Which Side Was Clausewitz On?

Clausewitz and the State

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

Carl von Clausewitz
Carl von Clausewitz; drawing by David Levine

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…

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