Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Kennan on Germany

Spring 1999

George Kennan
The New York Review of Books
Vol. XLV, No. 19, December 3, 1998, pp. 19 21.

In a brief article, appearing in the form of a letter to his friend Gordon Craig, the eminent diplomat and historian George Kennan reverses an all-too-common view of twentieth-century European history.

According to the conventional wisdom, an aggressive and militaristic Germany bears principal responsibility for World War I, with all its destructive consequences for European civilization. Among the manifold disastrous consequences of the war, however, something good emerged.

The ramshackle Austro-Hungarian Empire came to an end in new countries, e.g., Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, embodying Wilsonian self-determination. Unfortunately, a once more aggressive Germany ended, at least for a time, these noble experiments.

Given the horrendous consequences of Hitler's aggression, it was only to be expected that the post-World War II generation feared a reunified Germany. The division of Germany into Western and Eastern parts, each dominated by an antagonist in the Cold War, was, if less than ideal, at least understandable.

Mr. Kennan rejects this account at each of its main contentions. Against Fritz Fischer and other historians who blame Germany exclusively for World War I, he sees the Germans a "part in the origins of the First World War as certainly no greater, and perhaps even smaller, than that of the French and the Russians" (p. 20). Kennan's judgment is no mere off-the-cuff pronouncement: he is a specialist in the diplomatic history of the pre-war era and the author of a standard work on the Franco-Russian Alliance.

Our author has no use for Wilsonian self-determination either. (Readers of his excellent American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, will not be surprised.) He writes: "I had...been much impressed by the post-World War I book of the conservative French thinker Jacques Bainville entitled Les Consequences politiques de la paix...in which he castigated the statesman of the victor powers at the Versailles peace conference for promoting the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire while leaving Germany, albeit defeated and helpless as if then was, the single great state in Europe, confronting across its eastern and southeastern borders only a number of new, inexperienced, and unstable political entities which, he predicted, would never be able to stand up to the future Germany in a pinch. This made sense to me at the time; and it clearly found vindication in the tragic events of 1938-1939" (p. 19). Incidentally, to describe Bainville as a conservative understates the case. He ardently supported the monarchist Action Fran+aise.

Mr. Kennan here not only rejects Wilsonianism: he also adumbrates a revisionist view of the origins of World War II. The post-Versailles political situation, he is saying, made German dominance of central Europe inevitable. The Anschluss with Austria in 1938 and the collapse of Czechoslovakia in 1938-1939 cannot then be put down unreservedly to Hitler's aggression. In saying this, I am going beyond Mr. Kennan's words; but I do not think I mistake the implications of what he does say.

In sum, Mr. Kennan "has never shared the tendency of so many in Europe and elsewhere to regard the modern Germany as by nature an aggressive and dangerous country" (p. 20). At the end of World War II, Kennan, then a high official in the state department, supported consideration of a unified, though disarmed and neutral, German state. His proposal was not to the liking of his Germanophobic colleagues, and no-thing came of it. He caustically remarks that Secretary of State Dean Acheson "had no personal knowledge of Germany whatsoever" (p. 19).

David Gordon, who writes The Mises Review, is senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He was educated at UCLA, where he earned his PHD in intellectual history, and is the author of Resurrecting Marx: The Analytical Marxists on Exploitation, Freedom, and Justice; The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics; and Critics of Marx. He is also editor of Secession, State, and Liberty and co-editor of H.B. Acton's Morals of Markets and Other Essays. Dr. Gordon is a contributor to such journals of Analysis, The International Philosophic Quarterly, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, and The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.

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