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  • Two Historians on Defeat in War and Its Causes
  • Peter Paret (bio)

Two historians, one 134 years before the other, serve in wars in which their armies are defeated, and the states for which they fight collapse. They begin immediately to write accounts of the campaigns that have just ended in disaster. That both fought in previous wars and in their writings addressed major historical issues gives them the tools they need. The similarities in their conditions and reactions are remarkable, as are the differences. The earlier historian is twenty-six years old when the war soon to be his subject breaks out in 1806. The other is fifty-three when his country is overrun in 1940. The younger man's analytic gifts are already evident in his first essays; the older has long been an original and influential historian. As they start to record the recent past, the younger man allows himself few emotional responses to the events he describes; the older gives a fuller, more intimate personal account. He begins and ends his manuscript between July and September 1940, shortly after the surrender of the armed forces in which he served; but his book does not appear until after his death. The younger historian is captured, writes a compressed study of the campaign within two months of its major battles, and sends it to a journal, which publishes it in three articles. After being released, his duties and other literary work prevent him from returning to the subject for seventeen years, at which time he intends to write a longer history, then changes his mind and limits his manuscript to a study of the campaign of 1806, based on his articles. Because he is highly critical of the men in charge, his manuscript is not published until fifty-six years after his death. The other historian, demobilized in July 1940, joins the resistance, is eventually taken prisoner, and then tortured and shot by the descendants of the soldiers with whom the first historian served six generations earlier.

We can read and learn from these double histories of defeat, without taking the measure of the dramatic and tragic parallels and differences in their genesis. But once recognized, the affinities of the two accounts are not easily forgotten. The two books respond to each other, pose questions, and point to answers. The contrasts between them define each more clearly, emphasize the unique characteristics of its author, and underline his social and intellectual circumstances. That one of the books—although not published for some years—is an immediate reaction, the other a long-delayed response, may skew our appraisals. The balance is restored if we include the younger man's articles—sources for his later work—when we think of the two books together.

By birth, both authors belonged to privileged segments of society, yet each faced social handicaps. In accord with family tradition, the earlier historian, Carl von Clausewitz, claimed noble descent.1 His father, son of a professor of theology at the University of Halle, served as lieutenant in a Prussian infantry regiment during the Seven Years' War. After demobilization he was retired for being unable to document his title of nobility, and transferred to the customs and excise administration. The family's ambiguous situation was resolved by two events: the early death of the former lieutenant's father and the remarriage of his mother. Her second husband, a Prussian colonel, came from a well-known noble family. His influence could not salvage the lieutenant's military career, but enabled three of his sons, among them Carl von Clausewitz, to enter the army as officer cadets. The Clausewitz family's noble status was at last officially accepted in 1827, not on the basis of documentation, but in acknowledgment of the brothers' successful military careers. Two became generals, the third received the title of major-general on retirement. At the time, the change from undocumented assumption of a title to its recognition occurred more than once in the Prussian service-elite, which expanded in step with the expansion of the state. In Clausewitz's generation middle-class officers were promoted to the most senior positions in the army, and ennobled...


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