Jourdan Jourdan

Meet the Leaders

Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz, 1780-1831

(excerpted from Clausewitz and His Works)

by Christopher Bassford

Clausewitz Stamp

Clausewitz's personality has been treated in a great many different ways. To the British military historian Michael Howard he was a "soldier's soldier" who wrote a practical military philosophy aimed at practical military men. Peter Paret, a German emigré to America who has emerged as the most prominent of contemporary Clausewitz scholars, presents him as a brilliant but somewhat dry intellectual. Clausewitz's detractors have portrayed him as a bloodthirsty military dilettante, while generations of bored soldier-students in Germany as well as Britain and America have treated him as a stuffy old pedant, author of a dry and tiresome tome best left to college professors.

In fact, Clausewitz was a complicated man both of action and of thought, and he left a complicated legacy by no means easy to describe. Sensitive, shy, and bookish by nature, he could also be passionate in his politics, his love for his wife, and his longing for military glory. Frequently in combat, he regularly displayed coolness and physical courage. He was untouched by scandal in his personal life. His intellectual integrity was remarkable: he was ruthless in his examination of any idea, including his own. His keen analytical intelligence was accompanied, perhaps unavoidably, by a certain intellectual arrogance. The latter quality is amply demonstrated by the many sarcastic comments that appear in On War. Such characteristics may account for the fact that, while he rose to high rank in the Prussian service, he served almost always in staff positions rather than in command, for which he was considered to be temperamentally unsuited. His assignments, however, frequently put him near the center of military-political events.

Bust of Clausewitz

Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz was born on 1 June 1780, near Magdeburg. Although the name had Polish origins, the family was German and patriotically Prussian. Despite their pretensions to nobility, however, the Clausewitzs were in fact of middle­class origins. The elder Clausewitz had obtained a commission in the army of Frederick the Great, but was forcibly retired during Frederick's purge of non­noble officers after the Seven Years War (1756-63). On the basis of his sons' achievements, the family's nobility was finally confirmed by King Friedrich Wilhelm III in 1827. The ambiguity of Clausewitz's social position does not, however, appear to have blocked his advancement.

Clausewitz entered the Prussian army as a cadet at the age of twelve; he first saw combat at thirteen. After Prussia withdrew from the wars of the French Revolution in 1795, he spent five years in rather dreary garrison duties. There, he applied himself to his own education: beyond strictly military subjects, Clausewitz developed a wide-ranging set of interests in art, science, and education. All of these interests were to have an impact on his later philosophical work. So successful were his efforts that in 1801 he was able to gain admission to the Institute for Young Officers in Berlin (which would eventually evolve into the famous Kriegsakademie). He quickly came to the attention of the new director, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, a key figure in the Prussian state during the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars and Chief of the General Staff in 1806. Impressed by Clausewitz's ability, Scharnhorst was to become his sponsor, mentor, and close friend. Clausewitz graduated first in his class in 1803 and was rewarded with the position of military adjutant to the young Prince August, bringing him into close contact with the royal family.

Many of Clausewitz's basic historical, political, and military views derived from the influence of Scharnhorst and other Prussian military reformers. In broad terms, their argument was that the French Revolution had achieved its astounding successes because it had tapped the energies of the French people. If the Prussian state was to survive, much less prosper, it had to do the same. This would require sweeping social and political reforms in the Prussian state and army, both of which had dry-rotted under the successors of Frederick the Great. Clausewitz's works therefore reflect a strong impulse towards social and military reform. However, neither he nor his mentors desired a social or political revolution, only such changes as were necessary to preserve Prussia's independence and power. This political position made him suspect to both conservatives and revolutionaries. His "insistence on what would one day be called `the primacy of foreign policy' set him at odds with those liberals and radicals who believed constitutional government was a political goal surpassing all others. It also made his point of view anathema to those [of the traditional ruling classes] who considered the preservation of the social hierarchy an objective rivaling the safety of the state." Many subsequent writers have tried to cast Clausewitz as a political hero or villain in order to serve their own political agendas, but trying to place Clausewitz and his theories somewhere on an anachronistic left-right political spectrum is a futile exercise. His politics can only be understood with reference to the specific situation of Prussia in the Napoleonic period and in the post-Napoleonic era of conservative reaction.

Alarmed at the devastating French victories over Austria and Russia in 1805, Prussia mobilized for war in 1806. Confident of the legacy of Frederick the Great, Clausewitz and most other Prussian officers had looked forward to a struggle with France. The timing and the implementation of Prussian mobilization were poor, however, and the nation was ill­prepared psychologically. The Prussian forces were shattered in humiliating defeats in battles at Jena and Auerstadt. After some hard fighting, Clausewitz and Prince August were captured. In the peace settlement, Prussia lost half of its population and territory and became a French satellite.

Defeat was both a shock and an eye­opener for Clausewitz. He recorded his impressions, both of the war and of the dismal socio-political condition of Prussia, in several short articles. Later (in the 1820s), he composed a detailed critique of 1806 Prussia—so incisive that it could not be published in Germany until the 1880s—called "Observations on Prussia in its Great Catastrophe." When he returned from internment in 1808, he joined energetically with Scharnhorst and other members of the reform movement, helping to restructure both Prussian society and the army in preparation for what he felt to be an inevitable new struggle with the French. His enthusiasm was not, however, shared by the King, who was more concerned with maintaining his position in the much­reduced Prussian state than with any nationalistic crusade. Clausewitz's disillusionment reached a peak when Prussia, allied with France, agreed to provide an army corps to Napoleon to assist in the 1812 invasion of Russia. Along with many other officers, he resigned from the Prussian service. He then accepted a commission in the Russian army.

Before he left for Russia, however, he prepared an essay on war to leave with the sixteen year-old Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm (later King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, r.1840-1858), whose military tutor he had become in 1810. This essay was called "The most important principles of the art of war to complete my course of instruction for his Royal Highness the Crown Prince" (usually referred to as the Principles of War). This essay represented Clausewitz's theoretical development up to that point, but was only a rather primitive precursor to his later magnum opus, On War. Its subject matter was largely tactical. While some of the more important theoretical concepts of On War were fairly well-developed ("friction," for example), many were embryonic and others entirely absent. In particular, and in great contrast to the later work, Principles of War is not notably sophisticated in historical terms. It is based almost entirely on the experience of Frederick the Great and the early wars with revolutionary France and Napoleon. Unfortunately, it has often been treated as a summary of Clausewitz's mature theory.

In the Russian service, Clausewitz was somewhat hobbled by his ignorance of the Russian language. He nonetheless participated in the drawn-out Russian retreat, fought in the slaughterhouse battle at Borodino, and witnessed the disastrous French retreat from Moscow, including the catastrophic crossing of the Beresina river. Slipping through the French lines, he played a key role in negotiating the Convention of Tauroggen, which brought about the defection of General H.D.L. Yorck von Wartenburg's Prussian corps from the French army and eventually forced Prussia into the anti-French coalition.

None of this won him any affection at court in Berlin, where he was referred to on at least one occasion as "Louse­witz." Still, Prussia's change of sides led, after some delay, to his reinstatement as a colonel in the Prussian army. Clausewitz participated in many key events of the War of Liberation (1813-1814), but bad luck and the lingering resentment of the king prevented him from obtaining any significant command. He served instead as an aide to General August von Gneisenau, Field Marshal G.L. von Blücher's chief of staff 1813-1815 and one of the principal leaders of Prussia's military rebirth. He sometimes found himself in the thick of combat, as at Lützen (Grossgörschen) in 1813, where he led several cavalry charges and was wounded. (Scharnhorst died of wounds received in the same battle.)

During the campaign of 1815, Clausewitz served as chief of staff to Prussia's 3rd Corps commander, General J.A. von Thielmann. The corps fought at Ligny, successfully extricating itself from the Prussian defeat there. Then, outnumbered two to one, it played a crucial if often uncelebrated rear-guard action at Wavre. This action prevented Marshal Grouchy's detached forces from rejoining Napoleon at Waterloo.

In 1818, Clausewitz was promoted to general and became administrative head of the General War College in Berlin. Perhaps because of the conservative reaction in Prussia after 1819, during which many of the liberal reforms of the war years were weakened or rescinded, this position offered him little opportunity to try out his educational theories or to influence national policy. He had nothing to do with actual instruction at the school. Clausewitz therefore spent his abundant leisure time quietly, writing studies of various campaigns and preparing the theoretical work which eventually became On War.

Clausewitz returned to active duty with the army in 1830, when he was appointed commander of a group of artillery brigades stationed in eastern Prussia. When revolutions in Paris and Poland seemed to presage a new general European war, he was appointed chief of staff to Field Marshal Gneisenau and the Army of Observation sent to the Polish border.

Before leaving, he sealed his unfinished manuscripts. He never opened them again. Just what the book might have looked like, had he completed it to his own satisfaction, is an entertaining but usually fruitless subject of speculation for military scholars. In any case, it was evidently Clausewitz's intention never to publish it in his own lifetime. In part, this reluctance to publish was due to his innate shyness. His conscious reasoning, however, was that it freed him of concerns that his own ego or career concerns would affect his style and conclusions.

Although war was averted, Clausewitz remained in the east, organizing a sanitary cordon to stop the spread of a cholera epidemic from Poland. His friend Gneisenau died of that disease. Clausewitz himself returned home to Breslau, seemingly healthy, but shortly fell ill with cholera himself and died on 16 November 1831. He was fifty-one years old.

Prussian officers at Mainz, 1815

Guide to Prussian officers

Next Page
Return to Index