Selected Term Paper No. 1 / Dezember 2003
Politische Theorie des Krieges bei Carl von Clausewitz

Christoph Schwarz


This paper analyses the key elements of the political theory of warfare as presented by Carl von Clausewitz in his main work “On War”. First published in 1832, it remains a primary source for those who are interested in the history of warfare or the possibilities and legitimacy of the use of force as an instrument of international politics. Its value arises from its complex character which is the result of different sources of influence such as the personal experience Clausewitz gained as a soldier in the Prussian as well as the Russian army during the Napoleonic wars, the studies of philosophical writings by Kant, Machiavelli and Fichte and additionally, the empirical evidence drawn form the analysis of more than 130 campaigns. Nevertheless the theory has met with harsh criticism right from the start until today. Focussing upon the Books I, II and VIII this article analyses the complex nature and diversity of war as well as the political implications of the famous formula: “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means”, after giving a short insight into Clausewitz’ biography. As outlined in chapter 3 the nature of war cannot be described in general but moves between the ideal-type concept of “absolute” and “real” war as a result of different factors that are included in the “fascinating trinity”. As a result each war is unique. The dual nature of war and the inherent three trends towards escalation and limitation as well as the importance of friction for the character of each war illustrate the complexity of Clausewitz’ theory that has not been matched until today. Referring to the critcism his theory has encountered it is pointed out that Clausewitz neither can be seen as being responsible for the evil of total war nor has his theory fallen out of date because of new forms of war like “low intensity conflicts”. “On War” remains of lasting relevance to both politicians and military commanders as it advocates an instrumental understanding of war as a tool of policy and as well as providing a comprehensive view of important factors inside and outside of war, while refusing to establish a system of unchanging rules.