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Which Side Was Clausewitz On?

Clausewitz and the State

by Peter Paret
Oxford University Press, 476 pp., $18.50

The German military historian Delbrück, writing in 1907, said of Clausewitz that he was the greatest of all military thinkers: he wrote with the precision of a philosopher and the elegance of Goethe, and his works on strategy were the only ones hitherto produced that deserved the name of classics. Everything which Professor Paret says in his Clausewitz and the State suggests that he would endorse Delbrück’s judgment, but it is nevertheless not one with which he is directly concerned. “I have written this book,” he says, “neither to evaluate the adequacy of Clausewitz’s theories nor to trace their impact on the conduct of war in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” His object, he explains in his preface, “is not the interpretation of Clausewitz’s theories but their psychological and historical genesis.”

This sentence accurately describes Professor Paret’s procedure, and he calls his work “Clausewitz and the State” presumably because Clausewitz came to see war as an inevitable and integral part of the state’s functions—in his own famous words, “not an independent phenomenon but a continuation of policy by different means.” To Clausewitz war was an activity whose conduct was determined by the nature of the states or the societies (terms which he often used interchangeably) that waged it.

At the age of twenty-six Clausewitz fought as a Prussian officer in the campaign of 1806, and thus underwent the traumatic experience of seeing the Prussian army put to flight, the Prussian fortresses surrendered for the greater part without a struggle, and the country occupied by the enemy—and all this at the hands of the French, whom the Prussians themselves some fifty years earlier had put to a similarly ignominious flight at Rossbach, and whose fighting qualities they had continued to despise.

As it seemed to Clausewitz’s father-confessor, the Prussian general Scharnhorst, and to Clausewitz himself, the French owed their successes under Napoleon not to new technical inventions but to their revolution, which had endowed them with a new capacity to mobilize their resources, a new will to fight, and a commander of genius who, because he fought with a national, not a mercenary, army, could adopt tactics previously impracticable. As Clausewitz was to put it later: the changes in the conduct of war that occurred during the revolutionary and Napoleonic era “were caused by the new political conditions which the French Revolution created both in France and in Europe as a whole, conditions that set in motion new means and new forces, and have thus made possible a degree of energy in war that otherwise would have been inconceivable.”

It was this explanation of France’s military triumphs that led Clausewitz to see war, in Professor Paret’s words, as a “prism in which all life is refracted” and inspired him to attempt an explanation of its essential nature as a historical phenomenon. He formulated this explanation in his famous work On War, a work which he never finished—he planned to revise it at the end of his life—and which his wife published after his death. He did, however, revise the introductory chapter “What is War?” in which he set out his general conclusions. Professor Paret reproduces it in full.

The general interest of Clausewitz’s work (as distinct from its technical interest for students of war) lies in the relationship it established between war, politics, and society. “War,” he wrote, “is…an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” In consequence, “to introduce the principle of moderation into the theory of war will always lead to a logical absurdity.” “Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to defeat or disarm the enemy without too much bloodshed,” but pleasant as this sounds, “it is a fallacy that must be exposed. War is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst…if one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand. That side will force the other to follow suit; each will drive its opponents towards extremes, and the only limiting factors are the counterpoises inherent in war.”

War, however, Clausewitz always insisted, is an act of policy, “a true political instrument,” and therefore not a “complete, untrammelled manifestation of violence.”“Savage people are ruled by passion, civilized people by the mind,” though “the emotions cannot fail to be involved.” “As a total phenomenon,” Clausewitz concluded, war is “a remarkable trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity which are to be regarded as a blind, natural force, of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam, and of its element of subordination as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.”

The more nearly “whole communities—whole peoples” were involved in a conflict (and, somewhat inaccurately, Clausewitz believed that the entire French nation had been so involved during the Revolution), the more nearly would war approach its “absolute” or “perfect” state—absolute or perfect, that is, in the sense of conforming to the philosophical idea of war as an act of force to which there is logically no limit. On one occasion Clausewitz remarked that once the people have been permitted to play a part on the political stage they might not easily be dismissed from it. In fact, however, Napoleon succeeded in dismissing them, and the French army, early in his career, became a professional, as distinct from a people’s, army. Presumably an awareness that mass outbursts of patriotic enthusiasm are fairly rare occurrences led Clausewitz at the end of his life to believe that wars were essentially of two kinds: limited wars, such as had been waged in the eighteenth century, when the object was to conquer a particular territory in order to retain it or to use it as a bargaining counter at the peace negotiations; and absolute wars, waged to destroy the enemy or force him to unconditional surrender. Which of these two kinds of wars would be resorted to would depend on the aims of the governments concerned—aims necessarily determined by the presence or the lack of those “powerful and inspiring motives” which demand the enemy’s destruction.

In admirable English and with a thoroughness to which it is impossible to do justice in a short review, Professor Paret analyzes Clausewitz’s conclusions, and the intellectual influences and his own cast of mind which led him to them. Clausewitz possessed many qualities for which the Germans of his day were renowned but which have rarely been united in a single person—deep emotions combined with a capacity for wholly unemotional realism; a strong philosophical bent and a capacity for abstract formulations combined with an equally strong belief that theories relating to practical activities must continually be tested by experience, including the experience of past ages to be derived from a study of history.

In the sources from which Clausewitz drew his ideas Professor Paret sees him as typical of the educated Germans of his day. But he was also a typical Prussian. It seems unimaginable that he should have been the product of any other society than that which not only produced Kant, Herder, Fichte, and Schleiermacher, but of whom Frederick the Great’s minister, von Schrötter, could say: “What distinguishes the Prussians from all other peoples is that theirs is not a country with an army; they have an army with a country that serves it as a headquarters and a commissariat.”

Clausewitz was the opposite of a militarist as that term has sometimes been understood by German writers, and notably by Gerhard Ritter, to whom it meant a believer in the right of the army to dictate policy, and in the supremacy of military over all other needs. As militarism, however, is understood in the English-speaking world—that is, the impregnation of civilian life with military values—Clausewitz and his reforming friends among the Prussian generals were militarists as complete as one could hope to find, since it was the passion of their lives not only to create a fighting force superior to the French, but to educate the population in the moral and civic virtues, as they understood them, by means of service in the regular army and in paramilitary organizations.

This ideal was first formulated after the disasters of 1806. Attempts to put it into practice were made during the wars of liberation and succeeded in mobilizing a far higher proportion of the population than had proved possible in France even in 1793 and 1794. The Prussian field marshal Gneisenau said that “to turn a whole nation into soldiers the military spirit must be inculcated into it in peace.” This was a task to which the military members of the reform party applied themselves after 1815. The army, reformed by the abolition of the barbarous punishments of Frederick the Great’s day and by the opening of promotion to the talented, and the Landwehr or militia, designed to be “always ready to defend the fatherland,” seemed pre-eminently the institutions in which class barriers could be broken down and a sense of community created.

The military reforms, however, were only one item in a movement in which soldiers and civilians cooperated to produce, as they hoped, a new society. In the event, the society that began to emerge after 1815 was a compromise between the reformers’ ideals and the old traditions. Clausewitz’s reactions to this compromise are matters which Professor Paret sees he must discuss, but the discussion, to be fully intelligible, would require a different kind of book, and one that would conform more closely to his title.

It would be unreasonable to complain of Professor Paret’s omissions in view of the magnitude of his present achievement. The fact nevertheless remains that the military reforms, which are the only ones he considers, presented an easier task than did the reconstruction of the whole system of government, administration, landownership, and social relations on which the reformers also embarked after 1806. Yet to the military reformers these social and administrative changes seemed as essential as they seemed to Chancellor Hardenberg in his efforts to keep the Prussian economy working during and after the devastations of a peculiarly destructive war.

Our understanding of Clausewitz’s attitude to current problems, and of his vision of the new society, is incomplete without a knowledge both of the conditions which the reforms were designed to change and of the reactions which the attempted changes provoked. Most of the civilian reformers—Stein, Hardenberg, Theodor von Schön, to mention only the more prominent—who had expressed strongly radical opinions in the early stages of their careers, became increasingly conservative after the peace either from conviction or from a sense of the expedient. How far was this also true of Clausewitz? For lack of the necessary information the reader remains in ignorance of his opinions on many important questions, for example the course taken by the emancipation of the peasants—the most complicated and far-reaching of all the measures of reform. Was he, the reader inevitably wonders, as much of a liberal and a radical as Professor Paret paints him, or may not he, too, at least by the contemporary standards of Western Europe, have been in some respects a reactionary?

Clausewitz was certainly always a liberal in the sense of welcoming the abolition of the legal barriers which up until 1807 had divided the various estates and other groups in the community, and in his desire to give opportunities to talent in whatever walk of life it was to be found. He thought that the talents that made for success in business were similar to those that did so in a military commander, and with his customary prescience he foresaw that they were more likely to develop among the German than among the French business communities. He was a radical in his ambition to mobilize all the human as well as the material resources of the country in order to increase the power of the state, and to do so by methods—arming the people—that in a society where a large proportion of the population had not yet emerged from serfdom seemed to many members of the establishment to mean opening a high road to revolution.

No one could have found revolution more repugnant than he did, but he did not believe that it was a danger. He thought the danger was of another kind. The Germans, he said, had often been invaded but when had they been known to revolt? The government’s most urgent task was to maintain Prussia in the ranks of the major powers, a position to which she was not entitled by the size of her population and resources. In consequence, “Prussia has the need to arm her entire people so that she can withstand the two giants who will always threaten her from east and west.”

This vision of a whole people united in a common endeavor involved a greater degree of egalitarianism, and hence of government control over economic life, than existed in any country at the time. It was a vision, for example, that was incompatible with the poverty which Clausewitz discovered and deplored in various parts of Prussia, and which he thought the government should remedy. It is not possible, however, to discover from Professor Paret’s account how Clausewitz reconciled these views with the belief in free enterprise—a belief which most of the Prussian reformers of his day embraced with an enthusiasm unequaled elsewhere, and which he himself would appear to have accepted.

Apparently his only formal statement of his political philosophy is that which appears in an unpublished and undated essay, written, probably in the early 1820s, in connection with the students’ agitations for a united Germany and for democratic constitutions within the individual states. Professor Paret having analyzed this essay, called “Umtriebe,”* paragraph by paragraph, with his customary accuracy and thoroughness, confesses that he is puzzled by it—indeed one might say that he is distressed by it—because notwithstanding its repudiation of the old regime in Prussia, and the tribute it pays to Hardenberg’s reforms which the reactionaries condemned, it is far from devoid of reactionary sentiments.

At the beginning Clausewitz sets out the causes of the French Revolution and the reasons why a revolutionary situation never developed in any of the German states. Delbrück observed of this analysis that Clausewitz’s genius had enabled him to come to the same conclusion that Tocqueville only reached after much painstaking research. The similarity between the two writers is certainly remarkable. Not only did both believe that one of the principle causes of the Revolution lay in the tensions between nobles and bourgeois, but Clausewitz in accounting for these tensions used almost the same words which Tocqueville was to use over thirty years later. “For many centuries,” Tocqueville wrote, “the French nobility had not ceased to get poorer…the commoners alone seemed to have inherited the wealth which the nobility had lost.” Clausewitz’s version ran: “All that the nobility had gradually lost by bad management flowed by a natural process into the possession of the business world.”

Tocqueville’s remark, as is now generally admitted, was a highly inaccurate description of the state of affairs in France at the end of the Ancien Regime. Clausewitz’s remark, on the other hand, was much nearer to the truth in Prussia at the time he wrote, when the war, the agricultural slump that followed, and the upheavals caused by the emancipation of the peasants drove into bankruptcy a very large number of nobles whose estates in many cases were taken over by bourgeois.

Clausewitz evidently approved of these developments. He said that Hardenberg’s legislation, which had made them possible, had removed from Prussia all the grievances, in so far as they had ever existed, that had provoked the Revolution in France. He made no mention of the grievances which the reforms were creating among the peasantry, or of most of the other grievances which have led modern writers to speak of “the failure of the Prussian reform movement.”

He had no sympathy whatever with the students’ activities or with their professors, whom he accused of egging the students on. He described the idea of a united Germany as childish in the existing circumstances and only capable of being realized once one state had become strong enough to subdue the others by force. And as for democracy: this, he said, was a form of government in which “only the most restless heads and hearts take part,” and in which the people are “merely gaping onlookers.”

He blamed the government for the kind of measures it had taken to quell the student disturbances, and in a letter to Groelmann in December 1819 (to which Professor Paret refers though he does not mention this particular passage) he said that one tries to contain a swollen river by strengthening its banks and not by building dams across the current. But he added that if the rebels should prove unamenable to wise measures of control then the only remedy was the sword, “which provides the one form of fear that is salutary.”

In the light of these and similar utterances the absence from the “Umtriebe” of any references to a constitution, which Clausewitz had advocated on other occasions, need perhaps not seem so surprising as Professor Paret suggests. It is significant that Clausewitz and Tocqueville differed in one important respect in their analysis of the causes of the French Revolution. Both singled out two causes as primarily responsible and were agreed on one. But whereas Tocqueville saw the second cause as the destruction of political liberty, whose absence, he maintained, made it possible for abuses to flourish which could not have done so otherwise, Clausewitz ascribed the Revolution not only, as Tocqueville did, to social tensions, but also to the disorderly, spend-thrift, and corrupt administration conducted in the interests of only one section of the community.

Though Clausewitz, like all the other members of the reform party, said at times that some form of representative government was essential, it would not be strange if he as well as they gave it only a low priority. He attached more importance to efficiency and honesty in the public service, virtues always more highly prized in Prussia than in France. When he spoke of the need for responsible ministers in a passage which Professor Paret cites, he did not mean ministers responsible to an elected assembly, but ministers responsible for their departments, a state of affairs which had been rendered impossible by the kitchen cabinet which existed until 1807.

Though he objected as strongly as anyone to what it became the fashion to call the “mechanischer Staat” or the “Maschinenstaat” of Frederick the Great’s day—a state in which human beings were treated as if they were cogs in a machine—it seems clear that he was strongly influenced by the tradition of enlightened despotism as it developed in Prussia in the second half of the eighteenth century. This tradition, notwithstanding the legal barriers between the various groups in the population that existed until 1807, laid far more stress than did the Western thinking of the time on the obligations of both the ruler and his subjects to the community, whose interests were identified with those of the state.

The tradition of enlightened despotism could be adopted to permit administrative and economic reforms in some respect more drastic than those achieved by the Revolution in France, but it was hardly compatible with the kind of individualism that found expression in the West in the demand for civil and political liberty. In the first half of the nineteenth century the Prussian administration and the Prussian army became the most efficient in Europe, and the Prussian economy began to make the strides that led to its overtaking first the French and then the British. Politically, however, Prussia was the bulwark of reaction. It does not seem possible to absolve Clausewitz from having contributed to these developments even though he deplored some of them. There can be no doubt about the side on which he would have found himself had he escaped death from cholera in middle age and lived until 1848.

  1. *

    This word is very hard to translate. Professor Paret translates it as “agitation.” In the context it means social disturbances.

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