Clausewitz, by Rainer Ehrt
Welcome to all subscribers of The Clausewitz Studies Newsletter! We hope you will enjoy this newsletter, which focuses on articles and news concerning the great Prussian's legacy.
In August 1816, General August Neidhardt von Gneisenau, commander of General Command of the Rhine in Coblenz, sent a letter to the Prussian Minister of War, Herman von Boyen. It concerned the intent of Gneisenau’s chief-of-staff’s to compose a field manual for the officer corps with chapters on battles, attacks, sieges, and the like. The general asked that in order to work on it, Colonel Carl von Clausewitz be allowed to maintain his position at the Rhine Command but be freed from some of the most tedious bureaucratic tasks.
At that point, Clausewitz had been working for some months on a treatise about the changes in warfare he had experienced on the battlefield—he had thought long and hard about them during the pauses in military activities. Gneisenau, his best friend and confidant, obviously wished to secure public support and endorsement for this project, hence the general described Clausewitz’s mammoth undertaking in rather mundane, practical terms.
Yet just a year after Napoleon’s final defeat, Prussia was on a brink of a deeply polarizing political struggle over what path the country should take. A war hero and moderate reformer, Gneisenau was one of the first public figures to be side-lined. With Gneisenau’s departure from Coblenz, the idea for a practical manual appears to have died.
Clausewitz worked on his concepts on his own time, while diligently fulfilling his numerous daily tasks as chief-of-staff. Over the next fifteen years he would continue do so, slowly and steadily writing and rewriting his ideas, exploring complex phenomena and ambiguous experiences. From these manuscripts, On War would finally emerge.
In this fifth issue of The Clausewitz Studies Newsletter:
What we found interesting
History enthusiasts, rejoice! Bernhard Thüne-Schoenborn’s monograph The Clausewitz Family in Burg is now out (Link, German). This exhaustive study of local church, garrison and city archives clarifies the military theorist’s personal background. It should finally put to rest all the debates that, inexplicably, continue to exist over whether the family was noble. It is now confirmed, quite comprehensively, that the Clausewitzes were not provincial gentry but lower middle class people, living on one meager paycheck, but still harboring great dreams. We can feel nothing but respect for Friedrich Gabriel and Friederica Clausewitz, who—despite all the struggles, failed business adventures, and local elites' turning their noses at the family’s ambitions—managed to raise six bright kids, three of whom would become generals. (Carl’s two older brothers also rose to the rank of general.)
The Clausewitz home in Burg
Besides extensive research into the family tree, the monograph also contains fascinating details about eighteenth century Prussia, like the fact that Friedrich Gabriel owned a boarding house for officers of Burg’s garrison. When the property became dilapidated, he even received a government subsidy (100 Taler!) for building a new structure. Or that Carl’s maternal great-grandmother and grandmother had a license to brew beer and even owned a brewery—not a bad business in a small garrison town. “Clausewitz Home Brew, Since 1738 (as far as we know!)” If six months from now you see a microbrewery next to Fort Bragg with this name, remember you read it here first.
One quirky question remains unanswered: How and why did the original family name “Clauswitz” became “Clausewitz”?
Side-Note: Concerning Carl von Clausewitz’s real date of birth, discussed in the previous newsletter, we received various questions why, then, does his gravestone in Burg still list 1 June 1780. The explanation is simple: The marble cross and its engraving were ordered by Marie von Clausewitz immediately after Carl’s death on 16 November 1831 in Breslau. Just like her husband, she apparently never knew his real birthday. Meanwhile the historical marker on Clausewitz’s family home in Burg bei Magdeburg correctly states 1 July 1780 as the date of his birth.
Back in the 19th century, birthdays generally were not such a big deal as today, and splashy parties are most definitely a modern phenomenon. For instance, Clausewitz’s close friend August Neidhardt von Gneisenau always believed that he was born on 28 October 1759. A century later his first biographer Georg Heinrich Pertz would discover that the great war hero’s actual date of birth was, based on church archives, 27 October 1760.
The British Journal for Military History published Paul Donker’s article “The Genesis of Clausewitz’s On War Reconsidered” (Link, free access) in its July edition. In the previous newsletter we presented Donker’s monograph Aphorismen über den Krieg und die Kriegführung as the First Version of Clausewitzs Masterpiece: A Textual Comparison with Vom Kriege. The monograph and now the article are part of his extensive research into Clausewitz’s remaining manuscripts and early publications. The monograph explores the question whether Aphorisms about War and Warfare, until now a little-known text, published between 1833 and 1835 in Zeitschrift für Kunst, Wissenschaft und Geschichte des Krieges, could actually be the first version of On War.
Donker’s article in The British Journal for Military History has one more surprising question for scholars. What if the drafts of On War held at the State Library in Berlin (StaBi — Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin) are actually part of the 1827 version of the seminal treatise? The remaining manuscripts in question are from Book I and II. Just as Clausewitz described in the Note from 10 July 1827, they are “already written in clean copy.” Yet the manuscripts also bear revisions made in Clausewitz’s handwriting and remarks about additional improvements. This is what one should expect if the great Prussian worked on them between 1827 and 1830.
The StaBi manuscripts were deciphered and published in Carl von Clausewitz, Schriften-Aufsätze-Studien-Briefe, edited by Werner Hahlweg (Vol. 2/1990). Hahlweg, one of the most renowned Clausewitzian scholars, dated them rather vaguely as written between 1816 and 1830. He prepared the mammoth edition Schriften-Aufsätze-Studien-Briefe at the very end of his life, so we might speculate that Hahlweg (1912-1989) simply ran out of time and energy to study these manuscripts in depth. Yet a new examinatio of them, together with the other unpublished manuscripts held at the Wehrtechnische Studiensammlung in Coblenz, promises to open Clausewitz scholarship to novel and quite surprising concepts—to say the least.
Scott Halter writes for The Strategy Bridge on the subject of great captains, or “that rare leader who stands out as a military mastermind of their time.” (Link) In On War, Clausewitz explored the idea of military genius, but how exactly should we structure officer career development so as to produce the leaders the nation needs in, say, 2040? “A Captain, a Captain, My Nation for a Great Captain” has received very positive feedback across the social media, and rightfully so.
Münster University and State Library has completed its admirable project to digitalize and publish all manuscripts written by Carl and Marie von Clausewitz and held in its vaults. The documents are back in their clamshell boxes, but you can scroll through the pages from the comfort of your office or home (Link).
In previous issues we drew your attention to the manuscripts of Lectures on Small Wars and TheCampaign of 1815, as well as Marie von Clausewitz’s diary from 1813 and her notebook from 1832-1836. But there is much more to discover. For instance, the original drafts of The Campaign of 1812 in Russia (Link), and various other essays like “On the Political Advantages and Disadvantages of the Prussian Landwehr” (Link), “Concerning Promotion Based on Years of Service, Namely for the Rank of Major” (Link), “Précis about the War in Spain and Portugal” (in French, Link), etc. Almost all of these manuscripts were deciphered and published two decades ago, again in the volume Schriften-Aufsätze-Studien-Briefe edited by Werner Hahlweg.
Still the handwritten pages harbor small surprises and revealing details. For instance “Concerning Promotion Based on Years of Service,” a twenty-page-long memorandum, contains relatively few major revisions and later corrections. We can conclude that Clausewitz had pondered and argued for so long on the subject that he was able to capture his thoughts at once on paper.
The question of field grade officer promotions, you see, has always been a thorny issue….
Old but Good
Here's a short piece, written in 1996, that seeks to combine Clausewitzian realism (not to be confused with political-science "Realism") with Just War Theory. "There were two people who taught the Western world to think about politics, strategy, and ethics. They were a strange combination—a 19th-century Prussian general and a 5th-century African saint." This is by Father J. Bryan Hehir (Harvard's Kennedy School), "The Uses of Force in the Post-Cold War World." How well does Hehir's argument stand up today?
What in the World?
After publishing information about Clausewitz, The Movie (official German tittle Clausewitz—Lebensbild eines preußischen Generals) in our July issue, we received many additional inquiries. We asked Bernd Domsgen from The Clausewitz Society in Burg bei Magdeburg (Forschungsverein Clausewitz Burg e.V.) to provide more details.
The movie rights are held by Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (Link), so this is the place you should call if you want to order your own DVD copy, in the original language. Since many modern Clausewitzians are not so well-versed in German, we should perhaps organize a fundraising campaign for the movie’s English translation and subtitling. If you happen to know a generous soul ready to sponsor this venture, drop us a line.
By the way, there is also Scharnhorst, The Mini-Series (East Germany, 1978). The seven episodes are actually the precursor to Clausewitz, written again by Hans Pfeiffer. While working on Scharnhorst, according to a 1980 interview, Pfeiffer really fell for Clausewitz, and the Great Prussian became his “favorite reformer.” The mini-series presents a much more detailed picture of the early 19th century, although—as Bernd Domsgen informs us—some of the scenes are clearly fictitious. Fun-fact: Bodo Wolf (pictured), the actor who played Clausewitz in Scharnhorst, is now known as the reoccurring judge in the German version of Law and Order (Im Namen des Gesetzes). Oh well!
If you are sunbathing on a Caribbean beach and sipping daiquiries, the next article might not be the best possible read. But war is a messy business, and never more so than in early 19th century. Shannon Selin, a Canadian author of historical fiction about the Napoleonic Wars, writes an intriguing and very gory blog post about how battlefields were cleaned up in those days (Link). It is an uncomfortable but pragmatic question. Estimates of the number of soldiers killed in battle between 1803 to 1815 ranges from 500,000 to almost 2 million, but there were no official sanitary and burial procedures.
If you have never dealt with nitty-gritty of Napoleonic warfare, the passage about killed and wounded soldiers relieved not only of their valuables but stripped naked might turn your stomach. Yet it is all true. In Marie von Clausewitz’s letters to Carl, Vanya Eftimova Bellinger found a passage describing the practice of undressing wounded and dead soldiers and leaving them behind on the battlefield in this grisly state.
Here is the English translation:
Düsseldorf, 4 July 1815
…Poor [Madam] Natzmer also occupied my attention, she finally has certainty regarding her fate, her husband is really dead and died a horrible death[.] He was badly wounded near Fleurus already on [June] 15th and fell into the hands of the French who stripped him naked and left him lying in a remote abandoned hut; when the Prussians returned to the area on the 19th one of his soldiers found him in that condition, he had been languishing the whole time without his wounds being dressed and without food but was still fully conscious[.]47 He squeezed the soldier’s hand, charged him with saying his last farewell to his wife and gave up the ghost.
We are still looking for volunteers! We have found worthy translators for a number of Clausewitz's works not yet available in English. We want to support them with a team of scholars well versed in both English and German who would like to help out by critiquing their work, providing introductory, historical, literary, or theoretical essays related to the works in question, and/or collaborating on additional translations of Clausewitz's works. Please let us know if you are interested and can volunteer your time and skills. Contact Vanya E. Bellinger or ClausewitzStudies.org.
Come join our merry team! And please send us anything else you find relevant, interesting, and newsworthy to include in our next issue. Until September, Happy Reading!
With warmest regards,