(W)Archives: What a Letter from Clausewitz Tells us About the Prussian Master and his World

August 21, 2015
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The debate about the civil–military divide remains a constant topic within our post-modern society. The arguments usually circle around how to help civilian leaders understand military culture, appreciate the challenges faced by military personnel, and improve the public’s understanding of the possibilities and limitations of military operations. But what if military personnel actively participated in the current intellectual and literary debates within civilian society?

The example for such enthusiastic involvement in the cultural endeavors comes from the very same military theorist whose writings taught soldiers to think about war as a political act at its core: Carl von Clausewitz. His letter was written in 1808 to the poet and leader of the German Romanticism, August Wilhelm von Schlegel. The letter has been recently rediscovered in the vaults of the Saxon State and University Library in Dresden and is now published online for scholars to analyze. In his biography Clausewitz and the State, Peter Paret mentions it only briefly in a footnote. The letter has been also published in a little known German anthology Krisenjahre der Frühromantik from 1969. My partial translation here is the first time Clausewitz’s letter is being made available in English.

Clausewitz indicates in the letter that on his way back from France (where he was a prisoner of war, which was a very different sort of experience then than it is today, especially since he served as adjutant for Prince August, a cousin of the Prussian king), he spent the fall of 1807 in Coppet, the French writer Germaine de Stael’s Swiss retreat where Schlegel happened to reside as well. Within, we also find a six-page long-discussion of Schlegel’s work and the situation in Prussia. The military theorist’s involvement with intellectual elites of his time is not news. Especially for the small, but dedicated, circle of Clausewitz experts (and for those who have read Peter Paret’s biography).

There is compelling evidence, according to Paret’s fantastic essay, that Clausewitz and the poet Heinrich von Kleist knew and interacted with each other. (Heinrich von Kleist brought the German language to new and spectacular heights.) Clausewitz knew by heart many of Friedrich Schiller’s rhymes and peppered his letters with quotations from them. Some of Clausewitz’s own attempts to write poetry have even been published in the almost two centuries after his death. Clausewitz’s wife, Marie, born Countess von Brühl, was also a prominent member of Berlin’s literary salons. Sophisticated ladies and the spirited cultural life of early 19th-century Prussia captivated the young no-name lieutenant from the provinces, who soon fell for the formidable countess.

Madame de Stael’s retreat in Coppet was also a decadent salon where many of the era’s brilliant minds spent extensive periods of time. Hopelessly in love with the French writer, Schlegel served as her private secretary. For Clausewitz, as Paret’s biography makes clear, the time in Coppet was far from happy one. He was eager to go back to Prussia, where Marie von Brühl waited for him. But Prince August, whom Clausewitz served, dragged his feet and preferred the spirited life in Coppet to the dull reality back in the home country. Schlegel’s company became the young officer’s solace and the two men often walked together in the garden where the poet presented his new works. They both were passionate patriots, something that explains why Schlegel felt comfortable entrusting Clausewitz with the task of carrying the highly patriotic rhymes back to Prussia where French soldiers still resided.

The letter in Dresden points to a problem with Clausewitz’s biography. Despite his eminent place in Western military thought, no comprehensive collected edition of his writings exists. Clausewitz’s exhaustive and insightful letters are not even translated into English. There is a reason for this regrettable state of affairs: The descendants of Marie’s brother Friedrich von Brühl (the Clausewitz couple was childless), who inherited his literary estate, lost a significant number of artifacts and manuscripts in the course of their own expulsion from East Prussia in the last days of the Second World War. Also, the Cold War division of Germany disrupted the work of many archival researchers.

Only in the decades following Germany’s reunification have libraries finally found enough resources to rearrange and reevaluate their collections. This is the case with the Schlegel letter at the Saxon State and University Library. Digitization makes research in databases and catalogs an easier enterprise. These developments offer hope that many more papers, perhaps the complete manuscripts of On War, are not actually lost but stored away in archives and private collections waiting to re-emerge. And all these discoveries could open up the field of Clausewitz scholarship to new engaging analyses and arouse interest for his work beyond the limited scope of military history readers and strategists.

Clausewitz’s letter to Schlegel was written in January 1808 when Clausewitz came back to Berlin after his time in France. He previously fought in the twin battle of Jena-Auerstedt in October 1806. When Prussian morale broke, King Friedrich Wilhelm III and Queen Louise had to escape to the farthest corner of their kingdom — East Prussia. Just ten days later, Napoleon triumphantly rode through the Brandenburg Gate. Meanwhile, like many other Prussian officers, Clausewitz was sent as a prisoner of war to France. Prussia was on its knees, and had to sign the Peace of Tilsit. The country lost about half of its territory, the billeting of French soldiers drained the wealth of its cities, and the treasury had to pay enormous war reparations to Napoleon. After coming back in late 1807, Clausewitz spent only a short time in Berlin. Soon after he left for Königsberg, where the government resided, and there he became part of the reform circle. The catastrophe eventually forced the unhappy and inert Friedrich Wilhelm III to embrace long overdue reform measures and overhaul Prussia’s economy, social order, and military.

The letter in Dresden tells us that on his way back to Berlin, Clausewitz carried in his luggage Schlegel’s poem Auf der Reise (“While Traveling”). Schlegel obviously asked the young officer to present the poet’s new works to the popular Berlin literary salon of Luise von Voss — a duty Clausewitz obviously was very proud to fulfill. He wrote, “You could barely imagine how deep the words of a compatriot from abroad permeate our hearts, as we breathe here the misery with all organs of the spirit and the senses: ‘Dear brothers in distress!’” Clausewitz’s somewhat insecure writing style is peppered with such affected, even pompous expressions. Another example:

I don’t know if these crises and exertions that the future should impose upon us will bring about a moral rejuvenation, but now, I believe, we are still in free fall — the erroneous degree of egoism, of petty vanity, of a lack of noble feelings that often smothers us today, is a dreadful phenomenon from which I always turn away with the greatest degree of contempt.

When Clausewitz wrote to Schlegel, he was only in his late twenties and still polishing his writing skills. Clearly evident in his correspondence with the prominent and experienced poet, however, was Clausewitz’s desire for self-improvement, his ambition, and above all, his desire for recognition.

To convey his thoughts in the most elegant and expressive way, the young man used a metaphor that would make the hearts of modern Clausewitz scholars skip a beat. In explaining the situation in Berlin in early 1808, he wrote, “The whole political world is swirling around, even for the eyes of the shrewdest observer, like dispersing atoms.” Describing the political scene as physical particles constantly moving in unstable patterns points, of course, to one of his later famous concepts — the remarkable trinity. In his seminal theory, he would later explain that war is dominated by three tendencies — violence, chance, and reason, commonly associated with the people, army, and government. Yet in the Old Regime, in which Clausewitz had lived but which Napoleon’s victory of 1806 had destroyed, there was no separation between the sovereign’s will and that of his subjects. In the tumultuous years afterwards, however, popular animosities and people’s enthusiasm often forced Friedrich Wilhelm to embrace bold actions. The letter in Dresden seems to have captured the moment when Clausewitz started to grasp the severance of the people as an independent political entity, as “dispersing atoms” swirling around in the fractured Prussian state. In early 1808 it was still a fairly chaotic situation, as Clausewitz clearly indicated, but these heightened emotions and fiery debates slowly but surely wakened Prussia’s will to fight.

Clausewitz’s analysis of the economic conditions in the capital was similarly complex. Although French troops continued to reside in Berlin, he avoided an open discussion of the subject, probably fearing retribution in case the letter was intercepted. The situation, he wrote, was “bearable.” Besides the royal officials, who lost income when the court moved to Königsberg, the hardest-hit groups were those relying on the expensive free market for food supplies. He wrote:

The really poor probably have it better than ever, because now an indescribable degree of charity prevails. Everyone is badly shaken by his own misfortune and this makes one much more able to feel for the even greater misery of one’s neighbor. … The peasant delivers and sells, to pay war reparations, the most sacred of his possessions — the seeds from which the next crop should rise. Cattle epidemics, famine are announced here and there.

Although concluding, correctly, that Prussia would suffer the aftershocks of this economic collapse for many years to come, Clausewitz was certain the country could recover from this blow: “We are still not finished though.”

It is an exaggeration to argue that these few lines, written relatively early in life, provide insight into a question that has preoccupied Clausewitz scholars: Why in his general theory on war did he give little attention to economic conditions? After all, even in his own time, materiel limitations dictated the course of a campaign. What the letter to Schlegel reveals is that Clausewitz was not blind to the economic cost of war. Quite the opposite, he thought intensively on the subject. Nevertheless, he also lived in the age of the French Revolution and had observed that despite an empty state treasury, popular enthusiasm could still galvanize enormous resources, as it had already happened in France after 1792. In all likelihood, Clausewitz, as the letter reveals, felt that a similar scenario might be possible for Prussia.

Despite his junior position, Clausewitz’s letter displayed striking confidence when discussing military matters. He conveyed to the poet his belief that the wakening of Prussian nationalism and adoption of new military tactics could bring about a change in the fight against Napoleon:

What gives me pleasure, on the other hand, is that in this war there was no lack of beautiful, powerful deeds suggesting resources upon which some other spirit could have built so much more. In Kolberg, for instance, the powerful spirit of a single man generated such a high degree of enthusiasm … .

Clausewitz referred here, of course, to the legendary Siege of Kolberg. Despite the disaster of Jena-Auerstedt, the Prussian fortress, under the command of August Neidhardt von Gneisenau (at that time just a major) boldly defied Napoleon’s army until the very end of hostilities. After, Gneisenau rose to prominence, becoming one of the most influential members of the military reformers’ circle, he served as Blücher’s quartermaster general in 1813–1815. With every passing year his friendship with Clausewitz, too, grew stronger and deeper.

Unfortunately, the archive in Dresden does not contain Schlegel’s answer to Clausewitz’s letter. The poet might not even have written back to the young officer. Yet Clausewitz’s eagerness to interact with one of the most prominent intellectuals of his time points also to the overwhelming ambition lying at the core of On War. He worked on it for over fifteen years not only because he needed time and space to perfect his ideas about the changing nature of warfare; he also rewrote his seminal treaty over and over again in the constant search for the most expressive and economical phrases. He strived not only to “bring about a revolution in the theory of war,” as he declared in his ”Note of 1827, but to convey them in the best possible form — a testament to his passionate consumption of contemporary literature.

Of course Clausewitz also lived in an era when many military men saw poets as kindred spirits and hankered for their company. Famously, Napoleon summoned Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for a chat in October 1808 in Erfurt. To the poet’s surprise, Napoleon insisted on debating The Sorrows of Young Werther, a book the emperor had read repeatedly, and then switched to the subject of contemporary theater drama. Surely in arranging the meeting Napoleon also had other, less altruistic goals. The recognition and friendship of the eminent German poet would lend political legitimacy to French dominance over Europe; especially since the emperor had managed to alienate other prominent intellectuals of the era like Germaine de Stael and Chateaubriand. Still, the desire to seek out cultural elites — never mind the confidence to debate works of art with them — speaks volumes of a military man’s belief that the bold embrace and exploration of ideas beyond their own limited, day-to-day activities matter. This appears rather lost in our own time.

There is a very good reason why the military as a whole, and military personnel in particular, steer clear of political entanglements and the partisan infighting of the day. Today, after so many historic catastrophes, this separation has become one of the pillars of modern democratic statehood. Yet by professionalizing the military, it appears that we also have limited the scope of its horizon, something that no military theorist of Clausewitz’s depth and breadth would find a healthy development. After all, he consistently argued that war, at its core, was an activity conditioned by human imperfections and changeability. And to whom else should military personnel turn for words of wisdom on that subject but to the figure that spends its life striving to understand the infinite secrets of the human soul: the poet.


Vanya Eftimova Bellinger is an independent scholar and journalist. Her biography, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making Of On War, to be released this fall by Oxford University Press-USA, is based on the newly discovered complete correspondence between Marie and Carl von Clausewitz. Follow her on Twitter at @VanyaEF


Photo credit: storebukkebruse

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