Clausewitz's Paradoxical Trinity Throughout History | Free Essay Example

Clausewitz’s Paradoxical Trinity Throughout History

Words: 1367
Topic: History


The concept of war is as old as the human world, as wars permeate the entire history of humanity. Many events caused wars, but all of them can be divided into three types that Carl von Clausewitz distinguishes in his theory. In short, he calls these reasons passion, probability, and policy. However, for the last couple of centuries, the notion of war has been reconsidered several times. Thus, the principles of warfare began to change in the 18th century due to Frederick the Great, a Prussian king whose methods were aimed at winning wars without bloody battles and, despite Clausewitz’s Paradoxical Trinity claiming that human casualties in wars are inevitable, this tendency is continuing now, which is definitely for the better.

Carl von Clausewitz’s Paradoxical Trinity and Frederick the Great

In general, in his theory of paradoxical trinity, Carl von Clausewitz tries to explain the nature of war. Clausewitz states that any war consists of three core elements that he called “dominant tendencies”. The first element is made of violence, abhorrence, and animosity; the second element is caused by a chance, and the third element consists of subordination and hierarchy which are instruments of policy. At the same time, military revolutions comprise systems development, technological change, organizational adaptation, and operational innovation.1

Thus, the first and the central element of Clausewitz’s theory is people with all their fears, beliefs, caprices, vanities, complacencies, and so on. In this respect, these feelings that cannot be eliminated and are unpredictable can and have caused many wars. As noted by Clausewitz, the enemy’s annihilation is the paramount principle of war that causes the mentioned points.2 In terms of Frederick the Great’s strategy, he tried to abstract from these feelings and conduct wars being exclusively guided by logic and common sense.

The second element of Clausewitz’s theory is military commanders and their armies. He highlights the opposition between several belligerents that have their warlords and armies. He also claims that war is a continuous opposition between these belligerents that consist of animate objects who always tend to respond to each other’s actions3. For example, among the belligerents in World War II, there were the US, the UK, Germany, USSR, and others. As for Frederick the Great, he fought only when it was necessary to defend his land. He was not interested in the competition between the armies. Paradoxically, he started wars to make peace.

The third element of Clausewitz’s theory is the government. In this respect, he states that direct combat between people is the core of the concept of war, and it does not matter if such collisions in a war truly happen. However, the main idea of this combat, which is usually implicit, is universal. Clausewitz’s focus on combat does not presuppose that he thought that the goal could not be achieved without combat, but that this goal was entirely based on the expected consequences of fighting and perceived threat.4 Frederick the Great, though being a king, always tried to avoid situations where he had to initiate wars for political reasons. In his time, it was very difficult to do, but, overall, he followed his principle until his death.

Additionally, Clausewitz claims that these simple ideas that explain the reasons why wars occur are frequently omitted or completely ignored. Clausewitz also states that the belief that one can win a war without fighting but using certain political strategies conceals the fact that these victories depend on the possibility of direct engagement.5 However, Frederick the Great is a vivid example that it is possible to win a war without violent battles.

The Role of Frederick the Great as a Warlord

Frederick the Great was a Prussian king from 1740 to 1786. He is considered one of the most significant and influential monarchs in German history. He is known primarily for his military accomplishments, though he also was a great supporter of different kinds of arts. Also, despite being a military man, his ruling style was based not on fear from the people of his country but their love.

In terms of warfare, Frederick the Great developed his military tactics that proved to be effective and were one of the main reasons for his success. In the eighteenth century, due to the great costs of building large armies, the main focus of the contemporary warlords was fortifications. Thus, instead of engaging in bloody battles, warlords developed strategies for a successful siege. However, to protect his kingdom, Frederick had to develop new more effective strategies of warfare. When planning a military operation, he always concentrated on the two most valuable qualities of his army, namely, their discipline and their central position.

One of the main peculiarities of Frederick’s military-style was attacking and focusing on one enemy and then on the other, assembling at crucial positions, and avoiding protracted wars. His focus on the central position allowed him to deal with the enemy’s armies before they receive reinforcements from their allies.6 In general, his main strategy was to achieve victory without direct fighting. Instead, he needed to develop various maneuvers and cunning tricks, using terrain and certain geographical positions and creating a system of angles and lines in his military operations to avoid bloody combats.

Additionally, Frederick the Great lived in the period of Enlightenment, in which people focused on arts and science. Therefore, it was peculiar for that time to develop techniques that would allow winning wars without fighting and bloodshed. In this respect, Frederick the Great managed to achieve better results than other warlords and monarchs of his time.7 However, unfortunately, in several decades, this theory of achieving victory without fighting was ousted by bloody battles caused by the French Revolution.

Warfare Strategies After Frederick the Great

Warfare strategies used in the 18th century, particularly by Frederick the Great, were quite optimistic, as they primarily focused not on the principle of who is stronger, but on that who is more cunning. This created a possibility that wars could be won with a minimum or even without any human casualties. However, as Clausewitz states, it is impossible to achieve such outcomes in every war, as people are fighting with animate objects who can also think, feel, and outmaneuver their enemies.8

According to his Trinity, since people are emotional, they can violate any rules they create. For example, even if people agree to stop killing each other, somebody will eventually break that rule because of anger, envy, or some other strong emotions. At Frederick’s time, it was especially impossible, as not many warlords supported the tactics of winning wars without battles.

In the subsequent century, warfare changed (mostly due to the French Revolution), and many armies were involved in bloody battles. In the 20th century, violence at war reached its peak. Also, due to the advancements of technologies in the military sphere, the number of casualties was bigger than ever before. Thus, instead of trying to use new technologies to help people and concentrate on their protection, warlords were engaged in the competition, where the victor is the one who manages to build the deadliest weapon.9 As a result, the atomic bomb was created and used on civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this respect, Clausewitz’s trinity claims that people use technological advancements to kill other people who are their enemies, instead of focusing on peaceful matters.

In the 21st century, due to the rapid development of information technologies, warfare strategies changed again. Now, in developed countries, diplomacy became the main weapon in any war. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of conflicts and wars in the world where soldiers engage in battles using lethal weapons such as chemical and biological.10 However, despite Clausewitz’s theory claims that wars are inevitable due to human nature, there is always hope that humanity will evolve and, at some point, the concept of war will cease to exist.


Thus, it is evident that Clausewitz’s Paradoxical Trinity is still relevant today, as it focuses primarily on the principles of human nature that are considered unchangeable. However, humanity continues developing, and considering the results that it has achieved by now, there is hope that it will be able to adjust its nature to new conditions and stop initiating wars.


Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Knox, MacGregor, and Williamson Murray, eds. The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Paret, Peter, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Cambridge History of Warfare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


  1. Knox and Murray, eds., The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 18.
  2. Parker, ed., The Cambridge History of Warfare, 110.
  3. Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, 711.
  4. Clausewitz, On War, 96.
  5. Clausewitz, On War, 230.
  6. Clausewitz, On War, 242.
  7. Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, 95.
  8. Clausewitz, On War, 149.
  9. Knox and Murray, eds., The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050, 74.
  10. Parker, ed., The Cambridge History of Warfare, 425.