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‘The most beautiful of wars’: Carl von Clausewitz and small wars

  • Sibylle Scheipers (a1) (a2)
Abstract
Abstract

Carl von Clausewitz was both an avid analyst of small wars and people’s war and, during the wars of liberation, a practitioner of small war. While Clausewitz scholars have increasingly recognised the centrality of small wars for Clausewitz’s thought, the sources and inspirations of his writings on small wars have remained understudied. This article contextualises Clausewitz’s thought on small wars and people’s war in the tradition of German philosophical and aesthetic discourses around 1800. It shows how Clausewitz developed core concepts such as the integration of passion and reason and the idea of war in its ‘absolute perfection’ as a regulative ideal in the framework of his works on small wars and people’s war. Contextualising Clausewitz inevitably distances him from the twenty-first-century strategic context, but, as this article shows, it can help us to ask pertinent questions about the configuration of society, the armed forces and the government in today’s Western states.

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Correspondence to: Sibylle Scheipers, University of St Andrews, School of International Relations, Arts Building, The Scores, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9AX. Author’s email: ss203@st-andrews.ac.uk

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1 ParetPeter, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985); AronRaymond, Clausewitz: Philosopher or War (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976). See also StrachanHew, ‘Clausewitz en anglais: la césure de 1976’, in Laure Bardiès and Martin Motte (eds), École pratique De la guerre? Clausewitz et la pensée stratégique contemporaine (Paris: Economica, 2008), pp. 81122 .

2 StrachanHew, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography (New York: Atlantic Books, 2007); Herberg-RotheAndreas, Clausewitz’s Puzzle: The Political Theory of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); EchevarriaAntulio J.II, Clausewitz and Contemporary War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); DaaseChristopher, ‘Clausewitz and small wars’, in Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe (eds), Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 182195 .

3 HeuserBeatrice, ‘Small wars in the age of Clausewitz: the watershed between partisan war and people’s war’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 33:1 (2010), pp. 139162 . See also the contributions in the Special Issue of Small Wars and Insurgencies, 25:4 (2014): ‘The Origins of Small Wars: From Special Operations to Ideological Insurgencies’.

4 ‘Ein ungenannter Militär an Fichte’, in Walther Malmsten Schering (ed.), Carl von Clausewitz: Geist und Tat (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1941), p. 71.

5 See also SumidaJon Tetsuro, Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008), pp. 121ff. Sumida recognises the relevance of small wars for Clausewitz’s theory of war; however, he fails to grasp the importance of Clausewitz’s engagement with his intellectual context in this respect and claims that Clausewitz was a largely idiosyncratic thinker.

6 ParetPeter, ‘Text and context: Two Paths to Clausewitz’, in P. Paret (ed.), Clausewitz in His Time: Essays in the Cultural and Intellectual History of Thinking about War (New York: Berghahn, 2015), pp. 517 .

7 Cf. SkinnerQuentin, ‘Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas’, History and Theory, 8:1 (1969), pp. 353 . More recently Skinner, Visions of Politics, Volume I: Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

8 Cf. AllenGraham, Intertextuality (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 68ff.

9 Cf. BurnsTony, ‘Interpreting and appropriating texts in the history of political thought: Quentin Skinner and poststructuralism’, Contemporary Political Theory, 10:3 (2011), pp. 313331 .

10 Allen, Intertextuality, pp. 21ff.

11 LinnebachKarl (ed.), Karl und Marie von Clausewitz: Ein Lebensbild in Briefen und Tagebuchblättern (Berlin: Verlag Martin Warneck, 1916), p. 83 . On Clausewitz’s early education see also Paret, Clausewitz and the State, pp. 36ff.

12 Paret, Clausewitz and the State, p. 71.

13 WenigerErich, ‘Philosophie und Bildung im Denken for Clausewitz’, in Walther Hubatsch (ed.), Schicksalswege deutscher Vergangenheit (Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1950), p. 141 .

14 See, for example, Paret, Clausewitz and the State, p. 161; Strachan, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, pp. 90ff.; VegaJosé Fernández, ‘War as “art”: Aesthetics and politics in Clausewitz’s social thinking’, in Strachan and Herberg-Rothe (eds), Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 122137 .

15 BellingerVanya Eftimova, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman behind the Making of On War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 13ff .

16 Linnebach, Karl und Marie von Clausewitz, p. 83.

17 Ibid., p. 108.

18 Ibid., p. 110.

19 Marie wrote in her notes on her acquaintance with Carl: ‘Most often I saw him in the theatre [in der Komödie]’, see Linnebach, Karl und Marie von Clausewitz, p. 45.

20 See also Paret’s preface to the 2007 edition of Clausewitz and the State, p. xii: ‘Clausewitz’s appreciation of the works of Schiller deserves further study.’

21 In 1808 he wrote to Marie: ‘I have recently reread “Wallenstein”. How wonderful, divine, tender and pure are Max and Thekla!’. See Linnebach, Karl und Marie von Clausewitz, p. 156, see also p. 83.

22 Bellinger, Marie von Clausewitz, p. 64.

23 KrimmerElisabeth, The Representation of War in German Literature: From 1800 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 35 .

24 Krimmer, The Representation of War in German Literature, p. 45.

25 Linnebach, Karl und Marie von Clausewitz, p. 135.

26 SaureFelix, ‘Agamemnon on the Battlefield of Leipzig: Wilhelm fon Humboldt on ancient warriors, modern heroes, and Bildung through War’, in Elisabeth Krimmer and Patricia Anne Simpson (eds), Enlightened War: German Theories and Cultures of Warfare from Frederick the Great to Clausewitz (New York: Camden House, 2011), pp. 75102 .

27 KantImmanuel, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Werkausgabe, Volume X (Frankfurt, AM: Suhrkamp, 1974 [orig. pub. 1790]), §9.

28 ‘Über Kunst und Kunsttheorie’; ‘Über den Begriff des körperlich Schönen’; ‘Architektonische Rhapsodien’, all undated, in Schering (ed.), Carl von Clausewitz, pp. 153ff. The essay entitled ‘Über den Begriff des körperlich Schönen’ reads like a short synopsis of Kant’s third Critique for Clausewitz’s personal use. Paret, Clausewitz and the State, p. 163.

29 von ClausewitzCarl, ‘Vorlesungen über den kleinen Krieg’, Carl von Clausewitz: Schriften – Aufsätze – Studien – Briefe, Volume I, ed. Werner Hahlweg (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1966), pp. 208599 . An English translation has been published recently: Clausewitz on Small War, ed. and trans. James W. Davis and Christopher Daase (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 19–168.

30 Clausewitz, ‘Vorlesungen über den kleinen Krieg’, p. 239. The notion of the ‘free play’ of the spirit or of all human faculties first appeared in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laokoon (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2012 [orig. pub. 1766]), p. 26. Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Werkausgabe X, §9, also used it in the Critique of Judgment. For both Lessing and Kant, the ‘free play’ indicated that the experience of beauty had to transcend the level of sensual perception and had to engage reason. Hence Lessing’s and Kant’s aesthetics were fundamentally rationalist. For Schiller, sensibility and reason had to be engaged in equal measure in the experience of beauty in order to realise the ideal of freedom. BeiserFrederick, Schiller as Philosopher: A Re-examination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 233f.

31 See, for example, the letter from Clausewitz to Gneisenau on 29 January 1811, in Hahlweg (ed.), Schriften – Aufsätze – Studien – Briefe I, p. 638.

32 Letter from Clausewitz to Gneisenau on 13 September 1811, in Hahlweg (ed.), Carl von Clausewitz: Schriften – Aufsätze – Studien – Briefe I, pp. 661ff.

33 von GneisenauAugust Neidhardt, Denkschriften zum Volksaufstand von 1808 und 1811, ed. Harald von Koenigswald (Berlin: Junker und Dünnhaupt, 1936); von ScharnhorstGerhard, Private und dienstliche Schriften, Volume V, ed. Michael Sikora (Hamburg: Böhlau, 2009), p. 434 . Gneisenau’s 1811 memorandum on the Landsturm, which he and Scharnhorst jointly submitted to the Prussian chancellor Karl August von Hardenberg, served as the template for the 1813 Landsturmedikt. In the Landsturmedikt, the Prussian king sanctioned the organisation of a popular insurrection against the Napoleonic forces. However, the edict was never implemented and was weakened to the point of suspension by a revision of 17 July 1813.

34 ‘Bekenntnisdenkschrift’, in Hahlweg (ed.), Carl von Clausewitz: Schriften – Aufsätze – Studien – Briefe I, pp. 682ff – I am using my own translations of the German edition, since Paret and Moran unfortunately did not include the full text of the Bekenntnisdenkschrift in their edition of Clausewitz’s historical and political writings. See ParetPeter and MoranDaniel, Carl Von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, ed. and trans. P. Paret and D. Moran (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

35 ‘But since the essence of war is fighting, and since the battle is the fight of the main force, the battle must always be considered as the true center of gravity of the war.’ von ClausewitzCarl, On War, ed. and trans. Micheal Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), book IV, ch. 9, p. 248 ; German edition: Vom Kriege, ed. Werner Hahlweg (Bonn: Dümmlers, 1980), p. 453.

36 ‘Bekenntnisdenkschrift’, p. 733, emphasis added.

37 Ibid., pp. 720ff., emphasis added.

38 Ibid., p. 733.

39 Ibid., p. 731, emphasis added.

40 ‘Ein ungenannter Militär an Fichte’, in Schering (ed.), Carl von Clausewitz, p. 72, emphasis added. Again I am using my own translation in order to avoid some inaccuracies in Paret and Moran (eds), Carl Von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings.

41 ‘Ein ungenannter Militär an Fichte’, p. 71.

42 Ibid., pp. 71ff.

43 Linnebach, Karl und Marie von Clausewitz, p. 58; emphasis added. The idea that the moral qualities of the individual were corrupted by machine-like drill and discipline can also be found in Kleist and W. von Humboldt; see Paret, ‘A Learned Officer among Others’, in Paret (ed.), Clausewitz in His Time. p. 46; Saure, ‘Agamemnon on the Battlefield of Leipzig’, p. 87.

44 Clausewitz, ‘Vorlesungen über den kleinen Krieg’, pp. 237f.

45 On this fusion see in more detail Heuser, ‘Small wars in the age of Clausewitz’, pp. 139–62.

46 MoggachDouglas, ‘Fichte’s engagement with Machiavelli’, History of Political Thought, 14:4 (1993), p. 589 .

47 ‘Ein ungenannter Militär an Fichte’, pp. 72ff.

48 ‘Bekenntnisdenkschrift’, p. 733.

49 Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Werkausgabe X, §9.

50 Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Werkausgabe X, §59.

51 ‘Ein ungenannter Militär an Fichte’, pp. 73ff. Here Clausewitz follows Schiller’s argument of beauty as a regulative ideal that can only be reached through the integration of reason and sensibility. Note also that a parallel idea recurred later in book VIII, ch. 3B of On War in which Clausewitz depicted the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the resistance against them as instances in which war ‘rather closely approached its true character, its absolute perfection’; On War, book VIII, ch. 3B, p. 593 (Vom Kriege, 972).

52 ‘Ein ungenannter Militär an Fichte’, p. 72, emphasis added.

53 SchillerFriedrich, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, trans. Reginald Snell (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), letter 23, emphasis added.

54 HammermeisterKai, The German Aesthetic Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 29 .

55 Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education, letter 5; compare Hammermeister, The German Aesthetic Tradition, p. 48.

56 ‘Bekenntnisdenkschrift’, p. 707.

57 Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education, letter 5.

58 Beiser, Schiller as Philosopher, p. 163.

59 Fichte quoted in Hammermeister, The German Aesthetic Tradition, p. 59.

60 ‘Vergleich zwischen den europäischen Staaten’, in Schering (ed.), Carl von Clausewitz, p. 7, emphasis added.

61 ‘Bekenntnisdenkschrift’, p. 739.

62 Ibid., p. 734.

63 On War, book VI, ch. 26, p. 483 (Vom Kriege, pp. 703f).

64 MerrickJeffrey, ‘The body politics of French absolutism’, in Sara E. Melzer and Kathryn Norberg (eds), From the Royal to the Republican Body: Incorporating the Political in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century France (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998), p. 13 .

65 CurranJane V., ‘Bodily grace and consciousness: From the enlightenment to Romanticism’, in Marianne Henn and Holger A. Pausch (eds), Body Dialectics in the Age of Goethe (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), p. 419 .

66 ‘Ein ungenannter Militär an Fichte’, pp. 80ff.

67 Paret, Clausewitz and the State, p. 16.

68 Beiser, Schiller as Philosopher, pp. 82ff. For Goethe’s and Hegel’s critique of the notion of the ‘beautiful soul’ see EllisonDavid, Ethics and Aesthetics in European Modernist Literature: From the Sublime to the Uncanny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 125ff.

69 ‘Ein ungenannter Militär an Fichte’, p. 73. Of course, the notion of virtue also refers to Machiavelli in this context.

70 PalmgrenAnders, ‘Visions of Strategy: Following Clausewitz’s Train of Thought’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Helsinki: National Defence University, 2014).

71 Aron comes closest to acknowledging the reciprocal relationship between passion and reason, but Zweckrationalität, instrumentality, trumps the equivalence between the two elements: AronRaymond, ‘Reason, passion and power in the thought of Clausewitz’, Social Research, 39:4 (1972), pp. 599621 . See also Strachan, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, pp. 93ff.

72 Strachan, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, p. 179.

73 Paret, Clausewitz and the State, p. 299.

74 Moran in Paret and Moran (eds), Carl Von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, pp. 335ff. Cf. Paret, Clausewitz and the State, p. 303.

75 ‘Umtriebe’, in Carl von Clausewitz: Politische Schriften und Briefe, ed. Hans Rothfels (München: Drei Masken Verlag, 1922), pp. 167, 169, my translation.

76 ‘Our Military Institutions’, in Paret and Moran (eds), Carl Von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, p. 323, emphasis added.

77 ‘The Prussian Landwehr’, in Paret and Moran (eds), Carl Von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, p. 333. Also printed as ‘Über die politischen Vorteile und Nachteile der preussischen Landwehr’, Geist und Tat, pp. 203–8.

78 Paret, Clausewitz and the State, p. 420.

79 Ibid., pp. 406ff.

80 ‘Germany’s Existence’, in Paret and Moran (eds), Carl Von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, p. 381.

81 In his ‘Der Krieg der Russen gegen die Türken von 1736–1739’, Clausewitz discussed the irregular tactics that the Crimean Tartars used against Russian forces. See Hinterlassene Werke des Generals von Clausewitz, Volume X (Berlin: Dümmler, 1837), pp. 17ff. Tartars also feature in book II, ch. 6, of On War alongside ‘Cossacks and Croats’, which once again indicates a tactical – as opposed to a racial – understanding of the term. On War, book II, ch. 6, p. 170 (Vom Kriege, p. 336). In his broad-brushed overview of the historical development of war in book VIII, ch. 3B, Tartars feature as an example of a war-like people who were, even though they are ‘semi-barbarous’, militarily highly proficient. On War, book VIII, ch. 3B, p. 586 (Vom Kriege, p. 962). In the Tartars’ wars, the war-like element (primordial violence) manifested itself in a particularly unrestrained way; however, this was not owing to their semi-barbarous character. Rather, it was a function of the identity of popular passion and political aim, which could also occur among ‘civilised’ peoples – for example in the framework of popular insurrections. Cf. Palmgren, Visions of Strategy, p. 206.

82 ‘Agitation’, in Paret and Moran (eds), Carl Von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, p. 358. See also Heuser, ‘Small wars in the age of Clausewitz’.

83 ‘Agitation’, Paret and Moran (eds), Carl Von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, p. 347.

84 ‘Europe since the Polish Partitions’, in ibid., p. 373.

85 von ScharnhorstGerhard, Private und dienstliche Schriften, Volume II: Stabschef und Reformer (Kurhannover 1795–1801), ed. Johannes Kunisch (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), Aufzeichnung 309, p. 763.

86 On War, book I, ch. 1, p. 89 (Vom Kriege, p. 213).

87 On War, book VIII, ch. 2, p. 580 (Vom Kriege, p. 953).

88 KingAnthony, The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces: From the Rhine to Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

89 Cf. ScheipersSibylle (ed.), Heroism and the Changing Character of War: Toward Post-Heroic Warfare (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); VennessonPascal, ‘War without the people’, in Hew Strachan and Sibylle Scheipers (eds), The Changing Character of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 241258 .

* Correspondence to: Sibylle Scheipers, University of St Andrews, School of International Relations, Arts Building, The Scores, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9AX. Author’s email:

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European Journal of International Security
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