A review of The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War, by George F. Kennan

In 1979 George Kennan began his study of the turn-of-the-century relations between France and Russia with The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order. The Fateful Allianceis the second part of that study. It deals with the negotiations that led to the conclusion of the alliance between France and Russia and the military convention that was the substance of that alliance.

The Franco-Russian Alliance was formed in response to the Triple Alliance between Italy, Austria, and Germany, which was concluded in 1882. The Triple Alliance and the Franco-Russian Alliance would continue in force until the coming of the First World War.

The military convention of 1892 attendant upon the alliance between France and Russia contained several crucial clauses:

Si la France est attaquée par l’Allemagne ou par L’Italie soutenue par l’Allemagne, la Russie emploiera toutes ses forces disponible pour attaquer l’Allemagne. Si la Russie est attaquée par l’Allemagne ou par I’Autriche soutenue par l’Allemagne, la France emploiera toutes ses forces disponible pour combattre l’Allemagne.

It was agreed further that if the forces of the Triple Alliance or of one of its members were to be mobilized, both France and Russia, at the first announcement of this action, would them­selves mobilize immediately and simultaneously the totality of their forces and move them to the frontier as soon as possible.

Thus, as it seems to Professor Kennan, was Russia committed to a course of action that was fatal. In the Introduction to his book, Kennan explains:

The attention of the author was initially drawn to this subject by certain of the appreciations borne in upon him by his earlier studies of the first months of the Soviet-American rela­tionship in 1917 and 1918. Central to those appreciations was the recognition of how endlessly unfortunate, primarily for Russia but scarcely less so for France and the remainder of Western Europe, turned out to be this involvement of Russia, through her ties to France, in the great Western European conflicts of the first years of this century. It was largely this involvement that caused what had begun in 1914 as a Balkan quarrel to grow into the dimensions of a general European war. And it was Russia’s participation in this great war, coming as it did on the heels of her costly and unsuccessful conflict with Japan in 1904-1905, that 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, with all its fateful consequences for both Russia and the world at large.

There is a certain innocence in all this. Imagine this distinguished diplomat, a graduate of Princeton University in 1928, resident in Central and Eastern Europe 1927 to 1931, student of the Russian language, and member of the first diplomatic mission to Moscow in 1933, discovering, in the course of research for a book on U.S.-Soviet relations between 1917 and 1920, that the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 carried implications for the fate of the European powers. For those educated in a period when the diplomatic prelude to the First World War was the subject of countless studies, it was an article of faith that the war had come about through the system of alliances in Europe. The notion that the war was rendered inevitable by the alignments of nations, by the commitment to a “balance of power,” underlay Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to substitute a kind of collective security for defen­sive alliances. “Open covenants, openly arrived at” had been the motto of the new age that the Treaty of Versailles and its League of Nations was to herald.

A notable book published in the period of George Kennan’s tutelage in international affairs was Sidney Bradshaw Fay’s The Origins of the World War, the first edition of which appeared in 1928:

The greatest single underlying cause of the War was the system of secret alliances which developed, after the Franco-Prussian War. It gradually divided Europe into two hostile groups of Powers who were increasingly sus­picious of each other and who steadily built up greater and greater armies and navies. . . . The members of each group felt bound to support each other, even in matters where they had no direct interest. . . . (p. 34)

It does strain credulity a bit to suppose that World War I; the Russian Revolution; even, as Professor Kennan suggests, the defeat of France in 1940 (“the necessity forFrance of facing alone, initially without any effective ally, the hydra of an embittered, hysterically governed and immensely powerful Germany”); and therefore World War II, stemmed from the commitment of Russia and France, made in 1894, to defend one another in the event of a German attack. To believe that is to believe that the strong-willed men who governed in Russia and France, and who sought the alliance of the two countries, were succeeded by men enraptured by the alliance to the exclusion of other considerations, and that solemn words on paper imprisoned policy beyond the influence of reason or external events.

There is little room in such a notion for the possibility of the clash of wills between great nations, each bent on the fulfillment of aims and ideals held to be as important as survival itself. There is no concept here of the imperatives of strategy, the vulnerabilities of nations imposed by geographical circumstances, or even the inherent nature of politics.

There are two levels upon which a book like this can be examined. There is the view of history which it presents, and there is the purpose of the book itself. The story is told with the urbanity and civility to be expected of a man whose image is that of a senior diplomatist who has assumed the role of teacher about international affairs. There are neither villains nor heroes in this work, only men dedicated to the unflinching service of their respective countries. The book is a civilized description of decent men, each a thorough professional, conducting affairs respon­sibly and delicately amidst the contradictions and conflicts that hedge about any government in its day-to-day operations. The personalities, inclina­tions and fallibilities of the actors in the drama are drawn with sympathy and understanding, and when their motives are exposed, these are not presented as anything more than what might be expected of loyal public servants. To that extent, the view of history is a generous one free of condemnation if not of foreboding.

As far as diplomatic history is concerned, there are far more illuminating accounts of the circum­stances and consequences of the Franco-Russian Alliance. William L. Langer’sThe Diplomacy of Imperialism is more helpful to the student of such things. If one wishes to understand the alliance as part of the general trend in Russian foreign policy in the nineteenth century, there is an excellent, restrained account given in Barbara Jelavich’s A Century of Russian Foreign Policy, 1814-1914. Professor Kennan does not concern himself with either strategy or the power upon which strategy is based. Dean Acheson is said to have remarked of George Kennan that he has “never grasped the realities of power rela­tionships, but takes a rather mystical attitude toward them.” That description seems most to characterize Fateful Alliance.

Descriptions of the men who made the alliance play on their inclinations and susceptibilities to lend a cast of realism to the negotiations leading to the alliance. Intricate political circumstances in each country are described to illustrate the background against which negotiations went forward. To that extent, the book suggests some grasp of the conditions of politics. Yet that grasp never seems to extend beyond, to the inherent nature of politics among nations.

As diplomatic history, The Fateful Alliance is only a modest contribution to an understanding of the nature of international politics, or even to the causes of the war between the Central Powers and the Triple Entente. It leaves unraised any question of German policy at work in Central Europe and the Middle East, or Austro-Hungarian policy in respect to the Balkans. The notion expressed in the Epilogue that “of the four great powers most immediately affected by the Franco-Russian Alliance . . . the only two that had what might be called clear expansionist motives were the two parties to the Alliance -France and Russia,” seems to neglect both German and Austrian aims. Certainly for sheer expansion one could hardly have matched in Europe the record of Prussia which, in the period between 1863 and 1871, had brought under its control all of Germany as well as Alsace-Lorraine. The French recovery of the latter territory, which had been in its possession since 1766 (Alsace since 1687), could hardly be called expansionist. As for Austria-Hungary, it would not hesitate to avail itself of any opportunity to change its treaty-sanctioned occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to outright annexation.

George Kennan’s oversimplification of the complex relationships among the powers of Europe obscures the deep conflicts inherent in the -international politics of Europe in the years following the unification of Germany at the close of the Franco-Prussian War. While Professor Kennan presents a convincing portrait of compli­cated circumstances in France and Russia that formed the background against which the alliance was negotiated, he does not do justice to equally complicated forces at work across the continent of Europe.

The origin of the First World War cannot be attributed to the Franco-Russian Alliance or even to the alliance of the Central Powers. The alliances were themselves symptoms of profound forces at work, forces creating conditions that were more than the European powers could deal with. The unification of Germany, finally brought about by Bismarck through the Danish, the Austro-Prussian, and the Franco-Prussian Wars, had been going on for at least 300 years. Nor is it at all certain that a Germany unified under Austrian leadership would have created a more peaceful Europe. Austria itself was beset by imperial problems so deep as to threaten its existence, while faced with the demands of adjustment to the growth of national states in the Balkans, each of which was subject to its own internal conflicts.

The emergence of Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria out of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire not only raised intractable conflicts among the powers who had helped create them, but also led to intra-Balkan competition which could be resolved only through the intervention of the Great Powers. The slow disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, a direct result of its growing inability to administer the territory it held, created that problem called “the Eastern Ques­tion,” which commanded the attention of France, Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and ultimately Germany. The “Eastern Question” complicated the relations among those powers when it came to resolving other European problems. Then there were the problems created by European interests outside of Europe. Anglo-Russian competition in Afghanistan and Persia, Russo-Japanese competition in Manchuria and Korea, Franco-British-German friction in Africa all exacerbated the relations among the powers in their efforts to bring about any kind of European settlement. Within months of the conclusion of the Franco-Russian Alliance, Japan would defeat China on land and at sea, marking Japan as a major power in the Far East while inviting the intervention of France, Germany, and Russia in the matter, each in an effort to turn the situation in favor of its own interests in China.

The nineteenth century was a time of major social revolution in Europe, not just that symbo­lized by the French Revolution and the revolu­tions of 1848, but made material by the growth of technology and its application to the indus­trialization of Europe. The great concentration of industry that grew along the Ruhr itself represented a revolutionary development. The introduction of the steam engine for manufactur­ing and for land and maritime transport, the electric telegraph, the widespread development of railways, and the manufacture on a great scale of industrial products such as cast steel, chemicals, high explosives and nitro-cellulose propellants, all conspired to alter the standards by which national power could be measured.

To suggest that the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 led unerringly to the First World War and therefore to the Second World War flies in the face of all those difficult events and circum­stances that created the conditions leading to war in 1914. German hostility to England as expressed in Von Buelow’s memorandum of 1899 hardly argued for a peaceful Europe even in the absence of the Franco-Russian Alliance:

On the whole it is certain that opinion in England is far less anti-German than opinion in Germany is anti-English; therefore those Englishmen like Chirol and Saunders (the Berlin correspondent of The Times) are the most dangerous for us, since they know from their own observations the depth and bitterness of German antipathy against England.

Prince von Buelow would be Chancellor of Germany from 1900 to 1909. The German challenge to British naval supremacy, which had begun with the Naval Law of 1898 and continued through subsequent naval laws, the Kaiser’s evident pleasure at British discomfiture in South Africa, and the German disregard for British interests in the Far East, all helped to sour Anglo-German relations. What might have been an Anglo-German entente in the face of the Franco-Russian alliance, came instead to be seen in England as a direct threat to Great Britain itself.

It could hardly be suggested that those in power in Germany were unaware of the impact on Great Britain of German policy in Europe and elsewhere. General von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff, wrote to Prince von Buelow, the German Chancellor in February 1906, of British views of the consequence of a Franco-German war:

The change in the distribution of political power which a victorious Germany would occasion in Europe would be so great a national danger for England, that she would be forced to relinquish the neutrality “which she desires, and which is the intention of the government.”

If Germany were in possession of the Belgian Coast, Holland would be forced to join Germany unconditionally. . . .

It is argued also that Germany, if fixed on the Belgian-Dutch coast, must mean a per­petual risk of invasion for England. . . .

Also such a change in the conditions of continental power would make England unable to use her home army for the defense of India, which would become necessary eventually. . . .

The fleet, however strong, could not help to remove these difficulties. . . . Thus sufficient forces could not be kept in home waters to guard against the danger of a German invasion. . . .

Thus also, England’s need of self-preservation demanded her taking part in a continental war to prevent any such predominance of Germany.

Since before the time of the Armada it had been understood in Britain that the security of the British Isles required English “supremacy of the narrow seas” and “the exclusion of any great Power, and especially France, from the mouth of the Scheldt” (C. K. Webster, The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh, 1815-1822: Britain and the Euro­pean Alliance(London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1925, pp. 47-48).

British suspicions of German intentions were not just hidden within diplomatic correspondence, but were clearly expressed in public under one guise or another. Jane’s Fighting Ships, 1906/7 contained a review of a book used by the Navy League in Germany as part of its program to have every German consent “to contribute even one shilling a year more to the upkeep of the German Navy.” If they did so, “victory, fame, colonies, and wealth would be theirs beyond dispute.” Erskine Childers’s novel of sailing, The Riddle of the Sands, first published in England in 1903, recounts the discovery by two young British yachtsmen of the prepositioning of Ger­man supplies in the Frisians for some future invasion of England. In these and similar works, the fearful specter was raised of an armed descent on the British Isles. And that was a matter not only of the safety of England itself but of the defense of the Empire abroad. The substance behind the specter was the German High Seas Fleet at Kiel and in the Jade.

The nature of the threat to England was as evident to the German government as it was to the British public. Whatever reason Germany may have had to make war on France, the conse­quences for Anglo-German relations of such a war in the era after the Franco-Russian Alliance were fully understood by the German govern­ment. And after the debacle suffered in 1870 because of her diplomatic isolation, France could have no excuse for failing to take all measures possible to prevent another such loss.

Matters evolved in Europe, then, not on the basis of diplomacy, but upon the change in the relative power among the nations of Europe, of which the most important was the growth of German industrial, military, and naval power that was, in both scope and nature, nothing short of revolutionary.

If George Kennan were an obscure instructor writing to publish in order not to perish, one might dismiss this book for the academic insignifi­cance which such works so frequently possess. But George Kennan is not obscure, nor does he hold himself so. He speaks and writes with the authority loaned him by his service as an Amer­ican diplomat, as Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, and as Co-Chairman of the American Committee on East-West Accord. He has written fifteen books on the Soviet Union, on nuclear weapons, and on diplomatic history. His books win prizes. He has written numerous articles for prominent newspapers where they are published as authori­tative pronouncements to guide the formation of public opinion. One may not, then, dismiss The Fateful Alliance as belonging to that category of works produced to bring academic reward.

The reward sought here and elsewhere by George Kennan is influence over American foreign rela­tions. In judging the merits of the book, therefore, one comes to judge the value of the advice that the book offers to readers who are intended to draw conclusions from it: conclusions, for example, about what Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko spoke of as the monumental “struggle between two world systems.” As the jacket of the book says:

In this fascinating study of Europe before the First World War, George F. Kennan draws on a lifetime of diplomatic, and historical expertise to discover how a Europe that at the end of the nineteenth century was looking to the future with strength and confidence found itself embroiled in the horrors of the first World War. In so doing, he demonstrates that the forces which led to the war-lie at the heart of today’s historical peril,

And what is this historical peril? Not the possibility that Eastern totalitarianism may over­come, subdue, and ultimately extinguish the Western Democracies. The peril is war. Implicitly, the peril does not come from the new barbarism but from the possibility that someone might struggle against it, might resist it.

In September 1938, France and England, in order to avoid war with Germany, awarded to Germany the Czech territory, called the Sudetenland. Writing from Prague a month later, George Kennan reflected on the event:

[T]here can never be any solution of the ills of the day which will satisfy Jack and Tom alike. It is comforting to reflect that if no good wind can fail to blow ill, no ill wind can fail to blow good. Change will always involve suffering, but one can at least hope that such changes as occur will lead in the direction of greater economic security and greater racial tolerance for people sadly in need of both.

(And whose racial tolerance was to be enhanced by the cession of the Sudetenland to Germany? Not German racial tolerance, but that of the people of Czechoslovakia.)

Kennan then goes on to say:

The adjustment [to the new era in Central Europe]-and this is the main thing-has now come. It has come in a painful and deplorable form. But it has relieved the Czechoslovak state of liabilities as well as assets. It has left the heart of the country physically intact. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, it has preserved for the exacting tasks of the future a magnificent younger generation-disciplined, industrious, and physically fit-which would undoubtedly have been sacrificed if the solution had been the romantic one of hopeless resistance rather than the humiliating but truly heroic one of realism. (George Kennan, From Prague After Munich: Diplomatic Papers, 1938-1940, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, pp. 5-6)

On December 8, 1938, Kennan wrote from Prague:

I have seen no indications of any desire on the part of Hitler to make Germans out of the Czechs. Their role is that of a vassal-and the vassal’s role has always been easier to execute than that of the independent younger brother. (Ibid., p. 9)

When the Germans demanded and received the Sudetenland from the hands of England and France, the Czechs lost those splendid fortifica­tions behind which the excellent Czech army could conserve its strength to defend its home­land. The loss of the fortifications, the demorali­zation induced by the Western sell-out of Czecho­slovakia, and the discrediting of the Czech government, which had been forced to accede to the terms of the Munich agreement, left Czechoslovakia exposed to the pleasures of German foreign policy. On the 15th of March 1939, the German Army occupied what had been left of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement. George Kennan’s impressions of those events were written in “Personal Notes, dated March 21, 1939, on the March Crisis and the final Occupation of Prague by the Germans.” Therein is included the following:

A Jewish acquaintance came. We told him that he was welcome to stay around there until he could calm his nerves. He paced wretchedly up and down in the anteroom, through the long morning hours. In the afternoon, he decided to face the music and went home. (Ibid., p. 86. Emphasis added.)

The music that the Jewish acquaintance would face was extermination. It is difficult to under­stand how George Kennan, after service in Russia and Germany in that era when anti-Semitism had changed from simple, if harassing, prejudice, to deliberate extinction of the Jewish people, could write so coolly of an incomparable human tragedy. Must one put that down to civility, to blindness, or to conviction of the futility of struggle against barbarism?

Yet in writing about his early days in the U.S diplomatic mission to the Soviet Union, when he accompanied Ambassador Bullitt to the newly established post in Moscow, Kennan records how the Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litviriov really wanted to be a librarian. And Kennan observes:

[F]rom this human confession I begin to realize what I am never to be allowed to forget: that these Soviet Communists with whom we will now have to deal are flesh-and-blood people, like usmisguided, if you will, but no more guilty than are we of the circumstances into which we all were born-and that they, like us, are simply trying to make the best of it. (George Kennan, “Flashbacks,” The New Yorker, February 25, 1985, pp. 52-69)

While urging moderation in dealings with the Soviets, George Kennan described Leonid I. Brezhnev as “a moderate, in fact a conservative man who, whatever other failings of outlook he may have, is a man of the middle, a skilled balancer among political forces, a man confidently regarded by all who know him as a man of peace” (George F. Kennan, “The Time Has Come to Exorcise the Ghost of Stalin: Today’s Soviet Regime is Headed by a Moderate, Regarded by All Who Know Him as a Man of Peace,” Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1977, Part 1-C, p. 3).

To George Kennan, the regime in Russia is not a totalitarian regime, but merely an authori­tarian one “much like pre-revolutionary Czarist Russia.” In his article on the shooting down of the Korean airliner by Soviet interceptors, Pro­fessor Kennan argues that there is no evidence that the decision had any connection with “a deliberate decision at the highest political levels in Moscow.” It was merely a local air defense commander who overreacted, understandably as it seems, because “of the persistent and unre­strained snooping” that created “an atmosphere of tension and nervousness in which incidents of this nature were sooner or later bound to occur” (George F. Kennan, “Assisting East-West Damage,” International Herald Tribune, Zurich, October 12, 1983, p. 4).

Like the tension that led to the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, this tension was nothing more than a creation of overzealous military comman­ders eager to deal with contingencies that existed only in their imagination. Here, then, is no tension created by the fundamental conflict between totalitarianism and democracy. Russian totalitarianism and Western democracy are incidental to any relationship between the West and the Empire of the Soviet Union. Matters need but follow the course of moderation dictated by the moderateness of Soviet leadership. All of the issues of human freedom that underlie Western institutions are but an aside to the important thing, the avoidance of conflict.

George Kennan’s apparent intention in writing his book, The Fateful Alliance, is to demonstrate through historical reference the necessity to avoid conflict. One’s judgment of the book should turn less, then, on its value as history, than upon George Kennan’s value as a guide through the intricacies of international politics.

If you read The Fateful Alliance, think of the Czech Jew going out “to face the music,” of Comrade Litvinov forced by the circumstances of his birth to be foreign minister of the Soviet Union instead of a librarian, and judge whether Professor Kennan is a suitable guide to the cataclysmic struggle that is in progress around the world, the “struggle between two world systems.” It seems George Kennan would urge us to be tolerant of those who lead the Soviet Union while they make the best of the circumstances into which they were born; and we in our turn may have the opportunity to go out and face the music.