Peter Paret was born in Berlin, and his family moved to Austria, France, and the United Kingdom before emigrating to the United States in 1937 and settling in San Francisco.
In 1943, war pulled Paret out of the University of California, Berkeley, into combat in New Guinea and elsewhere in the Pacific. His US Army service postponed his graduation to 1949, and as he later wrote, the “issue of war in history continued to be in my thoughts as unfinished business.”
Under the direction of Michael Howard, he began the formal study of war as a broadly defined historical force and earned a Ph.D. from the University of London in 1960. In recognition of his switch from fine arts to military history, his curriculum vitae always cited his enlisted service as a staff sergeant among an array of scholarly achievements and international academic honors.
Books by Peter Paret
1. Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times
Originally published in 1976, Clausewitz and the State presents a comprehensive analysis of one of the significant thinkers of modern Europe. Peter Paret combines social and military history and psychological interpretation with a study of Clausewitz’s military theories and of his unduly neglected historical and political writing.
This timely new edition includes a preface that allows Paret to recount the past thirty years of discussion on Clausewitz and respond to critics. A companion volume to Clausewitz’s On War, this book is indispensable to anyone interested in Clausewitz and his theories, and their proper historical context.
2. Understanding War
These essays provide an introduction to Carl von Clausewitz and enlarge the history of the war by joining it to the history of ideas and institutions and linking it with intellectual biography. Reflecting Peter Paret’s three decades of study of Clausewitz and of the history of war, they examine Clausewitz’s theoretical work in the context of his time and in relation to war as a general historical phenomenon.
Although the analytical strength of “On War” makes it far more than a historical document, Clausewitz’s ideas and the methods he employed to express, develop, and test them become clearer when his work is seen against a historical background. The first six essays analyze military power in European history and discuss the transformation of war at the end of the 18th century.
They provide the historical setting for the following nine essays, which address significant aspects of Clausewitz’s life and thought, from the logic of his theories to his aesthetics and his reactions to the revolutions of 1830. The concluding essay examines the history of the war as a scholarly discipline. Together these pieces shed light on Clausewitz, on the age in which he lived, and on his theories, which retain a timeless interest.
3. Imagined battles
For thousands of years, art has interpreted the experience of war – its methods, human costs, and moral ambiguities – and has offered historians a wealth of testimony that is only beginning to be systematically explored. In this wide-ranging study, Peter Paret discusses 47 paintings and prints as complex documents of war in Europe since the Renaissance and as examples of the artist’s use of war as a metaphor for the human condition.
The images include works by such major artists as Uccello, Gericault, and Dix, as well as academic history paintings and popular prints. By setting each in its historical environment and analyzing it from the perspective of the wars of its time, Peter Paret illuminates the place of war in Western consciousness and expands our understanding of works that are too often approached with little concern for the reality they depict or symbolically transform.
Perhaps the most significant of the themes he traces over five centuries is the gradual change from the prince or general to the common soldier and civilian victim as central figures in the interpretation of the war in art.
4. The Cognitive Challenge of War
Responding to the enemy’s innovation in war presents problems to soldiers and societies of all times. This book traces Napoleon’s victory over Prussia in 1806 and Prussia’s effort to recover from defeat to show how in one particular historical episode operational analyses together with institutional and political decisions eventually turned defeat to victory.
The author moves from a comparative study of French and Prussian forces to campaign narrative and strategic analysis. He examines processes of change in institutions and doctrine, as well as their dependence on social and political developments, and interprets works of art and literature as indicators of popular and elite attitudes toward war, which influence the conduct of war and the kind and extent of military innovation. In the concluding chapter, he addresses the impact of 1806 on two men who fought on opposing sides in the campaign and sought a new theoretical understanding of war―Henri Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz.
Fields of history that are often kept separate are brought together in this book, which seeks to replicate the links between different areas of thought and action as they exist in reality and shape events.
On September 11, 2020, Peter Paret died peacefully at his home in Salt Lake City at the age of 96. His spouse, Isabel Harris Paret, a distinguished clinical psychologist, predeceased him in 2018.