Review of: Das Rätsel Clausewitz: Politische
Theorie des Krieges im Widerstreit
(The Mystery of Clausewitz. Political Theory of War in Conflict)
by Andreas Herberg-Rothe
Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2001. ISBN:3-7705-3612-6, Euro 31.00 paperback
More information on the book
Clausewitz belonged to the small group of intellectuals who developed that strange blend of romantic modernism and basically melancholy nationalism which characterized the Prussian reaction to the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon. His personality was not devoid of a certain bitterness. The military and the intellectual sides of his professional life were not easily balanced. On the surface, his military career was comparatively successful but it did not satisfy his internal ambitions.
Out of this painful and vaguely frustrating constellation grew one of the most important books on war and warfare, On War (Vom Kriege). It remained a fragment, for Clausewitz died before he could finish his work. Since its publication by his widow in 1832-34, On War has been often hailed as one of the philosophical treasures of the Occident. On the other hand, the sometimes difficult style of Clausewitzs prose and especially the differences between the earlier and the later parts of the book have tempted many of its readers to follow the author only half-heartedly into the labyrinthine text.
Thus, Clausewitz remained a mystery, the term which Andreas Herberg-Rothe uses in order to underline the difficulty of understanding Clausewitzs text which is deeply embedded in the German philosophical discourse of the early 19th century (from Kant to Fichte and Hegel), but also to make an ironic comment on the various refutations of Clausewitzs main ideas. For there is also a tradition of Clausewitz-bashing in the literature on military affairs, mainly but not exclusively in Britain. Herberg-Rothe refrains from both eulogy and rejection, but attempts to subtly re-construct the text of Clausewitz by reading it carefully and discerning its various historical layers.
His analysis concentrates on the origins of certain contradictions which can be detected in On War and which have often been instrumentalized to obfuscate Clausewitzs clairvoyance. Herberg-Rothe contends that these contradictions are nothing but a reflection of the prismatic nature of violent conflict and war. The tension between the logical definition of war as a clash of interests and will, the frictions on the war theatre, and the rational choice aspect of warfare are always present in any historic and political constellation. Intellectual strength is needed to make sense of its ambivalence and to discover the actual mixture of these ingredients. Ideologues attempt to flat-iron them and to present one-dimensional answers.
Herberg-Rothes monograph profits from previous work by authors like Raymond Aron and Peter Paret. He does not shy away from sometimes acid remarks about well-established writers in the field who think of Clausewitz as being over-estimated and outdated. The last chapter of the book looks at various prominent predictions about the future of war. Herberg-Rothe argues convincingly that any reflection on this topic will be considerably enriched by relating it to the ideas and concepts of Clausewitz. This monograph is a brilliant example of the German Habilitationsschriften, the "second book" in a scholarly career. Some of these works have the reputation to be extremely scholarly, but rather unreadable. Herberg-Rothe's, however, is a good example of the successful combination of convincing analysis and elegant prose. To make it more accessible to a broader public of experts in military history and the history of political thinking, it should be translated into English.
WILFRIED VON BREDOW