Carl Von Clausewitz

Carl Von Clausewitz books and biography

Carl Von Clausewitz. Portrait While In Prussian Service, By Karl Wilhelm Wach


Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz, painting by Karl Wilhelm Wach.
Carl von Clausewitz, painting by Karl Wilhelm Wach.

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (June 1, 1780 – November 16, 1831) was a Prussian soldier, military historian and influential military theorist. He is most famous for his military treatise Vom Kriege (complete text available here), translated into English as On War (complete text available here).



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Life and times

Carl von Clausewitz was born in Burg bei Magdeburg, Prussia in 1780. Clausewitz's father was an officer in the Prussian army; Carl entered the Prussian military service at the age of twelve years, eventually attaining the rank of Major-General.

He served in the Rhine Campaigns (1793–1794) when the Prussian army invaded France during the French Revolution, and later served in the Napoleonic Wars from 1806 to 1815. Clausewitz entered the Kriegsakademie in Berlin (also cited variously as "The German War School," the "Military Academy in Berlin," and the "Prussian Military Academy") in 1801 (age 21 years), studied the philosopher Kant and won the regard of General Gerhard von Scharnhorst, the future first chief of staff of the new Prussian Army (appointed 1809). Clausewitz, along with 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.

Both Clausewitz and Hermann von Boyen served during the Jena Campaign. Clausewitz, serving as Aide-de-Camp to Prince August, was captured in October of 1806 when Napoleon invaded Prussia and defeated the massed Prussian-Saxon army commanded by Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick (who was mortally wounded), in twin battles at Jena and Auerstedt (see Battle of Jena-Auerstedt) on October 14, 1806. Carl von Clausewitz, at the age of twenty-six years, became one of the 25,000 prisoners captured that day as the Prussian army disintegrated.

Clausewitz was held prisoner in France from 1807 to 1808. Returning to Prussia, he assisted in the reform of the Prussian army and state. He also married the socially prominent Countess Marie von Brühl and socialized with Berlin's literary and intellectual elites. Opposed to Prussia's enforced alliance to Napoleon, he left the Prussian army and subsequently served in the Russian army from 1812 to 1813 during the Russian Campaign. 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 I of France and his allies.

He later re-entered the Prussian army and was soon appointed chief of staff to 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 Mount St. Jean and the village of Waterloo) by an army led personally by Napoleon, but Napoleon's failure to actually destroy the Prussian forces led to his eventual defeat a few days later at the Battle of Waterloo when the Prussian forces arrived on his right flank late in the afternoon and joined the Anglo-Dutch forces pressing Napoleon's front. At Wavre, Thielmann's corps, greatly outnumbered, prevented Marshall Grouchy from reinforcing Napoleon with his corps.

Clausewitz was promoted to Major-General in 1818 and appointed director of the Kriegsakademie, where he served until 1830. In the latter year, 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 to the only army Prussia was able to mobilize, which was sent to the Polish border. He subsequently died in a cholera outbreak in 1831. His magnum opus on the Philosophy of War was written during this period, and was published posthumously by his widow in 1832.

Distinguishing military philosophers from military systems

It has been claimed that some or all of this section is incoherent and not understandable, and should possibly be reworded if the intended meaning can be determined.
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It is of first importance to distinguish what a military philosopher is as opposed to a military commander, such as Napoleon. Napoleon, Clausewitz' contemporary and arch-enemy of the conservative powers, was a military commander, and one of the history's greatest and most storied conquerors. Napoleon clearly was a person of legendary intellect, personal drive, and capabilities, but he never undertook to write a detailed, systematic treatise concerning his campaigns or military theories. It is very easy to find hundreds of quotes by Napoleon or attributed to him (he has to be one of the most quoted and quotable people in history), but these quotes are largely taken from letters, military dispatches, diaries, campaign reports, and eyewitness accounts, and they are often taken out of context. What we know of Napoleon's theories and methods come from study of his letters and his actions, the historical records of his campaigns and from the treatises of Antoine Henri Jomini who served in Napoleon's armies under Marshal Michel Ney, and later joined the Russian army. As has been noted by other authors, Napoleon had little interest in instructing his commanders to be his equals in military thought (in 1813, Napoleon allegedly commented in response to Jomini's Treatise on Great Military Operations that "It teaches my whole system of war to my enemies!"). (Most of Jomini's interactions with Napoleon are known only through tales told by Jomini himself--a somewhat suspect source. Another version of this story is that Napoleon said, "You all think you understand war because you have read Jomini's book! Is it likely that I should have permitted its publication if it could accomplish that?" Source: Robert Matteson Johnston, Clausewitz to Date (Cambridge, Mass.: Military Historian and Economist, 1917), pp.9-11.) In the end, as many have commented, that was his undoing: in the campaign of 1814 his allied enemies avoided battle with Napoleon directly and concentrated on eliminating forces commanded by his less competent marshals and generals.

Other soldiers before Napoleon and Clausewitz wrote treatises on various military subjects of interest to them. For example, Marshal Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, published four treatises that revolutionized modern fortifications, and Marshal Maurice de Saxe whose published memoirs-treatise, Mes Reveries (published posthumously in 1756), was the intellectual forerunner to "Napoleonic tactics" or "Grand Tactics." Both served in the armies of Louis XIV, the "Sun" King of France in an age preceding the Napoleonic Era. But none undertook a great philosophical examination of war on the scale of Clausewitz's and Tolstoy's, both of which were inspired by the events of the Napoleonic Era in which they lived.

Carl von Clausewitz was also a man of great intellect who participated in many actual military campaigns, but he did not suffer from any drive to make himself emperor of his nation or to attempt to conquer the world. Rather, he was a thoughtful person and an instructor of the next generations at the Kriegsakademie. Essentially an intellectual, he was interested in the examination of war. He undertook to write a careful, systematic, philosophical examination of war in all its aspects, as he saw it and taught it. The result was his principal work, On War, the West's premier work on the Philosophy of War. His examination was so carefully considered that it was only partially completed by the time of his death.

Jomini was a contemporary and a direct rival of Clausewitz in the post-Napoleonic interpretation of the warfare of the preceding quarter-century. Jomini's treatises, containing geometric diagrams and formula-like prescriptions, were initially more popular than Clausewitz's philosophical explorations, but over time, Jomini's works faded into obsolescence and are now nearly forgotten, while Clausewitz continues to be studied (even in the nuclear age) and to stir controversy and debate. As Lynn Montross indicated in War Through the Ages, "This outcome...may be explained by the fact the 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."

One could certainly compare Clausewitz with the ancient Chinese military philosopher and instructor, Sun Tzu and compare On War with Sun Tzu's The Art of War. The two together are generally acknowledged as the greatest military philosophers in history and their books the greatest written works of military philosophy. What Clausewitz accomplished was the introduction of systematic philosophical contemplation into Western thinking about the interrelationship of war and politics, with powerful implications not only for historical and analytical writing but for practical policy, military instruction, and operational planning.

Principal ideas

A young Carl von Clausewitz.
A young Carl von Clausewitz.

Vom Kriege (On War) is a long and intricate investigation of Clausewitz's observations based on his own experience in the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon and on considerable historical research into those wars and others. It is shaped not only by purely military and political considerations but by Clausewitz's strong interests in art, science, and education.

Some of the key ideas (not necessarilly original to Clausewitz or even to his mentor Gerhard von Scharnhorst) discussed in On War include (in no particular order of importance):

    • the dialectical approach to military analysis
    • the methods of "critical analysis"
    • the uses and abuses of historical studies
    • the nature of the balance-of-power mechanism
    • the relationship between political objectives and military objectives in war
    • the asymetrical relationship between attack and defense
    • the nature of "military genius"
    • the "fascinating trinity" (wunderliche dreifaltigkeit) of war
    • 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" belongs fundamentally to the social realm—rather than the realms of art or science
    • "strategy" belongs primarily to the realm of art
    • "tactics" belongs primarily to the realm of science
    • the essential unpredictability of war
    • the "fog" of war
    • "friction"
    • strategic and operational "centers of gravity"
    • the "culminating point of the offensive"
    • the "culminating point of victory"

Clausewitz used a dialectical method to construct his argument, leading to frequent modern misinterpretation. As described by Christopher Bassford, professor of strategy at the National War College:

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 merely a continuation of politics," 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.[1]

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. He did not coin the phrase as an ideological ideal--indeed, Clausewitz does not use the term "total war" at all. 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 Clausewitz 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, such rigid logic is unrealistic and dangerous. As a practical matter, the military objectives in real war that support one's political objectives generally fall into two broad types: "war to achieve limited aims" and war to "disarm” the enemy--i.e., “to render [him] politically helpless or militarily impotent." Thus the complete defeat of one's enemies may be neither necessary, desirable, or even possible. But the subtlety of Clausewitz's reasoning and explanation seems to escape most readers and academic commentators, who seem to be disturbed that Clausewitz offers them options for consideration in a practical manner rather than fixed prescriptions useful in a classroom or in intellectual polemics.


Despite his death before completing On War, Clausewitz' ideas have been widely influential in military theory. Later Prussian and German generals such as Helmuth Graf von Moltke were clearly influenced by Clausewitz: Moltke's famous statement that "No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy" is a classic reflection of Clausewitz's insistance on the roles of chance, friction, "fog," and uncertainty in war. The idea that actual war includes "friction" which deranges, to a greater or lesser degree, all prior arrangements, has become common currency in other fields as well (e.g., business strategy).

Some claim that nuclear proliferation makes Clausewitzian concepts obsolescent after a period--i.e., the 20th century--in which they dominated the world.[1] Sheppard 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 nuclear powers have ever fought, if they did, there would be few survivors, who would most probably live excruciatingly painful and miserable existences in post-apocalyptic technological dystopias (see the fictionalized account of post-nuclear survival and attempt to rebuild the state covered in the film threads). Thus, the beginning of the 21st century found many instances of state armies trying to suppress terrorism, bloody feuds, raids and other intra/supra-state conflict.

Others, however, argue that the essentials of Clausewitz's theoretical approach remain valid, but that our thinking must adjust to changed realities. Knowing that "war is an expression of politics" does us no good unless we have a valid definition of "politics" and an understanding of how it is reflected in a specific situation. The latter may well turn on religious passions, private interests and armies, etc. While many commentators are quick to dismiss Clausewitz's political context as obsolete, it seems worthwhile to note that the states of the twentieth century were very different from Clausewitz's Prussia, and yet the World Wars are generally seen as "Clausewitzian warfare"; similarly, North and South Vietnam, and the United States as well, were quite unlike 18th-century European states, yet it was the war in Indochina that brought the importance of Clausewitzian theory forcefully home to American thinkers. Clausewitz himself was well aware of the politics that drove the Thirty Years' War, a conflict that bears a great deal of similarity to the current struggle in Iraq. The idea that states cannot suppress rebellions or terrorism in a nuclear-armed world does not bear up well in the light of experience: Just as some rebellions and revolutions succeeded and some failed before 1945, some rebellions and revolutions have succeeded and some have failed in the years since. Insurgencies were successfully suppressed in the Phillipines, Yemen, and Malaysia--just a few of many examples. Successful revolutions may destroy some states, but the revolutionaries simply establish new and stronger states--e.g., China, Vietnam, Iran--which seem to be quite capable of handling threats of renewed insurgency.

The real problem in determining Clausewitz's continuing relevance lies not with his own theoretical approach, which has stood up well over nearly two centuries of intense military and political change. Rather, the problem lies in the way that thinkers with more immediate concerns have adapted Clausewitzian theory to their own narrowly defined eras. When times change, people familiar only with Clausewitz's most recent interpreters, rather than with the original works, assume that the passing of cavalry, or Communism, or the USSR's Strategic Rocket Forces, means that Clausewitz is passé. Yet we always seem to be comfortable describing the age of warfare just past as "Clausewitzian"--even though Clausewitz never saw a rifled musket, a machinegun, a tank, a Viet Cong, or a nuclear weapon.

The phrase fog of war derives from Clausewitz's stress on how confused warfare can seem while one is immersed within it. [2]. The term Center of gravity, still used by today's military planners, was also first used by Clausewitz, and represents (in the simplified form in which it appears in official doctrine) the source from which an opponent derives its strength.


Clausewitz's Christian name is sometimes given in non-German sources as Carl Philipp Gottlieb, Carl Maria, or misspelled Karl due to reliance on mistaken source material, conflations with his wife's name, Marie, or mistaken assumptions about German orthography. Carl Philipp Gottfried appears on Clausewitz's tombstone and is thus most likely to be the correct version. The tombstone reads:

Hier ruht in Gott
Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz
koenigl. General-Major u. Inspecteur der Artillerie
geboren 1 Juni 1780
gestorben 16 Nov 1831

Which translates as:

Here rests with God
Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz
In the royal service, Major General and Inspector of the Artillery
Born 1 June 1780
Died 16 November 1831

See also

  • Famous military writers
  • Total war
  • Absolute war
  • Philosophy of war
  • Sun Tzu


  1. ^ Sheppard, John E., Jr. (September 1990). "On War: Is Clausewitz Still Relevant?". Parameters 20 (3): pp.85–99.
  2. ^ Berkun, Scott. The Art of Project Management. ISBN 0-596-00786-8.


  • Wikisource:On War 1873

Further reading

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Carl von Clausewitz
  • Clausewitz, Carl Von (1976, rev.1984). On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret., Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-05657-9.
  • Clausewitz, Carl von. Col. J. J. Graham, translator. Vom Kriege. On War — Volume 1, Project Gutenberg eBook.
  • Gerhard Muhm : German Tactics in the Italian Campaign ,
  • Gerhard Muhm, La tattica tedesca nella campagna d'Italia, in Linea gotica avamposto dei Balcani, a cura di Amedeo Montemaggi - Edizioni Civitas, Roma 1993
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Paret, Peter. Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Notable Quotes

  • "No one starts a war--or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so--without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it."
  • "War is a continuation of politics by other means." (quoted and discussed in the submarine movie Crimson Tide)

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