Scharnhorst: The Formative Years 1755-1801

By Charles White

Chuck White talks about the writing of his recent book, Scharnhorst: The Formative Years 1755-1801, for our From Reason to Revolution 1721-1815 series.

If you are a student of German military prowess, then you need to read my book. Although much ink has been spilled on the subject of German military history over the past three centuries, with campaign and battle studies, memoirs, biographies, uniform plates and guides, orders of battle, wargames, and much more, far too much time and energy has been sadly devoted to the 12 years of the Nazi period. No other period of German history has been dissected more. For many, it would seem, Germany has only twelve years of history, from 1933 to 1945. Scharnhorst: The Formative Years, 1755-1801, is an attempt to rectify this sorry state of affairs. 

The origins of my book began during my junior year at West Point (1972-73). During the spring semester I took my first elective (we were given only six), which was a history course entitled, ‘War and Society’, taught by the academy’s first visiting professor – Jay Luvaas, a leading American scholar of military history. The research paper topic I drew literally from a hat was ‘The Impact of the Napoleonic Wars on Prussia’. All of the topics were overly broad for a 25-page paper, which gave us cadets some latitude in narrowing our focus on a subject to our liking, with the parameters of our topic. After conducting my preliminary research (and encouraged by Professor Luvaas), I settled on Gerhard von Scharnhorst (1755-1813), the great reformer of the Prussian military establishment following her catastrophic defeat at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806.

The title of my paper, ‘Scharnhorst: Father of the Modern Army’, reflected my belief that the modernization program Scharnhorst implemented, though vastly unfinished by his own admission, over time became the model of large professional organizations – first in Prussia, then in Germany, and later (in varying degrees) in every major army in the world. Realizing the severe constraints under which he labored, Scharnhorst wrote to his favorite student and close personal associate, Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), on 27 November 1807, advising him:

Who would not risk everything to plant the seed of a new tree, who would not gladly die if he could hope that the fruit would ripen with new strength and vitality! But only one thing can make that possible. We must kindle a sense of independence in the nation; we must enable the nation to understand itself and take up its own affairs; only then will the nation acquire self-respect and compel the respect of others. To work toward that goal is all we can do. To destroy the old forms, remove the ties of prejudice, guide and nurture our revival without inhibiting its free growth – our work cannot go further than that.

Scharnhorst and his associates clearly understood how to proceed in a potentially hostile environment. They planted a new tree, which over time produced the fruits of victory some 50 years later during the Wars of German Unification (1864-71).

After graduating from West Point, I continued my research and study into German military prowess, wondering why the German army continued to captivate so many American soldiers, despite the fact that it was the American army that had defeated the German army in two world wars. Interestingly, whenever I had opportunity to speak with German senior officers (I was stationed in Germany in the 1970s) about their military prowess, they would politely smile and refer me to Scharnhorst and the German notion of Bildung. Interestingly, Scharnhorst regarded the process of Bildung as central to the professional growth of the military leader. A fruit of Germany’s classical age, Bildung was the perfectibility of the individual’s character and intellect through the process of education and training. For Scharnhorst, Bildung was the mental fitness that empowered the military leader. It enabled him to assimilate knowledge from a variety of sources and then to synthesize and fashion that data into an appropriate response to the challenge at hand. It was a recurrent process rather than mere training to accomplish a certain skill.

Chuck White with General der Panzertruppe Hasso von Manteuffel in June 1977 at his home in Bavaria. Chuck spent the day with him, discussing his experiences as a tank leader. At that time Chuck was a First Lieutenant with the 2d Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Bad Kissingen, Germany.

Scharnhorst and Bildung became the central theme of my studies at Duke University, from 1980-86. My Masters’ Thesis focused on Scharnhorst’s efforts to establish a professional military educational program in Prussia. I then spent two wonderful years in Berlin on a Fulbright Fellowship, during which time I researched the holdings of the Prussian Archives, which housed Scharnhorst’s Papers (Nachlaβ Scharnhorst) and other primary and secondary sources. Returning to Duke, I wrote my dissertation on Scharnhorst and the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-05. Both studies covered Scharnhorst’s endeavors to inculcate Bildung into the Prussian army. Three years later I published my first book, The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (1989). That study focused primarily on Scharnhorst’s pivotal role as the intellectual father and educator of the Prussian army, whose amazing recovery following its catastrophic defeat in 1806 remains one of the most remarkable feats in military history.

Following the publication of The Enlightened Soldier, I embarked on the research and writing of this book. So much is known about Scharnhorst and his activities in Prussian service. So little is known or has been written about his formative years in Hanover, where he carefully crafted and endeavored to implement the modernization program he later realized in part in Prussia. This point is significant. When Scharnhorst arrived in Berlin in 1801, he already had his master plan in mind and continually looked for ways to bring the Prussian army and its leadership in step with the transformation of war shaped by the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon.

This study of Scharnhorst presents unpublished discoveries about his youth, his education, and his extensive time in Hanoverian service. Scholarship in the field of German history during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries has increased dramatically over the past 30 years; the most significant for this study was the publication of Scharnhorst’s Papers [Nachlaβ Scharnhorst] in eight massive volumes, with over 3,000 documents. These papers formed the foundation upon which I built my story of this enlightened soldier. I used primarily the first two volumes that deal with his long career in Hanover. Selected documents from other volumes are also included.

With the Internet came access to so many key sources that I might not otherwise have been able to obtain and research. Nearly all the rare books and journals I had studied in Germany in the early 1980s are now available on the worldwide web, especially the irreplaceable journals of the University of Bielefeld digital collection. Through the Internet I was also able to connect with other scholars who led me to addition resources and websites.

Returning to my introductory remarks, Scharnhorst: The Formative Years, 1755-1801, is the starting point for those seeking to understand German military prowess. In was in Hanover that Scharnhorst developed the ideals and institutions that made the Prussian and later German armies the model upon which nearly every other major and minor power in the world fashioned its military establishment.

Scharnhorst: The Formative Years 1755-1801 can be ordered from the Helion website: https://www.helion.co.uk/military-history-books/scharnhorst-the-formative-years-1755-1801.php