On “Absolute” and “Total” War



In the context of an online course I am taking, I recently read von Clausewitz’s “On War” and from the discussion that followed, realized that there was significant confusion on the meaning of the term “absolute” war, and its relation to “total” war. So I wrote an answer to a question in the discussion forum of the course and here I present an enhanced version.

The question of war is pertinent more than ever today, with the Western World facing its biggest challenge since World War II. In parallel to the activities in the theater of war in Syria, we now see terrorist activities developing at a massive scale in the heart of Europe.

Carl von Clausewitz
Carl von Clausewitz

Absolute War

If we agree that “absolute” war is a concept coined by Clausewitz, then we should try to understand what Clausewitz meant by “absolute” war. I will quote some passages from Book I, and then comment. All references are from von Clausewitz’s “On War”.

“We see, therefore, how, from the commencement, the absolute, the mathematical as it is called, nowhere finds any sure basis in the calculations in the Art of War; and that from the outset there is a play of possibilities, probabilities, good and bad luck, which spreads about with all the coarse and fine threads of its web, and makes War of all branches of human activity the most like a gambling game.”(Book I, 21)

It is interesting to note that in the above passage of Clausewitz the absolute is equated with the mathematical. The lack of it leads to lack of a sure basis. He seems to be saying that War is not a deterministic phenomenon, and that there are many factors that mat make it like a gambling game.

“Theory must also take into account the human element; it must accord a place to courage, to boldness, even to rashness. The Art of War has to deal with living and with moral forces, the consequence of which is that it can never attain the absolute and positive.”(Book I, 22)

“The War of a community—of whole Nations, and particularly of civilised Nations—always starts from a political condition, and is called forth by a political motive. It is, therefore, a political act. Now if it was a perfect, unrestrained, and absolute expression of force, as we had to deduct it from its mere conception, then the moment it is called forth by policy it would step into the place of policy, and as something quite independent of it would set it aside, and only follow its own laws, just as a mine at the moment of explosion cannot be guided into any other direction than that which has been given to it by preparatory arrangements….But it is not so, and the idea is radically false.” (Book I, 23)

I believe that the highlighted passage (in bold) gives the answer to the question. “Absolute” war is a theoretical construct that never materializes, simply because the human and social actors engaged in war are far too complex. Absolute war is like the explosion of a mine, subject ONLY to the laws of physics. But even at the height of military operations, there are so many other factors partaking in the process, that the last thing one can speak of is “absolute”.

So, to wrap up, Clausewitz used the term “absolute” to denote a notion of war that can never materialize in human communities and with human actors.

Erich Ludendorff
Erich Ludendorff

Total War

“Total war” is a term that was comprehensively used in a series of articles published by Leon Daudet in 1918 (Daniel Marc Segesser, Controversy: Total War). Leon Daudet was a French journalist and writer.

[Total war] is the extension of the struggle in its pronounced as well as its chronic phases to the fields of politics, economics, trade, industry, intellectual abilities, jurisprudence and the financial world. Not only armies fight in battle, but also traditions, institutions, customs, codes, minds and most of all banks.[17]

Segesser concludes that

“The concept of “total war” was thus born out of the conviction that a radicalization of warfare as well as a comprehensive mobilization of human and material resources was necessary at a time when France was on the defensive in Verdun in 1916 and after the unsuccessful Nivelle offensive in 1917 when it tried to hold its ground.[19]

After Daudet, the term was used by the German General Erich Ludendorff in his book Der Totale Krieg (The Total War) published in 1935. In it he promotes the idea that war should mobilize all the resources of the Nation, and thus be a Total War.

“Total war requires enormous things from the commander. Effort and labour will be expected from him that have never been asked for from commanders in the past, not even from Frederic the Great.[27]


Building on the work of Ludendorff, Joseph Goebels delivered his 1943 speech a storming call to engage in “Total War”. Here are some excerpts.

“Total war is the demand of the hour… We can no longer make only partial and careless use of the war potential at home and in the significant parts of Europe that we control. We must use our full resources, as quickly and thoroughly as it is organizationally and practically possible. …The total war effort has become a matter of the entire German people. No one has any excuse for ignoring its demands. A storm of applause greeted my call on 30 January for total war. I can therefore assure you that the leadership’s measures are in full agreement with the desires of the German people at home and at the front. The people are willing to bear any burden, even the heaviest, to make any sacrifice, if it leads to the great goal of victory.” (Nation, Rise Up, and Let the Storm Break Loose, by Joseph Goebbels).

Goebels continues to describe the total war measures taken, like the drafting of all capable men (factory workers were exempt), the mobilization of women in civic duties, and so on.


When Goebels made his speech, the situation in Hitler’s Germany was critical. The battle of Stalingrad was lost and Germany was for the first time facing defeat. No wonder that Goebels calls all Germans to full mobilization.

From the brief references above, one can conclude that “total” war as defined by Daudet, Ludendorff and Goebels was the last resort to a war machine that had run into trouble and needed (or so some people had thought) to command all the resources, material and human, of society at large.

The term “total” war has also been used loosely by journalists and historians to characterize World War I, due to the technological advances in the means of warfare. However, this use is rather informal and lacks any real significance.


“Absolute” war is the functioning of the military machine as if it were lacking all human elements. It is therefore an abstraction that never materializes.

“Total” war is one where the military machine mobilizes all human and material resources of society.