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The Old Diplomacy

The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order: Franco-Russian Relations, 1875-1890

by George F. Kennan
Princeton University Press, 466 pp., $25.00

In 1870, in the midst of the Franco-Prussian war, Karl Marx, always a shrewd commentator on contemporary international affairs, wrote, “If Alsace and Lorraine are taken, then France will later make war on Germany in conjunction with Russia. It is unnecessary to go into the unholy consequences.” It was a remarkably accurate prophecy: by 1894 the Franco-Russian alliance was signed. In 1914 the existence of this alliance confronted the Germans with the necessity Bismarck had been so anxious to avoid of fighting a war on two fronts. After World War I it became fashionable to put the blame for the outbreak of the war on the European system of alliances. The conclusion of the alliance between France and Russia seemed in retrospect to be the moment when the division of Europe into two rival groups—Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand and France and Russia on the other—made war inevitable. This explanation had the advantage that it did away with the idea that the war had been the direct responsibility of individual sovereigns or politicians, and put the blame on the international system rather than on any particular person or group.

Historical fashions change, and the prevailing interpretation of the origins of the First World War, especially in Germany, looks elsewhere for the answer: in the pressures of domestic policies, in the fear of an impending social revolution which could only be averted by a vigorous initiative in foreign policy, and in the awareness of insuperable internal problems which could only be solved by war. George Kennan, in the first of a series of two or three volumes, puts the emphasis back again where it started—and where indeed contemporaries believed it to lie—on the diplomatic relations between the powers and the complicated machinery by which alliances were prepared and secret negotiations conducted.

This is a type of explanation which raises difficulties of which Mr. Kennan is well aware. The historian is immediately confronted by the inadequacy of the actors’ for the parts they were expected to play and the disproportion between the mood in which crucial decisions were taken and the disastrous consequences which ultimately followed. Observers then and now were also struck by the contrast between, as Kennan puts it, the “apocalyptic results…and the accounts of the delirious euphoria of the crowds that milled around the streets of the great European capitals at the outbreak of war in 1914…. Were we not,” Kennan asks, “in the face of some monstrous miscalculation—some pervasive failure to read correctly the outward indicators of one’s own situation?”

It is tempting therefore to try to relate “the great seminal catastrophe of this century,” as Kennan calls it, to grander causes than the inadequacy of the politicians and diplomats or to the illusion of the deluded masses who welcomed war with such apparent enthusiasm. It may seem plausible to look for the explanation in vast historical forces, in the working out of some immanent historical dialectic rather than in the short-sightedness and lack of imagination of the sovereigns of Europe and their political and diplomatic advisers. On the other hand, the evidence we have about the politicians and diplomats tends to show that they themselves were for the most part little aware of the long-term forces to which they were subjected and only rarely saw themselves carrying out tasks allotted to them in some world-historical drama. Diplomats often seem to ignore factors that we feel they should have taken into consideration.

One of the things that emerge from Kennan’s study is how little attention the leaders paid to questions of economics and how they tended to regard these as subordinate to questions of traditional foreign policy. “We are far from complaining of the [Russian] tariff and legislative measures affecting the material interests of Germans,” Bismarck wrote at a moment in 1887 when representatives of those economic interests were actively pressing for measures to assist them against the Russian government. “They are questions of domestic policy which every government has to regulate in accordance with its own convenience. These differences over tariff questions and other such matters have always existed without disturbing our political and personal intimacy [with Russia].”

The world which George Kennan describes with great elegance and skill and with much lively atmospheric detail is the world of traditional nineteenth-century diplomacy, a world, that is to say, which saw itself as deliberately isolated from much of contemporary life, composed of people belonging self-consciously, as Zara Steiner has shown in her admirable study Britain and the Origins of the First World War (1977), to an elite which jealously claimed the sole right to carry on negotiations too subtle and too technical to be entrusted to anyone outside the chosen few. Contemporary observers compared these activities to elaborate figures in a dance or complex games of chess or, as Bismarck the arch-practitioner described them, a juggling act in which the problem was to keep three balls in the air at once.

Bismarck however, for all the virtuosity with which he played the diplomatic game, was aware at least of some of the underlying realities of power. Above all he saw that the German Empire, for all its potential as the strongest economic and military power in Europe, needed a period of peace and consolidation. In the 1860s Bismarck, by unifying modern Germany, had been the great disturber of the European equilibrium; but after German unity was achieved in 1871 he became its great preserver. The aims of his diplomacy were now to maintain the balance of power in which Germany was the strongest element; and to do this he needed to keep France isolated so as to prevent her from making any plans to avenge the defeat of 1870.

Bismarck, in consequence, felt he had to avoid a choice between support for Austria and support for Russia in their rivalries in the Balkans, since once Germany was committed to one side, then the other would be likely to join with France against Germany. The great threat to Bismarck’s system, the cauchemar des coalitions which haunted him, was a possible alliance between France and Russia. George Kennan’s aim in this long book is to show how the first steps toward this alliance came about and how in consequence Bismarck’s European order was replaced by a period of increasing instability.

Kennan’s view, as one would expect from so expert an observer of the Russian scene, is from St. Petersburg. If this is a useful corrective to the view from Berlin taken by so many of the standard works of diplomatic history such as William L. Langer’s Diplomatic Alliances and Alignments, it perhaps underestimates the extent to which the chanceries of Europe were dancing to Bismarck’s tune. By concentrating on the making of Russia’s policy, Kennan perhaps underestimates Bismarck’s role.

Although he recognizes in his title that it was Bismarck’s European order that was threatened by the Franco-Russian rapprochement, he does not provide an analysis of Bismarck’s aims and motives, which had a consistency that Russian policy lacked. Russian foreign policy indeed was not always consistent. The trouble with an autocratic regime is that it imposes very heavy burdens on the autocrat, and in different ways neither Alexander II nor Alexander III was really equal to them. Alexander II was, as George Kennan describes him, “a vacillating figure, torn between his German attachments on the one hand, and his aversion to Austria and inability to resist Panslav pressures on the other.” Alexander III, who came to the throne in 1881 after his father’s assassination, was deeply conservative, suspicious of foreigners and resentful of diplomatic formalities. As his foreign minister Giers put it to the German ambassador when it was suggested that the tsar should take part in a summit meeting with the German and Austrian emperors, “Il ne s’emballe guère. Il ne perd jamais son équilibre, son flegme. Si vous voulez, il accepte, mais à la condition qu’on ne lui demande pas de prononcer un discours. Il a horreur des discours.”

But although the tsar’s position was all-important, and all major decisions finally rested with him, there were rival forces striving for influence over him. Kennan shows that a kind of public opinion did exist in Russia even if a very restricted one. Its most active and effective spokesman was the journalist and editor M.N. Katkov, who dreamed of Russia fulfilling a historic mission as protector of the Slavs under Turkish rule and as heir to the Byzantine empire and its capital Constantinople. If Russia was to pursue such an active policy in the Balkans, an alliance with France obviously seemed desirable; it would counter the opposition from Austria-Hungary and her ally Germany that Russian ambitions in the region would produce. On the other hand, there were those conservatives who wanted to maintain good relations between the Russian monarchy and its German dynastic relations and who were extremely suspicious of France and her republican institutions. They shared the view of General Cheryevin, the head of the political police, who told the German chargé d’affaires, “France is a rotting corpse. It would be folly to ally one’s self with her. I have no faith in the future of France.”

The ideas of Katkov and the Panslavs finally had the strongest influence. The test of Russian policy came over Bulgaria and the complicated diplomatic situation resulting from the establishment of an independent Bulgarian state at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. At Berlin the Russians had been forced to give up some of the gains obtained by their victory over Turkey in the war that had ended early that year, especially the creation of a large Bulgaria out of Turkish territory. But the formula imposed by the other great powers, by which only part of Bulgaria became independent so as to avoid the creation of a large Slav state under Russian domination, did not last long. In 1885 the part of Bulgaria remaining under Turkish rule revolted and joined the new Bulgarian state.

The Russians found—as they were to find again a century later—that not all the states intended to be obedient satellites in fact turned out to be so, and that nationalism and local rivalries are often stronger than feelings of gratitude. Many pages of Kennan’s book are devoted to this crisis, which has the elements of a successful romantic novel. The dashing young prince Alexander of Battenberg, the ruler of Bulgaria, was kidnapped by Russian agents and, because of the demands of high politics, was prevented from marrying the girl he loved, Princess Victoria of Prussia. But the significance of the crisis was that it convinced influential Russians that Germany was to blame for Russia’s failure to win control over Bulgaria and that only a foreign policy which would restore Russia’s independence of action could attain her legitimate goals.

This demand was expressed by Katkov in an editorial on July 30, 1886: “Only by virtue of that independence which is as necessary to the state as air is to the living being will we be able to distinguish enemies from friends and, in the context of moving events and changing circumstances, ascertain with whom it is suitable for us, by the will of Providence, to go together and against whom we shall undertake preventative measures.” Although Katkov denied that he was advocating alliance with France, his article clearly implied just that; and in any case, although there was in 1887 a temporary diplomatic rapprochement with Germany which seemed a defeat for Katkov’s ideas, by the summer of 1891 serious negotiations between Russia and France had begun.

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