The Roots of Modern Military Education

In September 1870, at the Battle of Sedan, the Prussian Army, led by General Helmuth von Moltke, decisively defeated the French Army of Napoleon III after an incredible feat of mobilization, deployment, and battlefield maneuver. With their army destroyed, the French struggled through a nine-month insurgency, eventually succumbing to the Prussians. The Treaty of Frankfurt ended the Franco-Prussian War, recognized the unification of German states into an empire, and saw Prussia proclaimed the dominant land power in Europe. Their success was largely a result of their institutionalization of three army educational reforms during the 1800s: tiered education, broad curriculum, and historical study. These reforms provided Prussian leadership the tools they needed for success on the battlefield and remain essential components of today’s military education systems.

The Reforms

Sixty-four years before the Battle of Sedan, in October 1806, a very different Prussian Army marched against the invading forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. At the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, Napoleon, outnumbered nearly two to one, devastated the highly regimented and drilled Prussians who employed the tactics of their long-dead king, Frederick the Great. This defeat shattered the illusions that Prussians held of their military excellence. The humiliated officers who survived the battle realized that warfare had changed and their Frederician system was no longer relevant. Jena-Auerstedt displayed the inability of the Prussian Army, amidst changes in the maneuver character of warfare, to effectively mobilize, plan, coordinate efforts, and seize the initiative on the battlefield.[1] This defeat provided the catalyst for change that would lead to their predominance seventy years later on the fields outside Sedan.

Major General Gerhard von Scharnhorst witnessed the humiliation as chief of staff to the commander of the army that fought at Jena and later became the father of Prussian Army reforms. From lower-class origins, Scharnhorst was a product of the concept of Bildung, or self-improvement through education.[2] He became a proven intellectual whom the king of Prussia appointed to lead an army reform commission.[3] Scharnhorst did not believe an army could simply wait for a genius general like Napoleon to manifest at times of need; rather that successful military competency could be cultivated through education.[4,5] His reforms aimed at wresting control of the officer corps from the aristocrats and nobility to create a system that identified and cultivated talent through education, regardless of social class.

The Frederician military schools of the past were technical and taught drills and obedience to officers prior to entering service.[6] Jena demonstrated that executing orders was not enough; officers had to use sound judgment and critical thinking in the preparation, planning, and execution of military operations. Scharnhorst firmly believed in the benefits of higher level education and experimented with specialized learning venues when he established the Military Society in Berlin in 1801. This society fostered a free-thinking exchange of ideas and sought to develop judgment and reasoning.[7] Modern-day comparisons might be found in The Strategy Bridge’s “New Model Mentoring” or the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.

General Scharnhorst incorporated the concept of advanced education into his reforms by creating a tiered army education system to meet the developmental needs of officers as they progressed from the tactical applications of war to the strategic. The Prussian Army tiered school system consisted of cadet schools, post-commissioning schools, and a war college or Kriegsakademie. The cadet schools provided indoctrination and general military instruction. Their purpose was to instill discipline. The post-commissioning schools provided military technical instruction in fields such as artillery, tactics, and administration. Their purpose was to refine specific military skills. The Kriegsakademie was the first war college established by an army. It was focused on developing strategic and critical thinking, and its curriculum consisted of general education, military art and science, politics, and the economy, and history.[8]

Scharnhorst understood liberal education was the key to creating leaders with the ability to solve problems in modern war.

Jena demonstrated war’s adaptive character when Prussia’s outdated system and tactics were defeated by Napoleon’s. Scharnhorst concluded that understanding and innovation in warfare required critical thinking –– the kind of thinking that questions the status quo, identifies problems, and forms solutions. His answer was a liberal education, and he and his successors broadened the Army’s technical education with the inclusion of civilian liberal arts and sciences. A review of the Prussian Army’s curriculum in 1872 by Dr. Henry Barnard, the first U.S. Commissioner of Education, revealed a focus on foreign language, philosophy, geography, chemistry, physics, logic, literature, and history in addition to military-specific subjects.[9] Scharnhorst understood liberal education was the key to creating leaders with the ability to solve problems in modern war.

Above all, the Prussian Army education system deemed historical study essential to the development of military judgment. Seven hours a week were devoted to the history of war, more than any other subject at the Kriegsakademie.[10] In times of relative stability, like in Prussia from 1815 to the 1860s, history provided a partial substitute for experience in warfare. Military history multiplies officers’ understanding of war by exposing them to what historian Hajo Holborn described as the “complexity of circumstances.”[11] The Prussian author of On War, Carl von Clausewitz, valued history as a way to reconcile the theory and practice of war.[12] Clausewitz was a pupil of Scharnhorst and the emphasis on history continued when he directed the Kriegsakademie.

The Effects of Reform

Three educational reforms were the foundation for the creation of the Prussian General Staff, an organization Hajo Holborn said was the “brains and nerve center of the army.”[13] In the half-century between the fall of Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussian Army education system enabled a culture of innovation to take root within the General Staff. They learned through study and experimentation.[14] They evolved their style of command to account for the expanse and uncertainties of war.[15] They leveraged advances in technology such as the rail and telegraph to support new concepts like strategic envelopment.[16] While most industrialized nations built rail lines in the 19th century, Prussia’s General Staff had the foresight to influence the placement of rail lines to support possible future army deployments.[17] The General Staff’s ability to think critically about their shortcomings and the future of war resulted in a Prussian revolution in military affairs.

The Prussian Army’s education system produced the minds that led Prussia to dominance in the late 19th century, chief among them General Helmuth von Moltke. While not always considered a military genius, his leadership of the General Staff resulted in an army that out mobilized, outmaneuvered, and outfought the French.[18] Moltke’s understanding of the unpredictable nature of war resulted in the issuance of only essential orders that required subordinates to use judgment and initiative on the battlefield. General Staff officers were able to create sound plans, mobilize on a scale not yet seen in history, and supply and equip the army in successful strategic and operational maneuvers in the Franco-Prussian War.

After the war, Prussia’s reforms were mimicked by many western armies. Upon his observation of the Prussian Army school system, Dr. Barnard stated:

Prussia stands alone among the great military nations of Europe, and this honorable distinction is in a great measure the result of the diffused system of education throughout the country, and of the plan adopted by Stein and Scharnhorst, to make the officers the leaders of the army both in education and in military science.[19]

Dr. Barnard’s study indicates that the Prussian system influenced the U.S. Army’s education system as it began to evolve in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Key themes from Scharnhorst, namely liberal education and tiered schools, remain vital components of the U.S. military’s educational approach as well as that of many other modern militaries.


Responding to a devastating defeat, the Prussian Army institutionalized three reforms to their education system: a tiered system that reflected leader needs at different levels of war, a broad curriculum that inspired critical thinking, and historical study that supplemented and enhanced combat experience. This system produced the leaders that created a revolution in military affairs and led Prussia to victory in the Franco-Prussian War, achieving the vision of a unified Germany. These three reforms are still critical components of a successful military education system. All were incorporated by the United States and remain important foundations in educating future leaders for an uncertain and evolving character of war.

Lorenzo Ruiz is a U.S. Army officer. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Generals (Wikipedia)


1. For an account of the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, see Paul K. Davis, 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present: The World’s Major Battles and How They Shaped History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 282-286.

2. On Bildung, see T.G. Otte, “Educating Bellona: Carl von Clausewitz and Military Education,” in Military Education: Past, Present, and Future, eds. Gregory C. Kennedy and Keith Neilson (Westport: Praeger, 2002), 14; MacGregor Knox, “Mass politics and nationalism as military revolution: The French Revolution and after,” in The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050, eds. MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 70-71.

3. T.N. Dupuy, A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945 (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1977), 20.

4. Ibid., 24.

5. Knox, “Mass politics and nationalism as military revolution,” 71.

6. On Frederician schools, see Henry Barnard, Military Schools and Courses of Instruction in the Science and Art of War, in France, Prussia, Austria, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Sardinia, England, and the United States (1862; repr., New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 287; Dennis E. Showalter, “‘No Officer Rather Than a Bad Officer’: Officer Selection and Education in the Prussian/German Army, 1715-1945,” in Military Education: Past, Present, and Future, eds. Gregory C. Kennedy and Keith Neilson (Westport: Praeger, 2002), 36.

7. On the Military Society in Berlin, see Showalter, “No Officer Rather Than a Bad Officer,” 36-37.

8. For a listing of the course lectures at the Kriegsakademie, see Barnard, Military Schools and Courses of Instruction, 332-333.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Hajo Holborn, “The Prusso-German School: Moltke and the Rise of the General Staff,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986), 290.

12. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 170-174.

13. Holborn, “The Prusso-German School,” 283.

14. Knox, “Mass politics and nationalism as military revolution,” 71.

15. Williamson Murray, “May 1940: Contingency and fragility of the German RMA,” in The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050, eds. MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 160.

16. Showalter, “No Officer Rather Than a Bad Officer,” 103 and 105.

17. Wayne E. Lee, Waging War: Conflict, Culture, and Innovation in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 373.

18. On Moltke as a military genius, see Dupuy, A Genius for War, 103.

19. Barnard, Military Schools and Courses of Instruction, 284.