Carl von Clausewitz’s Obituary from 1831

In my article for Journal of Military History I have mentioned Carl von Clausewitz’s official obituary as an example of how, after the first vehement reaction and angry, accusatory words, Marie von Clausewitz proliferated a more balanced public image of her husband.

Here it is my full translation of it. However, there are few clarifying points before you start reading the obituary.

Although published anonymously in Staatszeitung, it was written in all probability by Carl von der Gröben. Clausewitz’s first biographer Karl Schwartz names him based on the style and the intimate tone, a suggestion confirmed by Gröben’s own biographer Richard von Meerheimb.

Today Gröben is mostly known as one of Clausewitz’s best friends ever since their time in Coblenz and, after Marie’s unexpected death, the editor of the last two parts of Posthumous Works in 1837. But in his own time Gröben was a man of influence and stature. Just like Clausewitz in 1812, he left the Prussian army because he couldn’t bear serving under Napoleon. In 1813, Gröben fought in the battles of Dresden, Kulm and Leipzig. He married Selda von Dörnberg, the daughter of his commanding general Wilhelm von Dörnberg, and both were part of the tight-knit circle with which the Clausewitz couple spent the happiest time of their life in Coblenz in 1815-18. In the late 1830s, Gröben became a trusted advisor to the Crown Prince, Friedrich Wilhelm, the future Friedrich Wilhelm IV.

In jest, Clausewitz called Gröben his biggest fan. Or rather, in 1830s language, “my friend Gröben,” who tried very hard to sell Clausewitz’s accomplishments to just about everyone of influence in Prussia (Carl’s letter to Marie from 2 August 1831).

Although belonging in his youth to the reform circle around Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, with the years Gröben grew increasingly reactionary. You can see these attitudes mirrored in the obituary. For instance, the statement that Clausewitz went to fight in Russia in 1812 to defend “all established through grace of God thrones” is an outright white-wash of historical truth. The correspondence from 1812 reveals that Clausewitz distinctively adopted the tone of a German—not just a Prussian—patriot. He mingled in the same circle in which the poet Ernst-Moritz Arndt first advocated for German unity. Arndt indeed argued that the people owed greater loyalty to the shared Fatherland than to the various German dynasties ruling it—particularly when the princes failed to fulfill their essential mission to protect its interests.

Don’t get me started on the statement “The princes called and their peoples answered.” In reality the German Wars of Liberations presented the various independent rulers with an enormous dilemma. (Side note: at that time Germany was just a geographical term and before 1815 comprised of over 300 independent or semi-independent entities.) The princes had to harness public enthusiasm in order to defeat Napoleon and recover their previous status and lands. At the same time, they feared the people in arms because they had to grant them more political and economic rights. Or even worry that once unleashed, the growing German nationalism and the desire for political unification might remove them from their thrones forever. This ambivalence marked the princes’ approach throughout the three years of war.

For Marie von Clausewitz’s own story and the subsequent one concerning her influence over Carl’s legacy, the obituary marks an important turn. We have enough reasons to believe that the text was conceived with her close cooperation. For one thing, Marie interacted on a daily basis with Gröben throughout 1830-31, and in her letters to Carl, she often mentioned meeting and discussing political developments with him. Also the last sentence of the obituary, announcing Marie’s intentions to publish On War at the earliest moment possible, reveals that the author must have received this information directly from her.

Compared to Marie’s letter to her best friend Elise von Bernstorff immediately after Carl’s death, the obituary is almost unknown and unquoted. The Bernstoff letter, on the other hand, has enjoyed enormous popularity throughout the ages, and, in Peter Paret’s words, almost single-handedly created the image of Clausewitz as a depressed man, angry at the world that never recognized him. (“Admittedly, he had accomplished in general more than he had expected in the beginning; he felt this deeply and acknowledged it with a thankful heart. But he never achieved the highest, and next to every joy he was granted, there was always a thorn that darkened his mood…. He enjoyed in extraordinary degree the friendship of the noblest men of his time but not the recognition that would have offered opportunities to be truly useful for his home country,” wrote Marie to Elise in November 1831.)

What readers misunderstand are the circumstances under which Marie wrote these gloomy lines. She believed that had Carl survived beyond the events of 1830-31, greater status and glory awaited. The outpouring emotions after the death of Field Marshall August von Gneisenau also provided hope, even certainty, that his closest friend and associate, Clausewitz, that is, would grow in stature and influence and maybe have a chance to play a crucial role in Prussian and European politics, something Marie had imagined almost from the moment she and Carl became a couple. And all of this suddenly vanished….

In contrast, the obituary’s tone is somber. It suggests that the reason for Clausewitz’s depression immediately before his death was less an all-embracing, universal unhappiness about the course of his life than the recent death of his closest friend, Gneisenau, in the summer of 1831. The text draws attention to his role in crucial events in history and contributions to the Prussian army. But most of all, the obituary advertises to the world the groundbreaking character of Clausewitz’s treatise, On War, which at that point was unpublished and unknown.



Carl von Clausewitz’s Obituary

Staatszeitung, 22. November 1831

Published in Karl Schwarz, Das Leben des Generals Carl von Clausewitz und der Frau Marie von Clausewitz geb. Gräfin von Brühl, in Briefen, Tagebüchern, Aufsätzen und anderen Schriftstücken (Berlin: F. Dümmler, 1878), 443-444.

On November 16th at nine o’clock in the evening Major General Carl von Clausewitz, inspector of the II. Artillery Inspection in Breslau, left for a better world after suffering for nine hours from cholera. Until twelve o’clock at noon he was still on duty, as usual, working with the most arduous diligence. Some words about his career path. Born in year 1780, [Clausewitz] fought already in 1793 in the Rhein-Campaign as a thirteen-year-old boy among old warriors. Spurned by the disastrous capitulation of Prenzlau in 1806, he was taken as a prisoner alongside his noble prince, whose adjutant he was, only when nature itself obstructed the two brave men’s escape. The hour of Prussia’s fall had come, but also that of its rebirth. Just as the king in Scharnhorst, so the latter recognized soon in Clausewitz the man called before all others to take part in the earnest preparation for future days. Until today a significant number of officers owe the basics of their military education to his lectures from that period. When destiny seemed to still prolong the dawn of freedom, Clausewitz was already fighting in that great battle at the gates of Moscow against the collective enemy of all established-through-the-grace-of-God thrones and their devoted peoples. Now the long-sought-after day came; the cause of freedom swiftly stirred up the snowflakes into a storm [and it] turned into an avalanche. The princes called and their peoples answered. In the three-years-long heroic struggle from 1813 to 1815, Clausewitz served as colonel in the general staff, rotating here and there, in crucial places, on the side of the greatest leaders, from the battle of Großgörschen to the second entry into Paris, following the great victory path. He was Gneisenau’s closest friend, just as he was Scharnhorst’s [before]. Also the Rhine remembers with high regard [Clausewitz’s] appointment as chief of the general staff by that province’s General Command in the years 1815 to 1818. Afterwards general and director of the War College, he lived in that time of peace almost exclusively for his war studies and his friends. But when in 1830 commotions in the neighboring country forced the king to gather on the East frontier four army corps under Field Marshal Gneisenau, then Clausewitz, barely appointed to the new service, the artillery, was called once more to be chief of the general staff. What he achieved there, the army knows. But for him, at the end, far too heavy a burden was destined. Gneisenau, Blücher’s great brother in arms, died, and with him the pride of the Prussian military. So [Clausewitz], just like before with Scharnhorst, had to bury another of his closest friends, men who Prussian history, indeed the whole German fatherland, would often recall with admiration. The pain ate quietly away at his soul, beating with the warmest love under a shell occasionally appearing cold. Therefore he became easily prey to the sickness that by holy God’s will wears on the earth through dark, unrecognized power. May many creative and great talents strive to joint the army, just as Clausewitz [once did], [the military] hardly could have counted a more coherent mind among its men. His understanding of the art of war merged deepest research and experience. It was determined by higher purpose in the broadest sense, brilliant and therefore simple as well as practical. His remaining works will show this also to those who did not know [Clausewitz] personally. His noble, dolorous widow, may God console her, will not hold them back from the world.

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