Clausewitz: The Fighting Soldier

August 26, 2014

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Donald Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work (Oxford University Press, 2014)


“One of the glories of history is that it can never be definitive; good history is history on which others can build.” So wrote Peter Paret — the dean of American Clausewitz studies — in the preface to the 1985 second edition of his exhaustively researched Clausewitz and the State. That book, first published in 1976, is the best biographical treatment of the Prussian theorist by some distance. Paret was modest enough to concede that a single volume “could not take the place of the many detailed studies that were lacking,” such as a thorough exploration of Clausewitz’s politics or an analysis of his historical method; the structure and argument of his book accommodated and indeed aided such deeper engagement by later scholars with the Prussian’s ideas. Notwithstanding the possibility of new archival discoveries, though, Paret’s 1985 preface declared that “the essential facts of Clausewitz’s life are now as firmly established as they are ever likely to be.”

The intervening three decades have validated this surmise. Perhaps the most interesting new document to emerge in that period is one that Paret himself brought to light in 1991: A mere page-and-a-half of pitched, even script penned just four days before Clausewitz’s death. (Paret surely exaggerates when he describes these 150 words — a characteristically deferential if not exactly content-rich covering note for a manuscript he was forwarding to a Prussian royal — as addressing Clausewitz’s own historical and theoretical corpus “in the nature of an intellectual testament.”) That such a discovery should have so thrilled the world’s most prominent Clausewitz specialist while offering next to nothing by way of new facts illustrates the truth of Paret’s proposition: The challenge for today’s scholar is less reconstruction of the historical narrative than it is reinterpretation.

A great many books have been written over the last three decades purporting to elucidate Clausewitz’s theories; to explain their relevance to the modern world; to demonstrate their application (or not) to small wars, nuclear wars, Cold War, “special war,” “New Wars,” “non-trinitarian war,” and… business. Many are authored by political scientists, professors of strategic studies, or students of military thought. Very few indeed have been written by historians of the time and place in which Clausewitz lived. There’s no great mystery as to why that should be the case: Clausewitz’s military career — successful by any standard, if not wildly so — lacked the world-historical significance of a Napoléon or a Wellington, a Blücher, Scharnhorst, or Gneisenau.

His theoretical work, on the other hand, may have changed the way people think about and fight wars. On War has been lauded as “the most profound, comprehensive, and systematic examination of war that has appeared to the present day.” Bernard Brodie isn’t satisfied with that; he says it’s “not simply the greatest book on war, but the one truly great book on that subject yet written.” And yet the book has often been published in heavily edited and abridged formats, stripped of the purportedly “outdated” middle books, treated as a grab bag of timeless military wisdom and made to serve contemporary policy agendas. Far less often has it been studied as a historical artifact — a literary object that can only begin to be understood in the context of its creator and his times.

Donald Stoker’s forthcoming biography, Clausewitz: His Life and Work, aims to buck that trend. Central to Stoker’s account is Clausewitz, the fighting soldier. His text is structured around the campaigns in which his subject participated, with chapters spanning from “Boy Soldier (1780–1795)” to the Waterloo campaign in the summer of 1815. The final 16 years of Clausewitz’s life — the period in which the several iterations of what became On War were conceived and written — are treated in roughly two dozen pages, though interpolations concerning the influence of certain experiences on the concepts developed in later writing appear throughout the earlier portions of the narrative. This is not a book that focuses narrowly on conceptual analysis or textual exegesis — it is a book about the historical events of Clausewitz’s life.

“My primary focus,” Stoker writes in a note that precedes the text, “has been upon reconstructing Clausewitz’s role in the various campaigns in which he served between 1793 and 1815.” Other accounts, the reader is told, “often march quickly over his combat experience.” This is at least in part a matter of sources. Much of the original primary-source documentation concerning Clausewitz and his contemporaries was destroyed during the Second World War, so today’s scholars are largely dependent upon reproductions, transcriptions, and excerpts from the works of pre-war German chroniclers like Karl Schwartz, Karl Linnebach, Hans Rothfels, Werner Hahlweg, Walther Schering, and Eberhard Kessel. Only a small portion of Clausewitz’s published work is available in English, thanks almost entirely to Paret, and more recently to Daniel Moran and Christopher Bassford. (An encouraging line in Stoker’s acknowledgements indicates intent to publish in the near future the first complete English translations of three significant works — a very welcome bit of news.)

Clausewitz was a conscientious correspondent when away on campaign, and each period of extended separation from his wife Marie (1807, 1812–13, 1815, 1831) resulted in dozens of letters. Stoker makes good use of the correspondence and journal entries reproduced in Schwartz’s two-volume biography of Carl and Marie, and Linnebach’s collection of the couple’s letters. These are the standard sources for every Clausewitz biography written in the last century. While these notes often deal with both military and political matters in considerable detail, very rarely do they touch on Clausewitz’s personal experience of fighting or give anything like a narrative reconstruction of a tactical action. This reticence may have been a matter of simple concern for the justifiable fears of his wife, or it may be a sign that the theorist’s main interest in battle was understanding the significance of its outcome. Either way, it means that a detailed account of Clausewitz’s actions on the battlefield remains elusive.

A notable exception came after Clausewitz suffered a superficial wound in May of 1813 at the bloody battle of Großgörschen. His letter of the following day offered Marie a glimpse of the action (“the fighting was fierce, and I was right in the middle among the enemy”) and breezily recounts how “a little Frenchman struck home behind my right ear with his bayonet.” Clausewitz assures his wife that he is “quite well,” and the damage does indeed seem to have been minor. Later correspondence makes no further mention of the incident, and two weeks later Carl is back to complaining about his gout — a malady that plagued his adult life and more than once may have brought him near death.

The Großgörschen account turned grim as Clausewitz catalogued the wounds of his colleagues and friends:

General Blücher has a contusion; General Scharnhorst is shot in the leg, but it’s not dangerous… Hedemann has a contusion; from the Guards’ Fusiliers battalion only two officers are not dead or wounded; Karl Röder is wounded… Fabian Dohna is wounded, Prince Leopold is dead, many others of our acquaintance, I can’t name them all.

Less than a week after the battle, he had begun to fret over the possibility that his combat action would go unrecognized. Having left the Prussian service in 1812 to fight with the tsar’s army against Napoléon, Clausewitz was in an awkward position. Some months earlier, King Friedrich Wilhelm III had denied his petition to return to the Prussian army, telling Clausewitz that his future disposition would depend on distinguished service in the upcoming campaign. At Großgörschen, he wrote,

…no one could be truly distinguished. I was in the midst of a hostile battalion with sword in hand, which in other cases would be – for a general-staff officer – worthy of an award. But here everyone has done this or something like it.

What was worse, Clausewitz’s patron and most vocal defender was laid up with wounds, and “Scharnhorst’s absence means they won’t hesitate to pass over me completely.” He was right to be concerned. As other men were decorated by royal order, Clausewitz was denied the Iron Cross on account of being a “foreigner” — Gneisenau appealed to the king on his behalf, only to be told that a Russian officer should be rightly decorated by the Russian tsar. (Incidentally, Clausewitz’s sanguine early assessment of his mentor’s wound would prove tragically wrong: Scharnhorst never rejoined the army, and he succumbed to infection in Prague in late June.)

In Stoker’s account, this was just one in a long line of disappointments for Clausewitz, the fighting soldier. He writes, “Even as a child, Clausewitz had been driven by the desire for military success—military glory—and he realized after Wavre” — Clausewitz’s last major combat action, in June 1815 — “that his ambition would never be achieved.” According to this telling, Clausewitz ached for personal success and found even the most predictable tactical reverse to be “unbearable,” such was “the shame of defeat and the potential impact of this upon his reputation.” Only in service to such a narrative could the performance of Clausewitz and Thielmann’s under-strength and heavily outnumbered III Army Corps — which suffered mightily at Wavre in preventing Grouchy’s 33,000 men from reinforcing Napoléon at Waterloo — be summarized as “defeat.” Stoker tells us that Clausewitz was largely unconcerned with the strategic consequences of the engagement, instead worrying himself with “why [III Corps] lost and what it meant for his future, his reputation, and the possibility of fulfilling his deepest ambitions. These things were what truly mattered.” A month after Wavre, Clausewitz had settled into the duties of occupation and “would never have another opportunity to achieve the military glory he had sought so intensely.”

Here we have what we might call the Schwerpunkt of Stoker’s argument, the core psychological insight on which his interpretation of Clausewitz’s life and work depends. “In discussing Clausewitz’s legacy as a theorist,” Stoker writes, “we cannot forget what was most important to him: achieving renown as a soldier.” The book’s introduction states quite clearly that its purpose is to answer the question of how On War came to be written, but the author concludes on a much different note — one that ties up a rhetorical thread that runs through the book:

Success on the field of battle—success meaning victory, and distinguishing oneself among one’s comrades, who were also often brave and daring men—drove Clausewitz. Yet this is not the Clausewitz most know.

This argument has a pedigree. As Paret has explained, there emerged in the aftermath of World War I a “generally accepted view… that Clausewitz was a ‘rootless’ personality, who suffered from and was eventually broken by the supposedly irreconcilable conflict between action and scholarship in his nature.” Hans Rothfels’s 1920 book Carl von Clausewitz: Politik und Krieg was the source of this interpretation, which bled beyond the borders of speculative psychology and (again, in Paret’s words):

…transform[ed] into historical interpretations certain ideas and attitudes concerning native German values and the tragedy of idealism in a materialistic world that were prevalent among conservative intellectuals in Germany during and after the first World War.

Such conclusions are not supported by the evidence. Clausewitz certainly expressed frustration at his perceived bad luck quite often in his private correspondence with his wife; if we examine his career closely and sympathetically, it’s easy to understand why. As a successful army officer serving at a time when the map of Europe was remade by great captains and the future of the continent decided by great battles, it is uncanny how often Clausewitz found himself just at the edge of the frame. But the several occasions on which he lamented his lot with the most bitterness – 1807, 1813, and 1815 – could be clearly attributed to specific causes. On the first occasion, he was sidelined for nearly a year in French captivity while seeking the acclaim that might convince his beloved’s mother that he was a suitable candidate for marriage. In 1813 he longed for distinction so as to win acceptance from the king for his petition to rejoin the Prussian service. And in Belgium and France after Bonaparte’s return, Clausewitz saw that he was losing a march on those peers who were central to the destruction of French power once and for all.

The genesis of Stoker’s flawed interpretation would seem to be rather mundane: an enthusiasm for novelty. Absent any new evidence about the Prussian’s life and times, the historian is left to attempt a reinterpretation of his theoretical work using the same long-established facts. Clausewitz: His Life and Work is a well-intentioned attempt to shed new light on the interplay between lived experience and theory, but one that falls short in a familiar way: There simply is not sufficient evidence to demonstrate a direct, substantive connection between so-called “disappointments” on the battlefield and the concepts that animate Clausewitz’s magnum opus. This is admittedly a difficult task, a manifestation of the challenge that plagues the field of intellectual history: how do you see where ideas come from? Clausewitz: His Life and Work is much more successful as pure biography than is Andreas Herberg-Rothe’s recent book, which attempts a similar argument regarding the genesis of On War. But neither is convincing on matters of theory.

Stoker displays the professional historian’s reticence about overdrawn conclusions based on insufficient evidence, and this is a praiseworthy trait. One of the book’s great strengths is its accessibility; Stoker weaves the standard sources together with authoritative, modern secondary treatments to form a readable, well-paced narrative that draws out biographical detail while illuminating the broader political and military canvas on which Clausewitz’s life was lived. (Some contemporary sources with which I was previously unfamiliar are put to good use, as well, most notably Prince August’s account of the rearguard action between Auerstädt and Prenzlau.)

It is difficult to imagine Paret’s biography being bettered, and it’s tempting to dismiss Stoker’s book as nothing more than a pale imitation. This would be a mistake. There is value in reintroducing a modern audience to familiar source material presented in a fresh format, especially when most of this material appears in English only in Paret’s translated excerpts. But for readers familiar with the literature on Clausewitz, Stoker’s book really shines when it brings obscure details and anecdotes to the English reader for the first time — even when those details have no more significance than the purely historical. (Here I have in mind the tale of the Circassian Cossack’s wife — “dressed in silk and costly furs,” looking like “a fattened capon encased in white, fatty meat” — who admired Marie’s picture and wished Carl luck on his way to join the tsar in Vilnius.)

The passages Stoker chooses to emphasize (and the commentary he offers on them) do sometimes echo Paret’s book with unsettling consistency, though often this is explained simply enough by the fact that both authors have chosen the most significant and noteworthy bits. This vague unease is exacerbated by Stoker’s maddening method of citation, which poses unnecessary obstacles to those scholars who wish to trace his factual claims and make it nearly impossible to know which authorities are substantiating which pieces of information. (Troop numbers, exact dates, and verbatim quotes should be clearly sourced when they appear, not packed into a single confusing four-reference endnote that is meant to cover an entire paragraph.)

A few distracting factual errors will trouble the Clausewitz diehard. For example, Stoker has reformist minister of war Hermann von Boyen being sacked in 1819, when in fact he resigned. The death of Russian field marshal Diebitsch is incorrectly dated by three weeks, and the relative with whom Clausewitz visited Poland in 1797 was is mis-identified as his step-uncle. (Johann Christian von Hundt was actually his step-grand­­uncle.). And Clausewitz’s famous political essay “Umtriebe” (“Agitation”) can be dated more accurately than Stoker’s “sometime [sic] between 1820 and 1823”: it was almost certainly written after November 1822.

These are minor points, though, and they will not detract from the enjoyment of the casual reader. In spite of a weak thesis, Stoker’s book celebrates Carl von Clausewitz not just as a military theorist, but also as a historical figure — as a soldier and a man. To those of us who not only find value in history for history’s sake but also see Clausewitz as an intensely compelling character, this leaves little to complain about.


Christopher Mewett is a military analyst, strategist, and support contractor to the U.S. Department of the Army. The ideas and opinions expressed herein are solely his own, and do not represent those of his employer or any agency of the government.


Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis

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One thought on “Clausewitz: The Fighting Soldier

  1. “Clausewitz: His Life and Work is much more successful as pure biography than is Andreas Herberg-Rothe’s recent book, which attempts a similar argument regarding the genesis of On War. But neither is convincing on matters of theory.”

    Can’t comment on Stoker, but disagree regarding Herberg-Rothe pertaining to theory . . . notice who wrote the review on the link provided . . .