Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

From Ideal to Ambiguity: Johannes Von Muller, Clausewitz, and the People in Arms

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

From Ideal to Ambiguity: Johannes Von Muller, Clausewitz, and the People in Arms

Article excerpt

In its efforts to break down legal divisions in society and extend participation in public affairs, the French Revolution took war out of the hands of a relatively restricted elite commanding long-serving professionals and made it the business of the people. The integration of war and society proceeded along various ideological and institutional paths: careers were opened to talent; conscription was introduced, which brought previously protected men into the service; and civilians and soldiers were mobilized against domestic as well as foreign enemies, the so-called "people in arms," with its most dynamic expression, a general uprising-the levee en masse. Even before 1789 more than a few signs pointed in this direction: Rousseau discussed the individual's obligation for the common defense in a just society and explicitly military proposals were offered by such authors as Servan de Gerbey, the future Girondin minister of war, who in 1780 published a book with a title predicting what was to come, Le Soldat-Citoyen.

As international violence expanded, the debate on war grew more urgent; its polite formulations cannot hide the intensity with which people struggled to understand how war works with and against society. Among the many voices in this debate deserving attention are two, coming from different directions, that address a central issue: the motivation of societies to go to war, which subsumes the further question of the extent to which a country's inhabitants can be thought of as a political and moral entity. Quite apart from their particular arguments, the two speakers illuminate the general nature and tenor of the debate-a debate about war and its place in the world, which in different language and with new urgency continues to this day. Because they use past events as stepping stones to conclusions about their own time, the following remarks refer as much to historians thinking and writing about war as to war itself.

That one of the most widely read books on war in the years before the French Revolution was a work of medieval history suggests the unmilitary character-in a technical sense-of much of the debate. In 1780 the young Swiss historian Johannes Muller published Die Geschichten der Schweizer, which, to evade the censor of Muller's hometown, Schaffhausen, listed Boston as the place of publication. His history of the Swiss, beginning in antiquity and ending with the Swiss victory over Leopold of Austria in the 1380s, made Muller a major figure in the scholarship and culture of his time. He developed a close relationship with Herder, and Goethe took a friendly interest in his work to the point of translating his address on Frederick the Great to the Berlin Academy from the French original into German. Schiller drew much material for his drama Wilhelm Tell from Muller's work; in return he added a reference to a fictitious character to his text, "Johannes Muller of Schaffhausen... a man whose word can be trusted."1 Muller became an important political publicist. His Darstellung des Furstenbundes (1787) has been called the classic statement of the view that the Holy Roman Empire, with its members' high degree of autonomy, expressed a deeply rooted German sense for liberty.2 he served in the administration of a number of German states, was raised to the nobility in the Electorate of Mainz, became the historiographer of the Prussian monarchy, and continued work on his Swiss history to the end of the fifteenth century.3 After Prussia's defeat in 1806 and the French occupation of Berlin, he entered the service of Jerome Bonaparte, a step patriotic German historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries found unforgivable. He died in 1809 as head of the department of education of the new kingdom of Westphalia.4

Although the only translation of his book during his lifetime was an unauthorized, bad English version, Muller's fame spread beyond Central Europe. Mme. de Stael in Del'Allemagne singled him out among German historians. …

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