The Prussian General Staff: Meritocracy in Arms. Part 3a.

Image ‘170331-D-PB383-041’ by Joe Robinson. Released under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License.


The Prussian General Staff – influence and legacy (I)

The history of the Prussian General Staff is a very interesting one, being the product of particular circumstances affecting a nation having a strong military culture, as it was forced to re-adapt to the military and political innovations sparked by the French Revolution[1]. As Goerlitz (1985) puts, it was an important milestone as it established cooperation between an army commander and a military theoretician, becoming a trend up until the 20th century. And even nowadays with different shape. Therefore, it could be stated that the Prussian General Staff is relegated to a given period of time and only to the Prussian/German case, having no place in the post-1945 and 21st century world. But reality is that the Prussian General Staff and its philosophies are still impregnating many armed forces around the world, or they are integral part of their doctrines and strategies, directly or indirectly.

This influence, noteworthy to be reminded, took place even prior WWII, as many strategies and doctrines were based upon those of the Prussian General Staff, which based the strategic and operational mindset of the Germans. In fact, and according to Millotat (1992), the (Prussian) General Staff remains a strong sociological and political phenomenon up to this day and despite the German defeats, mainly due to the impressive victories achieved by Von Moltke against Austria and France in the 19th century. Furthermore, those same impressive victories achieved by Prussia prompted a global emulation of the General Staff, and even local, as Bavaria set up its own General Staff and War Academy, under the command of the local Ministry of War, although it was more focused on theoretical than operational issues[2]. Even the impressive performance of the General Staff during both World Wars, alongside the 19th century victories, prompted a request for Prussian/German advisors, according to Herwig (1998).

Nowadays, many armed forces have incorporated, adapted or modified many or some of the Prussian General Staff principles to their own armies’ General Staffs.

Germany: The Bundeswehr and the Prussian legacy

Germany is clearly the first example that comes to mind, being the direct inheritor of the Prussian General Staff. As Klein (2001) puts, the Prussian General Staff system became a very important foundation of many armies and their own similar systems. The Bundeswehr is clearly an example of this, as it is heavily influenced by the Prussian General Staff in two ways: its own General Staff is set upon most of the old system, and the philosophy of von Scharnhorst is both enrooted and applied as well. This is evidenced in the way Command and Control is applied, the same selection process, and the education and training of officers at a high military academy, with those officers having an advisory role and urging action to the unit commander if needed. At unit level – division, brigade and corps – the General Staff Officer has the highest position and is allowed to provide advice, to inform the commander about important decisions, and even to take decision in case the commander or his deputy are unavailable (Schoy, n.d.)[3].

This example is interesting not only because of the obvious fact the Bundeswehr is continuing the tradition set by Prussia in the 19th century anyhow, but also because of the way it works now and the criticism it has sparked. Following Millotat (1992) and Schoy (n.d.), the General Staff is considered as a factor capable of undermining the commander’s authority and damaging the unity of the officers’ corps, given that a small but very skilled group of officers is posted at most senior or high positions.

Such critique aims at authority issues within the armed forces, along with concerns about meritocracy and its effects over an institution or a large group of individual part of it and their career advancement, with opportunities being supposedly scarce as very few would be able to meet requirements thus being a small but selected group directing such institution.

Yet the General Staff is, like on its early days, a helpful and beneficial tool for the Bundeswehr. It might be a challenge for the commander and the main staff assistants, following (Schoy, n.d.): First, the commander needs to know the General Staff officers, advising them not to erode his authority but rather to strengthen it throughout their tasks, with the General Staff officers enabled to exert Command and Control. Second, the same General Staff officer needs to ensure his advice is accurate and correlated to the decisions of the commander. This is a positive aspect. But a third challenge is that ambition remains, which results in careerism, with (adapted) officers focused on making a good impression to their superiors but not concentrated on doing their tasks, following Schoy (n.d.). This is related to the problem mentioned previously: the “courtesan officers” (or even high commanders) that are more focused on pleasing his superiors – either high rank officers or politicians – so to advance on his own interests, at the expense of preparing the armed forces to defend their country, or of providing a careful assessment to his superior or commanding officer. This ends in hampering the effectiveness, functionality and preparedness of any army, as careerism or “politics” are placed before professionalism and duty.

In any case, the current General Staff system benefits the Bundeswehr[4]. First, operational (and hierarchical) functionality is ensured by the emphasis on commanding tasks, training, education and mission-oriented leadership. This is reinforced by the instilled senses of obedience, discipline and courage, mutual support between the commander and the subordinates, and by ruling out bureaucracy and routinization. Second, the demand for independently formulated decisions for the commander following consultations with his principal staff assistant, and upon high quality advice[5]. Third, the same principles laid by Von Scharnhorst are being applied, with the best able to access top positions hence improving the quality of leadership; this thanks to the fact there is a General Staff comprised by a small number of officers and working at political and operational level of command[6]. Military organization is strengthened as a result, ensuring the quality of the officers’ corps by rewarding merit and achievements, making of the General Staff important for the Bundeswehr and any armed force. And fourth, Auftragstaktik and position weighting over ranks are maintained as well, with character, ability, mental power and resolution and initiative being essential elements (Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.)[7].

These four factors also solve the critiques and dilemmas against the General Staff regarding the commander’s authority and the role of the General Staff Officer. They rebuke the argument of an elite of highly skilled officers endangering the cohesion of the officers’ corps, as selection process and changes for selection are the same, with an objective selection criteria. Also, the General Staff is an organic element within the armed forces, regardless of its particular nature. In addition, advice to commander are a core element, with the adviser helping the commander in dealing with the inherent complexities of operations through those same advices, and after consulting with the commander’s staff assistant. In relation to the “democratization vs meritocracy” debate, this is neutralized by the fact leadership positions remain open, with standards being high given their meritocratic-based process (Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.). Furthermore, if quality is needed so to create a body of capable officers providing high quality advice, a very high standard is needed, even if it goes against the “democratization” criteria. This to ensure also proper functionality and effectiveness of the officers’ corps and the armed forces[8].

Equally important – and helpful too – is the principle of Staff Assistants (and officers, basically) to be aware of the world and the political, social, cultural, economic and ethical factors around them and that either impact or shape military affairs, just like in the times of Von Scharnhorst, according to Schoy (n.d.). Such awareness enables the General Staff and the same armed forces to have a good assessment of potential adversaries and allies, reaching a clearer strategic view. Another fact that is important and beneficial is that the principles of an officer being silent, unselfish and dutiful with political sensitivity remain, according to Millotat (1992). This makes sure that the General Staff is comprised by focused and well-prepared officers capable of comprehending the political factor that is intertwined with war.

Considering the previous presentation, it looks that only the German Army could be the only capable of developing and implementing a General Staff system, limiting it to that country only, given the history of the General System and of Germany. But, as Schoy (n.d.) remarks, the current armies are facing the same challenges as the Prussian army faced back then, considering that war is in constant transformation thus bringing more complexities to military affairs. Space, time and forces are all factors that need synchronization in a multidimensional and non-linear way, considering that pace is increased and information is abundant and dynamic. A General Staff system (and officers) helps the commander not to be overwhelmed by these factors, while providing a figure that giving enhanced decision-making through high-quality advice.

Yet Germany is not implementing the General Staff entirely. It seems to exist at a minimal size, with the system being implemented at unit level instead of the autonomous, big and important military institution it once was. In fact, the Bundeswehr tried to mark distance from elements that could have sparked some controversies as a result of assessments based upon historical experiences. The General Staff is being kept with a limited level by a small corps of officers and with the Ministry of Defence as the main commanding instance[9]. The Allies are also behind this, as they tried to ban the General Staff and the War Academy since both were behind the German ability to inflict damage to the Allies’ forces, fearing them and having repulsion as they considered them symbols of German militarism[10]. Currently, a Chief of Staff acts as the main advisory body and represent the army before the government, having also planning task. But operational command falls in NATO hands in wartime thus integrating the Bundeswehr in NATO’s structure, so to defend the national territory in case of invasion or attack. This means that the General Staff cannot be the main instrument of national defence nor to have the scale it once had; but the figure of the Chief of Staff remains as well as the training of qualified staff assistants. And indeed, the General Staff Officers retain their advisory roles to commander without commanding roles, with commanders mandated to listen to them. Education of the officers remains separated yet NATO oriented, forcing students to think and act at both operational and strategic and military-political level. Nonetheless, Auftragstaktik and Von Moltke’s principles are still implemented (Gunther, 2012; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992)[11].

The United States: overhauling an army

The General Staff system could benefit any other army given its characteristics and principles. In fact, the US Army has been particularly interested in the General Staff system, as it considers it could benefit its officers’ corps and compensate for strategic failures or the bad leadership in high rank officers. Yet such interest is not that recent, as Von Moltke was already being analysed in the US[12].

The General Staff could benefit any other army considering its characteristics and principles. The US Army has been particularly interested in the General Staff model, as it considers such could benefit its own officers’ corps and compensate for the bad leadership in the high rank officers or strategic failures. But this interest is not entirely new, as von Moltke was studied by the United States ever since. As a result, the US adopted some aspects of the Prussian General Staff at army, corps and division levels – similar to Prussia – so to achieve a rapid, decisive victory for its military operations. This makes of the US one exception in contrast to other armies adopting the General Staff system, as such adoptions generally speaking lack many main traits like independent tasks and the special training and selection processes, the small number of General Staff Officers with advisory roles, and the Auftragstaktik (Gunther, 2012; Herwig; 1998; DiMarco, 2009; Millotat, 1992)[13].

The US example is a very interesting one, as it can be compared with the Prussian Army in the sense both needed re-adaptation at a point, and as it is one of the most interested in the Prussian General Staff. A first similarity comes from the fact that, like Prussia, the US relies heavily on coalitions for legitimacy and to be able to challenge the interests of another state or competitor[14]. But this interest emerged only after the US military changes it perception on the Auftragstaktik, especially when it realized that within the Prussian Army, the role of a small group of very educated officers was crucial, as they were able to execute complex tactical challenges. This resulted in the beginning of a strong cultural change for the US Army – similar to that of Prussia during the Napoleonic Wars – as it is based on personalities or conditions, instead of initiative by highly educated officers. Hence, Auftragstaktik was adopted in 1986 (and included in the manuals in 1993) as it encouraged personal initiative thanks to orders being not-prescriptive thus allowing freedom of action (Gunther, 2012).

This adoption of the General Staff system and its principles came as a result of needs highlighted by operational experiences. For instance, and following DiMarco (2009), experiences in Iraq made evident the need for enhancing the training of senior leaders, the need to address problems of mediocre leadership and to fill the gap since there is no professional body of General Staff Officers supporting field commanders. Also, according to Kaplan (2008), reforms are a product of operational needs faced by the US during Iraq and in the light of the War on Terror, as the new battleground within such context requires sub-officers and other low-ranked officers to have more power and authorization to act on their own, alongside intelligence supporting such actions. Sub-officers, in fact, where in charge of sectors very often, in an independent and autonomous matter, the same way their Israeli colleagues (Kaplan, 2008). Senor & Singer (2011) explains, however, that the US army needs a top-heavy approach (opening ample room for leadership issues) given its own – large – size and the very distant wars it wages. This results in particular logistical and command challenges. Not to say operational challenges as well. But changes are taking place on this area as well. This is also a challenge for an army with a long structural and operational tradition that acknowledges the need for reforms and changes similar to the precepts of the General Staff.

These challenges could be addressed via a General System, enhancing the field-level command. But it is fair to mention that such issues are not exclusive of the US Army[15]. Following DiMarco (2009), issues of leadership quality are rather a constant throughout time, which can be rarely solved; yet modern warfare can displace the main leadership as a General Staff can contribute in solving this issue and ensuring success.

This might bring the issue of the ‘military genius’. According to DiMarco (2009) an inspired and talented leadership equals better combat effectiveness, but no army is able to recognize and give way to the ‘military genius’ to be the main commander ever, being the few cases a very rare exception. Nevertheless, success of battle command might depend of that genius, enhanced by education and experience, and requiring only the existence of ability a priori. In addition, careful education, training, mentoring, organization and advising the brightest minds within the army can produce a ‘military genius’ enough to compensate a bad leadership by a given general. The General Staff is – unsurprisingly – the ideal tool for this, as it is the way for the best to have commanding influence and enhance operational performance, benefiting the US as it did to Prussia (DiMarco, 2009).

Regarding the issue of the ‘genius in war’, Von Clausewitz (1999) has a very interesting exposition about it, not to mention he is the main military theoretician who introduced such concept. By taking a closer look at it, it could be understandable the relation between such genius and the General Staff, being this one a maximizing factor for his aptitudes and abilities. Von Clausewitz (1999) explain that some activity with a particular nature – warfare on this case – requires special skills of comprehension and temper (that war more than anything else requires), which manifest through the ‘genius’, with such abilities concentrating upon himself and being rather an exception. But such exception might be frequent if it emerges from a people with high military spirit, and even more when a given nation is very civilized but bellicose at the same time. As war and politics converge, the ‘military genius’ is required to manage both spheres and understand the State’s politics, to sense the political relations of the State – I suspect both the inner and foreign relations – and to know what can be done with the available resources and assets for war (cfr. pp. 67-68 and pp. 85-86).

What is the place of the General Staff in this case, and how it might benefit a country like the US? Taking into account the explanation by von Clausewitz and DiMarco, and taking into account the essence and functions of the Prussian General Staff, it can be stated that: first, the General Staff system allows the military genius to exploit enhance his skills while benefiting the army with such, either by commanding or providing advice to a commander, let alone the education given. Second, the General Staff over the paper requires the officer to consider the political element among others, being also the place where both can be conjugated when considering the strategy or defence policies while taking account the political aspect of the State, both within and outside. The US, given its position of dominating power in the international system and of its democratic nature (which makes of politics a quite complex and delicate exercise), is required to implement from time to time operations and campaigns in order to protect its interests and national security, actions with high political impact in the US and abroad. A General Staff could help any military genius in the US army or any officer, be of high rank or at field level, to manage the political and military spheres for any operation abroad, enabling him to consider and address the political challenges of a given operation, for both domestic and foreign politics. Not to mention that such system would provide flexibility – or enhance the existing one – during operations, enabling also initiative for the troops and officers and their ability to deal with the unexpected, enhancing the optimal outcome and political-strategic impact of those operations waged under a changing nature of war[16].

Despite these advantages, even the adoption of the Auftragstaktik wasn’t that smooth in the US. According to Gunther (2012), factors like the mentality of a soldier tasked with ‘what to think and not how to think’; reliance on doctrines and drill (signalling lack of flexibility); initiative not being valued at the point of neutralizing operational initiative and manoeuvring; and the prevalence of procedures all remained almost untouched, hampered implementation of Auftragstaktik. Nevertheless, Auftragstaktik was finally incorporated in the 2012 US Army manual. It would be a very interesting exercise to evaluate it evolution and implementation, and to see it there has been innovations as a result, if it has enhanced the principle itself and what original elements were incorporated.

It seems that many principles of the Prussian General Staff are being applied by the US Army – or some of its branches – as a result of the abovementioned reforms[17]. At first, sub-officers address the superiors with confidence, being an important element behind performance. Secondly, the emphasis is placed on small combat groups, maximizing the role of sub-officers. Third, and very remarkable, a focusing on few elements for training and deployments, alongside low-profile incursions and the study by both sub-officers and officers on their own initiative of wars similar to wars and operations they are executing (Kaplan, 2008)[18].

In addition, the US Army is further implementing the 1986 and 1993 reforms. A first is the increased inter-operation between services or branches. A second, the decreasing vertical approach and increased focusing on brigades, reducing bureaucracy and saturation of higher ranks, allowing lower ranks to adapt more easily to a given situation during operations. Technology is a factor, as the Stryker armoured vehicles enables increased autonomy to sub-officers and enhanced relations between them and the heads of battalions (at their HQ). The increased implementation of the ‘special forces-model’ and of networked intelligence, also allows more freedom of action and initiative (Kaplan, 2008)[19].

Overall, the US is the most recent and palpable example of how the General Staff system is being implemented at its fullest or in some parts, and more because of operational experiences than the idea of transitioning into a Prussian-styled operational command. But there are other remarkable examples besides the German and the American cases. Nations like Great Britain, France, Russia and the Soviet Union, and Israel are among the most remarkable cases where parts of the General Staff system and philosophies were adopted, or adapted according to their needs and context, with some cases even adding elements of their own or having a “special touch” when putting in practice this system. Experiences also resulted to be valuable lecturers for those nations, thus prompting the adoption of the Prussian General Staff system as a whole or partially. Those are the cases for the next part.





[1] It must be reminded that the same Prussian General Staff emerged as an adaptation and response process to those same changes introduced by France given the peculiar nature of its own political process (than impregnated its military) in the period. It also emerged as the reaction by reformists within the Prussian Army to replicate the same French novelties and to exploit the potential of skilled junior officers, placing training, identification, education and mentoring as the way to give the Prussian Army enhanced responsiveness (DiMarco, 2009; Schoy, n.d.).

[2] It seems that the Prussian Army, the embryo of the General Staff, was a model for the early revolutionary France, according to Goerlitz (1985). It is also important to point out that Bavaria, Saxony and Würtemberg kept their own armies, yet subjected to the German Imperial Army, as a product of special concessions given to these Länders, so to facilitate their integration into the Empire. See: Guillen, 1973, p.8.

[3] He is also required to inform the General Staff about relevant decisions advised to the commander, following Schoy (n.d.).

[4] In fact, all service branches of the German Armed Forces have their own General Staff with their own education systems, all aimed at preparing the officers for General/Admiral Staff tasks in an independent and responsible manner during peacetime or wartime, and also for NATO-level duties, according to Millotat (1992).

[5] Furthermore, the General Staff Officer is to be held accountable for his advices and his responsibilities on this sense, as his advice is to be based upon qualified reasoning and thought, instead of mere wishful thinking, according to Millotat (1992).

[6] Other principles still maintained are those of valour, veracity, critical judgement, objectivity and intellectual versatility; personal force, self-control and sound esteem. The conformation of meetings and associations, just like in the early times of the Prussian General Staff, are also maintained (Millotat, 1992).

[7] This is also strengthened by the fact that, like the original General Staff and under Scharnhorst’s, the best minds are cultivated through studies on historical experiences (so to absorb the lessons of past wars) and other military issues, aiming at providing a safety against mediocre leadership or to provide responsiveness should adversity is present. It also enhances the benefits of highly skilled and flexible officers with initiative, capable enough to ensure operational success (DiMarco, 2006; Millotat, 1992).

[8] The German Army in fact tried to reduce the required time for training for Staff Officers in the light of “democratization” and equal opportunity, yet it maintained the principle of merit above any other consideration for General Staff Officers, according to Millotat (1992).

[9] One of those experiences was the high degree of political power the General Staff acquired prior and during WWII, with strong debates sparking in Germany after the war as many considered a General Staff was unnecessary in a democratic state, being also elitist and thus against democracy itself, following Millotat (1992).

[10] In fact, and according to Millotat (1992), the General Staff was basically irrelevant during WWII. It was also banned or hampered after both World Wars.

[11] The value Auftragstaktik has for freedom of action is clearly valued, with such becoming a standard for other armed forces, according to Millotat (1992).

[12] The US was having already a General Staff system of their own by WWI, based upon the French model (see footnote XX), according to Johnston (2008). Cfr. p. 28.

[13] The US used many principles of the General Staff to be incorporated within its financial and management system, following Millotat (1992).

[14] See also: Kaplan, 2008, p.486.

[15] In fact, the US Army enjoyed a considerable degree of success thanks to a superior staff work that managed to compensate for poor leadership, and managed to ensure best use of resources. Still the War College and the same US Staff are both underrated and not sufficient, with the last one lacking independence and having instead a mere supplementary role (DiMarco, 2009).

[16] Cfr, Ellis, 1993, pp. 39-41. A full detailed explanation of the benefits the General Staff would have will be the topic for the last part.

[17] The US Army received some primeval influence of the Prussian style of warfare back in the Independence War, as the Prussian baron and officer Friedrich von Steuben made of the nascent army an army of sub-officers, with a de-centralized command where basic commands were decomposed through the chain of command. Cfr. Kaplan, 2008, p.20.

[18] Those wars are the Indian Wars, according to Kaplan (2008), as they were having ambushes, skirmishes and sudden strikes.

[19] The United States Marine Corps (USMC) is the maximum expression of this dynamic, as it is cored by sub-officers with a good amount of experience and leadership skills, with units depending on sergeants and corporals, following Kaplan (2008). Furthermore, structure was not that rigid, and during operations or missions the higher ranks would yield command to low-rank officers, reflecting also the Prussian General Staff principle of rank having little weight when circumstances called for this.



Maj. Eisel, B. (1993). An American General Staff: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? Fort Leaveworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved from: on (ADA274042).

Goerlitz, W. (1985). History of the German General Staff, 1657-1945. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

DiMarco, L. A. (2009). The US Army General Staff: Where Is It in the Twenty-first Century? Retrieved from: on 04.06.2016

Herwig, H. H. (Spring 1998). The Prussian Model and Military Planning Today. Joint Force Quarterly, 18, 67-75. Retrieved from: on 03.06.2016

Guillen, P. (1973). Historia de Alemania. 2. El Imperio alemán, 1871-1918. [Histoire de l’Allemagne. 2. L’Empire Alemand, 1871-1918, Miguel Llop Remedios, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Vicens-Vives (Original work published in 1970).

Maj. Gunther, M. J. (2012). Auftragstaktik: The Basis for Modern Military Command? Fort Leaveworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved from: on 04.06.2016 (AY 2012-02)

Maj. Johnston, P. (2008). Staff Systems and the Canadian Air Force: Part 1. History of the Western Staff System. The Canadian Air Force Journal, Summer 2008, 1(2), 20-30. Retrieved from: on 24.11.2016

Kaplan, R. D. (2008). Por tierra, mar y aire. [Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, Jordi Vidal, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones B (Original work published in 2007).

Col. Klein, F. (2001). The Myth of the Prusso-German General Staff. Baltic Defence Review, 2001 (5), 133-144. Retrieved from: on 03.06.2016

Oberst. Millotat, C. O. E. (1992). Understanding the Prussian-German General Staff System. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute. Retrieved from: on 03.06.2016 (AD-A249 255)

Senor, D., & Singer, S. (2011). Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. New York, USA: Twelve.

Oberst. Schoy, M. (n.d). General Gerhard von Scharnhorst: Mentor of Clausewitz and Father of the Prussian-German General Staff. Retrieved from: on 03.06.2016

Von Clausewitz, C. (1999). De la guerra. [Vom Kriege, A. Díez, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Idea Books. (Original work published in 1832).

The Prussian General Staff: Meritocracy in Arms. Part 2b.


Image ‘Moltke Denkmal and Berliner Siegessäule’. By Mario Zorro (author). All rights reserved

The previous article reviewed the main elements or characteristics of the Prussian General Staff, pointing out how the combination of the Prussian (and German) army’s organization, the Auftragstaktik, the planning for the potential future encounters, the educational system that formed the best officers to be picked up important positions within the army and the units, the exercises and manoeuvres, war games, the assimilation of technological innovations and advances, and a not so stiff chain of command, allowed Prussia/Germany to effectively wage wars and battles.

But an institution like the General Staff and alike military institutions cannot be explained enough on their way of working and their influence on the operational outcome of their militaries. To explain further how these institutions worked, one must look at their values or philosophical foundations and their relation with politics, something valid with the General Staff, considering the very particular characteristics of Prussia and the strong relation between politics and the military, which became a concern for most of the minds behind the General Staff.

The spirit of the General Staff

To recapitulate, the operational philosophies of the General Staff are to allow initiative so to encourage independence of decision-making while facing the uncertain nature of the battlefield, as well as having a decentralized command and control over the units, to allow such independence. Preparation of the best and their selection through education, with studying past campaigns of previous powers and potential adversaries, learning also from their own experience and analysing the outcome of both campaigns and exercises. In addition, the implementation of exercises, manoeuvres and war games to study as well the abovementioned campaigns, to test and improve plans, and to educate officers. And more importantly, to learn from the past mistakes regardless of victorious or negative outcomes. As technology was deemed important for the General Staff – via observing the potential adversaries very closely – it was thus tested and accepted, being equally tested in both exercises and wargames for doctrine and design-operational purposes[1].

But the Prussian General Staff’s philosophy was not relegated only to mere tactical and operational affairs, considering that the philosophies of von Scharnhorst imprinted the essence of the General Staff in the fields of ethics and values of the officers comprising it. Herwig (1998) and Klein (2011) point out the following values: amity and self-sacrifice, along with the ideals of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, to stay inconspicuous and to be more than you seem. Other values accounted for were those of valour; veracity; critical judgement; objectivity and intellectual veracity; as well as personal force, self-control and sound esteem (Millotat, 1992).

The most central pillar, however, was the preparation, selection and promotion of the most qualified to access important positions and functions within the army, and on a more open basis, enhancing the quality of top and field command. Meritocracy was then, the essence of this central pillar, instead of promotions based upon social origin or even seniority (Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.).

Going back to the operational philosophies or principles, the General Staff had four operational principles: first, the commander would assess the situation and decide the action; second, importance of the chief of staff; third, the issuing of orders with ample degree of freedom for subordinated commanders under a general command; and fourth, to execute operations with the smallest staff possible. This basically means that initiative and resolution were frameworks under which both the philosophy of the General Staff and any officer or field commander operated, with the officer being neutral and objective in regards to politics, yet not entirely ignorant on the matter. Routine and bureaucratization both stand as part of the core operational principles or pillar of the General Staff. Flexibility, in addition, was considered a central aspect for field commanders’ performance and army or unit level during any given operation (Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992).

These principles would remain as the main principles well into the 20th century, being expanded by Hans von Seeckt in the immediate aftermath of WWI. Such principles were: each officer to serve and act according to the best interests of the nation regardless personal feelings or preferences; and alternation between staff and troop duty was kept, in order to keep familiarity with aspects of troop leading. In addition, the lessons from past experiences were to be applied and tested considering available resources, making emphasis on agility, mobility, and combat power. Disimpassioned assessment of any given situation, alacrity and decisiveness in decision making, along with ability to give clear and concise orders with precise execution were also another cluster of principles. In addition, von Seeckt kept von Moltke’s and von Schlieffen’s principle of committing to the country regardless of personal interests, as well as the tradition of making the officers to produce papers on tactical theories and other subjects, and maintained problem solving as mandatory for officers (Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992).

The victories obtained by Prussia from 1864 to 1871 spoiled the spirit the General Staff wanted to instil to the officer corps and the army in general. As Herwig (1998) points out, these victories breed a similar arrogance and stagnation that affected the Prussian Army in the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, at the point that exercises were no longer a mechanism to test and enhance battle plans, doctrines and even assets, rather to become theatres for self-satisfaction. Interestingly, other aspects were sacrificed or affected by the attitude taken by the military and even the statesmen after 1871. Herwig (1998) points out that efficiency was given a very sacred status, as well as practicality, that the philosophical principles and the coordination of diplomatic, political and other elements was largely ignored, let alone the high strategy.

Grasping Politics: Politics and War are not separate realms

One of the final and most remarkable traits of the Prussian General Staff, framing its functioning, was the very close relation it established between war and politics. One of the most prominent examples is von Clausewitz (1999), as he states that war is the continuation of politic by other means[2]. Furthermore, he explains that war makes part of the political exchange between nations, thus not being entirely independent from the political sphere, with such political exchange continuing – like diplomatic communiques. Interestingly, von Clausewitz (1999) remarks that war evolves while being framed within politics, as war is indeed an instrument of politics, yet war itself has some room to work under its own nature – this would be the operational and tactical aspects, as well as the battlefield factors – on a more particular basis. But war becomes a political act not only on being an instrument of politics, but also on the sense that “is politics waging battles” (von Clausewitz, 1999, p. 295). Following this and keeping with von Clausewitz’s argument, war becomes a serious mean to obtain an equally serious objective, whose nature – and that of the war and its causes – is entirely political, thus explaining its condition of instrument of politics and of being a political act (pp. 46-48).

Clausewitz’s rationale is what gave one of the defining traits of the General Staff in relation to politics, namely on the needed subordination of the military to the political, as it is the political dimension what defines the more general aims of war. For this reason, the political side needs to establish clear objectives to the military, but more importantly, total influence of the military over the government is something to be entirely avoided, as effects tend to be harmful for the state. Still, war plans ought to consider political considerations, while those in charge of politics are required to have some knowledge on military affairs, as well as the government to be close to the theatre of operations for the sake of fast-tracked decision making. Nonetheless, the political purpose constitutes the main objective (cfr, p. 47, and pp.296-297).

Last but not least, von Clausewitz (1999) pointed out the relation and influence that the political sphere had upon the innovations in warfare, politics and social relations that the French Revolution brought, and how the combination of such played a role in the earlier victories of the French Army upon its adversaries, while the politics of those against France had a negative influence in their way of waging warfare, as it led to stagnation and dependence on obsolete methods based upon equally obsolete political systems.

The point of von Clausewitz is pretty much clear here: war is a mere instrument of politics, with this one framing and defining the objectives of war, while the military need to consider political aspects during the campaigns. On the same way, the reserves von Clausewitz had on an excessive influence of the military over politicians – or playing a political role – strongly influenced the mindset of the General Staff, framing also the idea that officers and soldiers were to think objectively and regardless of personal preferences and emotions. This does not mean that the officer would ignore political events both home and abroad: rather the contrary, it was required for him to be aware of the political situation(s) in order to identify the influence such event would have on the definition of the strategic objectives and plans of his own nation and the potential adversaries. Therefore, politics and warfare were to be considered as co-relative spheres despite the fact that the military aspect was to be subordinated to the political sphere, as this one would be defining the general objectives and aims of the war.

Von Moltke, according to Herwig (1998) and Gunther (2012), was capable of recognizing the geopolitical chessboard, the role of politics in war, as well as the importance of complementing both victory and operational-tactical aspects with diplomacy, as this instance would provide the materialization of absolute victory. Another example is that both military and political planners were closely related, with the civil planners acknowledging the importance of giving the military clear orders. Likewise, the general was to take part in national decision making (Herwig, 1998). This reflects the same principles established by von Clausewitz on this matter.

Interestingly, planners were asked to understand the essence of society, according to Herwig (1998). Indeed, understanding the essence, what shapes and defines the structure and way of being of a society can help in establishing the composition and capacity of the army, assessing its strengths and shortcomings, let alone the attitude the society would have in regards to the military instance.

This held true for the very particular case of Prussia, as the army was tasked with maintaining inner order and materializing Prussia’s national policies, being mostly comprised by both soldiers of rural background – reflecting the traditional semi-feudal social structure of Prussia – and the rising industrial and working characteristics Prussia was acquiring while industrializing. As Prussia was unable to mix both aspects efficiently, its combat effectiveness resulted affected by WWI (Herwig, 1998).

Herwig (1998) present von Bismarck as the clear example of this co-relation, as he grasped that the ontology of international affairs – or the ‘stream of times’ – was comprised of contradictory forces made politics to take the least risky course of action. His calculus was somewhat similar to that of the General Staff, which would explain the good work between the Iron Chancellor and the military. Von Bismarck considered, in fact and following Herwig (1998), that patience, careful timing, accurate evaluation of potential adversaries and intuitive recognition of the correct course were all ingredients for success. Of course, and as it was made evident on the historical review, the military – in particular the General Staff – and the Chancellor would not have good relations, having some clashes on some issues threatening to hamper the operational outcome. But the similarity of thinking between von Bismarck and the General Staff (or the good relations between the military and political spheres) enhanced the operational outcomes of the campaigns waged by the military, as there were clear aims based on von Bismarck’s clear objectives and the operational plans frames by the General Staff and the practice of evaluating every campaign, plus the continued exercising and testing of doctrines.

This particular trait of the General Staff would not work perfectly for all time, however. For instance, Herwig (1998) points out how the plan devised by von Schlieffen – under his command flexibility would be sacrificed – had a more military nature without consideration for the political considerations, being an example of the need for national policy to coordinate – and deliver – its own strategy, not allowing the military to have the absolute say on potential operations and future wars. But it is equally important to provide the commanders all the resources they need to meet the strategic aims established by the political instance. And the General Staff was having the problem of not grasping the relation of the economy with warfare, following Herwig (1998).

The roots of this problem could be traced by the General Staff emancipation from the War Ministry in the period after Prussia’s victory over France, increasing the tensions between the military and the politicians and providing the General Staff with considerable powers, going against of what Clausewitz advised, which was the subordination of the military commander to the political government and under political control (Millotat, 1992).

War and politics: further discussion

This point allows a return to the discussion of Clausewitz on the relation between war and politics, especially on the relation between the policymakers and the military, as this topic is a very complicated one, not only for the Prussian General Staff but also – I think – for the relation between the two sectors in general. When one realize that war is to be subordinated to the objectives set by politics, one might think that the policymakers can eventually decide for the military to give up on the war.

As von Clausewitz (1999) pointed out, the nature of war is a mere act of force with the aim of obliging the adversary to follow our will (p. 29). This explains in an additional way why war is a political war, with that will being basically political. Following this, I do consider that a policymaker that orders his military to stop waging war out of the sudden without effectively forcing the enemy to follow his will, is failing in having a good relation between the political aims and the nature of war, or simply that he is not having clear the objectives he intended at some point to have. Even more troublesome is when the policymaker, being more a mere politician than a policymaker and strategist, decides not to oblige the enemy to submit to his will, but rather force the state and the military to submit to the will of the enemy[3]. Or simply by giving up on defeating the enemy. Clarity of objectives is, then required for the politicians, as war will demand the policymaker to have clear objectives, aims and basically to “know what does he wants”, being those objectives to be entirelly rational and of strategic importance for the state and its integrity.

This danger is very real, as many policymakers could misuse the relation between war and politics to simply order an army to halt on its operations and action aimed at subduing the enemy. Hence the importance of a clear set of political objectives and a true knowledge by policymakers in military affairs, let alone the need for them to grasp the nature of war itself and the ultimate aim, which is no other than imposing the own’s will over that of the enemy[4]. In cases like this, I consider that criteria other than strategic are prevailing, which could act against the interests of a given state, and clearly against the clarity of the objectives to be pursued. This is to be avoided by any costs.

There is another point of reflection based on von Clausewitz (1999) statements, pretty much related to my previous point. The politics-war relation in which war is subordinated to the dictates of politics is a necessary one in terms of functionality. But this condition can end in playing against military efficiency and ability to wage war. How? As it happens, politics can permeate every sector of the state, including the military, in which a point where statespersons are against the military sector of have little knowledge or interest on military issues can leave the military unable to act as the instrument of the state to meet its objectives. That politics, given its reluctance towards defence issues can hamper the military sector, or even a very arrogant and conservative approach can equally diminish such effectiveness, as it happened on the early days of the General Staff during the Napoleonic Wars, with the army unable to grasp innovations in doctrines, strategies and assets. this hold very true for our times, in which technological advances allow the fast introduction of new assets and doctrines, with most of them having a very different nature or shape.

In relation to this point, there is another danger the subordinated relation the military has with the political sphere pose. This consists of the officer – especially the high command officer – orientating more towards pleasing in political terms the ideological or personal preferences of a given statesperson, than in serving as the tool to articulate and manage the military and the real political objectives of the nations. This is what I call “the courtesan general”, a person that instead of working on ensuring that the political sphere knows about military issues and define its objective, and that the military are being prepared to be efficiently used in materializing such objectives, decides instead to please a politician due to personal interests or preferences. Or simply for not swimming against the current, paying more attention at “doing politics” than on looking for operational matters[5]. When such a thing takes place, the efficiency of the military is hampered, and the relation between the political sphere and the military will work based on negative criteria, or at least on a non-functional way as it should work. This also plays against the initiative and autonomy the officers require to respond to uncertain event during operations or even during manoeuvres, as well as to detect and correct the problem the doctrines and assets would have. And worse enough, strategic considerations would be relegated to a second place, precisely when considerations of these type need to be always on a central place[6].

The consequence then is that the state, in a short or long term, would not be able to wage war or make use of the military instrument to achieve the objective at one point will need to pursue, be mere survival or to exert control over a strategic region[7]. This is another negative dimension of the relations between the military and politics and of the subordinated position the military has, as instrument of defence and accomplishment of objectives it is. Equally harmful is when the general population has an adverse attitude and little understanding on military affairs, especially in democratic regimes, where their decisions can affect the ability of the military to serve properly as instrument of the politics of the state.

Does this means then, that the military should have a say and even to substitute the political sphere in policymaking and in defining the objectives of war? The answer is clear on this matter: no. It is indeed important for the military to have a voice and provide an assessment to policymakers on the feasibility of making war to achieve certain political objectives – vis-à-vis an adversary state, mind you – and the strategic operational ways they could be achieved. But by no means the military should be allowed to have a governing position within the state, unless it becomes VERY necessary or there exist the rare case of a soldier capable of being a good policymaker too. On the other hand, it is important for the military not to become unaware of politics, both domestic and foreign. The Prussian General Staff, as it was mentioned, had this very clear. The reason is simple: knowing what are the characteristics and events of domestic politics of the own countries and others can provide the military a clue on how the relations between the political and military sphere will be, what are going to be the political objectives and therefore the chances of the political sphere to use war as an instrument to fulfil those objectives, as well as the possible strategies the adversaries will use to do so[8].

And finally: how does the General Staff fits in these three observations? It must be reminded that the General Staff was designed by von Scharnhorst and many other architects of the General Staff – von Clausewitz included – to help the policymakers in having clear objectives by advising them on such, that it was intended to compensate for any sort of bad leadership from the high commanders (and this might include the sovereign), and that was intended at being basically a tool to help the policymakers in using the military as instruments for achieving any given political objectives. Indeed, the Prussian General Staff in certain moments went against this. But even those mistakes enlighten us on the need of the policymakers to have clear objectives when deciding to go to war, the perseverance to pursue them and the will to do so – and to ultimately impose their will over the enemy’s –, as well as to have a very good knowledge of defence and military affairs, so to understand the nature of the military side and to ease the relation between politics and military. In addition, it is important for any army to have a similar institution like the Prussian General Staff to act as an advising body, helping in articulating the political sphere in the definition of the objectives, and the relation between both spheres and on ensuring that the military acts in accordance to what is required to meet those objectives. Hence the importance of objectivity and neutrality of the General Staff officers, but also the importance of him to look that the political sphere has clarity in terms of objectives and knowledge on strategic matters, so the military, being an instrument of the state, can fulfil its duty and basically win a war.

Considering these reviews and discussions, it is now important to see how the General Staff influenced the contemporary Germany and other nations, how it performed the roles intended by the architects of the General Staff, how it had made use of the characteristics reviewed in the previous sections. In addition, it is important to see how the General Staff stands today, even if it exists on the old format, or if elements of it still remain today. These two tasks will be the main topic of the next and last section on the Prussian General Staff.



[1] In fact, feedbacks were the norm under the Prussian General Staff, as they were beneficial for the sake of command and operational improvement of the army as a whole, as Gunther (2012) and Schoy (n.d.) remarked. With this considered, (self)criticism was an implicit thus important element within feedbacks.

[2] This statement, by the way, makes reference to ‘politics’ as the diplomatic exchange between two or more different nations, with war between states being equally considered as an extension or manifestation of such politics.

[3] In short, when cynicism reigns in the heads of policymakers thus making them to suddenly give up on the pursue of subduing the enemy to subdue and of defined objectives.

[4] Also, it is important for policymakers and statespersons to realize that war imposes privations and efforts, thus requiring perseverance when pursuing the (political) objectives and the submission of the enemy’s will, as von Clausewitz (1999) points out. When a statesperson orders such a halt, it can be because there is a lack of perseverance in pursing those objectives, allowing the enemy to eventually achieve its aims. That simply lacks the required will to meets given objectives through war.

[5] The military side of this problem consists on officers presenting little offense and agreeing with their superiors’ opinion so to have a fast climb on their careers, following Schoy (n.d.). When there is a “courtesan high commander”, the risk of officers agreeing also with these commander’s behaviour is real, hampering also the efficiency of the military.

[6] Read “strategic considerations” also as “threat assessment” and “identification of objectives and priorities”.

[7] This also makes reference for a state in pursuit of objective that, although being desirable on the “rhetorical level”, in reality are objective that have little or no strategic benefit for a nation, say trying to use the military to impose a certain ideal as its foreign policies are based on such aim or mere ideological preferences.

[8] This requires, therefore, for the military to study the politics of the potential adversaries, as well as their military, so he can make a connection between the two sectors and realize how war would be waged and the objectives of the adversaries. Schoy (n.d.) remarks that the military should be aware of social, cultural, economic and ethical factors impacting military matters.



Col. Klein, F. (2001). The Myth of the Prusso-German General Staff. Baltic Defence Review, 2001 (5), 133-144. Retrieved from: on 03.06.2016

Herwig. H. H. (1998). The Prussian Model and Military Planning Today. Joint Forces Quarterly, Spring 1998 (18). Retrieved from: on 04.06.2016

Maj. Gunther, M. J. (2012). Auftragstaktik: The Basis for Modern Military Command? Fort Leaveworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved from: on 04.06.2016 (Monography AY 2012-02)

Oberst. Millotat, C. O. E. (1992). Understanding the Prussian-German General Staff System. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute. Retrieved from: on 03.06.2016 (AD-A249 255)

Oberst. Schoy, M. (n.d). General Gerhard von Scharnhorst: Mentor of Clausewitz and Father of the Prussian-German General Staff. Retrieved from: on 03.06.2016

Von Clausewitz, C. (1999). De la guerra. [Vom Kriege, A. Díez, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Idea Books. (Original work published in 1832).