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Watching the World Go By

From Prague After Munich

by George F. Kennan
Princeton, 294 pp., $6.50

Diplomacy is a strange profession. Its practitioners spend their lives either actually in foreign countries or else thinking about them. Often they seem to become half foreign themselves. They develop exceptional sensitivity in two opposite ways. On the one hand, they are more acutely obsessed than their fellow citizens with the interests of their own country. On the other, they are more anxious to know what other countries are doing. Diplomats find it hard to believe that an event anywhere in the world is literally alien to them. Bismarck, we know, gave himself nightmares, conjuring up hostile coalitions—most of them imaginary. Metternich, when told that Talleyrand was dead, reflected: “I wonder what he did that for.”

Considering the turmoil in which diplomats keep themselves and, if they have their way, others, one is tempted to exclaim: “Happy the nation that has no diplomacy and no diplomatic service.” China was in this happy condition during the great days of the Celestial Empire. The United States came near to it until the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Lewis Einstein remarks that Jefferson and Lincoln conducted American foreign policy without having large staffs. When he himself went to the Paris Embassy in 1903 and to the London Embassy in 1905 the entire mission from ambassador to messenger numbered nine, as against the present nine hundred. Even nine seems eight too many. Einstein adds that there are now nearly 23,000 officials on the payroll of the State Department. Yet it cannot be said that American policy has become more successful or the United States more secure.

What can all these officials be for? Certainly not for the formulation of policy. More counselors mean more confusion. The proliferation of diplomats springs rather from the belief, universal in the Western world, that knowledge leads to understanding. Information is expected to produce a policy of itself if only there be enough of it. This may be true in the world of science, though I suspect that even here the best scientists are simply those who are best at guessing. In human affairs wisdom comes from being wise, and knowledge has very little to do with it. In saying this, as a university teacher, I am sawing away the branch which has given me a lifetime of elegant ease. Nine-tenths of what we teach our students is of no use whatever either here or in Kingdom Come. However there is no harm in saying it. No one will believe me.

The maintenance of a diplomatic service has an agreeable by-product. Its practitioners, having nothing better to do, observe what is going on around them. Unlike journalists, they do not work to a deadline, nor need they convince an editor that the events which they observe are interesting or important. Later, by the curious American practice, they find themselves unemployed halfway through their career. British diplomats are also paid off absurdly early, though with the consolation of a title and a pension. In either case, they occupy their leisure by writing diplomatic memoirs—sometimes trivial, usually concerned with topics—which other people have forgotten, but occasionally providing the historian with scraps of new illumination.

LEWIS EINSTEIN, who died last December at the age of ninety, left an admirable diplomatic memoir of the old type. He entered the service in 1903 and was removed from it in 1930. Like many patriotic Americans, he spent the rest of his life in London and Paris. He was an accomplished writer on the borderland between literature and history. He had also his moment of public importance. In January, 1913, he wrote an article on the United States and Anglo-German rivalry, in which he argued that, if the European balance of power were upset by a German victory in war, the United States would have to intervene in order to restore it. No doubt the thought had occurred to others, but Einstein was among the first to formulate it clearly in print. He is therefore entitled to the credit for having involved the United States in two World Wars.

Was there any sense in his argument? Perhaps there was for the First World War. If the German navy had destroyed the British (which it was extremely unlikely to do even if Germany conquered the entire continent), German sea-power might have been more of a nuisance to the United States than British sea-power had been. It is more difficult to understand what misfortunes could have followed for the United States from Hitler’s victories. However, fortunately for those of us who disliked Hitler and the Germans, Einstein’s argument retained its enchantment.

His book records experiences, not arguments. The experiences are now infinitely remote, as though they happened centuries ago. This was indeed the old world. Einstein started at the Algeçiras Conference of 1906, which was supposed to secure the independence of Morocco and in fact prepared its partition. This was the first general international gathering, except for the Hague conference, for more than twenty years, and the diplomats were already handicapped by being at the receiving end of the telephone, which worked even in Spain. Here was a foretaste of all the international negotiations which have gone on ever since, with the participants obstinately wrangling over trifles until they received a signal for agreement from a distant source. The instruction to the American delegate was admirably characteristic: “Keep friendly with all. Help France get what she ought to have but don’t take the fight on your shoulders. Help limit France when she ought to be limited, but don’t take that fight on your shoulders.” Not surprisingly, Henry White, who carried out this instruction won golden opinions from all.

Einstein was fortunate to see two historic Empires in their last days. He was at Constantinople when Ambdul Hamid still sustained his abominable rule. Corruption tempered inefficiency, and the Sultan, in his Napoleonic uniform, spent his days pouring over reports from the secret police. The ambassadors bullied him in turn. He cringed, promised to reform, and did nothing. With their usual lack of foresight, all the ambassadors were taken by surprise when the Young Turk revolution broke out. Einstein gives an admirable account of the later Counter-Revolution which was accomplished by firing rifles into the air. A fortnight afterwards, the Salonika army arrived and shot all the counter-revolutionaries. Reform resumed its somewhat tawdry march.

ANOTHER STROKE of luck followed when Einstein was moved to Pekin, once more just before the fall of the Empire. These were the days of Dollar Diplomacy, when the idea started that money would somehow put China on its feet. The only result was to turn a few Chinese into millionaires. The diplomats were robbed by their cooks. When the Italian envoy cut down the cook’s allowance, the cook cut off the last course. An invitation to dinner read: “We have cleansed the wine cups and await your instructful conversation.” Outside the houses large ceremonial lanterns were inscribed with the host’s name and dignities. The wife of a British diplomat insisted on following this custom. The Chinese characters, when deciphered, described her as being the concubine of British Minister number two. Einstein observed these amenities with delight. He also foretold correctly that the Chinese Empire was about to follow the way of the Ottoman Empire into revolution.

Einstein returned to Constantinople soon after the outbreak of the First World War. Now he had something of importance to record. He watched the Dardanelles campaign from the Turkish side and is emphatic that it was doomed after the failure of the naval attack. He writes: “One feels at a loss to know whether to be more amazed by the audacity of this desperate enterprise or its seemingly unnecessary nature. The argument used in its justification, that if it had been successful it would have shortened the war, is no truer than the reverse, that the dismal and horrible failure of the Dardanelles, in spite of many heroic memories, unquestionably prolonged it.” Sofia in wartime provided a newer experience. Here were peasants trying to run a country, with some interference from a German-born King. With relentless bad judgment, the Bulgarians managed to be on the losing side in both wars. This was a sad stroke for the most charming of Balkan peoples.

THE SERIOUS PART of Einstein’s book deals with his years at Prague after the First World War. Unlike some other observers from Western Europe, Einstein had no doubt that the Hapsburg Empire deserved its fate. He adds some additional evidence to sustain the view that the war was deliberately provoked by the Austrian generals and statesmen, who were convinced that this was their last chance. Einstein was also among the few who appreciated the national problems in the new Czechoslovak state. He does full justice to the attempts which Masaryk and Benes made to improve on the record of their Hapsburg predecessors. Einstein left the diplomatic service unwillingly in 1930. After the Munich crisis, he called on Benes in London. He asked Benes whether he felt that he could have counted on Russian support had the Czechs resisted. Benes replied that he was certain of this, but it would have meant identifying his people before the world as Bolsheviks. The remark is not without contemporary application. During the Second World War, Einstein offered his wisdom to the American government. He was rebuffed and found a more rewarding war work feeding pigs in Scotland.

MR. KENNAN’S little book picks up more or less where Einstein leaves off. It describes in an unusual way the fate of Czechoslovakia after Munich when Mr. Kennan was attached to the American legation in Prague. He turned up these diplomatic reports when writing his memoirs and decided that they were worth publishing on their own. He was right. They add an important footnote to recent history. According to the received version, Czechoslovakia after Munich was a write-off. Hitler had consciously decided to destroy its remaining independence at the first convenient opportunity and stirred up Slovak discontent as an excuse for doing this. Mr. Kennan provides a different picture, which leaves the impression that Hitler was an improviser, not a deliberate planner. At Munich he got what he wanted, the liberation of the Sudeten Germans, and had no idea in his head what he would do next. The motive force for subsequent events in Czechoslovakia came from within, not without, though Hitler may have vaguely foreseen it.

The basic factor in Czechoslovakia then, if not now, was that the Czechs were the people of state, as the Germans had been in old Austria. They held the unitary state together and provided the capital for the development of its backward areas. This worked so long as Czech prestige stood high. When this prestige was shattered by the Munich crisis, the governed peoples—Slovaks and Ruthenes—began to assert their claims. Czechoslovakia became in theory a federal state. In reality it had either to remain unitary or to dissolve. At Godesberg, Hitler had anticipated this and had looked with favor on a Hungarian seizure of the Slovak and Ruthene territory. Hungarian hesitations, and perhaps Hungarian friendship with Poland, made him turn against this solution. What was he to do? Should he tolerate a reassertion of Czech authority, which, given the weakness of the other peoples, might happen of itself? If he did, Czechoslovakia might again become dangerously independent, as indeed Hitler anticipated in his military directives during the winter of 1938-39. The alternative was to patronize the Slovaks.

Hitler, in his usual way, dallied with both policies. The running was made by the Slovaks rather than by Hitler or even by his subordinates. Within a few months Slovakia was out of hand. Hitler would not allow either the Czechs or the Hungarians to intervene. The Czechs actually appealed for German support. Instead Hitler allowed the Slovaks to become independent and took over only the protectorate of the Czech territories, Hungary was fobbed off with the Ruthenian fragment. Thus the impetus for the crisis of March 15, 1939, came from the Slovaks in Bratislava, not from Prague or Berlin, and Hitler forfeited Western good will by mistake. Distant observers attributed to him plans for continental dominance. Actually, like most Austrians, he was obsessed with the trivialities of the Danube valley. He supposed that it really mattered whether Hungary or Slovaks controlled some scraps of impoverished territory.

Mr. Kennan is a little unkind to the Slovaks. Of course they were an immature, feckless people, who suffered from the usual desire for an impractical national independence. But they managed to remain more or less neutral throughout the Second World War. They continued to be a problem afterward. Even the Slovak Communists wanted autonomy. The only centralists in restored Czechoslovakia were the Benes groups and the Czech Communists, and this forced upon the Benes group an alliance with the Communists which was their ruin. Even now Slovak and Czech tensions contribute something to the present situation in Czechoslovakia. Contrary to the common belief, the great powers do not determine everything that goes on in the world.

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