Very Short Reviews: Donald Stoker’s _Clausewitz: His Life and Work_

Clausewitz

Donald Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  1. Although he is almost unknown outside of military and academic circles, Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the Prussian soldier and intellectual, has exercised an enormous influence on military thought, mainly through his unfinished magnum opus, On War.
  2. Many works have analyzed or evaluated Clausewitz’s work, but Stoker is primarily interested in connecting Clausewitz’s thought to his military experiences, something that this book does quite successfully.
  3. Scholars have tended to emphasize Clausewitz’s experience as a staff officer while neglecting the fact that he saw a great deal of combat in various capacities throughout the French revolutionary wars and the subsequent conflicts against Napoleon.
  4. Clausewitz’s military experience was substantial and varied: he joined the Prussian army as an officer cadet in 1792; first saw combat in 1793 along the Rhine (participating in the siege of Mainz); fought in the disastrous 1806 war that saw Prussia crushed by Napoleon; was indispensable to the post-1806 reform of the Prussian army (to make it more like the French); served as a staff officer in the Russian army during Napoleon’s catastrophic invasion of that country (1812); helped negotiate the Convention of Tauroggen (1812) which played a major role in turning Prussia from an ally into an enemy of Napoleon’s; became quartermaster general (the chief executive officer) of a multinational army corps charged with clearing north Germany and the Low Countries of the French (1813); and then won an appointment as chief of staff of the Prussian III Corps during the Waterloo campaign (1815).
  5. As Stoker shows, Clausewitz learned a great deal from his own experiences, but even more important, Clausewitz was an acute observer of military events taking place in other theaters of war.
  6. Clausewitz was such an acute observer not only because of his natural intelligence, but also because he had the good fortune to receive an excellent (although late) education, participate in some of the intellectual currents associated with the German Romantic movement, and benefit from the tutelage of thinking soldiers like Gerhard von Scharnhorst, the great Prussian general.
  7. From Scharnhorst, his mentor, Clausewitz learned the value of historical study, not so much because it gave him answers (military situations do not repeat themselves), but because it taught him how to think analytically about war.
  8. And thus, as he surveyed the events taking place around him, Clausewitz was able to arrive at his great insights about the relationship between war and politics, the connections between the various elements of war (his famous “paradoxical trinity”), the concept of Schwerpunkt (“center of gravity”), and so on.
  9. A picture of Clausewitz the man also appears very clearly in this work—we see his sometimes melancholic personality, his sharp intellect, his profound respect for learning, his oft-thwarted ambition, his deep love for his wife, and his sincere patriotism.
  10. For many reasons, On War is difficult to read and easy to misinterpret—General Gunther Blumentritt once claimed that giving On War to the military was like “allowing a child to play with a razor blade”—but Stoker’s biography along with some of Peter Paret’s work on Clausewitz would provide a reader with a good preparation for tackling Clausewitz’s classic work.

Hugh Dubrulle

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