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 it is one of the underlying themes of his book—

This assumption of the inevitability of a German–Russian war…arose simply from the internal compulsions normally engendered by the cultivation of large armed forces—by the mutual anxieties, that is, which such a competition invariably arouses, and by the preoccupation of both the governments and the public with the dangers that it appears to present. So powerful are such compulsions, at all times and in all places, that the absence of any rational motives for a war, or of any constructive purpose that could be served by one, is quite lost sight of behind them.

In this atmosphere of growing international suspicion, the importance of the alliances did not lie so much in the exact texts of the agreements in which they were finally expressed as in the expectations they aroused. Governments based their policies and especially their strategic planning on the assumption that the alliances would determine the pattern of a future war. The existence of the Franco-Russian alliance therefore meant that from then on the Germans would have to be prepared for a war on two fronts, the situation that Bismarck had above all wished to avoid.

George Kennan gives a detailed account of the actual making of the alliance, first the political agreement of August 1891 and then the military convention signed a year later. The book is a masterpiece of diplomatic narrative which unravels the complex strands of policy making in the two countries with admirable clarity and evokes vividly the characters of those who conducted the negotiations. For all the differences between the political systems of czarist Russia and republican France, the execution of foreign policy was complicated by similar human and institutional failings. Ambassadors tried to pursue their own policies independently of their foreign ministers; generals trusted other generals rather than politicians; illnesses and neuroses delayed and confused the discussions.


The nature of secret diplomacy was such that the cast of characters was surprisingly small. On the Russian side, Czar Alexander III—“this huge, ponderous, taciturn man,” as Kennan describes him, dominates the stage. Kennan calls him “grumpy,” though perhaps this is too cozy and avuncular a word to describe this ill-tempered, secretive, stubborn, ruthless, reactionary autocrat. All decisions were ultimately taken by him, but access to him was by no means easy and was governed by rigid formalities. The French ambassador had to explain to his government that it was simply out of the question to invite the czar to dinner at the embassy as might have been possible at other courts.

Alexander III was dominated by the fear of revolution and by the memory of his father’s assassination. One of the most tangible ways in which the French government was able to demonstrate its desire for improved relations with Russia was by arresting and putting on trial a number of Russian political refugees in France. In foreign affairs Alexander III wanted to see an extension of Russian influence in the Balkans, but above all he had an unremitting hatred and suspicion of Germany, which became concentrated in an extreme personal dislike of the young Kaiser William II. Alexander dreamed of a successful war against Germany in which “Germany as such would disappear,” as he put it. “It would break up into a number of small, weak states, the way it used to be.”

The czar’s suspicious, reserved temperament made him dislike new faces in his entourage. Therefore Nikolai Karlovich Giers, in his seventies “a physically helpless figure, mentally quite alert, but racked with a succession of illnesses, often and for long periods bedridden, never able to resume the full burden of his official duties,” was retained as foreign minister in spite of his physical disabilities. Giers thus contributed to the hesitations and delay in the formulation of Russian foreign policy, the more so since he had some doubts of his own about the new alignment and was reluctant to abandon Russia’s links with Germany. No doubt it was the czar’s hatred of change that led him to leave Baron Mohrenheim as Russian ambassador in Paris in spite of the fact that Mohrenheim was trusted neither by the French nor by his own superiors and was, as a French newspaper put it, “a dashing gentleman…whose financial embarrassments, long a matter of common knowledge in Paris, have continued to the present day.”

Mohrenheim was suspected of being involved in the great financial scandal of the early 1890s, when the bankruptcy of the Panama Canal Company revealed the large number of French politicians and others who had received money from the Panama company in the hope that they would help to obtain further French government subsidies to keep the company going. Mohrenheim’s equivocal character and his dubious activities provide a further complicating element in the story, for he was very ambitious and was trying to claim credit for himself for the success of the negotiations, to which he contributed very little.

The other chief figure on the Russian side, perhaps the most important of all since he had the confidence both of the czar and the French, was the chief of the general staff, General Nikolai Nikolayevich Obruchev, a figure who suggests that the social structure of czarist Russia was more complex than is often supposed. Brought up in a home for military orphans, Obruchev had been notably liberal in his youth. Because of his connections with the radical populist circle around N.V. Chaikovsky in the early 1860s, he had been obliged to live abroad for two years in Paris, where he had acquired a French wife, a château in the Dordogne, and an affection for France. All of these were to be of value in the negotiations for an alliance, which he had for some ten years advocated, and of which he was in some ways the main architect.

On the French side there were three leading participants, two politicians, Alexandre Ribot and Charles de Freycinet, and one general, Raoul de Boisdeffre. Freycinet and Ribot were among the most distinguished political figures of the Third Republic. In 1890 Freycinet was prime minister for the fourth time and he held the post of minister of war as well. He was an efficient and tough administrator and an indispensable figure in the shifting combinations out of which the governments of republican France emerged. Ribot, the foreign minister in 1890, was to remain a prominent politician (five times prime minister) until the First World War, and he combined genuine intellectual interests (he insisted on reading Latin for an hour a day, come what may) with the ruthlessness and flexibility needed to survive in French politics.


Ribot and Freycinet were colleagues; but they were also political rivals. Each wanted the credit for making the entente with Russia if it were successful or for saving France from a dangerous entanglement should the alliance fail to come off. The already suspicious relations between the foreign ministry and the ministry of war thus were intensified. Both men remained in office till 1893 when the Panama scandal caused a major political crisis and temporarily deprived them of places in the government. It was the continuity of these two men in government over several years that gave the czar some confidence in the reliability of the French (early in his reign he had exhorted the French ambassador “Ayez de la stabilité, de la stabilité!”) so that by 1893 things had gone far enough to allow the final completion of the military convention without the czar changing his mind.

Continuity had also been supplied by General de Boisdeffre, the deputy chief of the general staff, who had been working for a Franco-Russian alliance for more than a decade: “dignified, industrious, quietly persistent, everywhere respected—the waxwork model of a superior staff officer.” His career was to end in disgrace and controversy a few years later when he was involved in the elaborate army cover-up during the Dreyfus case—but this, as Kennan says, “was an episode that would take place some years later, nor does a single error destroy the value of an entire life.”

George Kennan’s attitude toward the characters in his story is somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand he has a puritanical distaste for the ruling classes of the old Europe, “for the most part, overfed, oversexed, and underexercised.” On the other he has a professional sympathy as a distinguished ex-diplomat himself for the diplomats, generals, and foreign ministers with whom he is concerned—“children of their time,” as he writes of the two generals de Boisdeffre and Obruchev, “honorable and well meaning,” who “deserve to be judged, if judge them one must, by the standards of their time, not of ours.” The disasters to which in Kennan’s view they ultimately contributed lay in forces far beyond their control.

At one level, then, Kennan’s book provides a fascinating account of the interaction of these actors in the drama, so that their personal ambitions, hopes, and fears seem the most important element in the story. But at moments other more turbulent forces disturb the dignified secrecy of the negotiations. It was the beginning of the age when, as a contemporary statesman noted, “The diplomacy of nations is now conducted as much in the letters of foreign correspondents as in the dispatches of the Foreign Office.” The press of Europe seized on the external signs of the diplomatic revolution. When a French naval squadron paid a visit to the Russian base at Kronstadt in July 1891, the sight of the czar standing bareheaded while the Marseillaise was played (even if he had only agreed to do so with the greatest reluctance and signaled to the orchestra halfway through, saying, “Assez, assez!“) was enough to convince the journalists that a new alliance was about to be concluded. When the Russian fleet paid a return visit to Toulon, French enthusiasm surprised all observers. The Russian officers, “jaded, bewildered,…and exhausted,” as Kennan pictures them, “…admired, wined, dined, feted, and showered with gifts, … were shunted about, day after day.”

The French public, with the exception of those on the left who remembered the repressive nature of Russian rule, had decided it liked the Russian alliance. The popular enthusiasm for Russia lasted until the First World War, increasingly reinforced by the amount of savings that middle-class French people were investing in Russian bonds. For all the secrecy concerning the exact terms of the agreements, “the instinctive conclusions of the European public coincided with the tenor of the secret understandings actually arrived at around the time of the respective naval visits.”

The Fateful Alliance, then, examines both a diplomatic revolution and an example of the new interaction of the press and foreign policy, and it shows how popular enthusiasm erupted into the enclosed world of the foreign ministries and embassy chanceries. But, and this, I suspect, is why George Kennan wrote the book, these negotiations also mark a new way of thinking about peace and war. “As late as the eighteenth century, wars…were generally fought for specific limited purposes. The amount of force was made, if possible, commensurate to the purpose at hand—no more, no less.” Now things were changing. “One has only to consider Obruchev’s memorandum of May 1892. War…was not to be localized—not to be limited in the number of the contestants…the war he had in mind was to be a war à outrance—a war in which everything would be at stake.” We are here in the age of total war.

Thus the detailed and at first sight remote diplomatic negotiations have tragic overtones, which George Kennan never forgets. At the beginning of the book he contrasts the cultural achievements of the late nineteenth century in France and Russia in which “new horizons were being extended,…new modes of creative self-expression discovered,” with the reality of the next half-century. Half the men born in France in 1890 were to be killed or injured in the First World War; those born in Russia were to suffer similar or even worse fates. “Truly, the final years of the nineteenth century, however things may have appeared at the moment, were not a happy time to be born.”

Kennan’s gloomy and puritanical conservatism, his sympathy for old ways and old forms, his sense that technology has outstripped men’s capacity for its rational use, that the “mass compulsions of modern nationalism” threaten any rational foreign policy, are balanced by hope, even if a faint one, that we can still learn from the failures of the governments that made the Franco-Russian alliance to discern the consequences of their actions. If our leaders do not understand the results of their decisions, George Kennan implies, this time there will be no second chance, and the prospects for those born in 1980 will be even worse than those born a hundred years earlier.

This Issue

November 22, 1984