Clausewitz: His Life and Work

Clausewitz: His Life and Work
Donald Stoker   Oxford University Press  354pp  £18.99

A good, accessible biographic contextualisation of Clausewitz’s writings has been long overdue. Peter Paret’s Clausewitz and the State (2007) remains brilliant, but is mainly for a scholarly audience. Donald Stoker’s book will please scholars and a wider public alike. Here is an academic reading the original German, when so many misguidedly think that texts written with a partly obsolete vocabulary can be fully understood and explored in translations into English, that reflect the concerns of the Cold War, coloured by preoccupations with nuclear deterrence, pre-emption and American strategic failure in Vietnam.  

Stoker surveys Clausewitz’s life and thinking in the context of the Napoleonic Wars and the ensuing decade and a half of peace and of the political evolution of Prussia. He draws on all available sources: Clausewitz’s correspondence, his On War, of course, but also his lesser-known works and his extensive campaign histories, which he wrote as an eyewitness. Stoker allows us to understand the development of Clausewitz’s thinking and the events and commissions which resulted in his written works by placing the dry text against the colourful background of his life and times. Clausewitz was an ambitious officer from a family that had pretensions to belong to the lesser nobility, but actually belonged more to lower middle-class society. His home was far removed from the urbane culture of the Prussian court to which he gained access thanks to his fond teacher and patron, General Gerhard von Scharnhorst, and his future wife, who came from the highest aristocracy. Clausewitz thus came a long way; his is an impressive social success story.

Stoker is no uncritical biographer. He confronts Clausewitz’s unsavoury sides, the nastily antisemitic remarks, his ultra-nationalist outbursts, which later so pleased the Nazis, and his persistent complaints about his career. Given that, after its defeat at Jena and Auerstedt, Prussia had to let go of most of its generals and officers of lower ranks, that Clausewitz’s brief career in the Russian army (1812-13) was hampered by his inability to speak Russian, that his defection was pardoned by the king, that his performance at Waterloo was disappointing, that he was often on sick leave and that he still ended up as a general in a cushy position in Berlin, he really had no reason to complain. Yet in his correspondence with his two patrons, Scharnhorst and Field Marshal Count Neidhardt von Gneisenau, he was forever moaning about his respective jobs and begging them to help him find better postings and promotion; their fondness for him must have been severely tried. 

Stoker’s is a very human portrait of a man who was at once a genius, a brilliant analyst and a whinger, a thin-skinned melancholic, yet a merciless critic of others with bizarre mannerisms. We come away feeling we have met a fascinating man face to face, but not necessarily one we would have liked. That said, this helps us better to understand Clausewitz’s great contribution to our understanding of war. This is no mean achievement.

Beatrice Heuser is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading. 

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