Carl von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings

Carl von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings

by Carl von Clausewitz

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Carl von Clausewitz's major theoretical work, On War, has retained its freshness and relevance since it first appeared 160 years ago. Clausewitz was also a wide-ranging, innovative historian--his acerbic history of Prussia before 1806 became an underground classic long before it could be published--and a combative political essayist, whose observations on the affairs


Carl von Clausewitz's major theoretical work, On War, has retained its freshness and relevance since it first appeared 160 years ago. Clausewitz was also a wide-ranging, innovative historian--his acerbic history of Prussia before 1806 became an underground classic long before it could be published--and a combative political essayist, whose observations on the affairs of Germany and Europe combine social egalitarianism with a nearly Bismarckian Realpolitik. In this companion volume to On War, the editors bring together Clausewitz's political writings and a selection of his historical works--material that is fascinating in its own right, important as a commentary on his theories of war, and a valuable source for understanding European ideas and attitudes during and after the Napoleonic era. None of these works has previously appeared in English, with one exception, which was published in a corrupt, censored text that has now been restored to its original form. The editors have contributed introductions for the historical and for the political parts of the volume, as well as brief introductions to the individual selections. Their analyses and the texts themselves reveal Clausewitz to be an exceptionally independent observer both of the past and of his own times, whose outlook is distinguished by an unideological pragmatism and a keen sense of the possibilities and shortcomings of state power.

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From the Publisher
Finalist for the 1993 Translation Prize, PEN American Center

"This is a splendid collection of Clausewitz's historical and political writings, superbly translated and brilliantly edited.... No serious student of history, politics, and war should miss this admirable book."Infantry

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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Historical and Political Writings

By Carl von Clausewitz, Peter Paret, Daniel Moran


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03192-7


"Some Comments on the War of the Spanish Succession after Reading the Letters of Madame de Maintenon to the Princess des Ursins" (1826 or later)

Clausewitz wrote these comments in or after 1826, the year of publication of the edition of Mme de Maintenons correspondence that he must have used. The notes exemplify his manner in maturity of working with historical sources and of thinking about the past. He is interested in differences in conditions and attitudes between former times and his own, differences he tries to understand by putting himself in the position of the people he writes about. On the other hand, his frequent observations on strategic factors almost always link past and present—for instance, he comments that the best route by which to invade France is still from the northeast, as it was in the age of Louis XIV. The notes also demonstrate the dialectical form in which he liked to develop his interpretations. The opening paragraph begins with a statement emphasizing the serious dangers facing France between 1706 and 1711. This is immediately followed by the observation that France was not as weak as is usually assumed. The paragraph ends with the assertion that not weakness but the superior talents of the allied commanders caused France to lose the war. In subsequent paragraphs, however, nothing is said about Marlborough and Prince Eugene—both of whom are frequently mentioned by Mme de Maintenon—but a great deal about the personalities of the French commanders and the limited scope of their authority, which in turn help explain the success of Marlborough and Eugene.

The comments end with an extended gloss on a passage of one of the letters, which expressed approval that Louis XIV did not directly involve himself in the conduct of military operations. Mme de Maintenons statement, Clausewitz believes, reflected a general attitude toward kingship and war, which in part is explained by the limited character of war at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Perhaps it was no accident that this passage caught his attention: at the time he wrote, in the second half of the 1820s, he was refining his analysis of the nature of limited and unlimited war, making the distinction between the two forms the basis of his entire theoretical work. We cannot say whether Clausewitz knew that Mme de Maintenons letters to the Princess des Ursins, first lady-in-waiting to the queen of Spain, had a pronounced official character; but it was obvious to him that Mme de Maintenon expressed not so much her own views as ideas widely held at court, which makes her letters significant beyond their account of personalities and events. The refusal of Louis XIV to lead his armies thus becomes a key to the understanding of his times.

* * *

We see from these letters:

1. In what perplexities, distress, and anxiety France found herself between 1706 and 1711. A few successful campaigns might threaten her very existence! To be sure, people always talk of a Europe united against Louis XIV. But this Europe consisted merely of Austria, parts of the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch, Great Britain, and intermittently Savoy. Ranged in opposition were France, the greater part of Spain, and the insurgent Hungarians, against whom Austria was waging war. If we consider how badly located were the armies that England, Holland, and Savoy could use against France, how inconsequential were the armed forces of the Holy Roman Empire, and that Austria was compelled to divert part of her army to Hungary, we will scarcely claim that their political superiority over France was very great, and that the cause of their eventual success lay in this superiority. No! Success was brought about by the two great and enterprising commanders of the alliance.

2. That of all perplexities, the need for money was the greatest, which demonstrates how completely war was dependent on money at that time.

3. That although favor and caprice had far less influence on the appointment of senior commanders than is usually assumed, secondary considerations did often play too large a part, which significantly damaged the king's cause. In 1708 the duke of Burgundy was sent to Flanders because opinion in the army strongly favored the presence of a prince of royal blood. Vendôme's authority was reduced, soon disputes arose between him and the prince, and matters grew even worse when Berwick arrived in Flanders with units of the army from Germany and became the prince's councilor. Now the army had three commanders in chief. According to these letters, the battle of Oudenaarde, usually regarded as the work of the duke of Burgundy, seems to have been opposed by him: Vendôme alone made the decision.

The failure of this campaign kept Vendôme from serving in the following years, and he did not regain command until 1710 in Spain. In 1709 Villars, who until then had been successful in Germany, was made commander in chief in the main theater of war, Flanders. A bold, gay, somewhat reckless personality, he was regarded as the best of the senior commanders, or at least the luckiest. However, the king seems to have felt uneasy, and the sixty-five-year-old Boufflers, who had restored his reputation the previous year by his defense of Lille, and since then had gained considerable trust and made himself seem important through his honest zeal in carrying out administrative assignments, was sent to the army in Flanders. It was said that this was a precaution in case Marshal Villars met with some accident; but presumably the careful and conscientious Boufflers was sent to assist him. This is how the matter appears when the letters allow us to look backstage, while before the footlights the drama of the aged veteran hurrying to serve under a young marshal is presented as an act of enthusiastic patriotism, designed to inflame the spirit of the entire army.

As is known, Villars actually was wounded in the battle of Malplaquet, and Boufflers made himself very useful to the army when he took command of the retreat. But surely it had been hoped that his usefulness would consist in preventing a battle of Malplaquet from being fought at all.

Unless the duke of Orleans (the later regent) is numbered among generals of the first rank, the French lacked sufficient commanders of this quality for all their major armies. They fought in four theaters of war: Flanders, Germany (that is, the upper Rhine), Italy or Savoy, and Spain; but they had only three commanders of more or less equally high quality: Villars, Vendôme, and Berwick.

4. We learn from these letters that the French court was always much more concerned about Flanders than about the other theaters of war. This is only to be expected, because despite the many fortresses in Flanders the area is so much nearer the capital, which could also be regarded as the core of the monarchy. At the same time, the concern of the court points to the policies that the allies should have pursued.

If one operates in conjunction with England and Holland, the line of advance from Brussels to Paris is far superior to an advance from Strasbourg. For one thing it is much shorter, besides it runs through rich, level, populated areas, with few warlike inhabitants; and finally (and this is the main point) the line is not flanked by the mass of French territory as would be the case with an advance from Mainz, and even more so with an advance from Strasbourg. Immediately to its right is the sea, and on its left—since the invading force would cross the French frontier in a southwesterly direction—only as much enemy territory as is gradually left behind during the advance. By contrast, an advance from Strasbourg to Paris has all of southern France, or rather five sixths of the whole of France, on its left. This consideration is even more important today than it was in the past when extraordinary means of defense [for instance, guerrilla operations] were less common.

5. We see that the operation against Toulon did alarm the court, because the loss of this city would have meant a significant reduction of the state's resources. But we also find that it was not difficult or costly to protect the city. An offensive in Provence is the poorest measure one can take against France. In those days, of course, people still feared an insurrection in the Cevennes, which might have been coordinated with such an attack.

6. As already noted, Villars emerges in these letters as a bold, somewhat reckless commander; Vendôme as lazy, cynical, but enterprising; Berwick as thoughtful and cautious.

7. On April 29, 1708, Madame de Maintenon writes to the Princess des Ursins: "No, Madame, the king will not go to Flanders, for the same reason that the king of Spain will not place himself at the head of his armies. Their affairs are not in sufficiently bad shape to warrant desperate actions, nor sufficiently favorable to allow them to do something that is worthy of their greatness."

Elsewhere she praises the king of Spain for not having joined the army, "because he would not have been able to do anything brilliant."

We should not be misled by the fact that these are the words of a woman, moreover a woman, as Madame de Maintenon says of herself and as is evident, who has no talent whatever for matters of state and for war. She merely voices the opinions of her environment, but this environment is made up precisely of the individuals whose opinions and points of view matter to us: the king, the senior commanders, princes, ministers, etc. If we take Madame de Maintenon's statement as the considered opinion of these men, it becomes highly significant. That a ruler who is not also a great man may quietly hold the view she expresses should surprise no one familiar with human weaknesses. But that such a point of view is openly stated, in a sense preached as a political principle, is most remarkable! It is explained by the fact that in the conditions of the French state at the time, war—even a very serious and dangerous war—appears to be a matter of secondary importance, not worthy of the king's personal involvement, unless the war, like some luxurious object, can be used to glorify the monarch's person and his reign. Certainly people had learned from European history that war could come to dominate a state, that a state could be drawn into the whirlpool of war and be threatened with extinction. But the size of the French monarchy was so disproportionate to the limited nature of war in the early eighteenth century that no one could think extinction was a possibility for France. The limited intensity of war gave rise to the opinion that for France war was a secondary matter, and in turn this point of view influenced the character of the war.


"Observations on the Wars of the Austrian Succession" (early 1820s)

Aside from the Napoleonic Wars, the wars of Frederick the Great are the military episodes most often discussed and cited in Clausewitz's writings. Together they make up over three quarters of the references to military history in On War. The young Clausewitz was undoubtedly brought up on the triumphs, hardships, and legends of the Frederician campaigns, and after he returned, a fifteen-year-old lieutenant, from the War of the First Coalition, he began to study them seriously and continued to occupy himself with the subject for the rest of his life. In the early 1820s he decided to set down his ideas in comprehensive chronological form. The manuscript was printed in the tenth volume of his posthumous works under the title, "The Campaigns of Frederick the Great from 1741 to 1762." It is not a true history but rather, as the subtitles of the two main parts indicate, Bemerkungen—remarks, observations, comments, some no more than one or two sentences long, set apart by I signs. The text that follows is of the first main part, "Observations on the Wars of the Austrian Succession."

At the time of writing, Clausewitz notes, relatively little had been published on the first two Silesian wars, from 1740 to 1742 and 1744 to 1745, in contrast to the Seven Years' War, on which the literature was already extensive. The first part mentions only one source, Frederick the Great's Histoire de mon temps. To this should be added Jacob de Cogniazo's Geständnisse eines österreichischen Veteranen, which contains material on the early period, but is not referred to until the second part, and probably Ludwig Müllers Kurzgefasste Beschreibung der drey schlesischen Kriege, a work Clausewitz must have known because he was Müllers student in Berlin from 1801 to 1804. A few articles as well as references in memoirs and other larger works complete the narrow historiographical base available to him.

"In no war was strategy as saturated with politics as in this one." With this comment in §3 of the "Observations," Clausewitz does not mean to suggest that other wars were to any lesser degree instruments of policy, but that in the Wars of the Austrian Succession policy and political considerations determined strategy and even the movement of subordinate units to an unusual extent. The wars, which began in December 1740 when Frederick exploited the political uncertainties following the death of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, by occupying Silesia, were an alternating sequence of fighting and negotiating between powers, some of whom changed sides more than once. Throughout the conflict, the victories the Prussians gained were more important psychologically and politically than in their direct military impact. At last two victories over the Austrians in the summer and fall of 1745, combined with the defeat of Austria's ally, Saxony, led to the Peace of Dresden, which left Frederick in undisturbed possession of Silesia for the next eleven years. The wars marked an important phase in the development of the Frederician and post-Frederician army and in the growth in power of the Prussian state—the traditions and environment in which Clausewitz spent his early life. They also differed significantly from the wars of the Napoleonic era. Repeatedly, Clausewitz interprets a course of action that his own generation might find flawed or incomprehensible by referring to the conditions of the times and to attitudes and assumptions then current. The "Observations" are a step in a lengthy comparative process. Similar studies of the Napoleonic era, for instance his critique of the campaign of 1814, also included in this volume, gradually led Clausewitz to comprehensive interpretations of the character of war in both periods and eventually also to his theory of the dual nature of war.

In the first paragraphs of the "Observations," Clausewitz discusses his subject from the perspective of war, not of diplomacy, although political factors are always in evidence and occasionally become preeminent. His comments follow an approximate chronology of events. He opens with a specific operational phenomenon that might be regarded as of secondary significance but which is linked to fundamental issues of war and society of the times: surprising the opposing army when it is dispersed in quarters. Several encounters of this kind occurred in the war because reconnaissance was poor, especially on the Prussian side. In part, these tactical surprises were a consequence of the social conditions of an age when the rank and file consisted primarily of mercenaries and of men pressed to serve. The organization of the troops, their march formations, and to some extent even their tactical deployment were influenced by the need to prevent desertion. Scouting and patrolling were therefore best left to the minority of men whose loyalty could be trusted and who knew how to act on their own. In the Wars of the Austrian Succession these requirements were met by the Austrian light troops, most coming from the so-called military frontier at the southern edge of Hungary. A brief paragraph in the "Observations" refers to these units, which were one of the institutional forces that gradually transformed the armies of the ancien régime into the more flexible mass armies of industrializing Europe.


Excerpted from Historical and Political Writings by Carl von Clausewitz, Peter Paret, Daniel Moran. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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