Introducing #Scharnhorst: On the Nature of Leadership in War and the Role of Socio-Political Conditions

We continue our Strategy Bridge series presenting the great military thinker through his previously untranslated work. You can read the first installment of the series here—an introduction to Scharnhorst’s life, ideas, influence on Carl von Clausewitz, and his legacy in general—including a short essay by Scharnhorst on the role of theory in war.

What Makes A Difference in War?

In 1806, the Prussian Army faced Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt and suffered a disastrous defeat. The impact was so dire that within days the country teetered at the brink of disintegration. In this hour of despair, Friedrich Wilhelm III embraced the ideas of a group of reformers. Prussia recovered, and, on the eve of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia four years later, the country had a difficult choice to make: become France’s reluctant ally and send soldiers east or to fight again the emperor.

This is the backdrop for Scharnhorst’s essay below, two texts unpublished in his lifetime and found in his personal archive. Georg Klippel, who first printed the articles in his 1871 biography of Scharnhorst, marked them clearly as two separate writings.[1] However, later editors combined the essays into one, published in German under the title of the first text, “Some General Observations on Fortune in War” (Einige allgemeine Bemerkungen über das Kriegs-Glück). While not completely correct, the move was not illogical, as the ideas and the date of creation reveal a clear correlation between the drafts.[2] Although typical for Scharnhorst and following his desire for brevity when writing, their length might also have encouraged the consolidation. We offer you two essays in their original form.

For modern readers, the fear Napoleon and his victories struck into the hearts of European monarchs and generals is inconceivable. In just a few years, the Corsican had risen from a junior artillery officer to a French emperor. None of the rules of war seemed to apply to Napoleon—he could face numerically superior enemy, for example, or give up the high-ground, as he did in Austerlitz, and still snatch a decisive victory. War in Napoleon’s hands, Clausewitz later wrote, “was waged without respite until the enemy succumbed, and the counterblows were struck with almost equal energy.” Clausewitz went as far as to suggest that thanks to the way Napoleon conducted warfare, war came close to its absolute perfection.[3]

Prussia’s defeat at Jena-Auerstedt was particularly shocking. From the times of Frederick the Great, the Prussian Army enjoyed fame as a disciplined and highly effective force. In October 1806, it disintegrated on the battlefield, and its commanders displayed horrendous incompetence. Marshal Davout’s Corps single handedly destroyed the Prussian Army’s main body in a few hours at Auerstedt, while Napoleon actually fought the rear guard near Jena. Traumatized by the defeat, the Prussian Army lost its spirit, fortresses quickly surrendered, and the French emperor entered Berlin just thirteen days later.

Not everyone saw Napoleon as a military genius beyond human explanation, however. Scharnhorst admired his understanding of the social and political changes wrought by the French Revolution and his ability to apply these changes to warfare. Nonetheless, Scharnhorst believed Napoleon’s success harbored clues about his possible defeat. In fact, the ambitious reform agenda Scharnhorst implemented after 1806 strived to apply the lessons learned from Napoleon, since the Prussian Army lacked a single general of his caliber.

By 1811, Scharnhorst and his close circle of fellow military reformers—including August Neidhardt von Gneisenau, Hermann von Boyen, Karl von Grolman, and Clausewitz—came to believe the Prussian Army’s spirit and readiness had changed. French-Russian relations were deteriorating once more, and a new war between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I was just a matter of time. To march east, French troops had to cross Prussia and depended on its logistical support. The reformers in Berlin secretly prepared plans modeled after the Spanish resistance, featuring a guerrilla war waged by armed civilians in coordination with regular troops. This way, while on Prussian territory, Napoleon would be bogged down and his forces weakened, giving Tsar Alexander time to mobilize the Russian Army and deliver the final blow.[4]

Friedrich Wilhelm rejected all plans for a guerrilla war against Napoleon. The price Prussia would have paid in human lives and treasure appeared unbearably heavy for the king, especially since the country had barely recovered from the 1806 trauma. Instead, Friedrich Wilhelm became Napoleon’s reluctant ally. An axillary corps of 20,000 troops joined the Grande Armée in 1812. Unable to swallow the thought of fighting (and perhaps dying) for Napoleon, Clausewitz and forty Prussian officers resigned their commissions and left to fight for Alexander. Scharnhorst went into an early retirement.

In this context, while still serving as Chief of the Prussian General Staff, Scharnhorst wrote down his ideas about how a great commander shapes the outcome of a war. It remains unclear whether he intended to publish the two essays as a way to gather broader support within Prussia for energetic resistance against Napoleon or just needed to clarify his ideas. Most likely due to Friedrich Wilhelm’s rejection, the two short drafts remained unpublished. Whatever the intent, and despite the links to a specific historical context, these short essays analyze the nature of leadership in war in its larger historical dimensions.

Both reveal Scharnhorst’s deep conviction that political and social events shape the character warfare. In his own lifetime, the French Revolution violently ousted the Old Regime’s limited approach to war. France’s new conscript army boasted numbers able to overwhelm those of the Old Regime though sheer mass. The political revolution also created a new esprit de corps and allowed ambitious and talented officers, ready to embrace innovation and daring strategy, to swiftly rise to the top of their profession. Scharnhorst’s famous student Carl von Clausewitz captured the sea-change: “Suddenly war again became the business of the people—a people of thirty-million, all of whom considered themselves to be citizens. The people became a participant in war; instead of governments and armies as heretofore, the full weight of the nation was thrown into the balance...Nothing now impeded the vigor with which war could be waged, and consequently the opponents of France faced the utmost peril.”[5]

But Scharnhorst was far from deterministic in his approach. In language that might irk modern sensibilities, he employed the prevailing debate of the day about which nations produced the best soldiers—Northern or Southern peoples. Scharnhorst argued that the widely praised virtues of the Scandinavian and Russian troops were rather the product of specific socio-political circumstances. Yet, in real war, as he wrote in the text’s margins, this famed endurance might not even make a significant difference.

Therefore, in Scharnhorst’s view, there are no warrior nations per se. The Romans, he argued, built an empire because they had a society and a political system which enabled and encouraged conquest and expansion. Following the same logic, people who were once defeated and humiliated could rise again. In Scharnhorst’s reasoning, all depends on complex political conditions and, as in Prussia’s case after 1806, on the state’s will to embrace change and painful but ultimately badly needed reforms.

Does a Great Commander Matter? 

This is not to say that Scharnhorst did not believe in the power of a talented military leader to make a difference on the battlefield. He devoted his life to creating and educating a professional officer corps, after all, with the hope that from it a few great commanders would emerge. A veteran of many battles, Scharnhorst had come to know how little control a commander often had over the events on the ground. A great leader, then, becomes the one who is aware of his or her troops and their limitations, has carefully prepared in peace time, and knows how to cope with war’s inherent uncertainty.

Careful readers will also recognize in the two drafts ideas later developed by Clausewitz. From the concept about how social and political factors affect the course of a war and how a commander had to understand these conditions, it is only a short leap to war’s essentially political nature and that friction constitutes an inherent feature of war. Yet the second essay, “On the Nature of Leadership in War,” also suggests a slight difference in the two men’s worldview. For Scharnhorst, fortune constituted a force he could not quite explain. Hence, he wrote that “a general of stellar talent secures the fame of a great commander only when fortune also smiles at him.” We could even read a certain bitterness into these lines, for, despite his personal wishes, Scharnhorst was never granted command in war. He could not secure the fame of a great commander, next to that of the man who rebuilt the Prussian Army. Clausewitz likewise discussed uncertainty in war, but he saw it as a force to be reckoned and embraced.

Scharnhorst also strived to expand the historical framework common in his day. In the era of Napoleon Bonaparte, when many contemporaries believed what constituted military genius had utterly changed, he pointed to examples of leadership from previous conflicts, most notably the Seven Years’ War. Although Frederick the Great, Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, and Ernst Gideon von Laudon did not enjoy the enormous resources Napoleon did, they still anticipated the enemy’s moves, exploited terrain and surprise, revealed tremendous courage and cunning under difficult conditions, and understood war and its greater political realities.

“The Night Bivouac of Napoleon’s Army” painted by Vasily Vereshchagin (Wikimedia)

A little over a year after Scharnhorst wrote the two essays, Napoleon was back in Central Europe, retreating after his enormous loss in Russia. Scharnhorst returned to the Prussian Army and finally got his chance to prove his belief that the French emperor could be defeated.

I. Some General Observations on Fortune in War (ca. 1811) [6] 

In our times, we judge the outcome of a battle in which armies fight each other based on the physical forces and the talent of a general, without paying attention to other factors. And if a standing army is defeated by an equally strong or even by a weaker one, then we care to attribute, without any other considerations, the battle’s unfortunate outcome to a mistake by the defeated troops’ general, or to the victor’s greater experience and overwhelming talent. Others seek to explain a war’s outcome merely in terms of the theater’s geographical position. They wish to geometrically reconstruct an English general’s genius eye.[7]

These one-sided observations have led to the following recount of the most important reasons for a successful or unsuccessful war.

A correct assessment of the reasons for an engagement or a war’s successful or unsuccessful outcome is equally important for the statesman and the military man.

As it is impossible to discuss here these reasons to the fullest extent, our goal is merely to draw attention to the one-sided and incorrect observations.


Experience teaches that the northern peoples, the Normans (Norwegians), Swedes, Russians, etc., demonstrate an equal (one that remains the same under all circumstances) bravery in all wars, compared to the southern peoples. In the latter’s case, bravery seems to depend more on the circumstances, the nation’s mood, the form of government, etc. The history of both the Middle Ages and the recent one, demonstrates this persuasively. A person who wishes to deny it (by presenting individual cases opposing the main trend) would only reveal himself as someone unable to deduce the lessons a real experience based on a significant number of cases offers.

The famous Spanish general and writer St. Cruz, who combined a great knowledge of history with a profound understanding of the world and humans, attributes the northern peoples’ greater bravery to lack of vigorous feelings, a certain insensitivity, due to the harsh climate and the way of life in it, and to the lack of satisfaction of so many needs, which the southern nations do not suffer to such a degree.[8]

Additionally, these northern nations not only bear the fatigue much better but are also less likely to be dissatisfied by the usual lack of provisions than the southern, who belong to some of the most cultivated states. The latter circumstance alone allows the northern nations to not only perform better than others in war but also to preserve their spirits when the rest perceive themselves as unlucky and in a desperate situation.[9]


In different times, we perceive a nation either as daring or as cowardly. For instance, the modern Italians are more timid in comparison with the Romans from the times of the first kings and the republic. The Roman political constitution not only protected the political existence of the nation, but also  transformed one and all into conquerors of the world.

About one hundred years ago, the Dutch were famous as a very brave nation. However, since then the nation has bet all of its fortune, perseverance, and honor on the expansion of its trade, and the nation’s spirit changed. They came to rely on foreigners for the protection of their homeland—and Holland was lost.

Almost all nations who made history have experienced alternating periods of a notable bravery and cowardliness; the northern nations simply suffer less under this fluctuation.


Often in short periods of time the nation’s forces act in different ways. The reason, generally, is caused by various circumstances, mostly the following:

Due to war experience, in the process of adjustment to war.

It is natural that an army that has fought for some time is adjusted not only to war fatigue but also to danger, and knows how to better adapt to all challenges than the one that is new to the fight. When the common soldier has been under fire many times and survived it, he begins to believe this will always be the case. The officer experiences similar feelings, and none shuns the fire thereafter. Moreover, in war the officer learns the unavoidable developments of a fight, to evade or to anticipate their unfortunate consequences; in the chaos of the battle (with so many passions boiling, with the clash of courage against natural or innate fear), how to keep the troops composed and optimistic; to recognize the battle’s course (which for the most part resembles others) and, according to it, to prepare ahead his orders for possible cases; and finally how to apply the knowledge he had accumulated thanks to study and training in peace. All of these are skills an army can acquire only in war. Therefore, an army that is war-experienced and schooled by war has enormous advantages compared to an inexperienced one. The whole historical field shows that only those nations bring about great deeds which have fought in war for a significant period of time.

On the other hand, we cannot deny that under specific circumstances other means could compensate for the lack of experience. However, the conditions then were not really equal, for the nation, which brought about such an upset, was fighting a war of preservation (or of liberation) or religious war. Alternatively, the army’s internal makeup, the theater of war, or some other very beneficial circumstances played a crucial role.

In his famous work on the wealth of nations, Adam Smith thoroughly examined this issue in an independent section.[10] Among the experienced scholars of war, St. Cruz and Montecuccoli paid significant attention to war experience.[11] Frederick the Great appears to have given a particular consideration to war experience, but only concerning officers.


Another reason for the differences in war performance a nation could undergo in a short period of time is internal thinking about application of force. When only one battle decides the nation’s independence, then its preservation is left to chance. For the battle’s outcome—all great military leaders overwhelmingly agree on this—often depends on accidental occurrences.

“Frederick the Great and his Staff at the Battle of Leuthen” painted by Hugo Ungewitter (Wikimedia)

Frederick the Great and Napoleon were the greatest military leaders of their time. Yet, they still had to learn—in the hands of lesser commanders and under similar conditions, at Hochkirchen, Moravia, Pultusk, Eylan and Aspern—how much did fortune in war espouse a successful campaign.

From the onset of a war, a nation (or a government) should be ready for accidental misfortunes; if it has not prepared to find in itself resilience—when the luck is not on its side—in terms of conditions, time, and energy, it will suffer the fate of Austria in 1805 and Prussia in 1806. The energy, the consistency in the government’s measures, and the coordination in gathering all military means have great influence over the forces’ success.

When in France the soon-to-fall-dormant Directorate replaced the forceful Committee of Public Safety and the National Assembly, it appeared luck had left the French forces. Napoleon’s genius, however, summoned victory again. From then on, unity, coordination, and forcefulness marked the French forces’ course of action. General Bonaparte could not have caused this change by simply assuming the helm of the army. Just like the other generals, he would have lacked almost everything, and he would not have been able to create coordination in procurement of military means and overall manifestation of force, because he would have led only one part of the military effort and could have compensated with his genius only so much.


With regard to a rapid change in the army’s fortune, a military leader could make significant contributions. What a difference exists between the allied forces’ operations in the Seven Years’ War under Duke Ferdinand and the Duke of Cumberland; between the French Army’s operations under Prince of Clermont and Marshall von Broglie; between the Austrian Army’s operations under the Prince of Lorraine and General Laudon; between the operations of Napoleon as general in 1796 and those of Generals Montesquiou and Jourdan![12]

This rapid change could, however, only occur when no great superiority exists between the opposing armies in terms of the forces’ internal conditions.


If an army consists of subordinates without any war experience, is lacking strict discipline, especially in the higher ranks, and therefore the internal conditions allow for intrigues, then the opposing general, even if the two commanders are equally talented, will always enjoy a certain degree of superiority, for his army suffers less from the already mentioned detrimental conditions. As Frederick II wrote to his senior military leaders in his secret instructions from 1771: a good general can never achieve anything without a highly disciplined army, and a highly disciplined army, when led poorly, will always be defeated.

II. On the Nature of Leadership in War [13]

Just as in the nation’s external and domestic social conditions, where accidental occurrences could lead to great differences—and these could not be systematically cataloged according to social conventions, and apply for only a certain time period, within natural limits—so it is with the reciprocal conditions in the armies, the terrain they fight for, etc. Accidental occurrences, differences in the assessments of a certain terrain’s benefits and drawbacks, and about what constitutes leadership in war; disparity in the opposing generals’ temperament; and many other reasons often produce a great difference in the way armies are led.

Another circumstance leading to operational differences is the differing ways of forces positioning, which determine the reciprocal positions and maneuvers. The same opposing commanders, even with the same armies on the same terrain and in the same situation, seldom proceed in one and the same way. Soon this influences the reports about each other’s positions, the terrain assessments, the immediate mood of the commander, the accounts of subordinated units, etc. All of that, when the terrain is taken for a second time, would be very different compared to the first.

Often, a commander might make a mistake due to lack of knowledge about terrain and the enemy position. He would not wish to reverse himself immediately, for he believes to have detected that the enemy general would fail to exploit the resulting disadvantages, perhaps because the latter doesn’t know his adversary’s position either. Thanks to this, a constellation of armies and corps is created, which is quite different from what would have happened without the initial forces’ positioning.

Only those who have studied military history to the tactical level, to the motives behind every alignment, or had an opportunity to observe how the commanding of an army occurs, would be convinced by what has been discussed here.

However, often the implementation of main principles depends on accidental circumstances or on luck. We can observe this in the case of leading commanders, even if they happened to be correctly informed about the opposing army, their generals, and the war theater. We remember the campaign of 1761 in Westphalia and Silesia. Two of the most glorious commanders could not beneficially and separately attack the merging of the opposing detached armies, despite being between them—they had to allow their merging—or rather accepted it.[14]

Based on that we can conclude: a general of stellar talent secures the fame of a great commander only when fortune also smiles at him, or when he enjoys superior military means (which allow him to defy luck). Therefore, when judging commanders of armies, we should proceed with great prudence and discretion.

These fleeting observations should convince the reader that we don’t intend to present the character of war leadership as constant and complete, as it is unique for every commander, every nation, and every historic period.

Still, this character reveals itself when we, based on a large number of single cases and as in the calculations in natural science, carefully put together conclusions about its possibilities.

Every commander has his own education, experience, and opinion about what constitutes leadership in war. He proceeds according to these when he is given the opportunity to do so. We could study Daun, Laudon, Broglie, Duke Ferdinand, Prince Heinrich, the great King [Frederick II]—all of them commanders in their own right—and what a difference their style of leadership made in war.[15]

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger is the author ofMarie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War. She currently teaches at Air University’s eSchool of Graduate Professional Military Education and Air Command and Staff College and is working on her second book, a study of Carl von Clausewitz’s Last Campaign (1830-1831). The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger and The Strategy Bridge would like to thank Air University’s Muir S.Fairchild Research Information Center for its support for this project.

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Header Image: Scharnhorst, from a portrait by Friedrich Bury (Britannica)


[1] The text was found in Scharnhorst’s personal archive and first published by Georg Heinrich Klippel in 1871. Georg Heinrich Klippel, Das Leben des Generals von Scharnhorst: nach grösstentheils bisher unbenutzten Quellen, Part 3 (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1871), 624-630. 

[2] See for instance “Einige allgemeine Bemerkungen über das Kriegs-Glück” in Gerhard von Scharnhorst, Ausgewählte Schriften, edited by Ursula von Gersdorff (Osnabrück: Biblio Verlag, 1983), 390-400.

[3] Clausewitz, On War, 580.

[4] Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 214.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 592.

[6] We publish this text based on the first print in Klippel, Das Leben des Generals von Scharnhorst,, Part 3, 624-628

[7] It remains unclear who Scharnhorst had exactly in mind, perhaps it was John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1650—1722) and his remarkable conduct in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714).

[8] Álvaro de Navia Osorio y Vigil, Marqués de Santa Cruz de Marcenado (1684-1732), was a Spanish diplomat and general and wrote Military Reflections. Álvaro Navia Ossorio Santa Cruz de Marcenado, Reflexiones militares (Turin: Juan Francisco Mairesse, 1724).

[9] Note in the margin also by Scharnhorst: “These advantages, which northern peoples enjoy in war, do not appear so important as to change its course, but still play a role in it.”

[10] See the chapter “Of the Expense of Defense“ in Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. 2 (London: George Bell, 1896), 208-226.

[11] Raimondo, Count of Montecuccoli (1609-1680) was a highly decorated officer and one of the great seventeenth century military reformers. He served as a commander in the Austrian Army and fought in the Thirty Years’ War and against the Ottoman Turks.   

[12] Duke Ferdinand, Prince of Brunswick-Lüneburg (1721-1792), was a famed German-Prussian field marshal who engineered many of the Allied victories against France in the Seven Years’ War. William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765) was a British general who performed disastrously as the Allied commander (1757) during the Seven Years’ War. Louis de Bourbon, Comte de Clermont (1709–1771), commander of the French forces in the Seven Years’ War, badly beaten by Ferdinand, Prince of Brunswick-Lüneburg in the Battle of Krefeld (1758). Victor François, Duc de Broglie (1718-1804) celebrated several victories against Ferdinand, Prince of Brunswick-Lüneburg in the Seven Years’ War, most famously the Battle of Bergen (1759). Prince Charles Alexander of Lorraine (1712-1780) was an Austrian general defeated in the Battle of Leuthen (1757), Frederick the Great’s most celebrated victory in the Seven Years’ War. Ernst Gideon von Laudon (1717-1790) as the commander of the Austrian Army defeated Frederick the Great in the Battle of Kunersdorf (1759). Anne-Pierre, Marquis de Montesquiou-Fézensac (1739–1798) was a general in the French Revolutionary Army, in 1792 he commanded the Army of the South and conquered the Duchy of Savoy. Jean-Baptiste Jourdan (1762 –1833) was a general in the French Revolutionary Army, made in 1804 Marshal of France by Napoleon.

[13] Based on the first publication in Klippel, Das Leben des Generals von Scharnhorst, Part 3, 628-630.

[14] Scharnhorst alluded to the conduct of Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick and Frederick the Great in the Seven Years’ War.  

[15] Leopold Joseph von Daun (1705–1766) was an Austrian field marshal who commanded the imperial forces and celebrated many victories against Frederick the Great in the Seven Years’ War. Frederick Henry Louis (1726–1802) was the younger brother of Frederick the Great. In the Seven Years’ War, he served as a general under his brother in the Western theater  and famously never lost a battle.