The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

UK flag

Portrait of Clausewitz

US flag


Table of Contents

Mobile Compatible • 

Chapter 14. The Clouding of Clausewitz's Reputation

In some ways the experience of World War One served to confirm the Anglo-American enshrinement of Clausewitz as the preeminent theorist of war. By 1914, On War had been well ensconced as a military classic. It remained so, if for no other reason than that it was perceived--incorrectly, in all probability--as the key to German military behavior.(*1) The Graham/Maude version of On War was reissued in 1918 and 1940, and a new translation of the "Instruction for the Crown Prince" appeared in the United States in 1942. The following year, a new translation of On War came out, also in the United States, along with a new condensation derived from the older Graham/Maude version.

There was, in any case, no revival in the popularity of Jomini. By 1947, U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General J. D. Hittle could open his introduction to Jomini's Art of War with the observation that the "military world that today burns gunpowder at the altar of Clausewitzian doctrine has all but forgotten Antoine Henri Jomini." Lynn Montross made virtually the same point at about the same time: "The Prussian writer's theories have endured to shape the warfare of a day which has forgotten the Précis."(*2)

Several considerations, however, led to changes in the British attitude toward Clausewitz, and Pilcher's condensation represented the last British effort until 1967 to popularize his work.(*3) The general postwar disillusionment led to widespread antimilitarism and probably intensified the seemingly innate British skepticism toward military theory. Since Clausewitz's name was popularly associated with the military developments that had led to the immense bloodletting of the war, those military thinkers who did retain an interest in theory evidenced a desire--largely futile, it seems in retrospect--to find some new theoretical basis for military strategy. Also significant was a lingering anti-German sentiment, which came to be directed against Clausewitz himself.

This sentiment became apparent very early in the war; even Wilkinson showed a reluctance to quote Clausewitz while it was in progress. In his 1916 lecture on the theory of war, Clausewitz is conspicuous only by the near-total absence of his name.(*4) French war propaganda translated into English described Clausewitz's theories as an underlying cause of the horrific German atrocities reported to have occurred in France and Belgium. The German soldiers' alleged habit of tossing Belgian babies from bayonet to bayonet was held to be a natural extension of Clausewitz's views on the absurdity of introducing a principle of moderation into the theory of war.(*5) Similar war propaganda appeared in Britain during the war of 1939-45: "Coupled with this glorification of war and this excitement to plunder, there was an advocacy of ruthlessness in the conduct of war which marked the depth of barbarism whereto Germany had been sunk by the leaden heel of Prussia. Clausewitz had set the tone."(*6)

This view of Clausewitz became a fixture in British military writing about German atrociousness. For example, J.H. Morgan's 1946 work on clandestine German rearmament noted that barbarity "is the traditional German doctrine--cf. Clausewitz in his Vom Kriege, I, Kap. 1 (2) and V, Kap. 14 (3), where he argues that `ill-treatment' of the civil population, in order to break `the spirit' of the enemy, should be `without limit.'" This required a rather creative rewriting of On War. The relevant portions of On War actually give only a matter-of-fact description of the system of requisitions by which the Napoleonic armies maintained themselves in the field. The term "ill-treatment" appears, but only to say that the natural fear of such treatment is one factor that leads the subject population to comply with the invader's demands. The discussion of requisitions says nothing about "breaking the spirit" of that population or about "limits." In fact, Clausewitz noted that military officials naturally do all they can to equalize its [the army's] pressure as much as possible, and to alleviate the weight of the tax by purchases; at the same time, even an invader, when his stay is prolonged in his enemy's country, is not usually so barbarous and reckless as to lay upon that country the entire burden of his support.(*7)

Morgan, like many other hostile interpreters of Clausewitz, willfully confused his abstract discussion of the nature of war with his descriptions of its actual conduct in order to produce a barbarous prescription quite at variance with his actual expressed views.

Clausewitz, a typical Prussian, indoctrinated the ... German military thinkers with the "philosophy" of brutality,... warned his pupils against attempting to disarm an enemy without the maximum of "bloodshed," begged them to avoid a "benevolent" spirit toward a stricken foe, dismissed all humanitarian restrictions on the conduct of war as "hardly worth mentioning," and denounced "moderation" in an officer as an "absurdity."(*8)

Morgan was a prominent international lawyer with a long résumé of government service in Britain, Australia, and India. Among many other things he was legal editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica and adviser to the American War Crimes Commission at Nuremberg (1947-49). One hopes that his legal briefs were written with more care and judgment than were his comments on Clausewitz. That the philosopher's manner of argumentation and expression lent itself to such distortion does not change the fact that it is a distortion, of a most grievous sort.(*9)

British Clausewitzians like Spenser Wilkinson also came under attack. Caroline Playne, writing in 1928, devoted several pages to an attack on the "militarist" Wilkinson, who "holds the doctrine of Clausewitch (sic) that war is the continuation of policy, an end in itself." Whatever her ignorance of Clausewitz, Playne was evidently quite familiar with Wilkinson's works, acknowledging the strong ethical elements in his view of Britain's strategic policy but believing them to be negated by his belief in military preparedness.(*10) Her comment on war and policy can be characterized only as a willful misunderstanding, since war cannot be both a continuation of policy and an end in itself. Playne's denunciation is especially ironic given the emphatic rejection of Clausewitz by the man who had been Germany's virtual wartime dictator, General Erich Ludendorff, in which he did indeed portray war as an end in itself: "All theories of Clausewitz have to be thrown overboard. War and Politics serve the survival of the people, but war is the highest expression of the racial will to life."(*11) The distinction between Ludendorff's and Clausewitz's views had in fact been clear to many Germans during the war. The peace faction in the Reichstag had cited Clausewitz in opposition to the militarists.(*12)

Delbrück had been outraged by the policies of the general staff. Military violations of Clausewitz's and Delbrück's guidance were also cited by parliamentarians in the postwar inquest.(*13)

Playne also made the somewhat more sensible argument that "Clausewitch's" view of war was "just the opposite from [that of] the enlightened statesmen who regard it as the outcome of the failure of policy."(*14) The problem with this view, of course, is that war is never the outcome of the policy of a single actor. One state's aggressive policy is not subject to the peaceable control of its victim, barring craven submission. "A conqueror," said Clausewitz, "is always a lover of peace (as Buonaparte always asserted of himself); he would like to make his entry into our State unopposed."(*15) Perhaps craven submission was the solution that Playne would have recommended, since she blamed Wilkinson for stimulating Britons to "defiance" of Germany in the prewar years.

This peculiar equation of Clausewitz with his opposite appeared with increasing frequency as the German national image sank, especially after the rise of Nazism. As Paul Birdsall (an American professor of history at Williams College) put it in 1941 in his pro-Wilsonian attack on the Versailles settlement, the post-war association of Hitler and Ludendorff was no mere coincidence.... The ideological trappings of Hitler's book clothe a traditional German military logic which can be traced far back in the nineteenth century to the great Prussian philosopher of war, von Clausewitz.... It is a logic so rigid that it has no room for what Bismarck called the "imponderables." Its victims lose all flexibility of mind, all imagination about the attitudes of other people, of "public opinion" in general.... Hitler's treatment of his victims is the logical application of the Von Clausewitz philosophy of war and the extension of Ludendorff's specific plans for German hegemony in Europe.(*16)

The comment about popular views is a particularly surprising point to make about Clausewitz, since "public opinion" is one of his "three principal objects in carrying on a war."(*17) But the development of such an attitude was perhaps inevitable given the Nazis' adoption of Clausewitz as an honorary fascist.(*18)

An unreasoningly hostile attitude also began to show itself in discussions by military writers. The article on Clausewitz and the Jena campaign that appeared in the Army Quarterly in 1941 was a startling contrast with the article on the same subject that had been published in the Army Review in 1914. Hostile to Clausewitz throughout, it characterized him as a Pole "not only in name but in blood"--thus depriving him of membership in the militarily most prestigious nation. (The characterization of Clausewitz as a Pole is common in hostile treatments, but despite the alleged (and dubious) Polish origins of the name, the family was thoroughly Prussian.) The article stigmatized him as a "theoretical soldier" who "slur[red] over" practical matters. It also accused him of manipulating facts and figures in order to make personal attacks on rival Prussian officers and to excuse the Prussian defeat. It is true enough that Clausewitz had taken the opportunity to vent his wrath on certain individuals, but the second point is a truly astonishing interpretation of Clausewitz's assessment of his nation's failures in the war. This article seems, in fact, to have had no purpose but to sneer at Clausewitz.(*19)

It is in fact possible that both articles on Jena were written by the same man, J.E. Edmonds (1861-1956). Edmonds was an accomplished linguist (especially fluent in German) and a military intellectual, a valued and versatile staff officer considered temperamentally unsuited to command. His 1914 piece on Clausewitz and the battle of Jena was balanced and respectful, speaking of the battle study by "so eminent an authority ... written in the maturity of his judgment," although he was mildly critical of Clausewitz's "failure to appreciate Napoleon's methods."

Edmonds's 1951 article on Clausewitz and Jomini, on the other hand, contains all of the usual attacks on the former, along with a tactically oriented praise of the Swiss theorist that is difficult to understand at such a late date.(*20) Like the unsigned 1941 article, it refers sneeringly to Clausewitz as a Pole and as a man with little real soldiering experience, an argument contradicted by Edmonds's own 1914 summary of Clausewitz's military career. Written when Edmonds was a very cantankerous ninety years old, the 1951 piece is a bitter diatribe full of errors (Clausewitz's book is called Zum Kriege) and hatred for all things German. He vociferously denied that he--or any other patriotic Englishman--had ever actually read On War. Edmonds's own claim never to have read Clausewitz should not be taken too seriously, as he was given to such statements. As Cyril Falls put it in his entry on Edmonds in the Dictionary of National Biography, "His humour as chief [director of military history] was mordant, but when he denounced one man as a crook, another as a drunkard, and a third as utterly incompetent, he was nine-tenths of the time playing an elaborate game." In any case, Edmonds clearly had read Stewart Murray's condensation.

Perhaps the best example of this odd change in attitude is T.E. Lawrence's postwar expression of disillusionment with Clausewitz. Lawrence had been profoundly impressed by him before the war, but during it he found that the works of Marshal Saxe were more relevant to the problems he himself faced in the Arabian desert. "If we were patient and superhuman-skilled, we could follow the direction of Saxe and reach victory without battle, by pressing our advantages mathematical and psychological."(*21) Still, Lawrence acknowledged that Clausewitz's theory had helped him appreciate the specific peculiarities of his situation: "To me it seemed only a variety of war: and I could then see other sorts, as Clausewitz had numbered them, personal wars for dynastic reasons, expulsive wars for party reasons, commercial wars for trading reasons."(*22) Cyril Falls later pointed out some distinct parallels between Lawrence's guerrilla war theories and Clausewitz's discussion of "a peasants' war."(*23)

After the war, however, in a letter to Liddell Hart, Lawrence expressed dismay about the philosopher's influence. "Clausewitz had no humanity, and so his War became a monstrous inanimate science; it lost its art. Saxe was flesh and blood, and so his creation of war came to breathing life."(*24) "The logical system of Clausewitz is too complete. It leads astray his disciples."(*25)

It is quite possible that Lawrence was simply telling Liddell Hart what he wanted to hear.(*26) Liddell Hart was fond of quoting Saxe in support of his own approach and in contrast with Clausewitz's alleged bloody-mindedness. The comment on Clausewitz's "disciples" is also redolent of Liddell Hart and does not reflect directly on Clausewitz. In fact, Lawrence suggested that Liddell Hart's own fate might be similar:

You, at present, are trying (with very little help from those whose business it is to think upon their profession) to put the balance straight after the orgy of the last war. When you succeed (about 1945) your sheep will pass your bounds of discretion, and have to be chivvied back by some later strategist. Back and forward we go.

Lawrence and other British survivors of the war seem to have been reacting against the rather un-English fling with theory in the period after the South African War and returning with a new bitterness to a more characteristic skepticism: [Clausewitz's] book [was] so logical and fascinating, that unconsciously I accepted his finality, until a comparison of Kuhne and Foch disgusted me with soldiers, wearied me of their officious glory, making me critical of all their light.(*27)

It is as if, for a brief moment in history, British soldiers had thought they held the key to war. Finding that the most profound understanding of war did not change its hideous nature or render it much more controllable, they flung away the key in disgust.

NOTES to Chapter 14

1. Certainly many German commentators believed that Clausewitz had been consistently ignored, misunderstood, or distorted by the German General Staff. Rosinski, The German Army (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966; original ed., 1939), 109-114, and Delbrück both thought the German army had entirely missed Clausewitz's key points. See also Field Marshal Paul von Kleist in Liddell Hart, The German Generals Talk (New York: William Morrow, 1948), 194. J.E. Edmonds, "Jomini and Clausewitz," recalled asking at the Kriegsakademie in 1899 if Clausewitz were read there. The answer--he claimed--was negative. See also the essays on Germany in Handel, ed., Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, esp. Wallach, "Misperceptions of Clausewitz' On War by the German Military"; Klaus Jürgen Müller, "Clausewitz, Ludendorff and Beck"; Williamson Murray, "Clausewitz: Some Thoughts on What the Germans Got Right." Murray, arguing that German soldiers paid little attention to Clausewitz, cites General Leo Geyer von Schweppenburg comment to Liddell Hart: "You will be horrified to hear that I have never read Clausewitz or Delbrück or Haushofer. The opinion on Clausewitz in our general staff was that of a theoretician to be read by professors." This reflects perhaps a reaction to the over-use of Clausewitz before World War One. In 1917, Hans von Seeckt said [to his wife, quoted in Antulio J. Echevarria II [Captain, USAR], "Neo-Clausewitzianism: Appropriations of Clausewitz by Freytag-Loringhoven and the General Staff, 1890-1914" (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University (in progress)] "the mere mention of the name is enough to make one sick." Nonetheless, Murray argues that German tactical and operational behavior was in fact highly "Clausewitzian." How it came to be that way is debatable.

2. Brigadier General J. D. Hittle, ed., Jomini and his Summary of the Art of War (Harrisburg, PA: Military Service Publishing Company, 1947). Lynn Montross made the same point: "the Prussian writer's theories have endured to shape the warfare of a day which has forgotten the Précis." War Through the Ages (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944; revised and enlarged 1946, 1960), 583. In fact, Jomini's influence lived on in doctrinal publications, transmitted mainly via Hamley.

3. Joe Greene's condensation was republished in England, introduced by J.F.C. Fuller. Clausewitz, presented by Joseph I. Greene, The Living Thoughts of Clausewitz (London: Cassell, 1945).

4. Spenser Wilkinson, Ch.VII, Government and the War (1918).

5. Ernest Lavisse and Charles Andler, trans. "L.S.," "The German Theory and Practice of War," Studies and Documents on the War (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1915), esp. 26, often cited in U.S. and British war propaganda.

6. F.J.C. Hearnshaw [Emeritus Professor of History, University of London], Germany the Aggressor throughout the Ages (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1942), 234.

7. On War, Book Five, Chapter 14.

8. [Brigadier General] J. H. [John Hartman] Morgan (1876-1955), Assize of Arms: The Disarmament of Germany and her Rearmament (1919-1939) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946) n.15, 98; n.152, 313; 148-49.

9. Morgan influenced John Wheeler-Bennett's The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918-1945 (London: Macmillan, 1964), but Wheeler-Bennett (like Morgan, an assistant at Nuremberg) also saw in Clausewitz's 1812 actions a positive precedent for German military resistance to Hitler.

10. Caroline E. Playne, The Pre-War Mind in Britain: An Historical Review (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1928), 155-165.

11. Erich Ludendorff, Meine Kriegserinnerungen (Berlin, 1919), 10, cited in Hans Speier, "Ludendorff: The German Concept of Total War," in Earle, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy, 306-321.

12. Part of a 1916 parliamentary debate containing this point is included in Ralph Haswell Lutz, trans. David G. Rempel and Gertrude Rendtorff, Fall of the German Empire, 1914-1918, v.1 (Stanford: Hoover War Library Publication, 1934; New York: Octagon Books, 1969), 224-25.

13. See Lutz, ed., trans. W.L. Campbell, The Causes of the German Collapse in 1918 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1934), 200-221.

14. See also Edward A. Thibault [CIA], "War as a Collapse of Policy: A Critical Evaluation of Clausewitz," Naval War College Review, May-June 1973.

15. On War, Book Six, Chapter 5.

16. Paul Birdsall, Versailles Twenty Years After (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1941), 3, 304. For similar treatments see Guenter Hans Reimann [international economist], Germany: World Empire or World Revolution (London: Secker and Warburg, 1938), 24; George Sava [pseud., G.A.M. Milkomane], School for War (London: Faber, 1942), 24; Wyndham Lewis [British artist and writer who flirted with fascism in the 1930s], The Hitler Cult (New York: Gordon Press, 1972; orig. London, 1939), 6. Lewis said "Nazi technique was acquired, it is important to recall, in putting into execution the precepts of Clausewitz--namely the maximum of terror as a law of nature, since it was a law of war."

17. On War (Book Eight, Chapter 4); "Instruction for the Crown Prince" (Graham/Maude, 209-210).

18. On that topic see Peter M. Baldwin, "Clausewitz in Nazi Germany," Journal of Contemporary History, v.16 (1981), no.1; Albert T. Lauterbach, "Roots and Implications of the German Idea of Military Society," Military Affairs, v.5 (1941), 1-20.

19. Unsigned, "Clausewitz on the Defeat of Jena-Auerstädt," Army Quarterly, October 1941, 109-121; cf., Edmonds, "Clausewitz and the Downfall of Prussia" (1914).

20. Edmonds, "Jomini and Clausewitz."

21. Lawrence, Revolt in the Desert (New York: George H. Doran, 1927), 66.

22. Lawrence, ed. Stanley and Rodelle Weintraub, Evolution of a Revolt: Early Postwar Writings of T.E. Lawrence (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1967), 105.

23. Falls, A Hundred Years of War (London: Duckworth, 1953, 1961), 280.

24. Liddell Hart, ed., T.E. Lawrence to his Biographer (New York: Doubleday, 1938), 76.

25. T.E. Lawrence to his Biographer, 4.

26. Liddell Hart's correspondents often sought to curry favor with him by joining his attack on Clausewitz, e.g., Captain [Swedish army] G.E.F. Boldt-Christmas's letter, 20 November 1939 (Liddell Hart Papers I/87/2).

27. T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (New York: Doubleday, 1926, 1935), Ch. 33, "Generalizing the military theory of our revolt."

Return to the top of this page

Go to next section

Go to Clausewitz in English Table of Contents

Visit The Clausewitz Homepage logo Visit the
Clausewitz Bookstore!
US UK France Germany