Carl von Clausewitz

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Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831)[1] was an influential Prussian military theorist. His major work On War remains a central treatise on military and general strategy in the 21st century.

Clausewitz stressed the moral and political aspects of war. His great work On War was unfinished at his death. He used a romantic or Hegelian conception of warfare, stressing the dialectic of how opposite factors interact, and noting how unexpected new developments unfolded under the "fog of war" and called for rapid decisions by alert commanders. Clausewitz saw history as a complex check on abstractions that did not accord with experience. In opposition to his great intellectual rival Antoine-Henri Jomini he argued war could not be quantified or graphed or reduced to mapwork and graphs. Clausewitz had many aphorisms, of which the most famous is, "War is not merely a political act, but also a political instrument, a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means," a working definition of war which has won wide acceptance.


Clausewitz had a strong influence on German military thought, and after 1890 on British thought, as typified by naval historian Julian Corbett (1854-1922). He had little influence on American military thought before 1945. But he influenced Lenin and the Soviet tradition, 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.[2] Clausewitz directly influenced Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Mao read Clausewitz's On War in 1938 and organized a seminar on Clausewitz as part of the educational program for the Party leadership in Yan'an. Thus the "Clausewitzian" content in many of Mao's writings is not merely secondhand knowledge, via Lenin (as many have supposed), but reflects Mao's own in-depth study.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1990, and even more since the 9-11 Attack on the United States in 2001, many commentators have argued that On War has lost its analytical edge as a tool for understanding war. Since Clausewitz focused solely on wars between countries by well-defined armies, they say the sorts of conflicts which he interpreted are limited chiefly to Europe between 1648 and 1990. 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.[3]


Carl von Clausewitz was born in 1780 in Burg, Kingdom of Prussia, in a middle-class family. Although not rich his family had claims to noble origins which eventually have been officially recognized. At 12 years old the boy entered Prussian army as a cadet in 34th Infantry Regiment. At age 13 he participated in his first military campaign fighting against revolutionary French forces; he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant at age 15. He entered the Berlin War Academy at the age of 21, where his influential mentor General Gerhard von Scharnhorst was director. Clausewitz studied history and philosophy – especially ideas of Immanuel Kant. After graduation in 1804 he became a military assistant (aide-de-camp) to Prussian Prince August. In the same year he met his future wife - a prominent Berlin's socialite Marie von Brühl.

In 1806, he fought French invaders in the failed Jena Campaign. He was captured spent two years as a prisoner of war in France. After his return von Clausewitz was immediately appointed by his former mentor General von Scharnhorst as a military assistant to Prussian Army Chief of Staff. He worked with an exemplary dedication reorganizing and modernizing the Prussian Army. In year 1810, in recognition of his service he was appointed as a professor at the War Academy and assigned the prestigious task of military education of the Prussian Crown Prince. Von Clausewitz spent the next two years advancing not only his military career but also advancing his scholarly studies, interacting with many prominent Berlin intellectuals.

Von Clausewitz profoundly resented French political and cultural domination of Prussia. His dissatisfaction culminated in the year 1812, when Prussia allied with Napoleon and Clausewitz defiantly refused to collaborate with France. He left Prussia to serve in the Russian Army. However, before this forced exile von Clausewitz left the manuscript of his first major work "Principles of War" with the Prussian Crown Prince as a tutorial. He fought for Russia against Napoleon. When Prussia switched to become an ally of Russia against Napoleon, he became Russian liaison officer with the headquarters of Prussian Field Marshal Blücher, and ultimately was appointed chief of staff of the German-Russian legion. In the decisive 1815 Waterloo campaign he served as a chief of staff to General von Thielmann's III Prussian Army Corps.

Participation in the battles of Ligny and Wavre had a deep influence on von Clausewitz's understanding of the strategic Arcanum. In both those battles Prussian Army was greatly outnumbered and overwhelmed by French forces, and was eventually forced into the retreat. Nevertheless, those battles were hollow victories for the French and major strategic victories for Prussians because they delayed Napoleon long enough to prevent reinforcements at Waterloo.

In 1818 von Clausewitz was promoted to Major-General and appointed as a director of the War College in Berlin. He remained at this prestigious post until year 1830 spending his time on research, teaching and writing his scholarly treatises. In 1830 he became Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army. This promotion coincided with an impromptu mobilization of Prussian forces which were rushed to the eastern borders of the Prussian Kingdom. The hasty mobilization and sealing-off Prussian borders was done in an anticipation of possible outbreak of violence - related to a turbulent political situation in the Russian Empire. While staying with his troops von Clausewitz contracted cholera and died in the city of Wrocław on November 16, 1831. He was buried in his native city of Burg.

Importance of ideas of von Clausewitz

Some historians describe the ideas conceived by von Clausewitz as a direct product of the "Napoleonic era." However, he transcended his contemporary political and historical reality.

Von Clausewitz's most enlightening discovery was that one universal element unifying all existence is a constant and unpredictable struggle.

Most studies of war soon became obsolete. Books that have survived the passage of time include Sun-tzu's "The Art of War" (500 B.C.), Thucydides': "The Peloponnesian War" (400 B.C.), Jomini's The Art of War (1838) and von Clausewitz's On War (1832).

Von Clausewitz did not recommend any detailed strategic program nor did he advise any specific tactical solutions. He had a keen understanding that future readers of his books had to live in a world distinctively different from his own. Von Clausewitz knew this future world would be unpredictable for him due to unimaginable changes in technology, social structure and political status. Therefore, he has chosen to use a descriptive theoretical approach suitable for analysis of any conflict, at any time. A descriptive nature of his theory allows readers to develop their own strategic way of thinking, which may be practically applied to solve, strategic problems in virtually any environment.[4]

Von Clausewitz saw himself as a modern "scientist". Yet he ridiculed the popular thesis, attributed to Jomini, that one can create a "science of war."

Main ideas of von Clausewitz

The texts of von Clauzewitz are notoriously difficult. Christopher Bassford summarized the importance of reading the actual text:

"Unfortunately, the annoying thing about von Clausewitz is that, in order to understand him, you actually have to read his book....any attempt to summarize von Clausewitz is inherently misleading. This is true in part because von Clausewitz's dialectical method is at least as important as any particular insight that he offers. But all of von Clausewitz's insights are woven together in a fascinating whole; efforts to extract particular "nuggets" are destructive to a genuine understanding."[5]

Realistic approach. Von Clausewitz elected to use a realistic as opposed to idealistic approach in his analysis of war. His treatise is a pragmatic description of an intricate and volatile matrix of never-ending struggle. In a systematic but not overly pedantic way he provides an account of complex interactions between unquantifiable human psyche and harsh realities of physical world in the process of armed conflict.

Dialectical method of presentation. In addition to realistic approach von Clausewitz employed Hegelian dialectical method as a way of presenting his concepts. This method is based upon the introduction of two conflicting proposals - thesis and its anti-thesis - in order to achieve the synthesis.

"War is a mere continuation of policy by other means.". This is one of the most frequently quoted and misquoted arguments of Von Clausewitz. When taken out of context and without understanding of von Clausewitz's dialectical method - it may be misinterpreted as a vicious advocacy for engaging in military conflicts. It is no so, however. The above quote is not a promotional phrase; it is neither a statement of the facts. In his point #24 of the Chapter One entitled "What Is War" von Clausewitz wrote: "war is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to war relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses." The above phrase is the dialectical antithesis to the presented before thesis that "war is nothing but a duel on a larger scale." Introduction of those two opposing notions leads ultimately to dialectical synthesis. In the Clausewitz's synthesis, deficiencies of both those extreme statements are elegantly resolved in one unifying conclusion. This conclusion states that war is neither only an act of brute force nor purely rational political act.[6] Von Clausewitz formulated his synthesis as the "fascinating trinity of war" which is discussed below.

Fascinating Trinity of War. Literary in German wunderliche dreifaltigkeit - where word wunderliche is used to denote "fascinating" rather than "wonderful" character of the trinity. As discussed above fascinating trinity was a dialectical synthesis of the nature of war. Von Clausewitz defined this fascinating trinity as dynamic, inherently unstable interaction of the forces of violent emotion, chance, and rational calculation.[7] "Trinity of War" is sometimes misinterpreted as notion that a war is simply a triumvirate of people, military and government. This is however oversimplification of the actual point made by von Clausewitz.[8]

Von Clausewitz wrote:

"War is...a wonderful trinity, composed of;

- of the original violence of its elements, hatred and animosity, which may be looked upon as blind instinct; - of the play of probabilities and chance, which make it a free activity of the soul; and - of the subordinate nature of a political instrument, by which it belongs purely to the reason. The first of these three phases concerns more the people; the second more the general and his army; the third more the Government." • Center of gravity. Von Clausewitz introduced a concept of a "center of gravity" to illustrate his points about prioritization of choices in selection of military objectives. This concept became one of the most crucial elements of a current American war doctrine. It is considered to be a cornerstone of an American operational art; and it occupies a common place in a vocabulary of American military strategists.[9] Von Clausewitz's definition of a "center of gravity" follows principles of Newtonian mechanics in the context of his metaphor comparing a war to a wrestling match. In mechanics, center of gravity represents a point where forces of gravity converge within an object. Striking at the object's center of gravity with sufficient force will cause the object to lose its balance and fall. In von Clausewitz's wrestling metaphor center of gravity is a factor of balance of the wrestling opponent, rather than his source of strength. If one knows his opponent's center of gravity, one can defeat his enemy faster and with less force by concentrating one's decisive blow on the opponent's center of gravity.

Fog of war. While discussing peculiarities of war von Clausewitz pointed out the uncertainty of all data as one of major peculiarities of combat in progress. He wrote: "(…) 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 infrequently—like the effect of a fog or moonshine—gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance. What this feeble light leaves indistinct to the sight, talent must discover, or must be left to chance."

The "fog of war" is a very important concept with applications beyond a wartime battlefield. In fact, it applies to all adversarial actions such as business competition, lawsuits, etc. A party to the adversarial process has to act upon more or less uncertain data about an opponent. Even in the discovery process of a legal action there will be instances when access to critical information may be blocked despite an underlying legal theory. Such a party should also understand that opponent's actions may be based upon erroneous data. The possibilities of misjudging a true nature and capabilities of one's adversary due to the war fog phenomenon are endless.

Attack versus defense. The von Clausewitz's opinion about the asymmetry of offense and defense has been vulgarized in the attributed to him saying that "the attack is the best form of the defense." In reality von Clausewitz wrote: "if we are really waging war, we must return the enemy's blows....Thus a defensive campaign can be fought with offensive battles.... The defensive form of war is not a simple shield, but a shield made up of well-directed blows."

Contrary to conventional wisdom von Clausewitz simply considered the defense as the easiest (not necessarily the best) form of waging a war. He stated: "The object of defense is preservation; and since it is easier to hold ground than to take it, defense is easier than attack. But defense has a passive purpose: preservation; and attack a positive one: conquest.... If defense is the stronger form of war, yet has a negative object, it follows that it should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong enough to pursue a positive object."


  • Aron, Raymond. Clausewitz: Philosopher of War. (1985). 418 pp.
  • Bassford, Christopher. Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America, 1815-1945. (1994)
  • 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 pp.
  • Holmes, Terence M. "Planning Versus Chaos in Clausewitz's on War." Journal of Strategic Studies 2007 30(1): 129-151. Issn: 0140-2390 Fulltext: EBSCO
  • Howard, Michael. Clausewitz : a very short introduction. (2002)
  • Paret, Peter, Gordon A. Craig, and Felix Gilbert, eds. Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (1986)
  • 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
  • Smith, Hugh. On Clausewitz: A Study of Military and Political Ideas. (2005). 303 pp.
  • 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 in Jstor
  • 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). 334 pp.

Primary Sources

  • Clausewitz, Carl Von, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. (2nd ed. 1984). ISBN 0691056579.
  • Clausewitz, Carl von. Historical and Political Writings, ed. Peter Paret and Daniel Moran (1992).

External links


  1. also known as: Carl Phillip Gottfried von Clausewitz, Carl Maria von Clausewitz, Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz, Karl von Clausewitz
  2. Jacob W. Kipp, "Lenin and Clausewitz: the Militarization of Marxism, 1914-1921." Military Affairs 1985 49(4): 184-191. Issn: 0026-3931 in Jstor
  3. For an opposing view see Hew Strachan, and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, eds. Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century (2007)
  4. Recently, some authors noticed many similarities between von Clauzewitz's theses and modern theories of nonlinearity and complexity. D.S. Alberts, et al., Complexity, global politics, and national security. 1997, Washington: National Defense University
  5. Bassford, C., Clausewitz Homepage., 2006.
  6. Bassford, C., Clausewitz Homepage., 2006.
  7. Bassford, C., Clausewitz Homepage., 2006.
  8. Villacres E.J. and Bassford C., Reclaiming The Clausewitzian Trinity Parameters. The journal of the U.S. Army War College., 1995.
  9. Echevarria, A.J., Clausewitz’s Center Of Gravity: Changing Our Warfighting Doctrine—Again! Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) Monograph., 2002.

See also