On War - title image

Carl von Clausewitz

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NOTE: This version of Carl von Clausewitz's On War is the long-obsolete J.J. Graham translation of Clausewitz's Vom Kriege (1832) published in London in 1873. The 1976/84 Howard/Paret version is the  standard translation today; for the most accurate text one should always consult the 1943 Jolles translation. Consider the more modern versions and other relevant books shown below.

cover image Vom Kriege, by Carl von Clausewitz, ed. Werner Hahlweg.
From Gebundene Ausgabe - Dümmler, Bonn. Erscheinungsdatum: 1991, 19. Auflage, Nachdruck.fl.
ISBN: 342782019X.

This is the 19th German edition published by Dümmlers, Clausewitz's original publisher. It was edited by the esteemed German scholar Werner Hahlweg and is considered the standard and most accurate edition.

Jolles translation, book coverBuy the best translation—recommended for serious readers. The Book of War (The Modern Library, February 2000). ISBN: 0375754776. Clausewitz's On War and Sun Tzu's Art of War in one volume. The translation of Clausewitz's On War is the 1943 version done by German literary scholar O.J. Matthijs Jolles at the University of Chicago during World War II—not today's standard translation, but certainly the most accurate.

On War, Princeton ed.Buy the standard English translation of Clausewitz's On War, by Michael Howard and Peter Paret  (Princeton University Press, 1976/84). ISBN: 0691018545 (paperback). Kindle edition. This quite readable translation appeared at the close of the Vietnam War and—principally for marketing and copyright reasons—has become the modern standard.

Book coverVanya Eftimova Bellinger, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War (Oxford University Press, 2015), ISBN: 0190225432. A rich biography of Countess Marie von Clausewitz that also sheds enormous light on the life, ideas, influences upon, and character of the great military thinker himself.


Extent of the Means of Defence


WE have shown in the second and third chapters of this book how the defence has a natural advantage in the employment of those things, which,—irrespective of the absolute strength and qualities of the combatant force,—influence the tactical as well as the strategic result, namely, the advantage of ground, sudden attack, attack from several directions (converging form of attack), the assistance of the theatre of war, support of the people, and the utilising great moral forces. We think it useful now to cast again a glance over the extent of the means which are at command of the defensive in particular, and which are to be regarded as the columns of the different orders of architecture in his edifice.

1.—Landwehr (Militia). This force has been used in modern times to combat the enemy on foreign soil; and it is not to be denied that its organisation in many states, for instance in Prussia, is of such a kind, that it may almost be regarded as part of the standing army, therefore it does not belong to the defensive exclusively. At the same time, we must not overlook the fact, that the very great use made of it in 1813-1415 was the result of defensive war; that it is organised in very few places to the same degree as in Prussia, and that always when its organisation falls below the level of complete efficiency, it is better suited for the defensive than for the offensive. But besides that, there always lies in the idea of a militia the notion of a very extensive more or less voluntary co-operation of the whole mass of the people in support of the war, with all their physical powers, as well as with their feelings, and a ready sacrifice of all they possess. The more its organisation deviates from this, so much the more the force thus created will become a standing army under another name, and the more it will have the advantages of such a force; but it will also lose in proportion the advantages which belong properly to the militia, those of being a force, the limits of which are undefined, and capable of being easily increased by appealing to the feelings and patriotism of the people. In these things lies the essence of a militia; in its organisation, latitude must be allowed for this co-operation of the whole people; if we seek to obtain something extraordinary from a militia, we are only following a shadow.

But now the close relationship between this essence of a militia system, and the conception of the defensive, is not to be denied, neither can it be denied that such a militia will always belong more to the defensive form than to the offensive, and that it will manifest chiefly in the defensive, those effects through which it surpasses the attack.

2.—Fortresses. The assistance afforded by fortresses to the offensive does not extend beyond what is given by those close upon the frontiers, and is only feeble in influence; the assistance which the defensive can derive from this reaches further into the heart of the country, and therefore more of them can be brought into use, and their utility itself differs in the degree of its intensity. A fortress which is made the object of a regular siege, and holds out, is naturally of more considerable weight in the scales of war, than one which by the strength of its works merely forbids the idea of its capture, and therefore neither occupies nor consumes any of the enemy's forces.

3.—The People. Although the influence of a single inhabitant of the theatre of war on the course of the war in most cases is not more perceptible than the co-operation of a drop of water in a whole river, still even in cases where there is no such thing as a general rising of the people, the total influence of the inhabitants of a country in war is anything but imperceptible. Every thing goes on easier in our own country, provided it is not opposed by the general feeling of the population. All contributions great and small, are only yielded to the enemy under the compulsion of direct force; that operation must be undertaken by the troops, and cost the employment of many men as well as great exertions. The defensive receives all he wants, if not always voluntarily, as in cases of enthusiastic devotion, still through the long-used channels of submission to the state on the part of the citizens, which has become second nature, and which besides that, is enforced by the terrors of the law with which the army has nothing to do. But the spontaneous co-operation of the people proceeding from true attachment is in all cases most important, as it never fails in all those points where service can be rendered without any sacrifice. We shall only notice one point, which is of the highest importance in war, that is intelligence, not so much special, great and important information through persons employed, as that respecting the innumerable little matters in connection with which the daily service of an army is carried on in uncertainty, and with regard to which a good understanding with the inhabitants gives the defensive a general advantage.

If we ascend from this quite general and never failing beneficial influence, up to special cases in which the populace begins to take part in the war, and then further up to the highest degree, where as in Spain, the war, as regards its leading events is chiefly a war carried on by the people themselves, we may see that we have here virtually a new power rather than a manifestation of increased cooperation on the part of the people, and therefore that—

4.—The National Armament, or general call to arms, may be considered as a particular means of defence. [ editor's note: In German this title is "die Volksbewaffnung oder den Landsturm," literally "the Arming of the People or the Territorial Forces," a radical idea in a conservative monarchy and part of the "People in Arms" argument that was so influential with later revolutionaries such as Mao. See especially Chapter 26, which this translation (and Jolles's) entitles "Arming the Nation" but the Howard/Paret version more accurately calls "The People in Arms." This reflects one of many important translation issues in On War. Languages are not really parallel, words carry both literal and ideological connotations, and these may change—in different ways among different languages—over time. The point is especially important here because of an additional and important source of confusion: "the State" and "the Nation" are not the same thing, even though true "nation-states" (i.e., states that seek to legitimize themselves by claiming to embody an ethnic population) try hard to conflate them. Clausewitz would have understood his "nation" to be the German peoples, but he himself was a soldier of Prussia, one of two great powers among a great many de facto independent German states. This is a point Clausewitz makes strongly in the concluding paragraphs of On War. This factor has become even more confusing in the post-Cold War world, in which states that we may still call "nation-states" are in fact either empires like Russia, Iran, and China, or liberal Western states in which ethnic identification may be real but is now considered rather illegimate. In Clausewitz's era, most states were in fact dynastic states or multi-ethnic empires, or both, in which nationality or ethnicity may have been important social factors but were not—in theory or ideology—of any political importance. While Clausewitz is frequently identified with the rise of nationalism (remember that Napoleon was not "King of France" but "Emperor of the French"), in fact he was concerned with the strategies and policies of states, whatever their source of legitimacy. This does not mean that Clausewitz's theories are restricted to wars between the uniformed armies of modern, Weberian states (a definition that post-dates him by a century). Rather, it means that those theories can be adapted to warfare between any kinds of political entities able to wage war, regardless of their motivations and sources of legitimacy.]

5.—Allies. Finally, we may further reckon allies as the last support of the defensive. Naturally we do not mean ordinary allies, which the assailant may likewise have; we speak of those essentially interested in maintaining the integrity of the country. If for instance we look at the various states composing Europe at the present time, we find (without speaking of a systematically regulated balance of power and interests, as that does not exist, and therefore is often with justice disputed, still, unquestionably) that the great and small states and interests of nations are interwoven with each other in a most diversified and changeable manner, each of these points of intersection forms a binding knot, for in it the direction of the one gives equilibrium to the direction of the other; by all these knots therefore, evidently a more or less compact connection of the whole will be formed, and this general connection must be partially overturned by every change. In this manner the whole relations of all states to each other serve rather to preserve the stability of the whole than to produce changes, that is to say, this tendency to stability exists in general.

This we conceive to be the true notion of a balance of power, and in this sense it will always of itself come into existence, wherever there are extensive connections between civilised states.

How far this tendency of the general interests to the maintenance of the existing state of things is efficient is another question; at all events we can conceive some changes in the relations of single states to each other, which promote this efficiency of the whole, and others which obstruct it. In the first case they are efforts to perfect the political balance, and as these have the same tendency as the universal interests, they will also be supported by the majority of these interests. But in the other case, they are of an abnormal nature, undue activity on the part of some single states, real maladies; still that these should make their appearance in a whole with so little cohesion as an assemblage of great and little states is not to be wondered at, for we see the same in that marvellously organised whole, the natural world.

If in answer we are reminded of instances in history where single states have effected important changes, solely for their own benefit, without any effort on the part of the whole to prevent the same, or cases where a single state has been able to raise itself so much above others as to become almost the arbiter of the whole,—then our answer is that these examples by no means prove that a tendency of the interests of the whole in favour of stability does not exist, they only show that its action was not powerful enough at the moment. The effort towards an object is a different thing from the motion towards it. At the same time it is anything but a nullity, of which we have the best exemplification in the dynamics of the heavens.

We say, the tendency of equilibrium is to the maintenance of the existing state, whereby we certainly assume that rest, that is equilibrium, existed in this state; for where that has been already disturbed, tension has already commenced, and there the equilibrium may certainly also tend to a change. But if we look to the nature of the thing, this change can only affect some few separate states, never the majority, and therefore it is certain that the preservation of the latter is supported and secured through the collective interests of the whole—certain also that each single state which has not against it a tension of the whole will have more interest in favour of its defence than opposition to it.

Whoever laughs at these reflections as utopian dreams, does so at the expense of philosophical truth. Although we may learn from it the relations which the essential elements of things bear to each other, it would be rash to attempt to deduce laws from the same by which each individual case should be governed without regard to any accidental disturbing influences. But when a person, in the words of a great writer, "never rises above anecdote," builds all history on it, begins always with the most individual points, with the climaxes of events, and only goes down just so deep as he finds a motive for doing, and therefore never reaches to the lowest foundation of the predominant general relations, his opinion will never have any value beyond the one case, and to him, that which philosophy proves to be applicable to cases in general, will only appear a dream.

Without that general striving for rest and the maintenance of the existing condition of things, a number of civilised states could not long live quietly side by side; they must necessarily become fused into one. Therefore, as Europe has existed in its present state for more than a thousand years, we can only regard the fact as a result of that tendency of the collective interests; and if the protection afforded by the whole has not in every instance proved strong enough to preserve the independence of each individual state, such exceptions are to be regarded as irregularities in the life of the whole, which have not destroyed that life, but have themselves been mastered by it.

It would be superfluous to go over the mass of events in which changes which would have disturbed the balance too much have been prevented or reversed by the opposition more or less openly declared of other states. They will be seen by the most cursory glance at history. We only wish to say a few words about a case which is always on the lips of those who ridicule the idea of a political balance, and because it appears specially applicable here as a case in which an unoffending state, acting on the defensive, succumbed without receiving any foreign aid. We allude to Poland. That a state of eight millions of inhabitants should disappear, should be divided amongst three others without a sword being drawn by any of the rest of the European states, appears, at first sight, a fact which either proves conclusively the general inefficiency of the political balance, or at least shows that it is inefficient to a very great extent in some instances. That a state of such extent should disappear, a prey to others, and those already the most powerful (Russia and Austria), appears such a very extreme case that it will be said, if an event of this description could not rouse the collective interests of all free states, then the efficient action which this collective interest should display for the benefit of individual states is imaginary. But we still maintain that a single case, however striking, does not negative the general truth, and we assert next that the downfall of Poland is also not so unaccountable as may at first sight appear. Was Poland really to be regarded as a European state, as a homogeneous member of the community of nations in Europe? No! It was a Tartar state, which instead of being located, like the Tartars of the Crimea, on the Black Sea, on the confines of the territory inhabited by the European community, had its habitation in the midst of that community on the Vistula. We neither desire by this to speak disrespectfully of the Poles, nor to justify the partition of their country, but only to look at things as they really are. For a hundred years this country had ceased to play any independent part in European politics, and had been only an apple of discord for the others. It was impossible that for a continuance it could maintain itself amongst the others with its state and constitution unaltered: an essential alteration in its Tartar nature would have been the work of not less than half, perhaps a whole century, supposing the chief men of that nation had been in favour of it. But these men were far too thorough Tartars to wish any such change. Their turbulent political condition, and their unbounded levity went hand in hand, and so they tumbled into the abyss. Long before the partition of Poland the Russians had become quite at home there, the idea of its being an independent state, with boundaries of its own, had ceased, and nothing is more certain than that Poland, if it had not been partitioned, must have become a Russian province. If this had not been so, and if Poland had been a state capable of making a defence, the three powers would not so readily have proceeded to its partition, and those powers most interested in maintaining its integrity, like France, Sweden and Turkey, would have been able to co-operate in a very different manner towards its preservation. But if the maintenance of a state is entirely dependent on external support, then certainly too much is asked.

The partition of Poland had been talked of frequently for a hundred years, and for that time the country had been not like a private house, but like a public road, on which foreign armies were constantly jostling one another. Was it the business of other states to put a stop to this; were they constantly to keep the sword drawn to preserve the political inviolability of the Polish frontier? That would have been to demand a moral impossibility. Poland was at this time politically little better than an uninhabited steppe; and as it is impossible that defenceless steppes, lying in the midst of other countries should be guarded for ever from invasion, therefore it was impossible to preserve the integrity of this state, as it was called. For all these reasons there is as little to cause wonder in the noiseless downfall of Poland as in the silent conquest of the Crimean Tartars; the Turks had a greater interest in upholding the latter than any European state had in preserving the independence of Poland, but they saw that it would be a vain effort to try to protect a defenceless steppe.—

We return to our subject, and think we have proved that the defensive in general may count more on foreign aid than the offensive; he may reckon the more certainly on it in proportion as his existence is of importance to others, that is to say, the sounder and more vigorous his political and military condition.

Of course the subjects which have been here enumerated as means properly belonging to the defensive will not be at the command of each particular defensive. Sometimes one, sometimes another, may be wanting; but they all belong to the idea of the defensive as a whole.


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