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Military History Carl von Clausewitz
by
Christopher Bassford

Introduction

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.

Anthologies

Anthologies and conference proceedings offer good vehicles for tracing the range of issues involving or derived from Clausewitz’s work in any given period. The first of these, Earle 1943, appeared during World War II and brought together a range of British, American, and various continental (including German) scholars. Handel 1986 and Paret 1986, near-simultaneous collections, capture much of the scope of discussion during Clausewitz’s post-Vietnam heyday in the United States. Duyvesteyn and Angstrom 2005 assembles a group of European scholars focused on the perceived “new warfare” of the post–Cold War era, whereas Strachan and Herberg-Rothe 2007 draws from a set of scholars focused on Clausewitz and covers a much broader range of issues in the proceedings of a 2005 conference at Oxford. Herberg-Rothe, et al. 2011 is a collection focused exclusively on the relationship between Clausewitzian concepts and the ever-evolving state. Pommerin 2011 offers a valuable window into Clausewitz’s global reception, with essays by scholars in eighteen countries (including China and Japan).

  • Duyvesteyn, Isabelle, and Jan Angstrom, eds. Rethinking the Nature of War. Cass Contemporary Security Studies. London and New York: Frank Cass, 2005.

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    Eleven rather uneven essays focused on the “new wars” of the post–Cold War era, all in English, but including many continental European scholars. Much of the new warfare literature finds Clausewitz irrelevant to these purportedly apolitical or private wars, but here there is a range of interpretations.

  • Earle, Edward Mead, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1943.

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    This was a seminal work for civilian strategic academics in the United States, especially because it included the influential German Clausewitz scholar Hans Rothfels’s only major essay on the subject in English. Look not only at the essays on Clausewitz and on Germany, but also at those on Jomini, Delbrück, the Marxists, and so on.

  • Handel, Michael I., ed. Clausewitz and Modern Strategy. Papers presented at an international conference on Clausewitz held at the US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, April 1985. London and Totowa, NJ: Frank Cass, 1986.

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    Contains fourteen military-historical and -theoretical essays reflecting the intense fashion for Clausewitz in the 1980s. Of particular interest are the papers comparing the reception of Clausewitz in Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, and the essay “The Eternal Clausewitz” by Martin van Creveld—an author generally considered antagonistic to Clausewitz. These essays also appeared in a special issue of Journal of Strategic Studies (9.2–3 [1986]) titled “Clausewitz and Modern Strategy.” This journal continues to produce strong work on Clausewitz.

  • Herberg-Rothe, Andreas, Jan Willem Honig, and Daniel Moran, eds. Clausewitz: The State and War. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011.

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    Eight essays concerning Clausewitz’s views on the state and the adaptations required to fit his ideas to changes in the nature and role of the state over time—including the present and future. This subject has been a major source of the many controversies concerning Clausewitz.

  • Paret, Peter, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

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    This update of Edward Mead Earle’s similarly titled collection (Earle 1943) offers several articles relevant to Clausewitz. Look not only at the essays on Clausewitz, but also at those on Jomini, Delbrück, the Marxists, and so on, some of which were revised for this edition by the original authors, exemplifying the evolution in interpretation and attitude over this rather dynamic period.

  • Pommerin, Reiner, ed. Clausewitz Goes Global: Carl von Clausewitz in the 21st Century. Berlin: Miles Verlag, 2011.

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    This is a Festschrift commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Clausewitz Society in Germany. An uneven but extremely useful survey of Clausewitz’s reception globally, including essays (often in rather difficult English) from scholars in Austria, Belgium, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. Uwe Hartmann’s and Claus von Rosen’s article on Germany (see Rosen and Hartmann 2011, cited under Military Doctrine) is of particular interest, as is Yu Tiejun’s on China.

  • Strachan, Hew, and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, eds. Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century. Papers presented at a conference held at Oxford University, March 2005. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199232024.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Seventeen high-quality and very wide-ranging essays by Clausewitz scholars based in a wide number of disciplines.

LAST MODIFIED: 02/06/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791279-0026

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