Small Wars Journal

‘The Most Beautiful of Wars’: Carl von Clausewitz and Small Wars

‘The Most Beautiful of Wars’: Carl von Clausewitz and Small Wars by Sibylle Scheipers, European Journal of International Security


Carl von Clausewitz was both an avid analyst of small wars and people’s war and, during the wars of liberation, a practitioner of small war. While Clausewitz scholars have increasingly recognised the centrality of small wars for Clausewitz’s thought, the sources and inspirations of his writings on small wars have remained understudied. This article contextualises Clausewitz’s thought on small wars and people’s war in the tradition of German philosophical and aesthetic discourses around 1800. It shows how Clausewitz developed core concepts such as the integration of passion and reason and the idea of war in its ‘absolute perfection’ as a regulative ideal in the framework of his works on small wars and people’s war. Contextualising Clausewitz inevitably distances him from the twenty-first-century strategic context, but, as this article shows, it can help us to ask pertinent questions about the configuration of society, the armed forces and the government in today’s Western states.


The classical perception of Carl von Clausewitz up until 1976 was one that depicted him as the paradigmatic thinker of regular interstate wars. Since 1976, the year that saw the publication of two seminal books on Clausewitz (Peter Paret’s Clausewitz and the State and Raymond Aron’s Penser la guerre), Clausewitz scholarship has moved on considerably. The Clausewitz reception in the past decade has continued the appreciation of Clausewitz as a thinker of small wars as well as large wars. It has acknowledged that Clausewitz himself did not subscribe to a binary view of war that distinguishes between these two as fundamentally different forms of war. Beatrice Heuser’s work on Clausewitz as a thinker who lived at a ‘watershed’ moment between partisan warfare and people’s war also emphasised the centrality of small wars for Clausewitz’s thought.

This article expands the study of Clausewitz’s analysis of small wars by highlighting the relevance of moral and aesthetic elements for this analysis. It demonstrates how Clausewitz engaged with his contemporary aesthetic and philosophical context, in particular the ideas of Kant and Schiller, in order to understand the transformation of small wars from partisan warfare to people’s war that occurred during his lifetime. Clausewitz developed his understanding of people’s war – ‘the most beautiful of wars’ (‘der schönste aller Kriege’) – as war in its existential form in what we could call a dialogical process with Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy around 1800. The phenomenon of people’s war confronted Clausewitz with the question of how to integrate and harmonise passion and reason, which was at the same time one of the core problems of post-Kantian philosophy in Germany. What this article shows is that Clausewitz developed his idea of reason and passion as potentially opposite human faculties that had to be integrated in some way in his early writings on small wars. This idea was to become highly relevant in the framework of On War, specifically in Clausewitz’s trinity of passion, reason, and chance and creativity. Even though tracing the connections between Clausewitz’s conception of small wars and his magnum opus, On War, in a systematic fashion is beyond the limits of this article, it prepares the ground for such an endeavour and provides glimpses of the outcomes that such a study may produce.

This article follows Paret’s argument that contextualising Clausewitz is crucial to understanding his work. However, contextualising Clausewitz’s writings on small wars and people’s war inevitably distances them from the contemporary strategic context. It implies that Clausewitz’s ‘wisdom’ may not indeed be timeless. Clausewitz wrote primarily with a view to Prussia’s political and strategic situation at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Prussia’s survival was at stake. People’s war, and the inclusion of the people in the defence of their country – their nation – was Clausewitz’s solution to Prussia’s strategic problems. But a contextual approach to Clausewitz’s writings can open up new perspectives on contemporary strategic problems: it prompts us to think, for instance, about the way in which reason and passion are integrated in today’s wars when Western states are involved.

Yet, a contextualisation of Clausewitz in the methodological tradition of Quentin Skinner’s approach to intellectual history can only go so far, as it is difficult to discern Clausewitz’s ‘intentions’ from his work given that he often seemed to eschew positioning himself intellectually and politically. The alternative, poststructuralist approach to intellectual history as a ‘map of misreadings’ and an iterative and productive process of ‘reading sense’ into classical thinkers through the eyes of the contemporary reader is not a viable methodological option either. If the poststructuralist announcement of the ‘death of the author’ does not consciously call for a selective and self-serving interpretation of Clausewitz, at least it offers little hope of being able to avoid the pitfalls of such an approach.

The solution to this dilemma consists in constructing a methodological middle ground between Skinner’s contextualism and the poststructuralist perspectives associated with Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. This middle ground lies in acknowledging that contemporary readers can analyse Clausewitz’s actions (including speech acts) as a soldier, reformer, and theorist of war, even though his intentions often remain opaque. It acknowledges both the agency of the historical subject, Clausewitz, and the interpreters’ own agency as a historically contextualised individual. Put simply, Clausewitz was an avid reader and there is evidence that he engaged – intellectually and/or politically – in many debates of his time, but he was not an empty receptacle of others’ ideas or a mouthpiece of any tradition of thought. He absorbed notions and concepts that emerged in his time, but he also transformed them and integrated them into his oeuvre in a partly idiosyncratic way. What this study seeks to establish is hence not ‘influence’ by, but engagement with his context. The Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism is useful in this respect. The dialogical perspective suggests that reading Clausewitz’s texts is akin to overhearing a person speaking on the telephone: we can only observe one side of the dialogue. The contemporary interpreter of Clausewitz’s writings therefore possesses agency too, in that s/he actively has to reconstruct the other side of the dialogue. But this agency is not boundless; on the contrary, it is limited. The reconstruction has to make sense against the background of the manifest side of the dialogue as well as against the background of the specific historical context of the dialogue.

The remainder of this article proceeds in four steps: the next section introduces Clausewitz’s cultural, philosophical, and political context as far as this is possible on the basis of his writings, notes, and correspondence. It indicates the extent to which Clausewitz was exposed, intellectually as well as socially, to the turn-of-the-century philosophical debates. The second part moves on to a reconstruction of what Clausewitz referred to as the ‘most beautiful of wars’ – defensive people’s war. It draws upon Kantian aesthetics and, in particular, Schiller’s aesthetic theory. The third and final section outlines how arguments and themes from Clausewitz’s conception of small wars and people’s war stemming from the reform years continued to play a role in the context of his later writings on small wars and people’s war. The conclusion summarises the article’s main arguments and discusses to what extent Clausewitz’s analysis of small wars can be relevant for today’s strategic debates.

Read the entire article.


J Harlan

Tue, 02/07/2017 - 11:35am

Can we please stop caring about what Clausewitz said? He (or perhaps his wife) wrote in the time of cabinet wars between monarchies or in the case of Britain a democracy with very limited franchise. There was no mass democracy or communications. No international law. No nuclear weapons. No aircraft. Not even dynamite. War was still thought as profitable. His most famous statement- about war being foreign policy- would only be relevant in a system in which monarchs started (and more importantly) stopped wars based on ego, habit or a search for glory. Of course military force is now regularly justified by domestic political considerations so whatever Clausewitz said is being ignored.

Clausewitz is historically interesting but has nothing to give to modern statesmen or generals even if they tried to follow his advice.