Madam General: Interviewing Vanya Eftimova Bellinger

What made you make the jump from journalist to military historian?

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger

Loneliness. I am originally from Bulgaria, then I moved to Berlin, where I worked as a freelance journalist and video producer for a number of years. In Germany I met my husband, a US service member stationed there. We married and moved to the States but my first years in America were very difficult. I didn’t know what to do with myself and my English wasn’t good enough to write for US media. As a way to integrate into the society, I decided to get a master degree in something that would require a lot of writing. It had to be a program also allowing me flexibility because of the unavoidable moving around the country when you’re a military family. Norwich University’s Military History fit those requirements.  

It’s obvious how those of us in the military profession come by our interest in the Clausewitzes. How did you come by that interest as an academic?

I first got interested in Clausewitz while living in Germany. It was a time of heated debates on whether US should have invaded Iraq. I think I bought my first copy of On War in German around 2005. Then during my graduate work, Clausewitz was again a big part of the discussions and I started reading it once again. This time, however, I was also interested in Clausewitz, the man and soldier, and so I stumbled upon the whole story about Marie editing On War. None had written anything in depth on the subject and I thought this might be something I could study. I shared this idea with John T. Kuehn, who is a professor at the Command and General Staff College. By the way, I will go to my grave kicking myself for forgetting to mention Dr. Kuehn in the acknowledgement part of my book! He was very excited about the project from the beginning and urged me to work on it.

Prussian State Privy Archives
(Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 2012 we went back to Europe on vacation. My husband was kind enough to spend a day on his own while I visited various archives in Berlin. Back then the archivists showed me just a couple of documents, not nearly enough for a biography. They offered, however, as a consolation, to take my email and promised that if something were to appear, they would let me know. And then in December, just a couple of months later, I got an email from the Prussian State Privy Archives that an aristocratic family, the Buttlars, had deposited their family papers, and among them was the complete intimate correspondence between Marie and Carl. The Buttlars are indeed direct descendants of Marie’s brother Fritz. So I was lucky, very lucky...

Did being a journalist help you understand the dynamics between Marie and Carl?  Understand the topics they were writing about?  If so, how?

Being a journalist helped me find my way around libraries, archives, and private collections. Reporters are trained to be tenacious researchers and knock on every door. As a journalist, I am also not shy about looking into deeply personal stuff. Academics often deem such an approach as too invasive or lowbrow but as a journalist, I know that readers are interested in personal details and want to relate. They want to meet the true human being behind the famous name, and learn about weaknesses and failures in order to understand the sources of personal greatness. The trick is to find the right balance, the golden mean between the two extremes, the tabloid and the cold impersonal writing. I don’t know if I always succeed but I definitely keep trying.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book for me was the unique nature of the couple’s relationship in terms of equality. It’s amazing that at that time and place Marie demanded to be an equal and that she was able to find someone who both recognized her intellect and acquiesced to such a progressive marriage. Did this surprise you?

Yes and no. The early nineteenth century was a period when many intelligent women rose to prominence and played an important role in the European politics. Marie was one of them, and before meeting Clausewitz she had a clear perspective of achieving an important position as a courtier serving the ruling dynasty. But yes, it is a surprise that Marie actually found a man who saw and treated her as his equal. Man and woman living in perpetual harmony, and indeed complementing each other so completely as to build one perfect human being, was the prevailing notion in the times of German Romanticism. But in reality few men saw and treated their wives as equal.

In this aspect, my book is not really revisionist because it doesn’t question or diminish Clausewitz’s achievements. Indeed, the more you learn about Carl the husband, the better Clausewitz the man, soldier, and thinker appears.    

What was your favorite discovery when working with the newly uncovered material?

I am an Army wife myself and the quirkiest surprise for me was the fact that so many things have not changed. For instance, in the letters from 1830 Carl and Marie went back and forth, in an endless discussion, about their household goods, whether he should open the boxes without her and, according to Marie, mess up everything. Basically, Carl wrote back that he ran a whole army corps and thereby was fully qualified to organize the house until she arrived. It’s so mundane but at the same time hilarious because it happens to every military couple. We see General von Clausewitz, head of Prussia’s II Artillery Inspectorate, arguing with his wife over pots, pans, and bed sheets, not unlike a young married officer and his spouse in the US military today.

You mention in the book that Carl’s political thoughts are an under-researched aspect of his life. Is that a project you may take on in the future?

I think the fact that Clausewitz is seen, for the most part, as a philosopher of war has limited the scope of his study. I wanted to shine a light of the political aspect of Clausewitz’s thought. Reading his ideas within the context of his life and time has let me to believe that many of the instances where we have previously assumed that Clausewitz was talking to the military, he actually had also the politicians in mind. Certainly Marie saw On War as a deeply political book, to be disseminated, read, and discussed among the political elite.

Right now I am busy with promoting Marie von Clausewitz and also writing some journalistic stuff. Somehow I also became the go-to person about Clausewitz documents and keep getting emails from different archives about yet another unpublished letter found in their vaults (not that I am complaining). I have a pile on my desk with copies of unpublished documents and I have to admit that I haven’t even read the half of them. I think the next big project should be on the subject of how Clausewitz wrote On War. There is so much we don’t know but luckily new sources have appeared too.

Christopher Bassford, who among other great things is also managing, is leading a project to publish various Clausewitz works in English--I still owe him a translation--and of course I hope to find a publisher for Marie and Carl’s correspondence in English. I think these letters will open the field to new scholarship.

One fact that surprised me is that Marie carried on an extensive correspondence with both of Carl’s major mentors, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The excerpts in your book mostly show that she was lobbying for her husband. What else did they discuss? Politics or military affairs?

Mostly politics. Marie was a political animal, through and through. Gneisenau especially valued her connections and shrewd analysis of current affairs. Donald Stoker, whose biography Clausewitz: His Life and Work was published last year, drew my attention to a report Marie wrote for Gneisenau on the political situation in Saxony in 1820s, probably after a trip the Clausewitz's took there as a couple. The report was professionally written, with bullet points and detailed knowledge. Clausewitz was on that trip, but Gneisenau turned to Marie for analysis.    

One reader of my book suggested that if Marie were alive today she probably would be a journalist. Indeed, I can imagine her as a political correspondent reporting from Washington.

This interview will also appear on our Military Writers Guild site. Can describe your writing routine if you have one?

I work from home and it’s very easy to procrastinate or start doing chores instead of writing. Every Sunday evening, I make a long “to do” list, with everything inside--pitches to send, articles to submit, Pilates classes, appointments, meetings with friends, laundry, etc. Then I make a plan for the upcoming week and try to fit in as much as possible. Obviously, I won’t accomplish everything, but this gives me certainty and clear objectives for the week.

My day starts with reading the news media, magazine articles, analyses etc., the usual daily exercise for every journalist. I keep the rule of spending at least an hour a day on reading the news. Then, no later than 10 am, I go to my home office and write until 2-3 pm. After that my brain is usually drained, and I go to the gym, do grocery shopping, clean the house, read a book, write emails, go out for dinner with my husband, etc. New writers believe that they should write as much as they can, as fast as they can. But the trick is to write steadily, regularly, and rigorously.

Do you have any research or writing tips or tricks to offer aspiring writers?

Obviously many aspiring writers have full time jobs, far away from writing, creativity or even journalism. It’s very hard to find the time to work on the next great American novel when you come home at 6-7 pm, tired, the kids are screaming, dinner has to be made, ... I have friends in this situation and always suggest that they start small. Write just 250 words per day but do it every day, in your lunch break, after the kids go to bed, while on the commuter train. In the beginning, it will be damn hard to find the time and concentrate on the task. But I promise you that if you stick to the routine for two weeks, it will get easier. You will start looking forward to the one hour writing a day. I have seen it working--a very good friend of mine just finished her first novel.

To be honest, writing doesn’t come naturally to me either. When I started my work on Marie von Clausewitz, it was so hard. I was still a full time correspondent for Bulgarian media and had to find a couple of hours in-between for my own project. I decided to write 450 words per day, no judgement about the quality of my work, just sit down and write. Eventually I tricked my brain into enjoying the process because finishing the 450 words made me feel so happy and content.

What are you reading lately?

I tend to read several books at the same time. I just finished Paul Strathern’s Death in Florence about the Medici, Savonarola, and the Renaissance and really recommend it. Right now I have on my coffee table Herfried Münkler’s Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen (The Germans and Their Myths). Münkler is a German political scientist and he writes elegantly, although in his previous books he got Clausewitz really wrong. The other book I am reading is Suzanne J. Stark’s Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail. Friends from Berlin just visited and gave me as a present Ernst Haffner’s Blutsbrüder (Blood Brothers), a book about the 1930s, right now a bestseller in Germany. I also read Milen Ruskov’s Summit; he’s a Bulgarian writer and won the European Union Prize for Literature last year. Summit’s plot occurs in the very same area where I grew up. It’s so much fun to see the places I know well transformed into great literature.        

The interview was conducted by Captain B. A. Friedman, USMC, a field artillery officer and author of 21st Century Ellis, as well as numerous articles and posts. He is also a founding member of the Military Writers Guild

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger is an independent scholar and journalist. Her biography, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making Of On War, just released 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.

The views expressed in this article do not reflect the policy or position of any official organization.

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