The Father of My Spirit: Scharnhorst, Clausewitz, and the Value of Mentorship

April 20, 2020
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A constant point of emphasis in the realm of personal and professional development within any military service is that of mentorship. Some of the greatest leaders in military history owe much of their reputation and success to committed and experienced mentors. From a young age, Alexander the Great was imbued with the lineage of Greek philosophy and analytical thought through his relationship with his tutor, Aristotle. Two of the greatest military leaders in American history—General George S. Patton and General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower—were both indebted for much of their intellectual and professional development to Major General Fox Conner, who served as the Allied Expeditionary Force’s Operations Officer for General John J. Pershing during World War I.[1] The foundation of mentorship within any military rests upon the transfer of intellect, experience, and trust. These factors help to mold a successful relationship between individuals and provide for the development of future generations of leaders.[2] In short, the greatest factors in the creation and eventual success of a military leader are the lessons and professional development a dedicated mentor has to offer.

One of the most remarkable examples of successful military mentorship and of a deeply committed personal and professional relationship was between Carl von Clausewitz and Gerhard von Scharnhorst. Clausewitz—the celebrated Prussian military theorist and author of On War—owed his entire career and renown to his mentor, teacher, and military superior, Scharnhorst.[3] Clausewitz’s twelve-year relationship with Scharnhorst from 1801 to 1813 comprised the full beginnings of his intellectual and military growth. It was this mentorship that set Clausewitz on the path from which he would develop what may be the greatest piece of military theory ever written. This article seeks to highlight the impacts Scharnhorst’s life and teachings had on Clausewitz and to illustrate an ideal of mentorship from which members of military service today may draw examples and inspiration.

Portraits of Carl von Clausewitz and Gerhard von Scharnhorst by Wilhelm Wach and Friedrich Bury (Wikimedia)

Even before his relationship with Clausewitz began, Scharnhorst focused his efforts towards the educational training and development of the soldier. He was a product of the German Aufklärung (Enlightenment) movement, and deeply committed to the ideal of Bildung, where an individual’s character and intellect were to be perfected through education and self-development.[4] These ideas transferred perfectly to the conceptualization of military theory and Scharnhorst’s views on the nature of theory itself.[5] Before he resigned his commission with the Hanoverian army and joined the Prussian service in May of 1801, Scharnhorst was already a devout advocate of military reform. He constantly pressed for better education for both commissioned and non-commissioned officers, “promotion to the rank of lieutenant by examination…the institutionalization of a permanent general staff…[and] realistic and intensified training.”[6] The military profession, in the eyes of Scharnhorst, was much more than a simple craft, technique, or job. He considered it as an unbelievably complicated intellectual skill that necessitated constant study, training, and development from its practitioners.[7]

The military profession, in the eyes of Scharnhorst, was much more than a simple craft, technique, or job. He considered it as an unbelievably complicated intellectual skill that necessitated constant study, training, and development from its practitioners.

Just four months after arriving in Berlin, Scharnhorst was charged with reforming the structure of the Berlin Institute for Young Infantry and Cavalry Officers. He sought to revitalize the institution and produce intellectual and high-performing officers for the Prussian army.[8] His goal was not to develop close-minded soldiers who followed the orders of superior officers with dog-like obedience. Instead, he wanted to instill in his students the ability to think critically and analytically. Officers should be able to draw from the examples of the past to help them form their own decisions and actions—even in the absence of orders or prior personal experience. It was in the classrooms of the Berlin Institute that Scharnhorst would discover the young student who would become his greatest pupil and closest associate—Carl von Clausewitz.

Even as a young lieutenant, Clausewitz showed ambition and desire for higher education. His final unit evaluations before departing for Berlin illustrated this ambition; his superiors wrote that he was “an excellent young man…[who] has intelligence, and seeks to gain knowledge of all kinds.”[9] Upon arrival at the Berlin Institute, Clausewitz initially struggled with the level of Scharnhorst’s instruction.[10] However, Scharnhorst committed to Clausewitz his utmost devotion for professional development and prepared him for a career of outstanding military service. Clausewitz’s wife Marie would later explain that Scharnhorst’s dedication to the growth of the young officer helped to nourish “all the seeds of his mental abilities.” She wrote that Clausewitz “might have given up…if Scharnhorst had not taken notice of him early and encouraged him with such characteristic kindness and empathy.”[11]

“A Portrait of Clausewitz as a Young Officer,” possibly by Marie von Clausewitz (Bernd Domsgen and Olaf Thiel/Freundeskreis Clausewitz/

Aside from teaching the fundamentals of nineteenth-century military tactics, Scharnhorst was passionate about forming the philosophical and analytical minds of his students. He augmented their military lessons by teaching them how to reason and think critically, and not just to behave as unimaginative soldiers on the battlefield.[12] The central focus of this intellectual augmentation was the use of historical study. Scharnhorst believed every officer should possess a deep understanding of military history, for it would enable them to learn from past military experience and apply it to their present day.

It was from these lessons that Clausewitz would draw the most important lesson from his mentor, the relation between reality and theory in the realm of warfare. Unlike the majority of theorists during that era, Scharnhorst sought to instill the academic aspects of war in his students “without enslaving [them] to a particular theory of war.”[13] Instead of theoretical systems and dogmatic principles of war to be followed without question, Clausewitz learned the supremacy of historical example and critical analysis, and the concept of the unchanging nature of war—of “war as it actually is.”[14] This lesson that Clausewitz drew from his time learning from Scharnhorst would cement itself as a fundamental intellectual concept throughout the Prussian theorist’s life and feature as a central idea in On War.[15] Without a doubt, the greatest influence that Scharnhorst would have on Carl von Clausewitz was imbuing him with the critical importance of military history with respect to the study of war, that in the event of a lack of experience, academic and historical knowledge is “the most complete intellectual representation of reality.”[16]

Even though Clausewitz entered the Institute somewhat lacking in the fundamentals necessary to fully grasp Scharnhorst’s lessons, he eventually shone through as one of Scharnhorst’s brightest students.[17] Clausewitz concluded his three-year study in Berlin by graduating first in his class and receiving the highest rating from his mentor and instructor. Next to his love for Marie, he viewed graduating first in Scharnhorst’s class as the happiest and most fulfilling event of his life.[18] This joy and happiness that resulted from his relationship with his teacher would lead to Clausewitz describing Scharnhorst as “the father and friend of my spirit.”[19] These first three years of their relationship showcase a brilliant example of the fruitful developments that can stem from a dedicated system of mentorship and professional growth. Scharnhorst’s passion and manner of education inspired the young Clausewitz to remain committed to his studies as an officer, and should be viewed as a model relationship between mentor and protege.

Even after Clausewitz’s graduation from the Berlin Institute in 1803, Scharnhorst continued to play a vital role in furthering his career and in stimulating his intellectual growth as an officer. Like any successful mentor should, Scharnhorst took every opportunity to advertise his pupil’s performance and exceptional work to figures of higher rank and standing. The King of Prussia at the time, Friedrich Wilhelm III, requested examples of writing from the best students in Scharnhorst’s Berlin Institute. Clausewitz’s early writings featured heavily in the selections provided to the King.[20] Three months before the reorganization and founding of the new Prussian General Staff in January 1804, Scharnhorst submitted his final rankings of Berlin Institute graduates to King Friedrich Wilhelm. Clausewitz was at the top of his list, and Scharnhorst described him to the king as possessing “extraordinary ability, judgment, diligence, and knowledge.”[21] This would serve Clausewitz well, as it opened a path for highly sought-after career opportunities and the chance to associate with higher Prussian society and administration. Shortly before his graduation in 1803, and due to his mentor’s recommendation, Clausewitz assumed the role of adjutant and teacher to Prince August von Preußen—cousin to King Friedrich Wilhelm. With an increase in salary and higher visibility within the officer class, Clausewitz owed much of his beginnings as a career officer to Scharnhorst’s continued dedication and mentorship.

For the next decade, Clausewitz and Scharnhorst would remain close, often serving within the same units and organizations in the Prussian army. At the time of his graduation, Clausewitz became a member of the Militärische Gesellschaft (Military Society), of which Scharnhorst was the director and founding leader. This society helped to serve the role of professional military education for officers outside of standardized schools like the Berlin Institute.[22] As a member of this society, Clausewitz would continue to be introduced to novel developments and concepts that surrounded the revolutions in early nineteenth-century warfare, and would further his education and training as a Prussian officer.

At the time of their military service, both Scharnhorst and Clausewitz bore personal witness to the stagnation, decline, and near-annihilation of the Prussian army at the hands of Napoleon. Culminating in its defeat at Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, the Prussian army had rested on the laurels of Frederick the Great’s military successes for more than twenty years. The rigid and obedience-driven Prussian army of Frederick the Great was no longer a match for Napoleon’s Grand Armeé, with its tactical, organizational, and administrative innovations brought about by the French Revolution. Even though he pressed for reform in the approaching darkness of the Napoleonic wars, Scharnhorst was disregarded by military officials and statesmen within the Prussian government.[23] The disaster of 1806 was a clear signal to Scharnhorst, Clausewitz, and many other officers of the need for complete professional reform of the Prussian military.

“Meeting of the reformers in Königsberg in 1807” by Carl Röchling (Wikimedia)

As one of the few officers that refused immediate retreat and surrender following Jena-Auerstedt, Scharnhorst’s name rose to the top of King Friedrich Wilhelm’s list of individuals to help build an entirely new Prussian army. One year after Prussia’s subjugation to Napoleon in 1806, the king established the Military Reorganization Commission to develop and institute sweeping changes to the Prussian military and state structure. There was no better choice for the commission’s leader than Scharnhorst, and as its head he was able to appoint like-minded officers to his staff in order to assist with the reform. Most of these officers had studied, worked, and served with Scharnhorst—whether at the Berlin Institute, as members of the Militärische Gesellschaft, or during the Jena campaign.[24] Clausewitz, with his prior performance in both school and combat, was chosen as a member of his former teacher’s personal staff. Scharnhorst and Clausewitz would continue to fight against Napoleonic oppression for the next six years. Even after Clausewitz chose to resign from Prussian service so he would not have to fight for Napoleon in his 1812 invasion of Russia, he was still able to aid Scharnhorst’s efforts. During the campaign he served as a Russian liaison officer to Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher’s headquarters. Throughout the invasion, Clausewitz “played a key role in the effective coordination of the Prussian and Russian armies” and served effectively as a personal assistant of Scharnhorst once again.[25]

Although the relationship between Clausewitz and Scharnhorst would end with the latter’s death in 1813 from wounds received in battle, the impact of the relationship would continue with Clausewitz’s further contributions to the Prussian army. He would go on to serve exceptionally as a Chief of Staff for a Russian army corps during the Leipzig Campaign shortly after Scharnhorst’s death, and contributed to the eventual Anglo-Prussian victory over Napoleon in 1815. Three years later, Clausewitz assumed the role of his former mentor and was appointed director of the renamed General War School in Berlin. It was during his tenure at the War School that Clausewitz began to write consistently and drafted what would eventually become On War.[26]

The relationship that existed between Gerhard von Scharnhorst and Carl von Clausewitz should be viewed as the ideal for military mentorship. Scharnhorst’s continued dedication to his pupil’s growth is what drove Clausewitz to succeed and contribute greatly to the Prussian state and overall realm of military theory. Arguably, if not for Scharnhorst’s continued presence in his life, Clausewitz would not have produced the great military treatise that On War is today. The entirety of one of the chapters from On War —“On Historical Examples”—is drawn from the lessons Scharnhorst imparted on Clausewitz. He writes that Scharnhorst, “whose manual is the best that has ever been written about actual war, considers historical examples to be of prime importance to the subject, and he makes admirable use of them.”[27]

As any successful and high-performing student does, Clausewitz took what Scharnhorst had taught him and used it as a foundation for creating an outstanding work on the nature of military theory, philosophy, and historical study. Upon his mentor’s death in 1813, Clausewitz lamented that he was “losing at this moment only the dearest friend of my life, and no one can ever replace him, and who I will always miss.”[28] Four years later, Clausewitz penned a tribute to Scharnhorst, illustrating a passionate affection for the man who had shaped his entire way of thought. The final words of his tribute exemplify the character of Scharnhorst, the “father and friend” of Clausewitz’s spirit, and the mentality that any mentor has when developing those in the service of their country: “But men who sacrificed themselves for a noble goal immediately earned his affection and respect, whatever other qualities they might possess.”[29]

Bryan T. Jones is a U.S. Army officer. The views expressed above are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] For a more in-depth examination on “the man who made Patton and Eisenhower,” see Major Edward Cox’s “Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship,” The Institute of Land Warfare, Association of the United States Army (AUSA), No. 78W, September 2010, Conner-and-the-Art-of-Mentorship.pdf; as well as David T. Zabecki’s “Mentor to the Stars: The Man Behind Eisenhower and Patton,” HistoryNet, September/October 2016, known-general.htm.

[2] United States Army doctrine views and defines mentorship as “a voluntary and developmental relationship that exists between a person with greater experience and a person with less experience, characterized by mutual trust and respect.” See Army Regulation 600-100: Army Profession and Leadership Policy (Headquarters Department of the Army: Washington, DC, 2017), 32.

[3] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1832), Indexed Edition, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

[4] Charles Edward White, The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1989), xii.

[5] Azar Gat’s analysis of Scharnhorst’s educational beliefs illustrates his opinions and teachings on military theory: “An inherent interdependence exists between theory and reality. First, one needs clear concepts and principles which clarify the links between the parts of war and the whole; these concepts and principles are necessarily based on the nature of things, and there is no knowledge without them. … The application of the concepts and principles to reality requires judgment, which is in turn sharpened only by experience and constant exercise, the major means of which is historical study. Thus, the proper method for reeducating young officers is, first, to provide them with ‘correct theory’ and encourage them to think independently and ‘clarify their concepts.’ This would create a sound basis for analyzing experience.” See Azar Gat, A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 162-163.

[6] Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 65.

[7] White, The Enlightened Soldier, 4.

[8] In Scharnhorst’s mind, basic knowledge and rote learning was not sufficient for the training of officers and soldiers alike. His three principles for the program at the Berlin Institute were training, education, and leadership. These principles would help to “clarify the officer’s historical experience and prepare him to think and respond intelligently and resourcefully under complex and uncertain situations.” (White, The Enlightened Soldier, 91.)

[9] Kurt von Priesdorff, ed. Soldatisches Führertum, Vol. 8 (Hamburg: Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt, 1938), 66.

[10] White, The Enlightened Soldier, 101.

[11] Donald Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 30; Marie von Clausewitz, “Erinnerung an den General Clausewitz und sein Verhältniß zu Scharnhorst,” in Carl von Clausewitz, “On the Life and Character of Scharnhorst” (1817), in Peter Paret and Daniel Moran, ed. and trans., Historical and Political Writings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 214.

[12] Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work, 30.

[13] Paret, Clausewitz and the State, 70.

[14] Carl von Clausewitz, “Uber das Leben und den Charakter von Scharnhorst,” Historisch-politische Zeitschrift, I (1832), quoted in Paret, Clausewitz and the State, 71.

[15] See Book Two, Chapter Six of On War - “On Historical Examples.” In my own opinion, this chapter ranks as the most important and influential chapters in the entire and incomplete treatise that is Clausewitz’s On War. This short chapter showcases both the most important intellectual concept of war from Clausewitz’s point of view, and the incredible influence that Scharnhorst’s teachings had on the theorist.

[16] Paret, Clausewitz and the State, 71.

[17] In his final performance assessment of the young Prussian lieutenant, Scharnhorst characterized Clausewitz’s performance at the Berlin Institute with “an unusually good analysis of the whole and by a modest and aggregable style of presentation… [with] a thorough knowledge of mathematics and military science.” (Paret, Clausewitz and the State, 76.)

[18] Ibid.

[19] Clausewitz to Marie, Jan. 28, 1807, Karl Schwartz, Leben des Generals Carl von Clausewitz und der Frau Marie von Clausewitz (Berlin: Dümmlers, 1878), 1:38.

[20] White, The Enlightened Soldier, 100.

[21] Ibid., 111.

[22] In his stellar biography of Scharnhorst and the Military Society, author Charles Edward White describes the efforts of Scharnhorst and the other founding members as “a means of promoting professional growth by encouraging officers to study the art of war.” The society offered what formal and standardized military education could not, arguing that “at best, military schools provided only a foundation upon which to build. Without further education, the officer would be of little use in war.” See White, The Enlightened Soldier, 30-31.

[23] Clausewitz was just as disappointed by this disregard for his mentor’s brilliance. Shortly before the defeat at Jena-Auerstedt, he wrote to Marie: “How much must the effectiveness of a gifted man be reduced when he is constantly confronted by the obstacles of convenience and tradition, when he is paralyzed by constant friction with the opinions of others.” (Clausewitz to Marie, Sept. 29, 1806, Karl Linnebach ed., Karl und Marie von Clausewitz: Ein Lebensbild in Briefen und Tagebuchblättern (Berlin: M. Warneck, 1916), 65.)

[24] White, The Enlightened Soldier, 131; Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work, 73.

[25] White, The Enlightened Soldier, 159; Paret, Clausewitz and the State, 232.

[26] Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work, 41-42.

[27] Clausewitz, On War, 170.

[28] Clausewitz to Marie, June 30, 1813, Leben, 2:88.

[29] Carl von Clausewitz, “On the Life and Character of Scharnhorst” (1817), in Peter Paret and Daniel Moran, ed. and trans., Historical and Political Writings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 106.

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