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Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz Carl von Clausewitz[2†]

Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz (1780–1831) was a Prussian general and military theorist renowned for his seminal work, "On War" (Vom Kriege, 1832). He enlisted in the Prussian army in 1792 and rose under Gerhard von Scharnhorst at the Institute for Young Officers in Berlin from 1801, where his foundational ideas on war theory took shape. Clausewitz's experiences during the First Coalition campaigns against Revolutionary France (1793–95) significantly influenced his strategic thinking. His insights in "On War" remain pivotal in military philosophy, marking him as a key figure in the study of warfare[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz was born on June 1, 1780, in Burg bei Magdeburg, Prussia[3†][2†][4†]. He was the youngest child in a middle-class family[3†]. His father, who had served as a lieutenant in the Prussian Army, later worked at the Prussian internal revenue service[3†][2†].

Clausewitz began his military career at the age of 12[3†][4†]. From 1793 to 1794, he served in the Rhine Campaigns, including the Siege of Mainz, when the Prussian army invaded France during the French Revolution[3†].

In 1801, Clausewitz enrolled at the Kriegsakademie, also known as the German War School[3†]. He then studied at the Military Academy in Berlin and the Prussian Military Academy[3†]. During his time at the academy, he studied the works of philosopher Immanuel Kant[3†]. His intelligence and deep acumen won him the regard of General Gerhard von Scharnhorst, the head of the academy[3†].

Career Development and Achievements

Carl von Clausewitz’s career in the military began at a young age when he enlisted in the Prussian army in 1792[2†][1†][4†]. He took part in the campaigns of the First Coalition against Revolutionary France from 1793 to 1795[2†][1†][4†]. His performance during these campaigns led to his commission[2†][1†].

In 1801, Clausewitz was admitted to the Institute for Young Officers in Berlin[2†][1†][4†]. This marked a significant turning point in his life and career[2†][1†][4†]. During his three years at the institute, he became the closest protégé of Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, the institute’s head[2†][1†][4†]. The broad curriculum and his extensive reading expanded his horizons dramatically[2†][1†]. His basic ideas regarding war and its theory were shaped during this time[2†][1†][4†].

After finishing first in his class, Clausewitz was on the road leading to the center of the political and military events during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars[2†][1†]. In 1804, he was appointed adjutant to Prince August Ferdinand of Prussia[2†][1†]. In this capacity, he took part in the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt in 1806[2†][1†]. After Prussia’s catastrophic defeat by Napoleon, he and the prince fell into French captivity[2†][1†].

After their release at the end of 1807, Clausewitz joined the group of young and middle-rank officers around Scharnhorst, who struggled to reform the Prussian army[2†][1†]. The reformers believed that Prussia’s only hope of survival in the age of mass enlistment, as introduced by Revolutionary France, was in adopting similar institutions[2†][1†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Carl von Clausewitz’s most significant work is “Vom Kriege” (On War), which was published posthumously in 1832[2†][1†]. This seminal treatise on military strategy and science was edited and published by his wife, Marie von Brühl, shortly after Clausewitz’s death in 1831[2†][5†].

“Vom Kriege” is divided into several books, each focusing on different aspects of war[2†][5†]:

Clausewitz’s work has been selectively interpreted and sometimes misunderstood by commanders and militaries on different sides of the political spectrum for almost two centuries[2†][6†]. His ideas have significantly contributed to our understanding of war, and his work continues to be a key reference in military theory[2†][6†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Carl von Clausewitz’s work, particularly “Vom Kriege” (On War), has been the subject of extensive analysis and evaluation[7†][8†][9†][10†]. His writings have been recognized as the dominant theoretical works of strategic thought, alongside those of Sun Tzu, Alfred Mahan, and Julian Corbett[7†]. Despite common assumptions that these works embody fundamentally incompatible perspectives on strategic thought, they challenge and complement each other in several notable ways[7†].

Clausewitz’s definition of war as an “act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” emphasizes the centrality of combat, which he believed separates war from other human pursuits[7†]. He also emphasized the interactive nature of war as the collision between two living forces[7†]. His reflections on strategy unfold along two parallel arguments[7†][9†]. First, he explores the principal difficulties of a positive theory of strategy[7†][9†].

Clausewitz’s work has been selectively interpreted and sometimes misunderstood by commanders and militaries on different sides of the political spectrum for almost two centuries[7†][8†]. His ideas have significantly contributed to our understanding of war, and his work continues to be a key reference in military theory[7†][8†].

Personal Life

Carl von Clausewitz first met Countess Marie von Brühl, a member of the noble German von Brühl family originating in Thuringia, in 1803[3†]. On December 10, 1810, he married the Countess[3†][2†][3†]. This marriage gave him an opportunity to socialize with Berlin’s literary and intellectual elite class[3†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Carl von Clausewitz’s legacy is profound and enduring. His most notable work, “On War”, is considered a seminal treatise on military strategy and science[2†]. Rather than producing a rigid system of strategy, he emphasized the necessity of a critical approach to strategic problems[2†][4†]. He asserted that war is a tool for achieving political aims rather than an end in itself, famously stating that "War is not merely a political act, but also a political instrument, a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means”[2†][11†].

Clausewitz’s recognition of the importance of the people remains especially relevant, as their willingness to defend their country is essential to military strategy[2†][12†]. His supreme question reflects a three-dimensional model of armed conflict that goes beyond the two-dimensional framework (political and military) that still dominates much of strategic thinking in the twenty-first century[2†][13†].

His ideas have had a profound influence on modern military strategy and continue to be studied and applied in military and political contexts around the world[2†][4†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Britannica - Carl von Clausewitz: Prussian general [website] - link
  2. Wikipedia (English) - Carl von Clausewitz [website] - link
  3. The Famous People - Karl Von Clausewitz Biography [website] - link
  4. Britannica - Carl von Clausewitz summary [website] - link
  5. SuperSummary - On War Summary and Study Guide [website] - link
  6. Queen Mary University of London - Online Blog - Clausewitz and ‘New Wars’ Theories [website] - link
  7. University of Calgary - Department of Political Science - Evaluating the Masters of Strategy: A Comparative Analysis of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Mahan, and Corbett by Scott Fitzsimmons [document] - link
  8. Military Strategy Magazine - Strategy, War, and the Relevance of Carl von Clausewitz [website] - link
  9. University of Edinburgh Research Explorer - Clausewitz: On strategy [website] - link
  10. Cambridge Core Journals - Carl von Clausewitz and strategic theory [website] - link
  11. Goodreads - Book: Carl von Clausewitz: The Life and Legacy of the Prussian General Who Wrote On War [website] - link
  12. Oxford Academic - Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction - The legacy of Clausewitz [website] - link
  13. Military Strategy Magazine - Clausewitz's Supreme Question: Reconsidering his Legacy [website] - link
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