The Words of War

George Kennan is most known for his diplomatic work following World War II, as the Soviet Union imposed an Iron Curtain on the states of Eastern Europe and Cold War tensions began. But Kennan's writings during World War II give the eerie account of a region on the precipice of Nazi conquest.

“Prague could never have been more beautiful than during those recent September days when its security hung by so slender a thread. The old streets, relieved of motor vehicles by an obliging army, had recovered something of their pristine quiet and composure. Baroque towers—themselves unreal and ethereal—floated peacefully against skies in which the bright blue of autumn made way frequently for isolated, drifting clouds. In the sleepy courtyards, sunshine varied with brief, gentle showers. And the little groups of passersby still assembled hourly in the market place, as they had for centuries, to watch the saints make their appointed rounds in the clock on the wall of the town hall.

“Yet rarely, if ever, has the quaint garb of this old city seemed more museum-like, more detached from the realities of the moment, than it did during these strange days. The world had taken final farewell, it seemed, of nearly everything that these monuments represented. Gone were the unifying faith and national tolerance of the Middle Ages; gone—in large measure—was the glamour of the Counter-Reformation, the outward manifestation of the wealth and power of Rome; gone indeed were the gay dreams of the empire of Joseph II and Maria Theresa: the laughing voice of Vienna, the spirit of Mozart. A sterner age was upon us . . .”

George F. Kennan, From Prague After Munich, page 3

What I find fascinating about this passage is not only the writer, who would gain tremendous influence in the development of the Cold War a few years after these lines were written, but the lesser-known fact that he was in a place and position to witness the first steps of Europe’s slide into World War II. When he wrote this report, George F. Kennan was a young American diplomat newly posted to Prague in October 1938, immediately following the notorious Munich conference where the British and French abandoned their military alliance with Czechoslovakia in a misguided effort to appease Adolf Hitler’s territorial demands. As the author of Mein Kampf declared that he had no more territorial claims in Europe after and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain triumphantly proclaimed that a lasting peace had been realized, Nazi Germany absorbed the Czech Sudetenland on the grounds of racial unification with native Germans in the western region of Czechoslovakia, leaving a rump state on the map with Prague and Kennan literally encircled within the jaws of an aggressive, ruthless power.

What is palpable in Kennan’s description of Prague in fall 1938 is the feeling of the executioner’s ax hovering above the city and times. It is difficult for us today to understand the immense sense of relief which greeted the Munich agreement, and the hope that peace would prevail after all. I recall that in the aftermath of the agreement, France in gratitude gave Prime Minister Chamberlain a plot of land on a river where he could practice his fly fishing as the perfect symbol of peaceful pursuits. What I like about Kennan’s passage is that it is so at odds with the dominant emotional temper of the moment, and as we subsequently know today, so tragically and fatally more in tune with the course of history to come.  

In March 1939, the tanks of the Wehrmacht rolled through the streets of Prague as Nazi Germany invaded and absorbed the rest of Czechoslovakia. Breaking his word a mere six months after swearing that Germany had no more territorial demands caused the scales to fall from many eyes; Hitler could not be trusted, and probably was unstoppable short of war. When Hitler began claiming that the Polen Deutsch (the German population living in Poland) were being abused just as he had accused the Czechs of treating the Sudeten Deutsch, even Neville Chamberlain had to concede the obvious. Britain and France formally allied themselves with Poland if Germany made war upon her, and honored those commitments in September 1939, launching World War II in Europe.

Kennan served in the Moscow embassy during the war, and was a key figure as his containment policy regarding postwar Soviet expansion in Europe established the American diplomatic framework in that long struggle for 45 years. He also became a noted diplomatic historian after the war. 

But it is interesting to read and consider how Kennan’s time in Czechoslovakia on the brink of World War II might have informed his perceptions of the forces shaping Europe and the world. As an early witness to the subjugation of the Czechs, the young diplomat saw more quickly than many how the force of Nazism was pushing towards war, and learned lessons that he would apply to preserve what was left of free Europe against the other great totalitarian force of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union, in the war’s aftermath.

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“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum  

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Keith Huxen

Keith Huxen, PhD, is the Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII...
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