Saving ‘On War’ — Marie von Clausewitz’s Forgotten Battle to Preserve Her Husband’s Legacy

Before becoming one of the Western world's foremost military thinkers, Carl von Clausewitz fought in the Napoleonic Wars. He experiences in battles like Borodino would have influenced his most famous work, On War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Before becoming one of history’s foremost military thinkers, Carl von Clausewitz fought in the Napoleonic Wars. His experiences in battles like Borodino surely influenced his most famous work, On War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Until recently, Maries role in preserving and shaping the legacy of the Western worlds most influential military theorist has remained understudied and often ignored.

By Vanya Eftimova Bellinger

Carl von Clausewitz.

Carl von Clausewitz.

ON THE MORNING of 16 November 1831, General Carl von Clausewitz, the 51-year-old head of Prussia’s II Artillery Inspectorate, followed his usual routine: He sat writing in his wife Marie’s salon, located just off the terrace, it was the sunniest room in their Breslau apartment. And, as it was their habit for over two decades, Marie herself kept him company, listening to his musings as he worked.

Later that morning, the general felt under the weather. Taking precautions, Marie sent for the doctor. In the afternoon, the first symptoms of cholera had appeared; a surprising development. The epidemic, which had been raging since that summer, had bypassed the Clausewitz family. Carl had emerged unscathed even after caring for and burying his closest friend, Prussian field marshal August Neidhardt von Gneisenau. Now in a city relatively free of the disease, the general was racked with severe cramps and the flux. Within a few short hours, the legendary military theorist was dead.

No one was more shocked and grieved by this swift and brutal turn of events than Marie, Clausewitz’s devoted wife of 21 years. She was sure that her beloved Carl had many more years to live – certainly time enough to finish the book he’d been toiling over for so long. For nearly two decades, Clausewitz had worked on his groundbreaking treatise. It was tantalizingly close to completion the very day he died.

Marie von Brühl married von Clausewitz in 1810. Without her tireless efforts, the book "On War" might have been lost to history. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Marie von Brühl married Clausewitz in 1810. Without her tireless efforts following  her husband’s death, the book On War might very well have been lost to history. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Despite her crippling grief, Marie threw herself into the task of finishing the book. In the days that followed, she devoted all her time and energy to shaping what was to become her beloved husband’s legacy. Within days of his death, she was arranging the manuscripts for publishing. With the help of her brother, Friedrich von Brühl, in just few months Marie compiled in clear handwriting the first six volumes of what would become the influential book On War. She kept the same rapid pace with the remaining portions — the ten parts of posthumous works were published within five years.

Until recently, Marie’s role in preserving and shaping the legacy of the Western world’s most influential military theorist has remained understudied and often ignored. Yet it was she who took it upon herself to edit On War. And in an era when female participation in the public sphere was met with hostility, she dealt with publishing houses. She would even go on to popularize the landmark work among Prussia’s exclusively male military and political elite. Moreover, our understanding of Clausewitz’s ideas is a direct result of Marie’s meticulous care for his papers. Even our perception of Clausewitz, the private man, has been defined by the intimate letters he sent to Marie; she preserved them unabridged for posterity.

Interestingly, the famed military theorist never questioned his spouse’s role as an intellectual partner. Indeed, in no account did Clausewitz consider leaving the manuscript in case of death to any of his fellow officers or veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. Despite the fact that Marie had no military experience, nor had ever witnessed a battle up-close, she was thoroughly involved in the creation of On War and thereby was able to bring Clausewitz’s ideas to the world in the original way he envisioned them.

Despite keeping tight control over the editing process, Marie sought (in addition to her brother’s involvement) the help of two of Clausewitz’s closest associates throughout the years: Carl von Gröben and Franz August O’Etzel. For this small team of proofreaders, Marie formulated a stringent guiding principle: All manuscripts should be published as they were found, “without one word being added or deleted.” Arguably a challenging task because while the military theorist was a thorough thinker, he was a messy writer and seldom left behind clear copies. The team had to read carefully and compare manuscripts in the search of the final version. The three men never questioned Marie’s preeminent role in the project. And, as letters and other documents reveal, she did not shy away from enforcing her title as the last authority on all things Clausewitz.

Unfortunately, Marie never had the time to preserve the legacy of her own prowess as a writer and editor while enshrining the reputation of her husband. She died in 1836 at the age of 56. Her most ambitious plans to help the world understand On War’s complex and exhaustive concepts came abruptly to an end.

Marie’s untimely demise was a double blow for history: It opened the door to both manipulations of Clausewitz’s lifework and a disregard for her own significant role in the story. On War became a book, in the words of author John E. Shepard, “more often quoted than read.” Over the centuries, many of its complex ideas are frequently reduced to mere aphorisms, often misunderstood and outright distorted.

51mAJTTd-LL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_And Marie? She has been often cited as the remarkable woman standing behind a great man; few grasp the crucial role she played in shaping his legacy. Just like with his ideas, Clausewitz hardly would be pleased with that.

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger is an independent scholar and journalist. Her biography, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making Of On War, just released by Oxford University Press-USA, is based on the newly discovered complete correspondence between Marie and Carl von Clausewitz. Follow her on Twitter at @VanyaEF. 


1 comment for “Saving ‘On War’ — Marie von Clausewitz’s Forgotten Battle to Preserve Her Husband’s Legacy

  1. Veritas
    13 November, 2015 at 12:41 am

    Outstanding article.

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