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Clausewitz, Carl Von

Clausewitz, Carl Von (1780–1831), Prussian general and theorist of war.Clausewitz's On War (1832) is the most important general study of war. Incomplete and in need of revision at the time of Clausewitz's death, its sometimes disconnected arguments are typically remembered as relatively simple propositions, which do not always reflect the complexity of the reasoning that produced them. Among these are: that war is not an autonomous phenomenon, but a political instrument; that the violence of war knows no theoretical limit, and is prone to escalate; that war's theoretically boundless violence is tempered in practice by the political goals of the belligerents, and by the “friction” to which military operations are subject; that armed forces possess “centers of gravity,” whose successful attack promises the most decisive military results; that all attacks lose impetus as they proceed; and that the defensive is the stronger form of war. These and similar insights, although by no means universally accepted, are well established as foundational elements of serious strategic theory in the United States and throughout the world.

Clausewitz's work first attracted widespread attention among English‐speaking readers in the aftermath of Germany's victory over France in 1871, a success that Prussia's chief of staff, Helmuth von Moltke, attributed in part to the influence of Clausewitz's ideas. The first English translation of On War appeared two years later, and thereafter Clausewitz acquired a growing reputation among military professionals as a proponent of operations that were swift, violent, offensive, and decisive in character to overcome the strength of defense conducted with modern weapons—an interpretation that owed more to the perceived requirements of industrialized warfare than to a close reading of his work. After 1914, Clausewitz's writings were studied for clues to German military conduct, and increasingly misread as harbingers of Prussian militarism. By the outbreak of World War II, it was not unusual for American authors to find significant links between Clausewitz and Hitler.

This baleful trend was checked primarily by the work of German expatriates like Herbert Rosinski and Hans Rothfels, who presented Clausewitz's ideas with greater comprehensiveness, and greater attention to their original context, than most of their Anglo‐American counterparts had done. Of special significance was Rothfels's contribution to the first edition of Makers of Modern Strategy (1943), which demonstrated the analytic power of Clausewitz's identification of war as a political instrument, and also the fundamental significance of what Clausewitz called the “dual nature” of war, by which he had sought to reconcile the historical preponderance of limited war with the theoretically unlimited violence of war as such. Rothfels also portrayed Clausewitz himself as a figure of great intellectual integrity, striving for a disinterested and universally valid understanding of war.

Rothfels's essay set a new intellectual standard and a new direction for Clausewitz scholarship in English, which reached a culminating point in 1976 with the simultaneous appearance of Peter Paret's magisterial Clausewitz and the State, and a new translation of On War by Paret and Michael Howard. Clausewitz's insistence on war's political nature acquired special resonance in the nuclear era, when the means of organized violence so often threatened to dwarf the aims of policy; while his emphasis on the preeminence of limited war throughout history spoke directly to those who had endured the frustrations of Korea and Vietnam. At the end of the twentieth century, Clausewitz's ideas permeated the professional education and outlook of American military officers. When Michael Howard, writing in the wake of the Persian Gulf War (1991), nominated Clausewitz (in the New York Times) as “Man of the Year,” the proposal was rightly seen less as a jest than as tacit acknowledgment that, 160 years after his death, Clausewitz's influence and reputation had never been greater.
[See also War: Nature of War.]


Raymond Aron , Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, 1976; English ed. 1983.
Peter Paret and Daniel Moran, eds. and trans., Carl von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, 1992.

Daniel Moran

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