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Peter Paret is a cultural and intellectual historian, whose two principal areas of research are war and the interaction of art and politics from 18th to 20th century Europe. He has also written on related subjects in more recent times.
Paret was born on April 13, 1924 in Berlin, the son of Hans Paret and Suzanne Aimée Cassirer. On his father’s side he is descended from a French family that emigrated to Germany in 1679. Thirteen of Paret’s ancestors, including his great-grandfather and grandfather, were Protestant ministers. His father, severely wounded in the First World War, studied philosophy before turning to business, and after the Second World War became head of the firm Beuck and Paret, business consultants. Paret’s mother, who began to study medicine after her marriage, came from a Jewish family well-known for the past two centuries in manufacturing (weaving looms, steel cables), finance, publishing, and scholarship. Her father, Paul Cassirer, publisher and art dealer, was an important force for modernism in the arts in Germany. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer was her cousin. In 1932 Paret’s parents were divorced, and his mother with her young daughter moved to Vienna, where she continued her studies with Sigmund Freud. Paret followed in January 1933. In the following year his mother married the psychoanalyst and educational reformer Siegfried Bernfeld – subject of a recent biography by Peter Dudeck, “Er war halt genialer als die anderen," Vienna, 2012 – and with her husband and children moved to France, and in August 1937 to the United States, where they settled in San Francisco.
Paret entered the University of California, Berkeley, in January 1942, was drafted the following year, and served in combat intelligence and operations sections of an infantry battalion in the New Guinea and Philippine campaigns and in Korea. In 1946, at the age of 21, he was discharged with the rank of Staff Sergeant, reentered UC Berkeley as a sophomore, and graduated in 1949, after which he returned to Europe to reconnect with his father and other relatives. His plan to study art history was interrupted by the need to assist his mother during his stepfather’s final illness, and it was not until 1955 that he began graduate study, this time in history, at King’s College London. He wrote his dissertation on the Prussian Reform era under Michael Howard, became an early member of the Institute for Strategic Studies, served as Resident Tutor in the Delegacy of Extra-Mural Studies of Oxford University, and in the last year before receiving his degree in 1960 began to publish articles on contemporary military thought as well as on recent history, having found important documents in the British archives, including a lost register of a Gestapo prison established after the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944. After graduating he returned to the United States as Research Associate at the Center of International Studies, Princeton University, and with John W. Shy, then a finishing graduate student at Princeton, wrote his first book, Guerrillas in the 1960s, New York, 1961, a short work analyzing the nature of irregular warfare and the difficulties it posed to modern, industrialized societies, which was reprinted several times, and came out in an expanded edition the following year.
After a second year at the Center of International Studies, Paret came to the University of California, Davis, as Visiting Assistant Professor, was promoted to tenure the following year, and to full professor in 1966. During these years at an innovative, rapidly expanding campus, which he later characterized as the happiest in his academic career, he published a study of the modern French theory of political-military warfare, French Revolutionary Warfare from Indochina to Algeria, New York, 1966, and an expanded version of his dissertation, Yorck and the Era of Prussian Reform, Princeton, 1966, a work combining ideological analysis with the study of operational and tactical doctrine, and prepared the context for his growing interest in the ideas and life of Clausewitz, who as a young officer was an active member of the Prussian reform movement. In 1969, after a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, he was appointed Professor of History at Stanford, and ten years later became the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History. In 1976, having written several articles on the life and work of Clausewitz, he published a biography, Clausewitz and the State, now in its third expanded edition, which has been translated into three languages, a work that together with Raymond Aron’s Penser la guerre: Clausewitz, published in the same year, placed Clausewitz firmly in the history of ideas and politics of the Revolutionary, Napoleonic, and post-Napoleonic periods.
The two authors reviewed each other’s work favorably, although their perspectives on the subject differed. Unlike Aron, Paret has shown little interest in the influence of Clausewitz’s ideas on more recent and contemporary conflicts. He studies him, he has said, as he would study Mozart, for what he has composed, not for how later conductors or opera directors perform his work. The title of Paret’s book points to the powerful role the Prussian state played in Clausewitz’s life, a power that reappears in the central role of policy and politics in Clausewitz’s theories.
The same year the biography appeared, Howard’s and Paret’s translation of Clausewitz’s major theoretical work, On War was published. Highly praised, it has also received some criticism. The work, now available in five English-language editions, has been repeatedly reprinted. Paret’s recent article, “Translation, Literal or Accurate,” in The Journal of Military History, July 2014, outlines the principles he and Howard followed in converting Clausewitz’s early 19th-century German into modern English, principles that also apply to Paret’s and Daniel Moran’s subsequent translations of Clausewitz’s Historical and Political Writings, Princeton, 1992. A related project was Paret’s new edition of Makers of Modern Strategy, Princeton, 1986, which retained three essays from the 1943 original, revised four others, and added twenty-two new essays. The work continues to be widely read and used as a text. The book has been translated into nine languages. A Turkish edition is currently under way.
Since 1980, when his study of modern art and its enemies in imperial Germany, The Berlin Secession, appeared, Paret has published several monographs and collections of essays in the history of art, three of which have been translated into German. He combined his interests in the history of art and the history of war in Imagined Battles: Reflections of War in European Art, Chapel Hill, 1997, a work dedicated “to the memory of the men with whom I served, and against whom I served, in New Guinea and the Philippines.”
In 1986 Paret was appointed Professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He retired at the age of 73 in 1997. He continues to write. His most recent work is a volume of essays, Clausewitz in His Time, New York-Oxford, 2015, in which he publishes the result of new research, and in a further demonstration of the impact of German classicism on Clausewitz’s theories, details the relationship between On War and one of the great works of German literature, the drama Prince Frederick of Homburg by his contemporary, Heinrich von Kleist.
Paret is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Member of the American Philosophical Society, which has awarded him its Thomas Jefferson Medal, an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics, and an Honorary Member of the German Clausewitz Society. He has received an honorary doctorate from the Humboldt University, Berlin, and the German government has awarded him the Great Cross of the Order of Merit. A complete bibliography of Paret’s publications is available on the home page of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. An autobiographical essay, “External Events, Inner Drives,” will appear in The Second Generation, eds. A. Daum, H. Lehmann, J. Sheehan, New York – Oxford, (in press).