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.

The advantages of a French alliance for Russia seemed clear: it would give the Russians a freer hand in southeastern Europe. Faced with the prospect of a two-front war, Germany would be more unlikely to back Austria-Hungary in a conflict with Russia. The alliance would also, though this is an aspect of Russian policy which Kennan does not discuss, give Russia security in its vast operations to extend control across Siberia to the Pacific. (The decision to construct the Trans-Siberian railway was taken in 1891.) And before the formal negotiations for the alliance started Russia was more and more relying on the French money market for capital.

But why would France want to join Russia in an alliance? Here it is important to understand that public opinion in the two countries was fundamentally different: Kennan shows clearly that in Russia only a small circle of people counted sufficiently for their views to have any weight, whereas in France there was a large and articulate public interested in politics and a strong parliamentary opinion on which the survival of governments depended. The influence of public opinion on French foreign relations is a subject on which George Kennan does not have much to say, and he is throughout the book more interested in the making of Russian than of French policy, perhaps because he believes that the conduct of foreign affairs is really the prerogative of a political elite. Although he writes very interestingly about some of the private persons who tried to influence the government—Clemenceau’s friend Mme Juliette Adam, for example—he says little about the general parliamentary situation.

In France much of the energy of politicians was taken up with domestic issues—lay education and the conflict between Church and State or the recurrent scandals in which some of the leaders of the Third Republic were involved. Foreign policy usually attracted attention only when things went wrong: the defeat of a French army at Hanoi led to the fall of Ferry’s government in 1885. True, there were occasions when the underlying resentment at the defeat of 1870 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine would flare up briefly and produce a political crisis as with the rise of General Boulanger in 1887. Most of the time however foreign affairs left the French public indifferent. The one direct link between the ordinary Frenchman—the provincial homme moyen sensuel—and the alliance with Russia was that in many cases he had invested his savings in Russian bonds. This gave the Franco-Russian alliance a firmer popular basis than most other diplomatic alignments of the period. It is an aspect of the alliance which Kennan does not treat here, but which he will no doubt analyze in his later volumes.

The French bankers, by their success in marketing shares in Russian government loans, made the French public aware of, and indeed, outside socialist circles, enthusiastic for tsarist Russia. They helped prepare the way for the popular visit of the French fleet to Kronstadt in 1891 and that of the Russian navy to Toulon in 1893. But as René Girault has shown in his important Emprunts russes et investissements français en Russie (1973), the initiative for these financial operations seems to have resulted from Russia’s shortage of capital and the French bankers’ interest in expanding their share of the Russian money market. The French government itself did not conceive that these loans would provide an essential element of support for a military and diplomatic rapprochement with Russia. Kennan acknowledges Girault’s work; and it certainly provides some evidence to support Kennan’s own view that governments were little influenced in their foreign policy by economic factors and had little insight into their consequences.

A further reason for the success of the Russian loans in France was provided by Bismarck. In November 1887, with characteristic lack of awareness of the wider political significance of international financial links, he banned the sale of Russian bonds on the Berlin stock exchange. He was annoyed at the Russian government for imposing a tax on foreign owners of estates in Russia—a measure that affected important members of the German landed aristocracy who owned properties on both sides of the border between Russian and Prussian Poland. Thus Bismarck unwittingly encouraged the Russian government to turn to Paris in its search for funds.

Kennan is well aware of such moves by Bismarck but, as I have suggested, he has little to say about the interplay between domestic and foreign policy in France or about French public and political opinion. One cannot escape the impression that he shares the disdain of some of his Russian protagonists for the Third Republic, although he promises that subsequent volumes will deal more fully with the French end of the alliance. He does however draw attention to some of the little-known ways by which the French military men collaborated in making the alliance. Following the Soviet historian A. Z. Manfred, he shows that there were people in the French army who from the early 1870s were exploring the possibility of working with some of the Russian military leaders. These contacts had little immediate importance, but Kennan points out that when serious negotiations began there were on both sides people who had established a degree of mutual confidence. One of these officers was General de Boisdeffre (to whose papers George Kennan has had access), who had been assistant military attaché in St. Petersburg in 1879 and who by 1894 had become chief of staff of the French army. He had long cherished the ambition to be appointed ambassador to Russia, but his career ended in his resignation during the Dreyfus Affair when his apparent complicity in the forging of evidence against Dreyfus became known.

Another confidential link between the French and Russian governments was provided by a mysterious and unattractive figure about whom Kennan tells us much that is new, and to whom he attaches more importance than earlier accounts: Elie de Cyon, “le louche Cyon.” This Russian Jew abandoned a successful career as a professor of medicine in order to become a hack journalist and a professional go-between. He was not only involved in some of the military contacts between France and Russia but also for a time seems to have occasionally worked, not very successfully, for Rothschild’s, one of the banks most concerned in converting the Russian government loans. Mr. Kennan is understandably fascinated by this character who seems to have had unexpectedly easy access to influential figures both in Paris and in St Petersburg and who is suspected by some people (probably wrongly) of having been the author of that fundamental text of twentieth-century anti-Semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

But although Kennan has found out a lot about de Cyon, there are still mysteries about how important he actually was in the negotiations. Two groups in both France and Russia actively wanted a closer relationship between the two countries—the bankers and some of the generals—and de Cyon was in touch with both. Rather surprisingly, the military seem to have been his main employers. Perhaps the financiers did not really need such a go-between; they had plenty of other contacts of their own, both official and unofficial. The generals on the Russian side however were more divided. They included both men of liberal leanings who had a natural sympathy with France and those like the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, the brother of Alexander II, whose Panslav nationalism made them increasingly anti-German. They knew that some of their colleagues remained opposed to an alliance with France and it was perhaps for this reason that they felt it necessary to use such a devious means of communication as that provided by de Cyon.

The importance which George Kennan attaches to de Cyon’s activities is perhaps exaggerated since, as Marx had foreseen in 1870, a Franco-Russian alliance suited the ambitions of both sides: for Russia if she were to have a free hand in the Balkans and security on her western frontier during the period of expansion across Asia, and for France if she was ever to break out of the international isolation in which Bismarck had succeeded in confining her and to win back the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. By one means or another the alliance would have come about anyway. The intrigues of hangers-on such as Elie de Cyon tell us more about the way in which international relations were conducted than about the facts of power in late nineteenth-century Europe.

Kennan’s emphasis on de Cyon, whose career is undoubtedly a puzzling and interesting one, is characteristic of his view of the way in which international relations were conducted. Perhaps surprisingly for someone who was himself so long a distinguished diplomat, he is fascinated by the romance and glamor of diplomatic life and by the sense of intrigue and mystery with which it was surrounded, so that he tends to overestimate the importance of secret missions and underground contacts. This is how he describes part of one of de Cyon’s journeys from Paris to St. Petersburg:

When Elie de Cyon…boarded the train for Berlin and Petersburg at the Gare du Nord on the 6th of February 1887, he must have been greatly excited with the consciousness of his own importance. He was presumably the bearer of an oral message of great importance from the French high command to their Russian counterparts…. He also presumably had in his pocket, or somewhere on his person, a highly confidential letter from the French president to the Tsar of Russia…. One can imagine with what…glowing self-satisfaction he—a talented and ambitious but frustrated man, with a passion for conspiratorial secrecy—must have said to himself, as he brushed past [his] fellow passengers in the corridors or confronted them in the dining cars: “Ah—if they only knew.”…

It was afternoon before one reached the German-Russian border…. Here there was another long wait while the Russian officials, impressive in their great-coats, went through the ceremonies of customs and passport inspection, and one changed from the standard-gauge wagon-lits of Western Europe to the commodious broad-gauge Russian Cars, with the icicles hanging from their roofs and the charcoal smoke floating up from the little samovar-chimneys into the still, frosty air.

This is not far removed from the world of the romantic novelists of the turn of the century—H. Seton Merriman, perhaps, who describes much the same scene in The Vultures (1902):

Daylight was beginning to contend with the brilliant electric illuminations of the long platform as…the express steamed into Alexandrowo Station…. How many have succeeded in passing out of that dread railway station with a false passport and a steady face, beneath the searching eye of the officials, Heaven only knows…. Before the train is at a standstill each one of the long corridor carriages is boarded by the man in the dirty white trousers, the green tunic and green cap, the top-boots and the majesty of Russian law….

George Kennan is the better writer, but the mood is the same, as well as the fascination with the mystery and exoticism of tsarist Russia.

The great achievement of George Kennan’s book is that he uses his scholarship and his extensive knowledge of the large body of secondary literature on the Franco-Russian Alliance to remind us how high diplomacy of the late nineteenth century looked to contemporaries. He shows what the participants themselves thought they were doing and what were the standards and preconceptions which governed their behavior. We look in vain for the motives which many historians, notably Hans-Ulrich Wehler and his followers, now tend to attribute to them: the pressure of economic interests or the desire to use foreign politics to distract attention away from insuperable internal difficulties. There is no sign of the general crisis of capitalist society in terms of which Arno J. Mayer analyzes the causes of World War I. Certainly economic factors count, as in the negotiations for the French loans to Russia. But it is almost impossible to prove that they were the predominant factor in decisions which in fact seem to have been taken primarily for political or strategic reasons.

Kennan’s book is a plea for the restoration of diplomatic history, and even if it does not change the general picture which we have in the standard works by Boris Nolde or William L. Langer, Mr. Kennan writes with such style and conviction that we come to believe that Bismarck and Giers, Alexander III and William II, General de Boisdeffre, M. N. Katkov, and Elie de Cyon were really doing what they believed they were doing for the reasons which they themselves gave at the time. It is an odd reflection on the historiography of our day that this should seem a revolutionary conclusion.

This Issue

January 24, 1980