Throughout a formidable public service career that took George F. Kennan into the highest counsels of government and ambassadorial service in Stalin’s Russia and Tito’s Yugoslavia, Kennan the diplomat was well served by Kennan the student of history. The remarkable prescience that has amazed some and confounded others in the administrations he served is based on the wisdom of the scholar-practitioner who accurately relates past and present, and who sees the fundamental self-interests that motivate the twists and turns of national policies.
Kennan the historian integrates the keenest observations of national behavior, of enduring political, economic, social, and cultural forces along with a lifetime’s experience of the strengths, passions, flaws, and foibles of generations of leaders and lesser players on the diplomatic scene. Kennan the diplomat and Kennan the historian are mutually reinforcing and enlightening; he is at once both an observer and a participant of unsurpassed maturity of the recent past and present.
His ability to understand the past and to explain its impact on our own time is evident again in this, his most recent scholarly volume. His choice of subject does not stem from pedantic interest. The interrelationships of the principal European powers during the last decades of the 19th century and the breakup of the stabilizing order that characterized Europe after the Franco-Prussian War led directly, Kennan believes, to the watershed event of the 20th century, the cataclysmic First World War. And the forces that in 1914 unleashed the “seminal catastrophe of this century” later propelled us into a Second and now threaten a Third global struggle. Hence, the importance of the tragic period of national dislocations that is the focus of this work.
The rich detail of narrative in this as in his other work, especially the volumes on early U. S. -Soviet relations, does not come alone from his fascination with recreating the past and a gift for prose. By focusing on the micro-history of Franco-Russian relations Kennan threads a well-defined path through what he calls the “unmanageable abundance of source material.” The role of the Franco-Russian alliance, the core of European stability, is the more tragic because of the contrasting “exalted expectations and the utterly catastrophic results.” Germany and its sibling Austria were to have decisive importance in this history; their policies and leadership are clearly and sharply intertwined in Kennan’s account. From the war scare of 1875, a tragicomical episode Kennan lays bare with greater acuity than historians before him, he takes us through 20 years of national calculations and miscalculations, lofty aims and dreadful deceits, during which the French were unwaveringly led to the belief that their future depended on alliance with Russia. On the Russian side of this equation there was a parallel to the bitterness of the French following their defeat by the Prussians: the Russians suffered from a sense of national humiliation; their position in the status quo was dictated by Bismarck’s policy and Germany’s armed might.
This Russian mood was exacerbated by the failure of their war with Turkey in 1877 and ultimately led to the disintegration of the German-Austrian relationship during the 1880’s.
Kennan’s narrative dissects the events that flowed ineluctably from one misunderstanding or misapprehension to another. In full command of the facts and with the benefit of previously unpublished documentation, he takes us through intentional and undirected events that pile upon one another to create and undo national relationships. With unfailing compassion but clear-sighted vision, his analysis of the principal as well as many of the secondary figures who influenced these events leads to vignettes that add to the sheer pleasure of reading this book. Among many examples one might cite is his depiction of Elie de Cyon, the brilliant pathologist whose life “is strewn with conflict, controversy, suspicion, and unpleasantness of every sort” in his influence on military and intellectual circles in Russia and France. Another is Juliette Adam, who turned her Paris salon into a center of implacable hostility to Germany and significant influence for an alliance with Russia. All the characters are here: the steadfast but woefully limited Tsar Alexander III; the statesmen and diplomatist Nikolai Giers, who played a failing game trying to balance a Russo-French alliance with amicable relations with Austria and Germany; the prominent Russian journalist Katkov; General Obruchov, Chief of the Russian General Staff; Count V. N. Lamsdorf, and, of course, the chief protagonists, none more important than the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck whose pivotal role Kennan defines crisply and brilliantly.
Through his understanding of the personalities as well as his analysis of their actions, Kennan realizes his ambitious purpose: “to identify, if possible, the motives and calculations by which the most influential figures on both French and Russian sides were inspired as they moved, over the span of the 1870’s and 1880’s, towards the readiness to conclude a military alliance, and to see how their expectations related to the results to which, in the terrible crucible of 1914—1918, the alliance finally led.” Kennan’s interest here is, ultimately, to shed light “on those general workings of the human spirit that cause statesmen to make great errors in the effort to assess the probable effects of their official actions.”
In a concluding chapter that masterfully pulls together all the threads of the events and figures in this history, Kennan takes us one step further, presenting a sharp delineation of the quixotic effects of national power on our lives before and after 1914. For Imperial Russia, he writes, “the pursuit of power and glory externally was, in short, the enemy of the successful accomplishment of the vast process of change and adaptation in Russian society, without which the dynasty itself had little chance of surviving.” Kennan finds that this lesson has been lost on contemporary governments and their leaders. Now, as then, he writes “it was not understood that the anguish of modern war could weaken even the ostensibly victorious society, breaking the rhythm of the generations, loosening social bonds, brutalizing sensibilities, sowing sadness, bewilderment and skepticism where once the opposites of those qualities had prevailed, laying the groundwork for even greater emotional instability and extremism in future years, as maimed generations grew to maturity. It was not understood, in other words, that all-out war between great industrialized nations in the modern age had become a senseless undertaking, a selfdestructive exercise, a game at which no one could really win, and therefore no longer a suitable instrument of national policy.” Statesmen, generals, parliamentarians of the post-Bismarckian decades were oblivious to these realities; today, Kennan concludes, “there is no excuse for denying them recognition.”