Carl von Clausewitz

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Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a German military theorist who 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 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.


He was born in Burg, near Magdeburg, Prussia, on June 1, 1780, the son of a retired Prussian officer. His first active army service was in the Rhine campaigns, 1793-1794. In 1801 he entered Berlin Military Academy, where Gen. Gerard J. D. von Scharnhorst, Prussian chief of staff in the war against Napoleon, recognized his ability. After Prussia's defeat in 1806 and 1807 Clausewitz's egalitarian and functional modernism drove him toward the most activist wing of the reformers. Among his projects that made him suspect to conservatives were plans for a Prussian version of the people in arms. The king and some of his conservative advisers suspected him of being a Prussian Jacobin, a reputation that hurt his career in later years. In 1809 Clausewitz became departmental chief in the ministry of war and instructor in the German War School, of which he was appointed director in 1818. He was instrumental in the reorganization of the Prussian army and became a close friend of Count August Neihardt Gneisenau, Prussian field marshal. When King Frederick William III concluded an alliance with Napoleon in 1812, Clausewitz left the Prussian service and joined the army of Russian Tsar Alexander I, which continued to oppose Napoleon. He later took part in the wars of liberation and was chief of staff of the third Prussian corps in the Waterloo campaign. Clausewitz developed the modern strategy applied by Prussia in the wars of 1866 and 1870, which later became the basis of military teaching in many countries. He died of cholera in Breslau, November 18, 1831. His unfinished masterpiece, Vom Kriege (On War), was published in 1833.


Clausewitz relied on his own experiences, contemporary writings about Napoleon, and on a small body of historical sources. His historiographical approach is evident in his first extended study, written when he was twenty-five, 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. From then on, his attention to psychological factors added to the compound character of his interpretations. On War sees all wars as the sum of decisions, actions, and reactions in an uncertain, dangerous context but also as a socio-political phenomenon. He has several definitions, the famous one is war is the continuation of politics by other means. He also stressed the complex nature of war which encompasses both the socio-political and the operational and stresses the primacy of national policy in war.

War is a remarkable trinity. It is composed of passion and violence; of chance and probability, and of "its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy." Clausewitz conceived of war as a political, social, economic, and military totality involving the entire population of a nation at war. He sees war as a social act and as an extension of politics. He stressed that wars are decided by decisive battles (unlike Jomini who stressed control of central geographical locations.)

Clausewitz's emphasis on the superiority of the defense suggests aggressive attacks can be failures. Clausewitz emphasizes the fusion of the regular army with militia, or citizen soldiers, as the only effective method of national defense. This point is especially important as it ends the independence and isolation of the regular military and democraticizes the armed forces much as universal suffrage democraticized politics.

In contrast to Jomini, Clausewitz largely dismissed the value of military intelligence: "Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain. . . . In short, most intelligence is false." His conclusions were influenced by his personal experiences in the Prussian Army, which was often in an intelligence fog due to the superior abilities of Napoleon's system.

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, but it is precisely in respect of this challenge that he develops the concept of military genius, whose capabilities are seen above all as the executive arm of planning.


Tolstoy caricatured him as a military theorist in War and Peace, but this view had little impact on his reputation, which depended on the clarity of his thinking.

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.[1] 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.[2]


  1. Jacob W. Kipp, "Lenin and Clausewitz: the Militarization of Marxism, 1914-1921." Military Affairs 1985 49(4): 184-191. Issn: 0026-3931 in Jstor
  2. For an opposing view see Hew Strachan, and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, eds. Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century (2007)