Lessons of War

What the Prussians learned at the hands of Napoleon,” The Weekly Standard, 8 February, vol 15, no 20, review of Peter Paret’s The Cognitive Challenge of War. Prussia 1806. Princeton, 2009

It must have been an eerie Monday afternoon, on October 13, 1806. Napoleon rode through Jena, where French troops had already started looting. Hegel, in his study, was working on the last pages of his Phenomenology of Spirit. From a window the philosopher was able to spot “the Emperor” ride out of town: “Truly it is a remarkable sensation to see such an individual on horseback, raising his arm over the world and ruling it,” he later wrote to a friend. Europe was on the eve of one of the most momentous battles of its bloody history. Before sunrise on the next day, the fields still covered by mist, Bonaparte ordered an attack.


Prussia’s reaction to what could not be imagined, the shock of 1806, is the subject of The Cognitive Challenge of War. In what turned out to be a spectacularly productive quest, Germany’s greatest minds — among them artists, writers, and military intellectuals — went to work and wrestled with the consequences of France’s revolutionary wars. Paret is at his best when he deciphers some of the paintings and engrav- ings that depict the battle. Perhaps the most impressive is Caspar David Friedrich’s The Chasseur in the Forest. It is an elaborate allusion to Prussia’s defeat. On a narrow opening framed by a stand of firs, a chasseur à cheval, his horse and strength vanished, walks slowly into the dark forest. Watching is a raven on a tree stump, symbols of death.

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