Madam General: #Reviewing Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War

Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War. Vanya Eftimova Bellinger.  Oxford University Press, 2015.

On War is as much a product of the relationship between Carl and Marie as it is between Carl and military history. As a book On War may be his, but as a legacy, it is theirs.  

Time has hidden a great many influential women from modern minds. Our view from the 21st century is inherently skewed by the biases of the past. It is only in rare cases that historical evidence is preserved, found, and analyzed so that we can peer behind the curtain of time. Such a stroke of luck occurred to bring us much of Marie von Clausewitz’s correspondence with her more famous husband and many other papers that offer insight into the relationship between Carl and Marie. That relationship is more than just historical curiosity. On War is as much a product of the relationship between Carl and Marie as it is between Carl and military history. As a book On War may be his, but as a legacy, it is theirs.  

Born Marie von Brühl in Warsaw on June 3rd, 1779, to Count Charles von Brühl and his much younger wife, Sophie Gromm, the future Marie von Clausewitz enjoyed a comfortable upbringing as befit a European aristocrat. The union between Charles and Sophie was a love match as she could not offer a sizable dowry or any political advantage. Still, the Brühls had the means for comfort due to Charles’ position in the court of first Friedrich Wilhelm II and then his successor, Friedrich Wilhelm III, as well as his salary as a Lieutenant General (he held the rank, but no duties). After Charles’ death in 1802, though, the family would experience financially turbulence, if not duress.

It was Marie rather than her mother Sophie who would manage the family estate and provide for its future after the death of her father. Fortunately, she was well equipped to do so. Sophie insisted on a high quality education for both Marie and her sister Fanny. Marie was the more talented pupil of the two, and by the time she reached adulthood she was well-versed in history, politics, and a variety of other subjects, as well as a talented painter.

When Marie met Carl (probably in December 1803), she was the intellectual equal of the already erudite young officer. Then a young lieutenant and the adjutant of Prince August of the Prussian Royal Family, Carl introduced himself to Marie at a supper arranged by Prince Ferdinand. Despite the intellectual match, they were an unlikely pair in the world of Prussian court culture. Marie’s family was well-respected and entrenched in court life while Carl’s status as a member of the nobility at all was in doubt. (He would later request that his nobility status be confirmed by the Crown, which it was.) Besides Carl’s status, his family had no means and Charles von Brühl had died the previous year. Charles von Brühl’s pension had to support both his widow and Marie until she was married. Hence the couple underwent a secret courtship and a long engagement. Marie’s mother even attempted to arrange for more suitable matches for Marie. Lastly, Marie was a year older than Carl, an anomalous situation for the time.

But the couple was eventually married on December 17th, 1810, in Berlin after Carl’s promotion to major, which gave him the means to convince Sophie von Brühl to assent to the marriage. From that time until Carl’s death in 1831, the couple would endure war and separation, sickness and financial strife, but despite everything would carry on an enviable intellectual intercourse for their entire marriage.

Gerhard von Scharnhorst
(Public Domain)

Marie has been given short shrift for her contributions to her husband’s intellectual development, but Bellinger’s research makes it clear that she was at least as influential as Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. In fact, Marie was so intellectually respected by Carl’s mentors that she carried on correspondence with them just as she did with Carl himself. During the Prussian campaigns against Napoleon, when Carl was a staff officer at the Corps level, Marie followed the staff. She lived outside the camp but close enough that the couple had no need to write letters to each other during this time.

Carl’s ideas, gained through professional study and battlefield experience, were filtered through Marie’s educational base and mixed with her own ideas and opinions.

Marie’s access to current military events made her a popular attendee of political salons in Prussia. She had been involved in the popular debating societies since before meeting her husband, but Carl’s insights from the front lines lent her a credibility that few other female courtiers could manage. She would frequently read his letters verbatim, both increasing her influence and his fame. Marie became so famous in these circles for her military analysis that she was referred to as “Madam General,” and her advice was even sought by Queen Amalie of Saxony.

This decades-long effort on the part of Marie to increase the prestige of her husband trained both Carl and Marie in writing, editing, and persuasion. Carl’s ideas, gained through professional study and battlefield experience, were filtered through Marie’s educational base and mixed with her own ideas and opinions. Their ideas were then honed and tested in the political salons of Prussian high society whether by Marie alone or by the couple together when he was not on campaign. Since On War was published by Marie only after Carl’s death, the work simply could not exist as it does without the symbiotic nature of the couple’s intellectual life. The wording of one of Carl’s most famous ideas, that war is the extension of politics, appears as it does only in Marie’s hand on a rough draft. The idea was his but the phrase, “War is merely the continuation of politics with other means,” is hers. Carl himself recognized the contribution of his wife, proclaiming in a letter asking her to research the history of the Duchy of Belgium: “I ask: How many men could give a similar assignment to their wives?”

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger’s book is about Marie, but she wisely focuses on the couple’s life together. Theirs was not a marriage of convenience but one of intense love and respect that was the center of their lives. Bellinger weaves their story into the story of Prussia itself and connects concepts that would later appear in On War with events that the couple experienced and witnessed. The culmination of the book comes after Carl’s death when Bellinger describes Marie’s efforts to organize and publish On War at a depth that simply hasn’t been done before. While she certainly had assistance from military experts that Carl knew in life, Bellinger’s research makes clear that On War was finished by Marie.  

If there are any remaining questions about how important Marie was to the existence of On War, this book certainly dispels them. Since Carl’s intellectual development was influenced so much by Marie, scholars must understand her as much as they seek to understand him. Bellinger’s book accomplishes the task of illuminating Marie von Clausewitz in spades. On War remains the great work and legacy of Clausewitz himself but Marie was his steady center of gravity through war, strife, career frustrations, and frequent health problems. It was their relationship as much as his own brilliance that produced On War and Marie was one of the few women of that time that could match Carl idea for idea and thought for thought. Bellinger has brought the overshadowed Marie into the light.

Captain B. A. Friedman, USMC is 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. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the policy or position of any official organization.

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