His synthesis, which resolves the deficiencies of these two bold statements, says that war is neither "nothing but" an act of brute force nor "merely" a rational act of politics or policy. This synthesis lies in his "fascinating trinity" [wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit]: a dynamic, inherently unstable interaction of the forces of violent emotion, chance, and rational calculation.[2]

Another example of this confusion is the idea that Clausewitz was a proponent of total war as used in the Third Reich's propaganda in the 1940s. In fact, he never used the term "total war": rather, he discussed "absolute war" or "ideal war" as the purely logical result of the forces underlying a "pure," Platonic "ideal" of war. In what he called a "logical fantasy," war cannot be waged in a limited way: the rules of competition will force participants to use all means at their disposal to achieve victory. But in the real world, he said, such rigid logic is unrealistic and dangerous. As a practical matter, the military objectives in real war that support political objectives generally fall into two broad types: "war to achieve limited aims"; and war to "disarm" the enemy, "to render [him] politically helpless or militarily impotent." Thus the complete defeat of the enemy may not be necessary, desirable, or even possible.

In modern times the reconstruction of Clausewitzian theory has been a matter of much dispute. One analysis was that of Panagiotis Kondylis, a Greek-German writer and philosopher, who opposed the interpretations of Raymond Aron in Penser la Guerre, Clausewitz, and other liberal writers. According to Aron, Clausewitz was one of the first writers to condemn the militarism of the Prussian general staff and its war-proneness, based on Clausewitz's argument that "war is a continuation of politics by other means." In Theory of War, Kondylis claims that this is inconsistent with Clausewitzian thought. He claims that Clausewitz was morally indifferent to war (though this probably reflects a lack of familiarity with personal letters from Clausewitz, which demonstrate an acute awareness of war's tragic aspects) and that his advice regarding politics' dominance over the conduct of war has nothing to do with pacifist ideas. For Clausewitz, war is simply a means to the eternal quest for power, of raison d'État in an anarchic and unsafe world.

Other notable writers who have studied Clausewitz's texts and translated them into English are historians Peter Paret of the Institute for Advanced Study and Sir Michael Howard, and the philosopher, musician, and game theorist Anatol Rapoport. Howard and Paret edited the most widely used edition of On War (Princeton University Press, 1976/1984) and have produced comparative studies of Clausewitz and other theorists, such as Tolstoy. Bernard Brodie's A Guide to the Reading of "On War", in the 1976 Princeton translation, expressed his interpretations of the Prussian's theories and provided students with an influential synopsis of this vital work.

The British military historian John Keegan attacked Clausewitz's theory in his book A History of Warfare.[19] Keegan argued that Clausewitz assumed the existence of states, yet 'war antedates the state, diplomacy and strategy by many millennia.'


Clausewitz died without completing On War, but despite this his ideas have been widely influential in military theory and have had a strong influence on German military thought specifically. Later Prussian and German generals such as Helmuth Graf von Moltke were clearly influenced by Clausewitz: Moltke's notable statement that "No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy" is a classic reflection of Clausewitz's insistence on the roles of chance, friction, "fog," uncertainty, and interactivity in war.

Clausewitz's influence spread to British thinking as well, though at first more as an historian and analyst than as a theorist.[20] See for example Wellington's extended essay discussing Clausewitz's study of the Campaign of 1815—Wellington's only serious written discussion of the battle, which was widely discussed. Clausewitz's broader thinking came to the fore following Britain's military embarrassments in the Boer War (1899-1902). One example of a heavy Clausewitzian influence in that era is Spenser Wilkinson, journalist, the first Chichele Professor of Military History at Oxford University, and perhaps the most prominent military analyst in Britain from c.1885 until well into the interwar period. Another is naval historian Julian Corbett (1854–1922), whose work reflected a deep if idiosyncratic adherence to Clausewitz's concepts and frequently an emphasis on Clausewitz's ideas about 'limited war' and the inherent strengths of the defensive form of war. Corbett's practical strategic views were often in prominent public conflict with Wilkinson's--see, for example, Wilkinson's article "Strategy at Sea," The Morning Post, 12 February 1912. Following the First World War, however, the influential British military commentator B. H. Liddell Hart in the 1920s erroneously attributed to him the doctrine of "total war" that during the First World War had been embraced by many European general staffs and emulated by the British. More recent scholars typically see that war as so confused in terms of political rationale that it in fact contradicts much of On War.[21] The most influential British Clausewitzian today is probably Colin S. Gray; historian Hew Strachan (like Wilkinson also the Chichele Professor of Military History at Oxford University, since 2001) has been an energetic proponent of the study of Clausewitz, but his own views on Clausewitz's ideas are somewhat ambivalent.

With some interesting exceptions (e.g., John McAuley Palmer, Robert M. Johnston, Hoffman Nickerson), Clausewitz had little influence on American military thought before 1945 other than via British writers, though Generals Eisenhower and Patton were avid readers. He did influence Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky,[22] and Mao Zedong, and thus the Communist Soviet and Chinese traditions, as Lenin emphasized the inevitability of wars among capitalist states in the age of imperialism and presented the armed struggle of the working class as the only path toward the eventual elimination of war.[23] Because Lenin was an admirer of Clausewitz and called him "one of the great military writers", his influence on the Red Army was immense.[24] The Russian historian A.N. Mertsalov commented that "It was an irony of fate that the view in the USSR was that it was Lenin who shaped the attitude towards Clausewitz, and that Lenin's dictum that war is a continuation of politics is taken from the work of this anti-humanist anti-revolutionary."[24] The American mathematician Anatol Rapoport wrote in 1968 that Clausewitz as interpreted by Lenin formed the basis of all Soviet military thinking since 1917, and quoted the remarks by Marshal V.D. Sokolovsky:

In describing the essence of war, Marxism-Leninism takes as its point of departure the premise that war is not an aim in itself, but rather a tool of politics. In his remarks on Clausewitz's On War, Lenin stressed that "Politics is the reason, and war is only the tool, not the other way around. Consequently, it remains only to subordinate the military point of view to the political".[25]

Henry A. Kissinger, however, described Lenin's approach as being that politics is a continuation of war by other means, thus turning Clausewitz's argument "on its head."[26]

Rapoport argued that:

As for Lenin's approval of Clausewitz, it probably stems from his obsession with the struggle for power. The whole Marxist conception of history is that of successive struggles for power, primarily between social classes. This was constantly applied by Lenin in a variety of contexts. Thus the entire history of philosophy appears in Lenin's writings as a vast struggle between "idealism" and "materialism". The fate of the socialist movement was to be decided by a struggle between the revolutionists and the reformers. Clausewitz's acceptance of the struggle for power as the essence of international politics must had impressed Lenin as starkly realistic.[27]

Clausewitz directly influenced Mao Zedong, who read On War in 1938 and organized a seminar on Clausewitz for the Party leadership in Yan'an. Thus the "Clausewitzian" content in many of Mao's writings is not merely a regurgitation of Lenin but reflects Mao's own in-depth study.[28] The idea that war involves inherent "friction" that distorts, to a greater or lesser degree, all prior arrangements, has become common currency in fields such as business strategy and sport. The phrase fog of war derives from Clausewitz's stress on how confused warfare can seem while immersed within it.[29] The term center of gravity, used in a military context derives from Clausewitz's usage, which he took from Newtonian Mechanics. In U.S. military doctrine, "center of gravity" refers to the basis of an opponent's power at the operational, strategic, or political level, though this is only one aspect of Clausewitz's use of the term.

Late 20th and early 21st century

The deterrence strategy of the United States in the 1950s was closely inspired by President Dwight Eisenhower’s reading of Clausewitz as a young officer in the 1920s.[30] Eisenhower was greatly impressed by Clausewitz’s example of a theoretical, idealized “absolute war” in Vom Krieg as a way of demonstrating how absurd it would be to attempt such a strategy in practice.[30] For Eisenhower, the age of nuclear weapons had made what was for Clausewitz in the early 19th century only a theoretical vision an all too real possibility in the mid-20th century.[30] From Eisenhower’s viewpoint, the best deterrent to war was to show the world just how appalling and horrific a nuclear “absolute war” would be if it should ever occur, so hence a series of much publicized nuclear tests in the Pacific, giving first priority in the defense budget to nuclear weapons and delivery systems over conventional weapons, and making repeated statements in public that the United States was able and willing at all times to use nuclear weapons.[30] In this way through the Massive retaliation doctrine and the closely related foreign policy concept of Brinkmanship, Eisenhower hoped to hold out a creditable vision of Clausewitzian nuclear “absolute war” in order to deter both the Soviet Union and/or China from ever risking a war or even conditions that might lead to a war with the United States.[31]

After 1970, some theorists claimed that nuclear proliferation made Clausewitzian concepts obsolete after the 20th-century period in which they dominated the world.[32] John E. Sheppard, Jr., argues that by developing nuclear weapons, state-based conventional armies simultaneously both perfected their original purpose, to destroy a mirror image of themselves, and made themselves obsolete. No two powers have used nuclear weapons against each other, instead using conventional means or proxy wars to settle disputes. If such a conflict did occur, presumably both combatants would be annihilated. Heavily influenced by the war in Vietnam and by antipathy to American strategist Henry Kissinger, the American game theorist Anatol Rapoport argued in 1968 that a Clausewitzian view of war was not only obsolete in the age of nuclear weapons, but also highly dangerous as it promoted a "zero-sum paradigm" to international relations and a "dissolution of rationality" amongst decision-makers.[33]

The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century have seen many instances of state armies attempting to suppress insurgencies, terrorism, and other forms of asymmetrical warfare. If Clausewitz focused solely on wars between countries with well-defined armies, as many commentators have argued, then perhaps On War has lost its analytical edge as a tool for understanding war as it is currently fought. This is an ahistorical view, however, for the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon was full of revolutions, rebellions, and violence by "non-state actors", such as the wars in the French Vendée and in Spain. Clausewitz wrote a series of “Lectures on Small War” and studied the rebellion in the Vendée (1793–1796) and the Tyrolean uprising of 1809. In his famous “Bekenntnisdenkschrift” of 1812, he called for a “Spanish war in Germany” and laid out a comprehensive guerrilla strategy to be waged against Napoleon. In On War he included a famous chapter on “The People in Arms.”

One prominent critic of Clausewitz is the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld. In his book The Transformation of War,[34] Creveld argued that Clausewitz's famous "Trinity" of people, army, and government was an obsolete socio-political construct based on the state, which was rapidly passing from the scene as the key player in war, and that he (Creveld) had constructed a new "non-trinitarian" model for modern warfare. Creveld's work has had great influence. Daniel Moran replied, 'The most egregious misrepresentation of Clausewitz’s famous metaphor must be that of Martin van Creveld, who has declared Clausewitz to be an apostle of Trinitarian War, by which he means, incomprehensibly, a war of 'state against state and army against army,' from which the influence of the people is entirely excluded."[35] Christopher Bassford went further, noting that one need only read the paragraph in which Clausewitz defined his Trinity to see "that the words 'people,' 'army,' and 'government' appear nowhere at all in the list of the Trinity’s components.... Creveld's and Keegan's assault on Clausewitz's Trinity is not only a classic 'blow into the air,' i.e., an assault on a position Clausewitz doesn't occupy. It is also a pointless attack on a concept that is quite useful in its own right. In any case, their failure to read the actual wording of the theory they so vociferously attack, and to grasp its deep relevance to the phenomena they describe, is hard to credit."[36]

Some have gone further and suggested that Clausewitz's best-known aphorism, that war is a continuation of policy by other means, is not only irrelevant today but also inapplicable historically.[37] For an opposing view see Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century edited by Hew Strachan, and Andreas Herberg-Rothe.[38] Others argue that the essentials of Clausewitz's theoretical approach remain valid, but that our thinking must adjust to the realities of particular times and places. Knowing that "war is an expression of politics by other means" does us no good unless we use a definition of "politics" that is appropriate to the circumstance and to the cultural proclivities of the combatants in each situation; this is especially true when warfare is carried on across a cultural or civilizational divide, and the antagonists do not share as much common background as did many of the participants in the First and Second World Wars.

In military academies, schools, and universities worldwide, Clausewitz's literature is often mandatory reading.[39]

In popular culture

  • 1945: In the Horatio Hornblower novel The Commodore, by C. S. Forester, the protagonist meets Clausewitz during the events surrounding the defence of Riga
  • 1945: In That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis, Lord Feverstone (Dick Devine) defends rudely cutting off another professor by saying "[...] but then I take the Clausewitz view. Total war is the most humane in the long run."
  • 1952: In John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden, the character of Lee makes several references to von Clausewitz in Chapter 43.
  • 1955: In Ian Fleming's novel Moonraker, James Bond reflects that he has achieved Clausewitz's first principle in securing his base, though this base is a relationship for intelligence purposes and not a military installation.
  • 1977: In The Wars by Timothy Findley, a novel about a 19-year-old Canadian officer who serves in World War I, one of his fellow soldiers reads On War, and occasionally quotes some of its passages.
  • 2000: In the Ethan Stark military science fiction book series by John G. Hemry, Clausewitz is often quoted by Private Mendoza and his father Lieutenant Mendoza to explain events that unfold during the series.
  • 2004: Bob Dylan mentions Clausewitz on pages 41 and 45 of his Chronicles: Volume One, saying he had "a morbid fascination with this stuff," that "Clausewitz in some ways is a prophet" and reading Clausewitz can make you "take your own thoughts a little less seriously." Dylan says that Vom Kriege was one of the books he looked through among those he found in his friend's personal library as a young man playing at The Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village.
  • 1962: In Lawrence of Arabia, General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) contends to T. E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) that "I fight like Clausewitz, you fight like Saxe", to which Lawrence replies, "We should do very well indeed, shouldn't we?"
  • 1977: In Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, Feldwebel Steiner (James Coburn) has an ironic conversation in the trenches in gaps in hostilities with the advancing Red Army with his comrade, Cpl. Schnurrbart, in which they refer to German philosophers and their views on war. Schnurrbart: " ...and von Clausewitz said, 'war is a continuation of state policy by other means.'" "Yes," Steiner says, overlooking the trenches, " other means."
  • 1995: In Crimson Tide, the naval officers of the nuclear submarine have a discussion about the meaning of the quote "War is a continuation of politics by other means." The executive officer (Denzel Washington) contends that the interpretation of Clausewitz's ideas by the captain (Gene Hackman) is too simplistic.
  • 2004: In Downfall, set during the last days of the Third Reich, Hitler initiates Operation Clausewitz, as part of the last defence of Berlin
  • 2007: In Lions for Lambs, during a military briefing in Afghanistan Lt. Col. Falco (Peter Berg) says: "Remember your von Clausewitz: 'Never engage the same enemy for too long or he will ...'", "adapt to your tactics", completes another soldier [40]
  • 2009: In Law Abiding Citizen, Clausewitz is frequently quoted by Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), the main character.
  • 2012: In The Gatekeepers (film), Ayalon quotes Carl von Clausewitz — getting one of the film’s very rare laughs by wryly describing the great military theorist as being smart even though he doesn’t seem to have been Jewish — who defined “victory” as constituting an improvement of one’s political situation.
Video Games
  • Paradox Development Studio's grand strategy game engine is named after Clausewitz.
  • In Civilization V: Brave New World, an autocratic nation can adopt the "Clausewitz' Legacy" tenet, granting the nation a temporary bonus on the military offensive.
  • In Napoleon: Total War, Carl von Clausewitz is available for recruitment as a high rating general for the Prussia faction.

See also

East German stamp honoring Clausewitz (1980)

August Otto Rühle von Lilienstern - Prussian officer from whom Clausewitz allegedly took, without acknowledgment, several important ideas (including that about war as pursuing political aims) made famous in On War. However, such ideas as Clausewitz and Lilienstern shared in common derived from a common influence, i.e., Scharnhorst, who was Clausewitz's "second father" and professional mentor.


  1. ^ a b In German personal names, von is a preposition which approximately means of or from and usually denotes some sort of nobility. While von (always lower case) is part of the family name or territorial designation, not a first or middle name, if the noble is referred to by surname alone in English, use Schiller or Clausewitz or Goethe, not von Schiller, etc.
  2. ^ a b Bassford, Christopher (2002). "Clausewitz and his Works" at Retrieved 2007-06-30.
  3. ^ Cormier, Youri. "Hegel and Clausewitz: Convergence on Method, Divergence on Ethics" International History Review, Volume 36, Issue 3, 2014.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Clausewitz's tombstone
  6. ^ .Encyclopædia Britannica"Carl von Clausewitz",
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b Smith, Rupert, The Utility of Force, Penguin Books, 2006, page 57
  10. ^
  11. ^ Carl von Clausewitz, On War, originally Vom Kriege (3 vols., Berlin: 1832-34). The edition cited here was edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1984, pp.75,87,89,605. The language describing the 'trinity,' however, has been modified in accordance with Christopher Bassford's critique of the Howard/Paret translation in "The Primacy of Policy and the 'Trinity' in Clausewitz's Mature Thought," from Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, eds., Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century [Proceedings of a March, 2005 conference at Oxford] (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.74-90.
  12. ^ Summers, Harry G., Jr. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982).
  13. ^ Beatrice Heuser, "Clausewitz’ Ideas of Strategy and Victory", in Andreas Herberg-Rothe and Hew Strachan (eds): Clausewitz in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 132-163.
  14. ^ Tip-Toe Through the Trinity: The Strange Persistence of Trinitarian Warfare by Christopher Bassford
  15. ^ "Lastly, the great uncertainty of all data in War is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not unfrequently—like the effect of a fog or moonshine—gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance"
  16. ^
  17. ^ Moltke: His life and his character
  18. ^ Liddell Hart, B. H. Strategy London:Faber, 1967. Second rev. ed.
  19. ^ John Keegan, A History of Warfare. 1993. Second edition 2004, page 3.
  20. ^ Bassford, Christopher. Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America, 1815-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  21. ^
  22. ^ Cormier, Youri. "Fighting Doctrines and Revolutionary Ethics" Journal of Military and Security Studies, Vol 15, No 1 (2013)
  23. ^ Kipp, Joseph W. "Lenin and Clausewitz: the Militarization of Marxism, 1914-1921." Military Affairs 1985 49(4): 184-191. Issn: 0026-3931. In JSTOR
  24. ^ a b Mertsalov, A.N. "Jomini versus Clausewitz" pages 11-19 from Russia War, Peace and Diplomacy edited by Mark and Ljubica Erickson, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004 page 16.
  25. ^ Rapoport, Anatol "Introduction" pages 11-82 from On War, London: Penguin, 1968 page 37.
  26. ^ Christopher Bassford, Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America, 1815-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p.198.
  27. ^ Rapoport, Anatol "Introduction" pages 11-82 from On War, London: Penguin, 1968 pages 37-38.
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ a b c d Gaddis, John Lewis "We Now Know, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, 1998 page 233.
  31. ^ Gaddis, John Lewis "We Now Know, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, 1998 pages 233-234.
  32. ^
  33. ^ Rapoport, Anatol "Introduction" pages 11-82 from On War, London: Penguin, 1968 pages 73-77.
  34. ^ Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (New York: The Free Press, 1991).
  35. ^ Daniel Moran, "Clausewitz on Waterloo: Napoleon at Bay," in Carl von Clausewitz and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815, ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow (, 2010), p.242, n.11.
  36. ^ Bassford, Christopher. "Tip-Toe Through the Trinity"
  37. ^ See for instance John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Knopf, 1993), passim.
  38. ^ See the 16 essays in Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, eds., Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford University Press, 2007), the proceedings of a 2005 conference at Oxford.
  39. ^ Giuseppe Caforio, Social sciences and the military: an interdisciplinary overview (2006) p 221
  40. ^

Further reading

Scholarly studies

  • See massive Clausewitz bibliographies in English, French, German, etc., on bibliography sectionThe Clausewitz Homepage.
  • Aron, Raymond. Clausewitz: Philosopher of War. (1985). 418 pp.
  • Bassford, Christopher. Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America, 1815-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Full text on-line here.
  • Cormier, Youri. "Fighting Doctrines and Revolutionary Ethics" Journal of Military and Security Studies, Vol 15, No 1 (2013)
  • Cormier, Youri. "Hegel and Clausewitz: Convergence on Method, Divergence on Ethics" International History Review, Volume 36, Issue 3, 2014
  • Echevarria, Antulio J., II. After Clausewitz: German Military Thinkers before the Great War. (2001). 346 pp.
  • Echevarria, Antulio J., II. Clausewitz and Contemporary War (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Gat, Azar. The Origins of Military Thought from the Enlightenment to Clausewitz (1989)
  • Handel, Michael I., ed. Clausewitz and Modern Strategy. 1986. 324 pp.
  • Handel, Michael I. Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought. (2001) 482 pages. Based on comparison of Clausewitz's On War with Sun Tzu's The Art of War
  • Heuser, Beatrice. Reading Clausewitz. (2002). 238 pages, ISBN 0-7126-6484-X
  • Heuser, Beatrice. "Small Wars in the Age of Clausewitz: Watershed between Partisan War and People’s War", Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 33 No.1 (Feb. 2010), pp. 137–160 .
  • Holmes, Terence M. "On WarPlanning Versus Chaos in Clausewitz's ." Journal of Strategic Studies 2007 30(1): 129-151. Issn: 0140-2390 Fulltext: EBSCO
  • Sir Michael Howard, Clausewitz, 1983 [originally a volume in the Oxford University Press "Past Masters" series, reissued in 2000 as Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction]. ISBN 0-192-87608-2 OCLC 8709266
  • Keegan, John, A History of Warfare (London: Hutchinson, 1993). See critique of Keegan's arguments by Christopher Bassford, "John Keegan and the Grand Tradition of Trashing Clausewitz: A Polemic," War in History, November 1994, pp. 319–336.
  • Kinross, Stuart. Clausewitz and America: Strategic thought and practice from Vietnam to Iraq. (London: Routledge, 2009.)
  • Mieszkowski, Jan. "How To Do Things With Clausewitz," The Global South, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2009, pp. 18–29 in Project MUSE
  • Mertsalov, A.N. “Jomini versus Clausewitz” pages 11–19 from Russia War, Peace and Diplomacy edited by Mark and Ljubica Erickson, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004, ISBN 0-297-84913-1.
  • Paret, Peter. Clausewitz in His Time: Essays in the Cultural and Intellectual History of Thinking about War. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2015.
  • Paret, Peter. "Two Historians on Defeat in War and Its Causes," Historically Speaking, Volume 11, Number 3, June 2010, pp. 2–8 doi:10.1353/hsp.0.0118
  • Paret, Peter. Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.
  • Paret, Peter. "From Ideal to Ambiguity: Johannes von Müller, Clausewitz, and the People in Arms." Journal of the History of Ideas 2004 65(1): 101-111. Issn: 0022-5037 Fulltext: Project Muse
  • Rogers, Clifford J. [1], The Journal of Military History, Vol. 66, No. 4. (2002), pp. 1167–1176.
  • Paul Roques, Le général de Clausewitz. Sa vie et sa théorie de la guerre, Paris, Editions Astrée, 2013. ISBN 979-10-91815-01-7
  • Rothfels, Hans "Clausewitz" pages 93–113 from The Makers of Modern Strategy edited by Edward Mead Earle, Gordon A. Craig & Felix Gilbert, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1943.
  • Smith, Hugh. On Clausewitz: A Study of Military and Political Ideas. (2005). 303 pp.
  • Stoker, Donald J. Clausewitz: His Life and Work (Oxford UP, 2014) 376 pp. online review
  • Strachan, Hew, and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, eds. Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Sumida, Jon Tetsuro. "On the Relationship of History and Theory in on War: the Clausewitzian Ideal and its Implications" Journal of Military History 2001 65(2): 333-354. Issn: 0899-3718
  • Sumida, Jon Tetsuro. Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2008
  • Villacres, Edward J. and Bassford, Christopher. "Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity". Parameters, Autumn 95, pp. 9–19,
  • Wallach, Jehuda L. The Dogma of the Battle of Annihilation: The Theories of Clausewitz and Schlieffen and Their Impact on the German Conduct of Two World Wars. (1986).

Primary sources

  • Clausewitz, Carl von. Historical and Political Writings, ed. Peter Paret and Daniel Moran (1992).
  • Clausewitz, Carl von. On War, abridged version translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, edited with an introduction by Beatrice Heuser Oxford World's Classics (Oxford University Press, 2007) ISBN 978-0-19-954002-0
  • Clausewitz, Carl von. Col. J. J. Graham, translator. Vom Kriege. On War — Volume 1, Project Gutenberg eBook. The full text of the 1873 English translation can be seen in parallel with the original German text at [2]
  • Clausewitz, Karl von. On War. Trans. O.J. Matthijs Jolles. New York: Random House, 1943. Though not currently the standard translation, this is increasingly viewed by some Clausewitz scholars as the best English translation.
  • Clausewitz, Carl von, and Wellesley, Arthur (First Duke of Wellington), ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Gregory W. Pedlow, and Daniel Moran, On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. (, 2010). This collection of documents includes, in a modern English translation, the whole of Clausewitz's study, The Campaign of 1815: Strategic Overview (Berlin: 1835). ISBN 1-4537-0150-8. It also includes Wellington's reply to Clausewitz's discussion of the campaign.

External links

  • Corn, Tony. "Clausewitz in Wonderland", Policy Review, September 2006. See also reply by Clausewitz Homepage, "Clausewitz's self-appointed PR Flack."
  • Clausewitz homepage, large amounts of information.
  • Works by Carl von Clausewitz at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Carl von Clausewitz at Internet Archive
  • Works by Carl von Clausewitz at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • The Influence of Clausewitz on Jomini's Le Précis de l'Art de la Guerre
  • Two Letters On Strategy, addressed to the Prussian general-staff officer, Major von Roeder, respectively of 22 and 24 December 1827.
  • Erfourth M. & Bazin, A. (2014). Clausewitz’s Military Genius and the #Human Dimension. The Bridge.
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