The Decline of Bismarck's European Order: Franco-Russian Relations, 1875-1890
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.