On War, Carl von Clausewitz
On War
Carl von Clausewitz
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Vom Kriege (German pronunciation: [fɔm ˈkʁiːɡə]) is a book on war and military strategy by Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), written mostly after the Napoleonic wars, between 1816 and 1830. It has been translated into English several times as On War. On War is an unfinished work.His 10-volume collected works contain most of his larger historical and theoretical writings.

On War

Carl von Clausewitz

Translated by Colonel J.J. Graham

Carl von Clausewitz


THE Germans interpret their new national colours — black, red, andwhite — by the saying, “Durch Nacht und Blut zur licht.” (“Through nightand blood to light”), and no work yet written conveys to the thinker aclearer conception of all that the red streak in their flag stands forthan this deep and philosophical analysis of “War” by Clausewitz.

It reveals “War,” stripped of all accessories, as the exercise of forcefor the attainment of a political object, unrestrained by any law savethat of expediency, and thus gives the key to the interpretationof German political aims, past, present, and future, which isunconditionally necessary for every student of the modern conditions ofEurope. Step by step, every event since Waterloo follows with logicalconsistency from the teachings of Napoleon, formulated for the firsttime, some twenty years afterwards, by this remarkable thinker.

What Darwin accomplished for Biology generally Clausewitz did for theLife-History of Nations nearly half a century before him, for both haveproved the existence of the same law in each case, viz., “The survivalof the fittest” — the “fittest,” as Huxley long since pointed out, notbeing necessarily synonymous with the ethically “best.” Neither ofthese thinkers was concerned with the ethics of the struggle whicheach studied so exhaustively, but to both men the phase or conditionpresented itself neither as moral nor immoral, any more than are famine,disease, or other natural phenomena, but as emanating from a forceinherent in all living organisms which can only be mastered byunderstanding its nature. It is in that spirit that, one after theother, all the Nations of the Continent, taught by such drastic lessonsas Koniggrätz and Sedan, have accepted the lesson, with the resultthat to-day Europe is an armed camp, and peace is maintained bythe equilibrium of forces, and will continue just as long as thisequilibrium exists, and no longer.

Whether this state of equilibrium is in itself a good or desirable thingmay be open to argument. I have discussed it at length in my “War andthe World’s Life”; but I venture to suggest that to no one would arenewal of the era of warfare be a change for the better, as far asexisting humanity is concerned. Meanwhile, however, with every yearthat elapses the forces at present in equilibrium are changing inmagnitude — the pressure of populations which have to be fed is rising,and an explosion along the line of least resistance is, sooner or later,inevitable.

As I read the teaching of the recent Hague Conference, no responsibleGovernment on the Continent is anxious to form in themselves that lineof least resistance; they know only too well what War would mean; andwe alone, absolutely unconscious of the trend of the dominant thoughtof Europe, are pulling down the dam which may at any moment let in on usthe flood of invasion.

Now no responsible man in Europe, perhaps least of all in Germany,thanks us for this voluntary destruction of our defences, for all whoare of any importance would very much rather end their days in peacethan incur the burden of responsibility which War would entail. Butthey realise that the gradual dissemination of the principles taught byClausewitz has created a condition of molecular tension in the minds ofthe Nations they govern analogous to the “critical temperature of waterheated above boiling-point under pressure,” which may at any momentbring about an explosion which they will be powerless to control.

The case is identical with that of an ordinary steam boiler, deliveringso and so many pounds of steam to its engines as long as theenvelope can contain the pressure; but let a breach in its continuityarise — relieving the boiling water of all restraint — and in a moment thewhole mass flashes into vapour, developing a power no work of man canoppose.

The ultimate consequences of defeat no man can foretell. The only way toavert them is to ensure victory; and, again following out the principlesof Clausewitz, victory can only be ensured by the creation in peace ofan organisation which will bring every available man, horse, and gun (orship and gun, if the war be on the sea) in the shortest possible time,and with the utmost possible momentum, upon the decisive field ofaction — which in turn leads to the final doctrine formulated by Von derGoltz in excuse for the action of the late President Kruger in 1899:

“The Statesman who, knowing his instrument to be ready, and seeing Warinevitable, hesitates to strike first is guilty of a crime against hiscountry.”

It is because this sequence of cause and effect is absolutely unknown toour Members of Parliament, elected by popular representation, thatall our efforts to ensure a lasting peace by securing efficiency witheconomy in our National Defences have been rendered nugatory.

This estimate of the influence of Clausewitz’s sentiments oncontemporary thought in Continental Europe may appear exaggerated tothose who have not familiarised themselves with M. Gustav de Bon’sexposition of the laws governing the formation and conduct of crowds Ido not wish for one minute to be understood as asserting that Clausewitzhas been conscientiously studied and understood in any Army, not evenin the Prussian, but his work has been the ultimate foundation on whichevery drill regulation in Europe, except our own, has been reared. It isthis ceaseless repetition of his fundamental ideas to which one-half ofthe male population of every Continental Nation has been subjectedfor two to three years of their lives, which has tuned their minds tovibrate in harmony with his precepts, and those who know and appreciatethis fact at its true value have only to strike the necessary chordsin order to evoke a response sufficient to overpower any other ethicalconception which those who have not organised their forces beforehandcan appeal to.

The recent set-back experienced by the Socialists in Germany is anillustration of my position. The Socialist leaders of that countryare far behind the responsible Governors in their knowledge of themanagement of crowds. The latter had long before (in 1893, in fact)made their arrangements to prevent the spread of Socialistic propagandabeyond certain useful limits. As long as the Socialists only threatenedcapital they were not seriously interfered with, for the Governmentknew quite well that the undisputed sway of the employer was not for theultimate good of the State. The standard of comfort must not be pitchedtoo low if men are to be ready to die for their country. But the momentthe Socialists began to interfere seriously with the discipline of theArmy the word went round, and the Socialists lost heavily at the polls.

If this power of predetermined reaction to acquired ideas can beevoked successfully in a matter of internal interest only, in which the“obvious interest” of the vast majority of the population is so clearlyon the side of the Socialist, it must be evident how enormously greaterit will prove when set in motion against an external enemy, where the“obvious interest” of the people is, from the very nature of things, asmanifestly on the side of the Government; and the Statesman who failedto take into account the force of the “resultant thought wave” of acrowd of some seven million men, all trained to respond to their ruler’scall, would be guilty of treachery as grave as one who failed to strikewhen he knew the Army to be ready for immediate action.

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