Peter Paret

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Peter Paret
Born (1924-04-13) April 13, 1924 (age 94)
Berlin, Germany
Allegiance United States
Years of service 1942–1946
Rank Staff Sergeant
Spouse(s) Dr. Isabel Paret
Relations Paul Cassirer, maternal grand father
Ernst Cassirer, great uncle
Siegfried Bernfeld, step-father
Other work historian

Peter Paret (born April 3, 1924) is a German-born American 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.[1] He has also written on related subjects in more recent times.

Early life

Paret was born in 1924 in Berlin,[2] 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 uncle. 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,[1] 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, 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 receiving his Ph.D., in 1960,[1] Paret returned to the United States as Research Associate at the Center of International Studies, Princeton University, where he spent two years. With John W. Shy, who was then a finishing graduate student at Princeton, he 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.

In 1962, Paret came to the University of California, Davis, as Visiting Assistant Professor. He was promoted to tenure the following year, and to full professor in 1966.[1] 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, Paret was appointed Professor of History at Stanford University; and in 1977 he became the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History there.[1][2]

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. Paret's work 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. Paret and Aron reviewed each other's works 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 of translation 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. It has now been translated into five languages.

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."

Paret retired at the age of 73 in 1997. He continues to write, lecture and publish. 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. More recent publications, include an expanded German edition of "Clausewitz in His Time", (Würzburg, 2017); "Bücherschicksale" in Ideenpolitik, no. 1, 1917; "Clausewitz's Life and Work as a Subject of Historical Interpretation;" the "Journal of Military History", LXXX, No. 2, 2017, "War and Its Historians"; and in a further demonstration of the impact of German classicism on Clausewitz's theories, details the relationship between Clausewitz's On War and one of the great works of German literature, the drama Prince Frederick of Homburg, by his contemporary, Heinrich von Kleist.

In 2017 his article "Clausewitz’s Life and Work as a Subject of Historical Interpretation" appeared in the July issue of the Journal of Military History; he also contributed the introduction to the forthcoming book Rettet den Staatsbürger in Uniform, by his former student, historian Donald Abenheim. An expanded German edition of Clausewitz in His Time, which he and Colonel Reinhold Janke of the Bundeswehr translated, is scheduled to appear later in the year.

Personal life

Peter Paret and his wife, Dr. Isabel Paret, live with their son Paul, who is an art historian and Associate Dean of the Honors College at the University of Utah, and his wife Gretchen Dietrich, who is the Director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Honors and awards

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 awarded him the Great Cross of the Order of Merit in 2013.[1]

In 1993, he was awarded the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize for lifetime achievement given by the Society for Military History[3] In 2017, he received the $100,000 Pritzker Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing.[4][5]


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, 2016.


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Peter Paret". Institute for Advanced Study. Retrieved August 5, 2017.
  2. ^ a b "Peter Paret". Contemporary Authors Online. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2017. Via Retrieved August 5, 2017.
  3. ^ "Samuel Eliot Morison Prize previous winners". Society for Military History. Retrieved December 25, 2017. 
  4. ^ "Peter Paret". Retrieved July 20, 2017. 
  5. ^ "93-year-old author wins $100,000 Pritzker military writing award". Chicago Tribune. June 21, 2017. Retrieved July 20, 2017. 
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