FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
"Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad."
Graph of Clausewitz's visibility over time, from "Who's Bigger?: Where Historical Figures Really Rank" (10 APR 2014)
Carl Philipp Gottfried (other writers sometimes use 'Gottlieb') von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian soldier and intellectual. [Issues regarding Clausewitz's name are discussed here.] He came from a middle-class social background, though his family claimed noble origins and these claims eventually received official recognition. He served as a practical field soldier (with extensive combat experience against the armies of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France), as a staff officer with political/military responsibilities at the very center of the Prussian state, and as a prominent military educator. Clausewitz first entered combat as a cadet at the age of 13, rose to the rank of Major-General at 38, married into the high nobility, moved in rarefied intellectual circles in Berlin, and wrote a book which has become the most influential work of military philosophy in the Western world (and beyond). That book, On War (Vom Kriege in the original German) has been translated into virtually every major language (there are, for example, 33 Chinese versions*) and it remains a living influence on modern strategists in many fields. (You can directly compare the original German and the 1873 English translation here.)
Clausewitz's fame is largely due to the importance and influence of his magnum opus, On War, unquestionably the most important single work ever written on the theory of warfare and of strategy, although both the book and its impact have been interpreted and misinterpreted in wildly varying ways. His theories are of interest to military strategists, historians, political scientists, business thinkers, and scientists (although Clausewitz's own discussion is not overtly mathematical and Clausewitz laughed at the notion of a "science of war"). A 1996 discussion of his modern importance is here, and a discussion of problems in the modern application of his works is here. Clausewitz has been read—or at least commented upon—by a great many important soldiers, writers, and thinkers, among them the Duke of Wellington, Moltke (the elder), Hans Delbrück, Spenser Wilkinson, Julian Stafford Corbett, John McAuley Palmer, B.H. Liddell Hart, J.F.C. Fuller, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger, Caspar Weinberger, and Colin Powell.
However, Clausewitz was an interesting personality in many other ways. The romance and unusual intellectual relationship between Clausewitz and his wife, Countess Marie von Brühl, have attracted the attention of biographers for reasons that have little to do with his military reputation—consider how surprising it is that the West's greatest work of military theory was edited and introduced in the 1830's by a woman. He played an important though junior role in the resurrection of Prussia after its near-destruction by France in 1806/07. Even though he was a relatively junior foreign officer in the Russian army in 1812, he appears as a minor character in Tolstoy's War and Peace, and he played a key role in negotiating the Convention of Taurrogen that neutralized the Prussian corps in Napoleon's Grande Armée and eventually forced Prussia to join the anti-French coalition. During the 1815 Waterloo campaign, the Prussian army corps of which he was chief of staff played a key role (fighting at Wavre) in the final victory over Napoleon. Clausewitz's important study of that campaign drew Wellington into writing his only serious essay on the subject. His writings (On War represents only three of the ten volumes of his collected works, and even the full set of these volumes leaves out many important articles, papers, lectures, and his voluminous correspondence) provide important first-person, historical, and analytical commentaries on key events of the dramatic Revolutionary era.
Of all the "great books" in the Western canon, only two address the fundamental problems of war and strategy. One is by the Athenian writer Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War (c.400 B.C.). The other is Clausewitz's On War (1832). Unlike many other great books, however, the ideas Clausewitz proposed have never been fully absorbed into the mainstream in the manner of, say, Adam Smith's work on capitalism. This is due partly to the depth and difficulty of the original work and to the unusual dialectical character of Clausewitz's approach, but also to the startling modernity of his concepts: Recent studies have made clear the similarities between Clausewitz's world-view and such modern scientific approaches as nonlinearity and complexity theory (see especially Alan Beyerchen's work on that subject). After more than a century and a half, Clausewitz's work remains the most comprehensive, perceptive, and (in key respects) modern contribution to political/military and strategic thought. In whole or in part, it remains required reading in America's intermediate-level and senior military schools, as well as in many civilian strategic studies programs. For example, the National War College's AY 2008 instructor's guide to On War is here. Whether these PME schools or official doctrine actually capture the meaning and value of Clausewitz's work remains a subject of energetic debate.
Clausewitz's approach is also increasingly taught in business schools. An ambitious recent abridgement of On War aimed at business strategists, originally published in the U.S.A., has been translated into German, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Turkish. Comments on Clausewitz by Jack Welch, the famous Chairman and CEO of General Electric, are here.
A major attraction of Clausewitz for modern strategic thinkers is that he does not attempt to sell them a program or prescribe solutions. He understands that his readers will face a strategic world unpredictably different in many respects from his own. Rather, his theory is essentially descriptive of the nature of human-on-human strategic problems; his purpose is to develop our human capital—i.e., to help the reader develop his or her own strategic judgment in order to deal with the ever-changing strategic environment.
Recently published major books in English about Clausewitz (at least 15 in English alone since 2000), are available from Amazon.com or elsewhere and can be found listed here. European interest has spiked as well, possibly motivated by well-founded suspicions that the Americans—despite all the attention they've lavished on Clausewitz since the debacle in Vietnam—have missed or misconstrued his key conceptions. Evidence of this renewed European interest can be found in our English, French, German, Japanese, Spanish/Portuguese, and "Other" bibliographies, but much of this European work tends to be published (primarily or in translation) in English.
Clausewitz's views inspire a lot of antagonism. A cynical—but entirely accurate—explanation for much of this antagonism is simply that Clausewitz's most famous book is very long and quite difficult to read. Many of Clausewitz's attackers have clearly never read it, basing their understanding on secondary and tertiary works, on rumor, or simply on the assumption that any book "on war" (especially one written by a German) must be essentially evil. Many of Clausewitz's most strident recent critics—Bruce Fleming, Tony Corn, Phillip Meilinger, Mary Kaldor—aren't really attacking Clausewitz at all: Essentially, they see his name as a symbol of a broad style of conventional, industrialized, technology-intensive, bureaucratized, Western warfare. They may have some good ideas concerning that kind of warfare, and it is true that Clausewitz's name has sometimes been invoked by its advocates. Nonetheless, such warfare is not "based on" the ideas of the pre-industrial Clausewitz, who largely ignored technology and never saw a machinegun, dive-bomber, tank, or A-Bomb. Thus these writers are tilting at windmills, not at Clausewitz. [See Bart Schuurman's critique in "Clausewitz and the 'New Wars' Scholars," Parameters, Spring 2010, pp.89-100.]
Still, On War is—unavoidably, given the nature of its subject and the sophistication of Clausewitz's approach—a tough, challenging work to read. The original German is itself notoriously difficult. Many modern Germans actually prefer to read it in the latest English translation for its relative clarity. That "clarity," however, has come under increasing suspicion from modern Clausewitz scholars, who argue that it was achieved at the cost of oversimplifying and distorting some important aspects of Clausewitz's argument. The many translations of On War into other languages have magnified these problems by introducing new distortions along national and linguistic lines. These difficulties compound older problems rooted in the fact that On War is based on a set of unfinished drafts written over a long period of Clausewitz's very active intellectual evolution. These various drafts were assembled into a finished book by his wife Marie after his untimely death. Beyond these sources of difficulty, Clausewitz's world-view is hard to understand without some grasp of the historical period in which he worked and the cultural currents of his milieu.
Perhaps even more fundamentally, Clausewitz's internal model of reality is baffling to many minds. He was an eminently scientific thinker, but his understanding of cause-and-effect relationships in real-world events seems odd, idiosyncratic, or even "mystical" to readers reared in the linear science and mathematics of the pre-computer era. Clausewitz's world-view is not at all surprising, however, to those familiar with science and mathematics as they have evolved since the advent of powerful computational tools able to handle the requirements of nonlinearity. Unfortunately, a great many modern writers in the fields of war, strategy, military history, etc., base their understanding of the very much "hard-science" concepts of nonlinearity and complexity science on a vague impression of the single ambiguous term "Chaos Theory," about which they have read nothing (or worse, some social-science summary), and assume it is some kind of "New Age" mysticism.
Many writers unfamiliar with Clausewitz's actual purpose and meaning are repulsed by his famous line that "war is merely the continuation of policy by other means." Part of the problem is that this is neither the best translation of the original wording nor On War's most definitive statement of the concept. Critics also argue (quite correctly, for both ethical and practical reasons) that war should not be seen as just another routine tool for politicians—but Clausewitz would have agreed with that argument in practical terms, for he saw war as a very risky and uncertain instrument. They also object to his rejection of moderation in war as an essential element of war itself (and fail to note his explanation as to why moderation is nonetheless and necessarily pursued by civilized societies as a matter of practical policy). The claim is frequently made (especially by British historians) that Clausewitz's ideas "caused" the disasters of World War I. An actual look at the evidence (a rare undertaking) indicates that this is quite false—at best, simplistic to the point of meaninglessness.
Much of the disagreement over On War, however, reflects fundamental issues that Clausewitz did not address in any detail. That is, On War is a book that, for all its length, attempts to focus narrowly on the practical problems of conducting military operations in war—it does not attempt to describe the character of the physical universe or the nature of man, nor to define such basic concepts as policy, politics, society, or the state. It is simply a mark of the book's profundity that discussion of it inevitably raises all of these issues. Writers with varying views on these fundamental matters inevitably interpret Clausewitz in varying ways—especially when they deal only with isolated statements (or rumors of statements) from the book rather than comprehensively with Clausewitz's overall treatment of the problem.
On the other hand, much of the controversy over Clausewitz reflects the pedestrian fact that he was a German soldier and military thinker. His writings accept the existence of political violence as inevitable—a view that any honest examination of human evolution and history must sustain. Nonetheless, in the wake of German wars of aggression in the 20th century, that background is inherently suspicious to many people. So is the fact that Clausewitz's theories were adapted in various ways by Hitler and by Marxists like Engels, Lenin, and Mao. Clausewitz's reputation has also been clouded by British and French propaganda written during the World Wars, writings that sought to draw a straight line from the aggressions of Frederick the Great, through Clausewitz, to Hitler. More confusion has been generated by the distortions or honest misunderstandings of would-be competitors, most notably B.H. Liddell Hart from the 1920s to 1970 and Martin van Creveld today, and by the sheer ignorance of pop-historians like John Keegan. (Keegan demonstrably knows nothing about Clausewitz and shows no evidence of having ever read any of his writings, but he has become widely accepted as a major commentator nonetheless.) Van Creveld's notion of "non-Clausewitzian war,"—i.e., "non-trinitarian war"—is based on a gross misreading of five key paragraphs in On War by another (and, ironically, pro-Clausewitz) writer, Colonel Harry G. Summers. There is as well the odd fact that Clausewitz's own proponents tend to tie his reputation too tightly to their own idiosyncratic notions and contemporary concerns. For instance, his 1908 British editor, Colonel F.N. Maude, enthusiastically inserted all sorts of anachronistic imperialist and Social Darwinist notions into his edition of On War. Anatol Rapoport, the editor of Penguin's 1968 (Vietnam-era) paperback edition (still sold today) severely abridged Clausewitz's own writings but unaccountably retained Maude's extraneous introduction, commentary, and notes—and then used Maude's errors to condemn Clausewitz as a monster. [Maude's introduction is here.] [Do you know which translation you have?]
Since relatively few people read Clausewitz's original work for themselves, the present-oriented work of his proponents leads to a pattern of Clausewitz's being declared obsolete every time there is some broad change in the world political/military situation—as, for instance, with the end of the Cold War. Clausewitz invariably gets resurrected, however, as every new generation of creative thinkers goes looking in the classics for fundamental strategic insights with relevance to their own eraespecially when popular "new" military or strategic ideas prove shallow or disastrously wrong.
The principal importance of Clausewitz's approach to strategic theory is its realism. By this we do not mean "Realism" in the terms of certain political science theories or of mere cynicism about politics and naked power, although the latter is not lacking in On War. Rather, Clausewitz's approach is profoundly realistic in that it describes the complex and uncertain manner in which real-world events unfold, taking into account both the frailties of human nature and the complexity of the physical and psychological world.
Clausewitz's most famous argument is that "War is merely a continuation of politics"— or "of policy"—"by other means." (Here's an insightful recent discussion of the policy/politics issue.) This famous line is widely quoted and widely misunderstood. It is, in any case, subject to any number of very different—though sometimes equally insightful or useful—interpretations. This is true even if one is focused very narrowly on what Clausewitz himself meant by it. It is merely the tip of the iceberg of Clausewitzian theory, however. Some juicy quotations are here. The Clausewitzian phrases and concepts most frequently cited include:
- war as a continuation or expression of policy/politics/Politik.
- the "culminating point of the offensive."
- the "culminating point of victory."
- a dialectical approach to military analysis.
- the methods of "critical analysis."
- the uses and abuses of historical studies. (See especially Jon Sumida's somewhat controversial arguments about the nature of Clausewitz's thinking about the techniques of "historical reenactment" and their implications for PME.)
- the nature of the balance-of-power mechanism.
- the relationship between political objectives and military objectives in war
(or see this short discussion).
- defense is inherently the stronger form of war—click here. (This is a 2005 paper by Jon Sumida.)
- the nature of "military genius" (which is not primarily an intellectual attribute).
- "absolute war" vice "real war."
- the fundamentally social—rather than artistic or scientific—character of war
- the "fog" of war—see this discussion (by Jennie Kiesling).
- the essential unpredictability of war.
Unfortunately, one very annoying thing about Clausewitz is that, in order to understand his thinking and its value, you actually have to read his book (with your brain on and your mind open)—rather than some convenient précis, written, most likely, by some wannabe-competitor, propagandist, special pleader, historical hack writer, or Clausewitzian website editor. Even if it is honestly and competently done, any attempt to summarize Clausewitz is inherently misleading. This is true in part because Clausewitz's dialectical method is at least as important as any particular insight that he offers. But all of Clausewitz's insights are woven together in a fascinating whole; efforts to extract particular "nuggets" are destructive to a genuine understanding. The real value of On War lies not in some easily grasped (and easily perverted) notion like "center of gravity." Rather, it lies in the opportunity for sustained contact with one of the truly great thinkers of Western civilization as he wrestles with the vital problem of War. And that is something no serious person should avoid. As Trotsky so elegantly put it, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."
6. Where can I find some choice quotations?
7. Which translation of Clausewitz's magnum opus, On War, is the best? And which translation do I have?
Instructors teach Clausewitz in a variety of ways—using different styles, pursuing different purposes, and proposing widely varying interpretations. Some merely assign him to individual students as a term-paper or book report/review subject. Others spend a day, a week, or an entire semester course on him. Here are some potentially useful videos.
For your convenience—and because it is vital to know something about the man, his times, and his complex reputation before you try to read his works for yourself or teach them to others—we have included on the Clausewitz Homepage a number of reasonably honest summaries and teaching guides. More can be found in our comprehensive list of Bibliographies, and our Links page includes a number of student papers. We recommend the following:
Christopher Bassford, "Clausewitz and His Works"—a summary.
Michael Handel (Naval War College), "Who Is Afraid of Carl von Clausewitz? A Guide to the Perplexed."
Ilana Kass (National War College), "An Instructor's Guide to Teaching Clausewitz," 2003.
National War College Instructor's Guide to Teaching Clausewitz, AY2007. (This is an update to the item listed immediately prior to this one.)
Christopher Bassford, A Two-Seminar Intro to the Study of Clausewitz (2013). This is designed for PME schools, which typically provide a short introduction to Clausewitz, usually based on reading exclusively and directly in the Howard/Paret translation of On War, treating Clausewitz as an isolated topic not otherwise utilized in the curriculum. It is an aberrational class design, in that it makes a serious effort to place Clausewitz and his ideas in the context of his time and of his reception in political/military theory ever since. See also this accompanying set of slides and graphics (MS PowerPoint), designed for instructor training.
Jon Sumida (University of Maryland), Syllabus: HISTORY 419M—Special Topics in History. "Classical Military Strategic Theory: Clausewitz." This is a full-semester course on Clausewitz.
Jan Willem Honig, King’s College London Department of War Studies, SYLLABUS: SWM 118: Clausewitz: Ideas and Legacy. Postgraduate 2006–2007.
We will be adding more to this list as opportunity permits.
9. How do I learn more about Clausewitz and his ideas, the ways he has been used or interpreted, the controversies about him, or his relevance today?
More excellent on-line readings on various aspects of Clausewitz and his ideas can be found here. For published books by or about Clausewitz, try the Clausewitz Bookstore—we're not really in the book-selling business, but this will show you what's available in print in English, German, and French. Several of his writings, including an obsolete (but still useful) English translation of On War, the original text in German (Vom Kriege), a number of his campaign studies, etc., can be found here. See also our bibliographies in several languages and subject areas, which contain many active links. Some recent news articles referring to Clausewitz are described and linked here. We also have a major book on this subject on-line, Christopher Bassford's Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
[This chronology is modeled from one drawn up in France by Michel Roucaud, but has been considerably modified.]
June (or July) 1, 1780: born Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz in Burg, Kingdom of Prussia.
1792: enters the Prussian army as a cadet (Fahnenjunker) in 34th Infantry Regiment.
1793-1794: fights in the campaign against France.
1795: in garrison at Neuruppin; is promoted to lieutenant.
1801: admitted to the war academy in Berlin, directed by Scharnhorst.
1804: graduates with top ranking at the academy. Is named aide-de-camp to Prince August of Prussia. Meets Marie von Brühl.
1806: fights in the campaign of 1806, is captured by the French.
1807-1808: in captivity in France and Switzerland.
1808: becomes assistant to Scharnhorst and takes part in the reorganization of the Prussian army.
1810: appointed professor at the academy of war and made responsible for the military education of the crown prince; marriage to Countess Marie von Brühl.
1812-13: refusing to collaborate militarily with France, leaves the Prussian army and joins the Russian army. Leaves manuscript of Principles of War as an instruction for the crown prince. Fights throughout the campaign in Russia, plays a key role in bringing about the defection of Yorck's Prussian corps from the French army, becomes Russian liaison officer with the headquarters of Blücher, then is appointed chief of staff of the German-Russian legion.
1814: is reinstated in the Prussian army
1815: fights in the Waterloo campaign as chief of staff to General Thielmann's III Prussian army corps.
1816-1818: serves on General Gneisenau's staff in Coblentz.
1818: promoted to Major-General; named director of the war college in Berlin, an administrative post that he will occupy until 1830. During these 12 years, he will be devoted primarily to research.
1830: appointed chief of staff to Gneisenau's army, placed on the Polish border to contain the Polish Revolution.
November 16, 1831: dies in Breslau of cholera contracted in the field. Clausewitz's tomb is in the city cemetery at Burg.
Clausewitz's Major Works, especially On War (Vom Kriege), were published after his death under the care of his wife, in Berlin from 1832 to 1837. Click here for English, French, German, Japanese, Spanish/Portuguese, and "Other" bibliographies of his published work.
Clausewitz's name. The exact composition of Clausewitz's name is a matter of some dispute, and in any case precision in such matters was not a characteristic of early modern societies. It is often given as "Carl Maria von Clausewitz," which is clearly wrong (even though "Carl Maria" is a perfectly normal German name construct). This mistake is probably derived from the name of Clausewitz's wife, Marie. This error is sometimes a useful "genetic" marker for the source of a subsequent writer's information—we've noticed that loyal students of the scholar who originated it tend to use it themselves or to avoid using the middle names entirely. Peter Paret, on the other hand, gives the name as Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz. Since Paret is a capable scholar on the historical Clausewitz, we would normally be inclined to accept this view (which is probably based on hand-written birth records). However, Clausewitz's tombstone clearly gives the name as "Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz." While fog and friction pervade all human activities, we are inclined to believe that Clausewitz's family—especially the devoted Marie—would have demanded that his monument reflect their own opinion on the matter. The most likely reason for the Gottlieb/Gottfried disconnect is probably that neither Clausewitz nor his contemporaries either knew or particularly cared which name was technically correct. However, in the unlikely event that you and your partners in conversation are unable to find anything else in the field of Clausewitz Studies to disagree over, this issue is one that remains unresolved.
Another issue is the spelling of his first name—"Carl" or "Karl"? Clausewitz himself usually spelled it with a C, so that is the preferred spelling. He did this in order to emphasize his identification with the classical and Western tradition. Many modern writers, however, choose the K in order to emphasize his Germanic origins. The use of "Karl" is thus often a warning of a hostile treatment, though not always.
Translations. The widespread preference for the English version derives at least in part from the current military dominance of the United States and the consequent need to understand the specifically American understanding of Clausewitz's approach to war. Of course, the perceived "relative clarity" of the Howard/Paret translation suggests that it may contain some deviation from the original, not only in form but possibly in tone, content, and meaning as well. This is necessarily true of all translations, and some of the transnational arguments over Clausewitz no doubt derive from such issues. Nonetheless, Clausewitz.com recommends the much more precise Jolles translation. If you are interested in finding On War in other languages, click here. For a discussion of the various English translations and some recommendations, click here.
War and Politik. The phrase most often attributed to Clausewitz is "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means." This is a problematic translation and not the most definitive statement of the concept in On War. "Merely," "continuation," and especially "policy" all pose difficulties. In any case, we should always remember that this formulation is not Clausewitz's "bottom line." In fact, it is merely the antithesis in his dialectical examination of the nature of war and has some serious shortcomings in Clausewitz's view. His final statement on the nature of war was the synthesis of his argument in the form of the "trinitarian" nature of war. The concept is still pretty useful and important, but it is best quoted in its fullest form:
We maintain ... that war is simply [an expression] 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. How could it be otherwise? Do political relations between peoples and between their governments stop when diplomatic notes are no longer exchanged? Is war not just another expression of their thoughts, another form of speech or writing? Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic. [p.605 in the Howard/Paret translation (Princeton edition)]
* According to Xia Zhengnan, Jiedu Zhanzhenglun [Interpreting On War] (2nd edition), Beijing: Jiefangjun Chubanshe [The PLA Press], 2005, pp. 680-682. Cited in Yu Tiejun, "The Western Master and Bible of War: Clausewitz and His On War in China," Clausewitz Society [Clausewitz Gesellschaft, Hamburg], Reiner Pommerin, ed., Clausewitz Goes Global: Carl von Clausewitz in the 21st Century (Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Clausewitz Society] (Berlin: Carola Hartmann Miles Verlag, 2011), pp.43-60.