August Neidhardt von Gneisenau

Military reformer, commander and politically thinking soldier (27th October - 23rd August 1831)

Ulrich C. Kleyser


If, in a deduction from the “wondrous trinity” by Clausewitz, the greatness of a commander includes the corporation of politically calculated rationality, emotional sensitivity and free creative soul activity, the number of important military leaders and soldiers of German history will shrink to a small group. From the author’s point of view, these are Wallenstein, PrinceEugene, and - in a sense - Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, the older Moltke (with some limitation), Ludwig Beck and Klaus Naumann. Especially with Gneisenau the permanent inner struggle for the dominance of one of the accosted poles becomes apparent and manifests itself in the difficult, but in the end successful tarring (“keeping in suspense”) of these gifts of mind, soul and character. If one looks for the „soul axis” of German military, strategic to operational-tactical, leadership, structural or security-political developments, there will be no denying of the Prussian-German reformers of 1806 - and partially before - until 1815. Geographically, from a military point of view, Burg with Clausewitz (1780-1831), Bordenau with Scharnhorst (1755-1813) and Sommerschenburg with Gneisenau are in the focus. It was Gneisenau who recognized in quasi “pre-stabilised harmony” that the principles of military and inner leadership, the structure and organisation as well as the training of an army can only be changed if the army constitution itself is reformed, together with political and socio-political renewals. This admittedly goal-oriented cooperation after 1807, which took place in two separate reorganisation commissions, has to be highlighted as one of the great achievements of the reformers, especially because these reforms had to be hidden from the French occupying forces, and additionally were in an awkward predicament between a hesitant king and the old Prussian, backwards-oriented opposition of nobility. More than all others Gneisenau had comprehensive understanding for military, society, and culture, hence for politics in general. For the soldier and political thinker Gneisenau, six milestones which symbolically substantiate this symbiosis of statesman and commander can be especially highlighted. These are, above all, his essay on the „Freedom of the Backs”; the strategic operational plan for the Battle of Leipzig, which was later called Battle of the Nations; the continuous struggle for bundling his forces in order to conquer the capital of his enemy, Paris; his decision, after having lost the Battle of Ligny, to swing back in order to unite with Wellington; and finally, the personal and restless chase of Napoleon and the remains of his beaten army until its complete breakup as well as his own exhaustion, something really worthy of a commander who thinks ahead indeed. With these milestones Gneisenau perfectly epitomises the statesman and commander who has “perceived” war “exactly”.