Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America 18151845. By Christopher Bassford. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1994. x + 293pp. £32.50. ISBN 0-19-508383-0.
This review appeared in War in History, 1995, vol.2 (3), p.359. It is displayed here with the permission of War in History and its publisher, Edward Arnold. Copyright Edward Arnold, 1994. All rights reserved.
A study of Clausewitz's influence and of the way he was interpreted by later generations must be based on a sound understanding both of what Clausewitz meant to say and of the general historical background of those who interpreted him. Clausewitz in English, growing out of a doctoral dissertation, falls short on both counts.
The introductory chapter intended to present Clausewitz's ideas relies apart from On War itself, only on his The Principles of War, and ignores the continuous and highly important sequence of writings, from 1804 on, in which he developed his views on the theory of war. Bassford's presentation is thus confined to the same narrow source material which always hindered English readers of Clausewitz; indeed, it duplicates their `misconceptions', especially of the kind popular since the mid1950s. Apparently, some time during the course of his work Bassford became aware of the more recent scholarly attention to the fact that before the crucial shift which had taken place in Clausewitz's thought from 1827 onward, he had exalted allout war as the only legitimate type of war. When Clausewitz began to qualify and amend this earlier view he was already halfway through his work on On War, which he never lived to complete. All the same, although Bassford recognizes at one point that On War is an incomplete draft and is `essentially two very different books superimposed' (p. 14), in the rest of this chapter he none the less repeats his predecessors' attempts to explain the book's ideas as a coherent whole, reproducing their muchworn cliches. In addition, he takes no account of the very real nature of the predicament of readers of On War ever since, who were obliged to make sense of these `two very different books' under one cover.
In respect to Clausewitz's influence or reception in Britain and the United States, the subjectmatter of most of the book, Clausewitz in English faces the problem that there was scarcely any such influence in Britain until the late 1890s, and even less in the United States until the interwar period or even the Second World War. The author thus often resorts to peculiar assertions and speculations, and exhibits dubious historical judgement, in order to keep his subject alive and interesting. He cites, for example, Clausewitz's campaign histories, a couple of standard, insignificant reviews of On War in British journals (as well as John Mitchell's exceptional Germanophile case, which has been treated by others) as evidence that Clausewitz was not entirely unknown in Britain before 1873, the year On War was translated. He then claims that there is no evidence that the translation, appearing at that particular time rather than at any other during the preceding forty years, was prompted by Prussia's triumphs in 1866 and 18701, notwithstanding the fact that the whole British defence system was then undergoing major reform (Cardwell's) in response to the Prussian achievement. He suggests that Clausewitz was known, and influential, in America through Jomini's criticism of him in the former's highly influential books. And he toys with the speculation that Lincoln himself was familiar with, and influenced by, Clausewitz's teaching.
During the twenty years preceding the First World War, Clausewitz and German military ideas finally became fairly well known and influential in Britain. Bassford meticulously catalogues references to Clausewitz, but his discussion of their significance rarely goes beyond the trivial and is poorly integrated into the wider historical picture. He fails to make use of books which bear directly on his subject, such as Tim Travers' The Killing Ground: The British Army, the Western Front and the Emergence of Modern Warfare 1900-1918 (1987). There is nothing new in his discussion of Fuller and Liddell Hart during the interwar period, and the only interesting stuff is the details on the life stories of the German expatriates (mostly of Jewish origin) who emigrated to the United States during the Nazi period. As Bassford writes correctly, they were instrumental in bringing about the `Clausewitz renaissance' in the West from the 1950s onwards. But this period falls beyond the chronological scope of Clausewitz in English.
Tel Aviv University
The author responds:
A couple of years ago, I published an article in War and History that sought to fathom the hostility and disdain British historian John Keegan reserved for those he labeled "the Clausewitzians." Keegan's quarry, to judge by his description, were an arrogant, fanatical, and muddled lot, intolerant of deviations from their version of received truth. Having just read Azar Gat's review of my book, I'm beginning to see what Keegan was getting at. My interpretation of Clausewitz is rather different from Gat's, and my approach to writing a book on Clausewitz's legacy is not the one Gat would have taken. Therefore, I gather, the book was a crashing failure and I am a dishonest ignoramus. In failing to meet Mr. Gat's standards, however, I am fortunately not alone: "[Peter] Paret ... totally misinterprets the essence of Clausewitz's military teaching throughout his life.... [Raymond] Aron's theoretical naivete is astonishing." (Gat, Origins of Military Thought, pp.169-170.) Frankly, I'm thrilled to be abused in such company.
My goal, as I made clear (click HERE to see the actual text of the book's introduction), was not to write "a study of Clausewitz's influence." My goal was to tell the story of Clausewitz's reception—by writers whether famous or not, "influential" or not. I took great pains to distinguish reception from "influence." The distinction is important. We can trace Clausewitz's reception by what writers actually said about him. Tracing his "influence," on the other hand, requires interpretation of the actions and attitudes of vast numbers of people who in most cases have left no specific evidence of Clausewitz's impact (if any) on their views. Such an interpretation must inevitably be based on preconceptions with no basis in fact. Thus the story of Clausewitz's influence is entirely beyond any possibility of meaningful historical reconstruction. Because Clausewitz's "influence" has been the basis of so much of the writing about him, I had no wish to avoid discussing the topic, but it is not the subject of the book. Gat seems to forget that those subject to Clausewitz's "influence" were real people who hardly built their lives and world-views on the exclusive reading of one book. Few of them knew or cared anything about the complexities of Clausewitz's personal evolution. Gat's ideas on Clausewitz's reception in English are based on supposition, not research. For example, the fact that Britain underwent military reforms after 1871—even Prussian-inspired reforms—is hardly evidence for any particular interest in Clausewitz himself at that time. Although the latter expectation seems perfectly reasonable, there is unfortunately no evidence whatsoever to support it—no significant reference to Clausewitz in the British military literature or government documents of that period. Annual sales of the 1873 translation of On War were minuscule (in single digits) for a good many years afterward. Although the writing of intellectual history is often a matter of "nailing jelly to the wall," I felt some obligation to be constrained by the evidence.
In any case, I don't claim to know what Clausewitz's influence has been. Gat clearly doesn't know either. Since I made it clear that I was not seeking Clausewitz's influence, I don't understand Gat's criticism of my discussions of minor writers, like the Duke of Wellington and his circle, who had no "such influence." (Wellington was a national hero for Waterloo, the head of the British Army for more than decade, and twice a Prime Minister, so his views might possibly have been important to Britain's defense establishment. His comments would be of obvious interest to most reviewers.) I did not claim that Clausewitz was "influential" in the United States via Jomini's book, although I pointed out that Jomini had made substantial adjustments to his own ideas after reading On War. In my "toying" with other writers' speculation about Lincoln's alleged study of Clausewitz, I concluded that there is little evidence to support such speculation. However, I did find interesting the reasons behind the speculation.
The book's treatment is specifically limited to the expressed views of English-speaking writers. Why, then, should I have provided the reader with a long discourse on works which were not known to such writers? As Gat points out, I am well aware of the problems deriving from the unfinished evolution of On War, and I informed my readers about them. However, my book was not about the evolution of Clausewitz's ideas. For that, I referred readers to works by writers like Peter Paret and even Gat himself. I am also well aware of the range of ideas concerning the proper interpretation of Clausewitz's theories. While Gat's views are sometimes interesting, they are also often very peculiar and—insofar as they relate to the ideas actually expressed in On War itself—misleading. The evidence is quite clear that few if any of Clausewitz's readers suffered from the "predicament" Gat describes.
I suspect, unfortunately, that the book's real failing was its temerity in taking issue with Gat himself at several points. For instance, Gat says in his Origins of Military Thought that in the United States and Great Britain "on the eve of the First World War ... Jomini's dominance remained unchallenged." Characteristically, he provided no evidence for this sweeping statement. It is, as I perhaps tactlessly demonstrated, flatly wrong. However, I notice in Gat's review that he has now settled comfortably into my position on this issue, without acknowledging the fact (another example of a writer's influence differing from his reception). Probably just as irritating to Gat as my reliance on actual evidence was my undisguisable distaste for his bombastic attacks on other writers.
Someone said that the reason why academic politics is so vicious is because the stakes are so small. Reviews like Gat's serve only to illustrate that unfortunate truth.
US Army War College