Another Response to #ReadingWomen

Reclaiming Reality: Take it from Carl von Clausewitz — Reading By and About Women Matters

By Vanya Eftimova Bellinger

This is an issue close to my heart: I like reading about women, I like reading by women. I also wrote a book myself about a woman, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War.

The experience of researching the lives and times of Carl and Marie von Clausewitz and the hidden history of On War, the West’s most influential treatise on strategy, warfare and politics, has confirmed a long-held conviction of mine. Women working in the national security and policy field is nothing new and their voices, visions, and acts do matter.

It might come as a surprise for those imagining the Dead Prussian as a choleric and doctrinaire mind but he certainly understood this very well. He was married to one of these talented political women, he admired their minds and actions, and he took their writings seriously. I argue that Carl von Clausewitz’s desire to understand the world in its ambiguity, complexity and diversity is what made him a timeless strategic thinker.

Indeed, Clausewitz’s correspondence is full of book titles written by women, many of them now unfortunately forgotten. He cherished his friendships with “bright ladies” and took their ideas and influence seriously. Clausewitz’s own wife Marie was so profoundly involved in the process of writing and developing On War’s manuscript that he never considered leaving it to many of his fellow veterans from the Napoleonic Wars.

Born Countess von Brühl, Marie was smart and vivacious, a prominent member of the Prussian court, an intimate of the royal family, a close friend of Germany’s brightest minds of the time. It is no surprise then that Carl von Clausewitz, a penniless junior officer from the provinces, fell for her. Many contemporaries wondered what the formidable countess saw in him. Marie also actively participated in many of era’s political events.

Certainly, no woman in the early nineteenth century held an official government position. Nor did their intellectual endeavors and political influence, the books they wrote, and the literary salons they hosted ever enjoyed wide-ranging approval. Quite the opposite.

Consider the case of Victoire de Donnissan, Marchioness de La Rochejaquelein. Now forgotten, the marchioness was married to one of the leaders of the Vendée Uprising in 1793 and she herself became famous as an active participant in the royalist revolt. Marchioness de La Rochejaquelein wrote a riveting memoir about these events but her analysis of the civil war was so shrewd that from the beginning many dismissed her as the real author. Indeed, the male editor of The Memoirs was thought as the mind and creative force behind them. A century later the British biographer Mary Monica Maxwell-Scott only dryly remarked, “To us the style appears to be that of a woman.”

Clausewitz, who also wrote a study on Vendée, read Marchioness de La Rochejaquelein’s bestseller. He considered her work authentic and found the text “very interesting.” His timing was also important, for Clausewitz poured over The Memoirs in the summer of 1815 while serving as the chief of staff for III Prussian Corps now occupational force in the French City of Le Mans. Obviously, this was no leisure reading but he was seeking practical insight about how to pacify hostile population and avoid costly mistakes.

A decade later Clausewitz wrote a commentary on the published correspondence of Madame de Maintenon to the Princess des Ursins arguing that one should not dismiss the book simply because these were “the words of a woman.” Quite the opposite, the letters bore invaluable insight about the War of the Spanish Succession, and he built his analysis on this information.

I could provide other examples and point to the writings of Madame de Stael, Madame de Genlis, and even Madame du Barry, Louis VI’s legendary mistress. Clausewitz’s friendships and correspondence with the era’s restless political women (other than Marie) could be a subject for another long essay.

Yet this was not the norm of the times. Especially in the Restoration era, after the crucial role women had played in the defeat of Napoleon, they were expected to slip quickly back into their traditional roles. Political ladies like Marie von Clausewitz became the target of bitter criticism and mockery. Remarkably, the person closest to and probably most affected by Marie’s outspokenness and activism, her husband, did not appear concerned or bothered by it.

Another peculiar gender example from Clausewitz’s later life concerns the Decembrist Revolt in Russia in 1825. He faulted Empress Alexandra, instead of Tsar Nicholas I, for the poor handling of the crisis. For she should have boldly stepped in and assert her influence, in Clausewitz’s opinion, rather than allowing her husband’s “weak” mind to waste their time of reign.

The philosopher of war might not have foreseen the women’s rights movement, women assuming governmental posts, or even women serving in the military, but he surely recognized that politics was not, has never been, and would never be a purely male domain. In an era that irreversibly connected citizenship and political rights with military service, thereby overtly excluding women from politics, such progressivism was hardly a widespread position. To the extent that Clausewitz never embraced the exaggerated perception of masculinity and chauvinistic attitudes toward politics, he also kept such language out of his writings.

As I argue in my book, this is one of the reasons for the continuing relevance of On War in times when society, politics, and war do not look anything like their counterparts in the early-nineteenth-century Prussia.

Of greater significance, consider this. War, politics and national security are complex human activities. To understand them, a strategic leader needs creativity, curiosity and critical thinking. Successful navigation of the field requires an active mind that seeks different ideas, voices, and experiences from a variety of individuals. It calls for seeing the world in all of its complexity and diversity and to embrace that enduring reality.

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger is the author of Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman behind the Making of On War, published by Oxford University Press-USA (November 2015). She is the winner of the 2016 Society for Military History Moncado Prize for her article “The Other Clausewitz: Findings from the Newly Discovered Correspondence between Marie and Carl von Clausewitz.” Vanya Eftimova Bellinger currently teaches at the US Army War College.