Clausewitz’s Trinity in 1989 (1989, #7)

Is 1989 a wargame? Countless gamers have engaged in that debate. While 1989 was published by GMT Games, the leading wargame company, it features no armed conflict. There is barely any violence that goes beyond police repression against protesters in the game. Still, it shares some of the classic traits of a wargame: It’s a tense, confrontational game for two players which takes the history covered in it seriously. Maybe we should move away from the term “wargame” for 1989 and rather use “historical conflict simulation”.
Wargame or not, can 1989 by analyzed with the theory of war? This time, the answer is a resounding Yes. This article will conclude the 1989 series by looking at the game through the lens of Clausewitz’s trinity of violent emotion, chance, and reason.

Clausewitz and the Two Trinities

Clausewitz' Birthplace

Clausewitz was born close to Magdeburg in what would become East Germany long after his times. Detail from the 1989 map, ©GMT Games.

Carl von Clausewitz was born close to Magdeburg in 1780. He served as an officer in the Prussian army during and after the Napoleonic Wars. While his own commands were rather unremarkable, he wrote one of the foremost books of military theory, simply titled “On War”. It goes way beyond simple advice for tactics and logistics (although there is plenty of that as well), constructing a philosophical system of war.
One of Clausewitz’ most-discussed ideas is that of a “quaint trinity” of war, consisting of violent emotion, chance, and reason. Clausewitz then introduces a secondary trinity of the people, the army and its commander, and the government. He links each of the elements of either trinity to another: Violent emotion relates to the people, chance to the army, and reason to the government.
The secondary trinity has been discussed more than the primary one. It came to special fame in the United States due to Col. Harry G. Summers’s analysis of the Vietnam War based on it. Other writers (importantly Martin van Creveld and John Keegan) have correctly pointed out that the secondary trinity is a problematic concept, as most wars are not like the great power conflicts from the Napoleonic Wars to the mid-20thcentury. Often, the critics of the secondary trinity throw the baby out with the bath water and discard the first trinity as well.
The first trinity, however, is a useful analytical framework for conflicts. Its three elements – violent emotion, chance, and reason – pose the following questions:

    • Which underlying enmities enable a conflict, and how do they fuel it?
    • Which forces are at play to decide a conflict, and under which circumstances and contingencies do they operate?
    • Who harnesses these emotions and directs these forces, and for which goals?

Violent Emotion

Violent emotions are the base on which conflicts stand. It isn’t hard to see the emotions at work for the Democratic side in 1989. The peoples of Eastern Europe were, by and large, deeply upset with the way their sclerotic authoritarian regimes ruled them. The Communists’ emotions are a bit more opaque. Sure, the fear of losing power counts for something. However, with the attractiveness of Communism all but eroded, there was much less to fight for (as opposed to just preventing something). This passion deficit was a distinct mobilization disadvantage for the Communists in 1989.

1989 Cards64

If you yell at somebody with a tank, I guess you’re pretty upset with the situation. Image ©GMT Games.



The forces of the conflict interplay with chance and probability on their way to resolve the conflict one way or the other. As 1989 does not feature any troops, its element of chance lies in the events and operations points the cards provide. Cards are drawn at random – ample opportunity for chance indeed! No matter if a player draws cards with high or low operations values, many of their own or many of the opponent’s events, they’ll have to make do with what they get. Every turn is a mesmerizing challenge to use one’s hand of cards to press advantages and mitigate weaknesses, maximizing the impact of key plays while reacting to the ever-changing board state. Think of it like solving three Rubik’s cubes which you juggle while riding a unicycle. Blindfolded. At the same time, the person next to you on the other unicycle tries to push a stick through your spokes.

Opening Hand

Low operations values, a scoring card and many Democratic events to deal with – this is going to be a tough first turn for the Communists! They can only hope the Democrats’ hand is full of Communist events as well. Images ©GMT Games.



Reason, the governing spirit of one side in the conflict, did not exist monolithically in 1989. While the Communist governments of Eastern Europe shared some convictions and interests, they still were six independent agents who sought different solutions to their problems – the Hungarian Communists aspired to be the vanguard of reforms, the Polish government let the Democrats slowly shove them aside, and Ceausescu in Romania was ready to massacre his own people to keep power. The myriad of anti-Communist protester groups were even more different, ranging from mass movements like Solidarność to tiny circles of only a few people and espousing views as diverse as reform socialism, traditional Catholicism, the concern for the environment in their home town, or just the wish to finally own a TV and a car like their relatives in the West.
The game fuses all these governments and all these groups into one player each. That is one of the most attractive things about games: Having the perspective from above and being in charge. Players then use this unified command to juggle with the elements of chance they have at their disposal due to the violent emotions at the bottom of the conflict. And it’s a magnificent experience.

1989 and 1989

My series on 1989 comes to a close with this article. 1989 is a rich, thick, nuanced game of history. It contains many of the factors historians discuss when they talk about the year that gave way to a new era: Why did Communism fall in Eastern Europe – was it the peoples of Eastern Europe, Western governments, or the leadership of the East that made it happen? What were the space and the time of the revolutions? How did dissent and repression play out?
Now, almost 30 years after the events, there are fewer and fewer people who remember them. 1989 can help us to commemorate a turbulent time in history.

Further Reading

Clausewitz, Carl von: Vom Kriege, Dümmlers Verlag, Berlin 1832. You can find an English translation here.
If you want a concise introduction to Clausewitz’s thought and influence, look no further than Heuser, Beatrice: Reading Clausewitz, Penguin, London 2002.
For the analysis of the Vietnam War with the second trinity see Summers, Harry G.: On Strategy. A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, Presidio Press, Novato, CA 1982.
Critical treatments of Clausewitz’s trinity can be found in Keegan, John: A History of Warfare, Hutchinson, London 1993 and Creveld, Martin van: The Transformation of War, Free Press, New York City, NY 1991.


1 thought on “Clausewitz’s Trinity in 1989 (1989, #7)

  1. Pingback: Board Game Geek War Game Top 60: #30-21 | Clio's Board Games

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