#Reviewing The Enlightened Soldier

The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805. Charles Edward White. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1989.

After reading Vanya Eftimova Bellinger’s magnificent series-beginning piece, “Introducing #Scharnhorst: The Vision of an Enlightened Soldier ‘On Experience and Theory,’” I decided to reopen my copy of Charles Edward White’s book, The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805. What I rediscover each time I delve into White’s biographical history of both Scharnhorst and his reforms is the amazing characterization of what a professional military officer should aspire to be, along with the crucial role that an understanding of military history plays in a student of war’s development. Having read this book twice now since discovering it last fall, the only true question I have surrounding it is this—Why is it not more heavily featured as a required selection on professional reading lists throughout the United States military?

C.E. White’s concise and powerful account of the reforms that Scharnhorst and the other members of the Militärische Gesellschaft (including Clausewitz, Gneisenau, and Tiedemann, just to name a few) brought forth into the Prussian Army, as well as the resounding developments that they made to the profession of arms, beautifully echoes Samuel Huntington’s claim that “each nation has made its unique contributions to the culture of western society. To Prussia goes the distinction of originating the professional officer.”[1] Although published at the end of the Cold War, and illustrating the life and teachings of an officer from two centuries ago, The Enlightened Soldier offers much for the modern-day military professional and ardent student of war.

White begins by articulating the catalyst for the great Prussian military reforms, namely the catastrophic event that would propel officers like Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Clausewitz into crucial roles within the Prussian Army—the defeat at Jena-Auerstedt. In just a matter of weeks during the autumn of 1806, Napoleon and his Grande Armeé would come to exemplify the military terms pursuit and exploitation as they routed the stale and rigid Frederician-style Prussian army led primarily by elderly and stubborn generals like the 71-year-old Duke of Brunswick. White attributes this defeat at the hands of Napoleon to a “lack of a clear political objective… a refusal to consider the new conditions of citizen armies…overconfidence…and a conceit of invincibility.”[2]

“Portrait of General Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst” by Friedrich Bury (Wikimedia)

With this utter ineptitude on display from commanding officers of the Prussian Army at Jena and Auerstedt, Scharnhorst set out to reform and change the army to meet the new and demanding requirements of 19th-century warfare. Scharnhorst understood that when it came to the development of a professional army, the “primary concern was the educational training and development of the soldier,” and that “soldiering could no longer be viewed as a craft, but had to be seen as a profession requiring continuous study.”[3] Thus, the seeds were sown that would come to characterize the hallmarks of professional military education and the institutionalization of military excellence.

Scharnhorst believed military history was vital to the training and development of successful officers within the Prussian Army. Forged under the German concept of Bildung, where one’s character and intellect were to be perfected through education, Scharnhorst understood the importance of military education in the absence of combat:

The profession of arms was not just a craft or technique, which is primarily mechanical, or an art, which requires unique talent and ability. It was instead an extraordinary complex intellectual skill requiring comprehensive study and training.[4]

One can clearly come to identify the similarities with the echoing claim that Scharnhorst’s pupil, Carl von Clausewitz, would make in On War less than two decades after Scharnhorst’s death:

But we must go on to say that strictly speaking war is neither an art nor a science. To take these concepts as a point of departure is misleading in that it has unintentionally caused war to be put on a par with other arts or sciences, resulting in a mass of incorrect analogies… War is an act of human intercourse. We therefore conclude that war does not belong in the realm of arts and sciences, rather it is part of man’s social existence.[5]

This “war as an act of human intercourse” that both Scharnhorst and Clausewitz illustrated required vast amounts of education, training, and self-study before one could be considered proficient within the realm of military affairs. White beautifully showcases this necessity by explaining the dichotomy of experience and education that defines military professionalism:

Experience was obviously the best teacher, but rarely would the soldier have the luxury of choosing the time, manner, or place of his experience. In the absence of actual combat experience, Scharnhorst believed that history would provide the officer with a repository of ideas and methods for use in battle.[6]

We see this issue reverberating still today, where the value of combat experience often dominates over that of education and training. Yet due to the fact that war does still exist within the realm of chance and uncertainty, we are never truly the arbiters of our own combat experience. We do not often choose where or when we go to war. This gap, Scharnhorst believed, must always be filled by strong and dedicated education and self-study. Having seen the disaster brought about by the failure of ancient Prussian generals who still led with the rigidity and order of Frederick the Great, he came to understand that “those who expect to learn everything from experience are like the proud men who believe they already know everything.”[7]

“Reorganisation” by Carl Röchling (Wikimedia)

The importance of self-study in the profession of arms manifested itself in the Militärische Gesellschaft (Military Society) that existed in Berlin from 1801-1805. This society, of which Scharnhorst was director for three of the five years of its existence, sought to “instruct its members through the exchange of ideas in all areas of the art of war, in a manner that would encourage them to seek out the truth.”[8] White portrays Scharnhorst’s Military Society as an object that would promote professional growth and development among its officer members; by conversing and studying together, the members would sharpen their own and each other’s minds with respect to the profession of arms. This idea is a trend that does, and must, continue to this day.

Self-study and group dynamics that revolve around military education serve to perfect and hone one’s craft. White explains that “at best, military schools provided only a foundation upon which to build. Without further education, the officer would be of little use in war.”[9] The rigorous and violent demands of war require this level of education. An officer without it would fail at being able to react and adapt to the constantly changing and nebulous conditions of combat. Education—specifically in the realm of military history—would protect the officer from trying to turn their profession into a “set of dogmatic principles.”[10] By learning from the minds of the Great Captains that have come and gone before us, we can contain within our own minds the decisions, actions, and challenges that countless commanders have made, without ourselves having been directly exposed to them. This is the role that military history plays in professional military education. History, along with theory, as Clausewitz wrote, “is meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield.”[11]

The crescendo and primary result of Scharnhorst’s efforts, White explains, was the institutionalization of military excellence through the creation and reform of the Prussian General Staff.[12] With the age of Frederick the Great fading from view, Scharnhorst and his pupils within the Militärische Gesellschaft came to realize that military genius had to be institutionalized, for the conduct of war had become too large, expansive, and complicated for a single mind (even that of Napoleon) to control and lead. Effective organization and staff structure would be the deciding factor on the battlefield for the post-Frederician Prussian Army. White argues that “even in the heat of battle, where confusion reigns, good military organization and mutual support among the arms could compensate for weak or poor leadership.”[13] In short, the General Staff, and not solely the general himself, would decide victories and defeats for the modern Prussian Army. Throughout his vast education and combat experience within the Prussian Army, Scharnhorst came to realize that “without a well-organized general staff no army can be well led. A poorly organized and slightly trained army with a good general staff will accomplish more than a good army with a poor general staff.”[14]

By creating a General Staff imbued with the values of Bildung and professional military education that Scharnhorst vehemently believed in, Prussia would be able to field a fighting force that stood toe-to-toe with Napoleon less than a decade after its near-annihilation at Jena-Auerstedt. Although he would not live to see the final fruits of his labor, Scharnhorst succeeded in “mobilizing Prussia’s military brain power and shaped it into an effective instrument of war…[he] introduced the concept of collective genius into the profession of arms.”[15]

Upon reaching the epilogue of The Enlightened Soldier, one can clearly understand and sympathize with White’s title, attributed to Gerhard von Scharnhorst. A recipient of the Pour le Mérite and a distinguished combat leader within the Prussian Army, Scharnhorst truly deserves his fame as a military educator, reformer, and driving force behind the revitalization of the Prussian Army and officer corps. A witness to the immense destruction of his country’s army at Jena-Auerstedt, he recognized the changing character of war, and immediately strove to develop his army into the force that Prussia required if it was to break the chains of Napoleonic aggression and reclaim its full sovereignty within Europe.

White’s masterfully-written history of Scharnhorst and his efforts should be heralded as a guide and model of true military professionalism, and the ideal to which we should strive for in the realm of professional military education today. I can only echo the laurels that Samuel Huntington dedicates to The Enlightened Soldier, in proclaiming that the reforms of Scharnhorst “mark the true beginning of the military profession in the West.”[16] For any who seek to better understand the history of the military profession, and what it truly means to be a student of war, C.E. White’s The Enlightened Soldier will be an incredible aid in this endeavor.

Bryan T. Jones is an  Armor Officer in the U.S. Army and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: "Le Trophee" painted by Edouard Detaille (Wikimedia)


[1] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (New York: Vintage Books, 1957), 31, quoted in Charles Edward White, The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1989), 185.

[2] Charles Edward White, The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1989), xi.

[3] Ibid., xii-xiii.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1832), Indexed Edition, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 149.

[6] White, The Enlightened Soldier, 10. 

[7] Cited by Werner Hahlweg in his introduction to Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege, 18th ed. (Bonn: Ferdinand, Dummler, 1973), 17, quoted in White, The Enlightened Soldier, 14.

[8] “Extract from the Organization and Statutes of the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin Following the Revision in January 1803,” quoted in White, The Enlightened Soldier, Annex 1, 191.

[9] White, The Enlightened Soldier, 31.

[10] Ibid., 70.

[11] Clausewitz, On War, 141.

[12] For a more in-depth and historical analysis of the Prussian, and later German, General Staff and its success in institutionalizing military excellence, see: Trevor N. Dupuy, A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945, 2002 ed. (Garden City, NY: Military Book Club, 1977).

[13] White, The Enlightened Soldier, 73.

[14] “Ueber die Einrichtung des Generalstaabs einer Armee,” Nachlaβ Scharnhorst, Nr. 79, Sheet 15,” quoted in White, The Enlightened Soldier, 103. 

[15] White, The Enlightened Soldier, 176.

[16]  Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (New York: Vintage Books, 1957), 31, quoted in Charles Edward White, The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1989), 185.