Carl von Clausewitz is known today as the West’s most influential military thinker. His seminal treatise On War lies at the heart of modern military doctrine. One recent article even compared its status among U.S. officers to that of St. Paul’s letters among Christians.
For generations of readers of On War , Clausewitz, the private man, has been of a bit of mystery. Contemporaries noted that he was reserved and spoke freely and genially in the company of good friends. Although a veteran of many battles and campaigns, Clausewitz often avoided directly citing his own experience in his writings. Only recently his military achievements became the subject of an extensive study, found largely in Donald Stoker’s Clausewitz: His Life and Work .
The newly discovered complete correspondence between Carl and Marie von Clausewitz offers invaluable clues about the military theorist’s times, personal life, and writing habits. And, finally, they shed some light on Carl as the person and writer, instead of just the theorist.
Clausewitz Was a Messy Writer
Just ask his wife, Marie. Throughout the years, in her correspondence, she complained extensively about Clausewitz misplacing important letters and even a military map that he needed as a staff officer. He debated ideas with Marie but then failed to capture them on paper. A thorough thinker, Clausewitz often revised his manuscripts and wrote in the margins or left long amendments but then forgot to leave a clear copy.
His disorganized streak explains the circumstances when, after her husband’s untimely death, Marie prepared On War for publication. In her preface she wrote that “we shared everything,” so “a task of this kind could not occupy my beloved husband without at the same time becoming thoroughly familiar to me.” She seemingly contradicted herself a couple of passages later, however, by describing the tedious process of final revisions. If she was so familiar with Clausewitz’s work, it might be expected that she knew immediately where to find the corrections. Only by keeping in mind his tangled writing manner can we understand the challenges Marie faced when she prepared On War for publishing.
Clausewitz Was a Man Ahead of His Time
As a junior officer from the provinces, he was smitten with Berlin’s highly educated, witty and well-connected ladies. In early nineteenth century, the Prussian capital boasted its own popular salons where spirited women hosted literary gatherings. In a letter to Marie, Clausewitz even admitted fantasizing about a friendship with one of the “bright” or “thoughtful” ( gehaltreich) ladies he observed as an outsider. Born Countess von Brühl and a prominent member of Prussian high society and court, Marie was just that. Clausewitz treated her as his intellectual equal and often relied on her connections and political knowledge.
Later in life, he fostered close relationships with scores of prominent women. Many of them, like the novelists Bettina von Arnim and Sophie von Schwerin, the famous political saloniers Princess Louise Radziwill and Elise von Bernstorff, produced accounts presenting Clausewitz in a very sympathetic light.
He left enough evidence that he took women’s roles in political and public spheres seriously. After 1826, for instance, Clausewitz wrote an analysis of the War of the Spanish Succession based on the published correspondence of Madame de Maintenon to the Princess des Ursins. He passionately argued that one should not dismiss the book simply because these were “the words of a woman.” Quite the opposite, Clausewitz stated; even if Madame de Maintenon in particular had “no talent whatever for matters of state and for war,” she still was so close to Louis XIV and the French court that her letters bore invaluable information about the war.
In taking women seriously, he was a man ahead of his time. Other men in that period displayed increasingly exclusive, simplistic, and patently colored by exaggerated masculinity world views, but Clausewitz understood better the complex socio-political realities. It might have also been one of the reasons he decided to write On War in an objective tone free of moral judgment, and to deliberately avoid the language of male heroism, bravado, and sacrifice.
Clausewitz Was Interested in the Arts
Marie was the driving force behind Clausewitz's interest in the arts. Early in their relationship she tutored him in the matters of art and aesthetics. Marie was a talented artist, although she lacked academic training. She studied art on her own and befriended prominent artists. Her portrait of the Prussian war hero August Neidhardt von Gneisenau is now part of the German Historical Museum’s permanent exhibition. Marie might also have been the artist who created the newly discovered drawing of Clausewitz .
Writing and thinking while his wife quietly worked on a painting nearby was one of Clausewitz’s favorite occupations. No surprise that, as a diversion from war’s bloody business, he found it most agreeable to imagine Marie’s peaceful pursuit. “Everything is so picturesque,” Clausewitz wrote in the midst of the preparations for 1815 Campaign in Belgium, “that I would give so much to see one of these farms [appear] in your drawing pad.”
Later he even wrote essays on the subject of appreciation of fine arts, architecture, and interior design. What interested Clausewitz most were the psychological mechanisms of creation and perception. He used art metaphors in On War to explain war’s complex nature in simpler and visually more compelling terms. “Architects and painters know precisely what they are about as long as they deal with material phenomena. Mechanical and optical structures are not subject to dispute. But when they come to the aesthetics of their work, when they aim at a particular effect on the mind or on the senses, the rules dissolve into nothing but a vague idea,” he wrote in Book II. In the same way, Clausewitz suggested, moral factors in war were difficult to pinpoint but any military action should take them into account and aim at them as well.
Clausewitz Was Content With His Later Life
This is one of the most prevailing misconceptions about the military theorist’s last decade in Berlin and it has cast a long shadow over his legacy. Remember John Keegan’s description of Clausewitz as “unpromoted and largely unhonored in his own country”?