Posthumous Fame Prussian Karl Von Clausewitz

About the famous military strategist Karl von Clausewitz, biography and history of the man who achieved fame after only death.


KARL VON CLAUSEWITZ (1780-1831), Prussian military strategist

Far from the stiff, monocled stereotype of the Prussian martinet, his portraits reveal the high forehead and sensitive face of a romantic intellectual--which, in many ways, Clausewitz was. After learning military science under Gerhard von Scharnhorst and studying literature and philosophy, he embarked on a military career that included nearly two years as a French war prisoner and distinguished service as a Russian staff officer during Napoleon's 1812 invasion. Promoted to general in 1818, he was appointed director of the War College in Berlin, where ample leisure for the next 12 years gave him time to write histories of the Napoleonic campaigns and military philosophy--none of them published in his lifetime. He was almost finished with the rough draft for On War, the three-volume treatise for which he is remembered, when he was transferred to Poland and died there at age 51. His widow edited his papers, which were published in 10 volumes from 1832 to 1837. Almost immediately his strategic concepts began to influence European military thought. In formulating his theory of warfare, Clausewitz originated the modern concept of standard military goals: to conquer and destroy the enemy's armed forces, to acquire or immobilize his material resources, and to gain the support of public opinion. "Surprise," he emphasized, "is the most powerful element of victory," and a commander must find and destroy the enemy's center of gravity. Bismarck was the first to implement Clausewitz's theories, during the period of German unification; and German military planning was guided by Clausewitz during both World Wars, Hitler's Blitzkrieg being a direct outgrowth. (Marx, Engels, and Lenin also studied Clausewitz, and their theories on the nature of war were largely influenced by him.) Since the advent of nuclear weapons, a neo-Clausewitzian school of thought has grown up--represented by Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger, among others--which argues that warfare is still a permissible act of policy and that a "rational" nuclear strategy is therefore necessary. Clausewitzian thought has also highly influenced war games theory and modern management, peace research, and conflict studies. But the world can only hope that the presumed validity of warfare so scientifically legitimized by the mild soldier-professor of Berlin will never be pursued to its nightmarish "logical" conclusions.

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