Carl von Clausewitz

Christopher Bassford

in Military History

ISBN: 9780199791279
Published online February 2012 | | DOI:
Carl von Clausewitz

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The Prussian-German soldier and military philosopher Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz (b. 1780–d. 1831) 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, Vom Kriege (On war; Berlin: Dümmlers Verlag, 1832), that has become the most influential work of military philosophy in the Western world and beyond. The text has been translated into virtually every major language and remains a living influence on historians and modern strategists in many fields. There is, however, a great deal of confusion and disagreement as to the motivations for Clausewitz’s actions and writings; the content, meaning, and implications of his arguments; the nature and validity of his methodology; the impact of his arguments on other thinkers and actors and on events; and how to make practical military, political, historical, and educational use of his ideas. As with the work of any great intellect, Clausewitz’s book functions both as a provocative window into reality and as a mirror for the times, prejudices, concepts, and concerns of his readers. Indeed, even though the focus of Clausewitz’s magnum opus is narrowly on the conduct of military operations in wartime, not policy, politics, the state, human nature, the nature of historical processes, or the nature of reality itself, it is a mark of the book’s profundity that these subjects arise almost immediately in any serious discussion of it. Accordingly, Clausewitz’s own writings and the large and varied literature they have provoked or helped shape encompass the entire range of human thinking about war and politics. But even the most serious writers on Clausewitz tend to produce distinct, idiosyncratic, and mutually incompatible interpretations. There is also a large tertiary literature, much of which has been created by a cottage industry of encyclopedists and “crammers,” providing shallow summaries for the temporary enlightenment of generations of harried undergraduates and soldier students. At the same time, Clausewitz and his ideas (directly, indirectly, and sometimes by mere reputation) have long provoked a hostile response, often energized by ideology, national prejudice, the personal ambitions of competing writers, and the peculiar character of military problems in any given era as well as by genuine disagreement. All these aspects of the literature on Clausewitz are revealing of the difficulties—emotional, intellectual, conceptual, organizational, political, psychological, and so on—inherent in developing any coherent philosophy of war.

Article.  7744 words. 

Subjects: Military History ; Pre-20th Century Warfare ; First World War ; Second World War ; Post-WW2 Military History

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