The Decline of Bismarck's European Order Analysis

George F. Kennan

The Decline of Bismarck's European Order

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

George Kennan has written a masterful account of the diplomacy preceding the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894 which deserves to be read by all students of the period. Kennan set himself a large task, one which commands the attention of Westerners to the present: he asks how it was possible for the nations of Europe to slaughter one another during the four long years of World War I. It would be too much to say he has answered this puzzle, but he has portrayed a world of intrigue, ambition, and aggressiveness which at least carries one toward an understanding of the mind-frame which sent Europe’s youth to an early and ugly death.

Beyond this larger concern comes the more specific job of describing the hesitant rapprochement between Paris and Moscow which led to their treaty of 1894. Much of this story is familiar, yet Kennan is a master diplomatist, and he has made the motives of the European foreign offices extremely clear; he shows that, far from being inevitable, the Franco-Russian alliance was fashioned with tedious craftsmanship throughout many years. Most importantly, Kennan shows the importance of the treaty. It was not just a defensive treaty to protect France from the ascendant and exuberant German Empire; it was an offensive alliance designed to facilitate Russian expansion in the Balkans, eventually to the Bosporus. As a result, it was a portentous event, for Russian aims made conflict in the Balkans highly probable. By agreeing to it, France was tying herself to a policy which virtually accepted the possibility of war sooner or later.

Germany under Otto von Bismarck was the third actor in the story of the Franco-Russian treaty; in fact, without Bismarck, there might have been no Franco-Russian alliance. It was only recently that France and Russia had been enemies; no one had forgotten Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, and more recently the two countries had squared off on the Crimean peninsula, contesting rival claims to the Levant. With the unification of Germany under Bismarck’s aegis, however, a new threat arose which superseded the old conflicts. France, of course, had been soundly thrashed by Prussia in 1870-1871, and now had all the more reason for fear, with Prussia dominating all of non-Austrian Germany. She therefore needed an ally in order to assure her national security, not to mention her hopes of regaining Alsace-Lorraine.

Russia, on the other hand, had no natural enemies. Her weakness lay in her authoritarian political and social structure and in her backward economic system. Given this perspective, France, with her republican government and her willingness to harbor Russian political exiles, was far from being the ideal ally. The staunch monarchical principle prevailing in Germany and Austria-Hungary was more congenial to Russian views. Bismarck, for his part, realized that he need fear France only if she could ally herself with one of the other continental powers. Thus, from the first, he directed his very considerable powers to the goal of keeping his Western neighbor at an arm’s length from the empires of the East. The Franco-Russian alliance was not a natural occurrence as sometimes thought, and it is to Kennan’s merit to have pointed out that it was formed to satisfy offensive purposes as well as the more commonly accepted defensive ones. By concentrating predominantly on the Russian side of the event, Kennan explains Petersburg’s motivation for the alliance and the implications the treaty held for the peace of Europe.

The one flaw in Bismarck’s plan to isolate France lay in Russia’s desire to seize the Black Sea straits at Constantinople, which controlled her access to warm water. Inside Russia, several powerful interest groups supported this ambition, including the Russian Orthodox Church, the Pan-Slav chauvinists, and the Asiatic branch of the Foreign Office. Achieving this goal, however, meant gaining a dominant position in the Balkans, which in turn threatened the vital interests of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With large numbers of South Slavs incorporated in the Empire, events in the Balkan peninsula were of importance to Vienna, and Russian control was unacceptable. Here was a conflict of significance, and it was to perplex Bismarck as long as he was in office.

In the 1870’s, France was in a weakened position after having lost the Franco-Prussian war and was not ready to be anybody’s ally. Furthermore, the Austro-Russian confrontation was not particularly acute at this point, so it did not require great pains for...

(The entire section is 1848 words.)