Turning Toward War

The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War

by George F. Kennan
Pantheon, 300 pp., $19.95

When early in 1890 Bismarck, the German imperial chancellor, was forced by Kaiser William II to resign, the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, described the event as “an enormous calamity of which the effects will be felt in every part of Europe.” For twenty years Bismarck’s diplomatic skill had preserved peace and maintained international stability in spite of the long-term economic and political developments that threatened it. Above all, he had maintained the links between Germany and Russia in face of the many economic and diplomatic differences between them. This policy was now abandoned; and the consequence was that within three years Russia signed an alliance with France, thus ending the isolation in which Bismarck’s diplomacy had kept France since 1870, and dividing Europe into two rival systems. Thus Russia and France confronted the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

We can now see that this was an important stage on the way to World War I; and indeed contemporaries too felt that some sort of turning point had been reached. In his new book, the sequel to his The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order, George Kennan argues that the Franco-Russian alliance was disastrous for Europe because it involved Russia in the conflicts of Western Europe and “fatally interrupted the adjustment of her social and political system to the demands of the modern age and thus played a leading part in bringing on the Revolution.” While he is not here concerned with these consequences, they are never far from his mind and provide the reason why he feels that the diplomatic negotiations leading to the alliance need a fresh assessment.

The uncertainties in the international situation once Bismarck was gone were increased by the exaggerated fears in both Paris and St. Petersburg that Britain, the main rival of France in Africa and Southeast Asia and of Russia in Afghanistan and the Far East, might be about to abandon its traditional isolation and join the Triple Alliance, which itself was formally renewed in 1891. To these diplomatic anxieties was added an economic crisis. The new German government was caught between three conflicting demands: the great landlords wanted to keep the price of grain high by a tariff against Russian imports; the industrialists wanted new commercial treaties with Germany’s neighbors in order to help Germany’s exports; the public wanted a reduction in the cost of living. In Russia by the end of 1891 large areas were threatened with famine; and this in turn weakened Russia’s credit and depleted its finances.

There was a direct conflict of interests in both countries. The economic situation suggested that a détente was necessary to improve trade, keep prices down, and overcome the depression, but the international situation was so unstable that the Russians regarded the Germans as enemies and felt the need to ensure themselves against a war with Germany and Austria, which many Russians felt was made even more likely by the increases in the German army of 1893. As George Kennan writes—and…

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