#Reviewing Clausewitz in His Time

The pleasure in reading anything by Peter Paret on the subject of Clausewitz is that one comes to expect a high level of scholarship and receives it every time. Paret shows a great deal of familiarity with the work and the man, as well as a deep understanding of his ideas and their implications. To start on a highlight, in the discussion of Clausewitz’s lectures at the General War School in Clausewitz in His Time: Essays in the Cultural and Intellectual History of Thinking about War, Paret makes a point that should serve as a guiding thought for anyone intent on studying Clausewitz. He states that these lectures illustrated “elements in the development of [Clausewitz’s] ideas on what war is and how war can be studied realistically and at the same time systematically.”[1] Ultimately, this is the central reason to be interested in Clausewitz in the first place:  he built the very foundations that allow us, even today, to study war systematically and realistically. Yet the question remains:  how far can comparative historical essays take us on our quest to understand these foundations?

Clausewitz has been primarily studied and presented by historians: from Liddell Hart onwards... Howard, Paret, Keegan, and van Creveld, to name only a few. As a result, the narratives tend to overemphasize one of two things. First, speculatively linking the man’s experience, acquaintances, and life story, to his possible state of mind at the time and then to his writing. And second, in their dissection of Clausewitz, they sometimes place too much importance on single words or phrases instead of their meaning when they come together as a whole. In either case, it is at the expense of the logic and methodological systems, which, in fact, generate the bulk of the potent insights found in his writings. As we explore what is great about Paret’s book, we must nonetheless admit what is missing: historical analysis of Clausewitz is highly effective in answering the “why” and the “when” of his method, but leaves the reader with an incomplete picture. Understanding“how” the method worked is the key to understanding why it could be used to study war systematically and realistically in the first place, and above all how this could be done objectively.

In six essays, Peter Paret offers a compelling overview of Clausewitz’s ideas and theories, counterpoised with the work of his 19th century contemporaries and 20th century strategists and theorists. Paret’s second essay is a stimulating arrangement of “learned officers.” These include Carl von Tiedemann, August Otto Rühle von Lilienstern, Ernest von Pfeul, and Heinrich von Kleist, the famous poet and dramatist. Paret shows all of these men, with the possible exception of Kleist, to have been well-acquainted with—and in some cases very close to—Clausewitz. Teasing out similarities and differences among them allows Paret to showcase certain distinct features of Clausewitz’s thinking. That said, given the formidable wars that Napoleon unleashed across Europe at the time, it should not come as a surprise that everyone in Prussia had war on their minds. Should these shared experiences have led to shared ideas, it appears risky to claim direct influences among the characters, without anchoring this, if not in clear references, at least in highly distinctive and exclusive commonalities.

...the essay on Schlieffen is of particular interest to those interested in teaching Clausewitz to officers...

The later comparative essays place Clausewitz side by side with Johannes von Müller (regarding moral and idealized accounts of war), Alfred von Schlieffen (on the political element of war), and Marc Bloch (on the causes of defeat). While each text proposes keen observations, the essay on Schlieffen is of particular interest to those interested in teaching Clausewitz to officers. It elaborates on the conceptual similarities between the two, but then demonstrates their diametrically opposed approaches with regard to the political element of war and the clash with regard to the role that policy can take in attempting to dictate military objectives. Perhaps inadvertently, Paret’s analysis provides us with a powerful lens for analysing a problem first illustrated by Liddell Hart, who argued—incorrectly—that Clausewitz was the source of a doctrine of absolute war, but nonetheless noticed—correctly—that doctrines bent on a fight-to-the-finish mentality may start with the argument that war is only a continuation of state policy by other means, but they ultimately end by “making policy the slave of strategy.”[2] The Schlieffen approach leads straight into this trap, whereas understanding war from Clausewitz’s point of view allows a way out of it.

...Clausewitz must be understood as a writer in flux, someone who was learning throughout his life and who often refined his work with age...

The most enticing of the six essays analyses Clausewitz’s ideas on small war (or asymmetric warfare, in today’s parlance), elevating the heuristic value of Clausewitz’s approach. The author compares Clausewitz with other theorists of his day and slightly earlier, finding many overarching similarities and also bringing out an important feature that is also true of the bulk of Clausewitz work: that there is an “immediate didactic purpose” to it.[3] Most interestingly, Paret analyzes some of the early inclusions of ideas that are usually associated with Clausewitz’s mature thought.[4] This reaffirms the growing consensus that Clausewitz must be understood as a writer in flux, someone who was learning throughout his life and who often refined his work with age, but nonetheless held steadfast to certain ideas he had developed in youth.

While comparative analyses with other authors offer a good glimpse into this flux, it nonetheless remains an impression rather than a demonstration. And this is perhaps where historians begin to stumble in their quest to clarify the meanings and intentions in the works of Clausewitz. Getting to know Clausewitz in his time reaches an impasse insofar as we uncover where the various authors agree or disagree, but not why that is.

Though Clausewitz kept many ideas he developed early on, what is most significant about his transition in time is that his method becomes increasingly complex, metaphysical, and philosophical—something that has often frustrated his readers, but ultimately shows that his further insistence on methodology is what allowed him to demonstrate objectively ideas that he had subjectively put forward in his youth. Even some words he uses evolve in their meaning between the first years he begins writing On War and the in the final edits.[5] These word transitions have contributed to at least one generally accepted—but in all likelihood false—judgement which have found their way in many works including this one: that Clausewitz started with the idea of absolute war and only later had a change of heart, suddenly insisting on war’s limited form.[6, 7] Whenever his methodology converges with the systems developed by Kant and Hegel, for example, we find the very best and most convincing passages in On War, because they are elevated through a stronger argumentative construction and system of validation. This feature is lost, however, when we compare mainly Clausewitz’s conclusions with those of other military thinkers, as opposed to his underlying arguments and methodology—not only relative to others, but also comparing the works of a young Clausewitz to his later self.

The title page of the first volume of Montesquieu's De l'Esprit des loix (Wikimedia)

Paret recognizes the Kantian influence in these essays, but presents it only tangentially. This sets him apart from Raymond Aron, whose iconic and profound analysis of On War overstated the links to Montesquieu’s L’esprit des lois and offered a wobbly argument against a Hegelian or Kantian interpretation of Clausewitz. Actually, Clausewitz made use of a wide mix of methods, borrowing from Montesquieu indeed, but no less from Scharnhorst, Machiavelli, and Fichte, to name only a few. However, it is above all the Kantian methodology first, and the Hegelian second, that ties all this wide array of influences together and integrates—as in a circle—the many tangents into a coherent whole.

Finally, Paret makes an astute argument when he states that the “wondrous trinity” is a “wish” that Clausewitz had.[9]Clausewitz hoped that the people would be engaged and that policy would be determined by reason, but he recognized the difficulty this represented. Interestingly, when we compare Clausewitz’s development of his notion of war to the section in Hegel’s chapter entitled “The Notion,” the similarities are uncanny, and yet there is indeed an end point to the converging aspects.[10,11] On the one hand, Hegel arrives at an almost naïve justification for war, that the "cunning of reason” takes full ownership of war and renders it ethical as part of a providential progression in time. Clausewitz on the other hand is far less idealistic and sees the relationship between reason and war as far less certain, fraught with tension, and too often disregarded, serving as a strong warning to posterity when making war plans.

Many a lesser scholar has cherry-picked their way through Clausewitz and concluded that On War leads to warmongering.

Many a lesser scholar has cherry-picked their way through Clausewitz and concluded that On War leads to warmongering. However, reading Clausewitz with the kind of depth Paret epitomizes in this book allows us to discover such subtleties and moderating implications in On War. It is the longer road, but also the more instructive.

Youri Cormier is Lecturer at the Royal Military Colleges of Canada and author of War as Paradox: Clausewitz and Hegel on Fighting Doctrines and Ethics.

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Header Image: Carl von Clausewitz (Karl Wilhelm Wach/Wikimedia)


[1] Paret, Clausewitz in His Time, p. 110

[2] Liddell Hart, The Ghost of Napoleon, (Westport: Greenwood, Press, 1980), 120-121.

[3] Paret, Clausewitz in His Time, p. 110

[4] Paret, Clausewitz in His Time, p. 109

[5] Cormier, Youri. War As Paradox: Clausewitz and Hegel on Fighting Doctrines and Ethics (McGill Queen’s University Press, 2016), pp. 115-122

[6] Idem.

[7] Paret, Clausewitz in His Time, p. 8

[8] Cormier, War as Paradox, pp. 189-193

[9] Paret, Clausewitz in His Time, p. 15

[10] Hegel, Science of Logic. Translated by A. Miller, foreword by J.N. Findlay. (Amherst: Humanity Books, 1969).

[11] Cormier, War as Paradox, pp. 203-23