My Take

Learning the wrong history lesson

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 4:34am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 5:48am

We learn too much history, not too little. It's often not the ignorant we have to worry about, but the learned and brilliant.

It's instructive to observe how a historical insight could lead an astute observer astray in his judgment of contemporary events. The newly published The Kennan Diaries offer one such lesson. George Kennan is usually credited as being the first to formulate the containment strategy that shaped and won the cold war for the West. Now that Russia is in Crimea again, the issues that confronted him suddenly take on a contemporary relevance.

Back in the 1930s and 40s when many Western intellectuals fantasised about Stalin and the Soviet Union, Kennan already saw the mortal danger they would pose to the West. Yet he was often reproached for failing to foresee the horrors of Nazi Germany. In gauging the two great totalitarian systems of the last century, he scored only one out of two. In an embarrassing diary entry from the late 1980s, Kennan bitterly complained against a critic who took him to task for failing to recognise Hitler's tyranny earlier.

One reason is that as a young man, he was a devoted student of Bismarck's diplomacy. His The Decline of Bismarck's European Order remains one of the best books on the subject. Though written after he retired, its main conclusions dated back to his time as a foreign student in Europe. Bismarck probably led him to read too much of the Iron Chancellor into Hitler's early international successes in the 1930s. Instead of restraint through strength à la Bismarck, the Führer would commit Germany to an expansionist adventurism through weakness and ended in "the twilight of the gods". But which was it when they were going on if you were a live witness?

Hard to tell! The rearming of Germany, the reoccupation of the demilitarised Rhineland, and the neutralising of Czechoslovakia through demanding the return of the Sudetenland with its ethnic German population - these were moves that the ruthless Bismarck himself might have made to reverse the disadvantaged position of Germany in Europe under the oppressive Versailles treaty. But Bismarck would not have gone on to invade Poland. Kennan might have seen all that more clearly if he knew less about Bismarck.