Home | back to Midwest Diplomats

George F. Kennan

1904 -2005


           George Frost Kennan represented the U.S. in Prague for a year during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and in Berlin for over two years. While those posts were important in Kennan’s life, they were only two of a series of exciting assignments in his long career.

Germans had settled Milwaukee, Wisconsin, making it a little Teutonic colony on the shores of Lake Michigan. It was there that George Frost Kennan was born in February 1904 to Kossuth and Florence James Kennan. With Scotch-Irish ancestors who had arrived in New England in the early 1700s, the Kennan family was an illustrious one. Kennan’s uncle was an authority on Czarist Russia and George’s brother became a composer and professor of music. Kennan attended Saint John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin and upon graduation in 1921 enrolled at Princeton University, where he studied history and joined the swimming squad. Tellingly, he was drawn to Princeton after reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.

Following graduation from Princeton, Kennan entered the United States consular service, which almost immediately sent him to Geneva to be vice-counsel there in 1925. Still as vice-counsel, in 1927 Kennan transferred to the German port of Hamburg and a year later to Estonia’s port city of Tallinn. In 1929 Kennan became a third secretary counsel and was attached to the American legations in Riga, Kaunas and Tallinn—the capitals of the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In September 1931 Kennan married Annelise Sorenson of Norway.

In expectation of U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union, the Eastern European division of the State Department chose Kennan as one of a select staff trained in Russian studies—emphasizing language, literature and history. Kennan studied at the Berlin Seminar for Oriental Languages and at the university in Berlin in 1931. When the U.S. embassy reopened in 1933, Kennan accompanied Ambassador William Bullit to Moscow. There for four years, Kennan served again as third secretary until 1934 and as second secretary from 1935 on. Recalled to Washington in 1937, he spent a year in the State Department before being sent to Prague, where he arrived on 29 September 1938, the day Britain and France signed Czechoslovakia’s Sudeten region over to Hitler.

Kennan acted as the official U.S. presence in Prague for a year before being ordered to Berlin to serve first as second, then as first secretary to the ambassador. In 1940 he accompanied Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles on a tour of Europe on a fruitless mission to determine the prospects for an early peace settlement. As the United States revised its Neutrality Act and inched closer toward entering the Second World War, Kennan stayed in Berlin to perform his consular duties. On 14 December 1941 Kennan and the other U.S. Americans still inside Germany were interned at Bad Nauheim, a requisitioned resort near Frankfurt am Main, where they were kept for five months before being repatriated to the United States in May 1942.

Following his repatriation to the United States in June 1942, George F. Kennan became U.S. Counselor in Lisbon, Portugal. In 1943 and 1944 he served the U.S. delegation to the European Advisory Commission, which met in London to recommend policies in Europe for the U.S., Great Britain and the Soviet Union. From 1944 to 1946 he served as minister-counselor for the U.S. embassy in Moscow. From that appointment, Kennan served as a deputy for foreign affairs at the National War College in Washington, D.C., where he lectured on foreign policy and international relations.

Secretary of State George C. Marshall named Kennan director of the Department of State’s policy planning staff in 1947. In that position Kennan oversaw a shift in policy toward the Soviet Union, advocating containment after the wartime years of appeasement. In 1949 Kennan became one of Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s principal advisers. Returning to Moscow in 1952, Kennan became U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union—until remarks he made during a trip to Berlin that October made him a persona non grata with the Soviets. Kennan left the Foreign Service in 1953 to become a member of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he researched and taught until late in his life’s career. Well-known for his thorough scholarship, Kennan wrote over a dozen books and hundreds of articles. He won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, Bancroft and Parkman Prizes for his book Russia Leaves the War.


First Impressions

Countries at war always undergo some sort of strenuous process that alters the way people—natives and foreigners alike— relate to each other. Often, the formality and social distance observed during peacetime fades. Even though in authoritarian regimes like that under the Nazis individuals must take extra precaution in choosing with whom they confide, they find seemingly safe outlets where they can express personal or political secrets. Despite the exaggerated circumstances of the times, U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan found that such cultural dynamics—common throughout history—affected life in the Third Reich as well.

Within a month after transferring from what remained of the U.S. consulate in Prague to the U.S. embassy in Berlin with the beginning of World War II, Kennan began experiencing an unusual intimacy with Germans from both ends of the social strata. At about midnight on a Saturday in Hamburg, he left a bar in the Binnenalster district of that port city and “started to grope” his way through the streets made virtually unrecognizable by blackout decrees. As the weather had cleared and “a wan moon threw down just enough light to reveal the curbstones, lamp posts and other obstructions,” he moved along quite slowly. “Except for an occasional ghostly bus, rumbling along behind its dimmed lights” he recalled later, “there was no traffic. The quiet streets stretched away, empty and desolate, into the moonlight. Only the shadowy rustling forms of pedestrians, looming up and fading again in the gloom” Kennan said, “indicated that there was still life in the city.”

           Kennan said that “People talked, if at all, in semi-whispers; and their quietness redoubled the mystery which—to an outsider—hung over their identity, their nocturnal movements, their reactions to this darkness—to this war.” Exceptionally aware of the loud commentary being spoken by the eerie silence, Kennan proceeded thoughtfully through the streets of Hamburg.

Near one street corner a woman emerged and walked toward Kennan. Pausing, she asked “Shouldn’t we go somewhere?” The young diplomat said the woman spoke “cheerfully and graciously, with none of the usual false intimations of tenderness.” Suggesting that they share a drink, the woman protested that she could not “afford to waste time that way.” When she asked if he wasn’t interested in something else, Kennan admitted that he was not. “But” he explained, “a few moments dickering resulted in a compromise whereby I agreed to pay the fee for the usual service and she to honor me with her company in a public ‘Lokal.’ So” he continued, “she led me to her favorite bar and there we settled down, I over a bad highball, she over a ‘half-and-half’ and a new box of cigarettes.”

           Kennan vividly remembered the scene: “In the lighted barroom I could see her clearly for the first time. She was still a young woman with a good figure and a fresh, firm face. Her clothes were in such good taste that one might have almost have been deceived about her profession.” The woman told the curious U.S. American that she had been on the street “for several years—off and on. Just now she was only out for an hour or two each night, because she had a job during the daytime.” Packing parcels in a factory for nineteen Marks a week, the woman admitted the work was hard: “it ruined your fingernails” she complained, “but it was better than being in the labor camp, and if she hadn’t been wise and gotten a job in advance, that was what would have happened to her.”

Struck by the mention of the Nazi’s enigmatic pet “project,” Kennan questioned the amiable hooker about the camps. She reacted with surprise: didn’t he know? “Some months ago they rounded up all the street girls and all the bar hostesses under thirty (the old ones could stay) and had taken them away to a labor camp in the country.” The woman recounted: “There were seventy-five of us on my corner alone, at one time, and we all lived there. Now” she admitted wistfully, “I’m the only one. We used to support this whole section of town” she boasted in defiance of official stupidity. “The hairdressers and the tradespeople are desperate. We were the best part of their trade, and the only ones who tipped well.” She admonished “It’s foolish to try to stop this sort of thing. It existed before the war. It existed in the Stone Age.” She promised “It always will exist.”

“But the girls you work with in the daytime” Kennan inquired, “don’t they have any normal social life that you could share?”

           “Those girls!” the woman scoffed. “I have nothing in common with them. They are uneducated little beasts from Altona. They live in a different world. I couldn’t live the way they do” she held. “I have to have money and culture. I never talk to them. They wonder where I get my clothes. One week I forgot to draw my pay” she extrapolated.

By this point Kennan became emotionally involved with this sexy, sad character. “But, you continue to run a risk in going on the street” he protested. “Won’t you end up in the labor camp anyway?”

“Yes, there’s a risk, all right” she conceded. “The other night” she said, “I watched a cop haul in two others. They were crossing the Jungfernstieg. He saw me too and told me to stop. I ran all the way to the Cafe Vaterland and when I got there I was still shaking so that I couldn”t light a match.” Aware of what her patron might be thinking, she added “But I won’t have to keep it up much longer. You see” she vaunted, “I’m engaged. My fiancée is with the army. He’s a flyer now. He’s in Poland. When he comes back, he’ll marry me— perhaps.” Countering her own doubt, she added “He says he will.”

When Kennan asked if the fiancée knew of the woman’s off-hours employment, she retorted “Good God, no! He’d be furious.” Then why did she continue her risky practice?

“Well, you see” she explained, “when I first met him, I told him I had two thousand Marks. I didn’t really, of course. Now I have to earn them before he comes back.”

When Kennan advised that she not be “silly” and simply tell him, the woman responded “Oh, you don’t know that man. He’s terrible. He’s a complete egoist. He’s used to having everything he wants” she claimed. “I don’t dare peep. He never thinks of me. Sometimes I cook eggs for us in the morning” she said, “two for him and two for him. He eats them all” she protested. “He never thinks about whether there’s one left for me. He never asks me how I feel. He only loves me physically.”

Kennan felt stymied why she stayed with him. “Do you love him?” he asked.

“Not the way he does me” she figured. “He disgusts me. I lie there beside him and I hate him and I think to myself: ‘The damn fool. He thinks he’s beautiful, and yet he’s just like any other man.”

“But?” Kennan baited.

“But I can’t help it. He has me where he wants me. When he speaks to me, I am as little as that finger” she indicated with her hand. “I am as nothing” she confessed. “I sit at work and make up my mind to be firm with him, but when the phone rings and I hear his voice, I just say ‘Ja.’.”

Then, the pitiful wretch told stories of jealousy and conflict between them, including the revelation that her lover had a mistress on the side. “I found the other woman” she said. “I told her he was married and not to dare ever set eyes on him again. And she didn’t. But it makes no difference. There are plenty of others. And whenever I make him mad, he doesn’t fight; he just goes with another woman. What can you do?” she pleaded.

Sentimentalizing, the lovesick prostitute maintained “We were so happy at first. You have no idea. We had an apartment. I bought the furniture for it. We had so much fun” she recounted. “We used to play that I was the bar hostess and he the guest, and I would serve him drinks and he would say: ‘Gnaediges Fraeulein (merciful miss), may I seduce you?’ And I took good care of him. No one could have taken better care of him than I did” she argued. “I did everything for him. Women like me—we really are decent. Believe me, we are. We don’t do any of the nasty things respectable women do. We don’t blackmail men. We don’t hound them. I know a woman who calls herself respectable” she offered sarcastically. “She has seven men. She spends every night with a different one, and swears to everyone that she loves him. I couldn’t do that” she swore.

“And” she added, “all the women who don’t take money but take flowers and candy and clothes and attention and flattery—they’re the whores, not we. We’re honest” she lied.

           As the curfew neared, Kennan paid both the bar’s and the Fraeulein’s bill. “She pocketed it” he observed, “with silent dignity. We were” he said, “good friends by this time.”

           Before they left the bar Kennan warned “I’m afraid it’s the labor camp for you after all, in the end.” To this she responded with “a sad little laugh” and glibly replied “I know it.”

Walking to the woman’s nearby apartment, she unlocked the door and turned on a dim blue light. Kennan recounted “We shook hands in farewell, and then she modestly turned one powdered cheek to me.” She granted “You may kiss me, now.”

Kennan soon left her and walked out into the streets, where he said “four great pencils of light from the searchlights to the north lazily followed a target plane across the sky.” Later, after returning home, he realized that neither one of them had mentioned the obvious, the war.

The German prostitute, however, would not be the only eccentric character Kennan would encounter during his service as the second and later the first secretary to the U.S. embassy in Berlin. The embassy’s middle-aged counselor, Alexander Kirk would leave an indelible mark on the young Kennan’s life. Describing him as a “confirmed bachelor,” Kennan said that Kirk had been “profoundly saddened by the recent death of an adored mother who, while she was alive, had preempted much of both his companionship and his emotional life.” Because of this “Kirk drowned the inner emptiness in the performance of his arduous official duties.” Citing it as the “demands of wartime service,” Kennan noted that Kirk worked between sixteen to eighteen hours a day at the embassy, “catching brief intervals of sleep in a little adjoining alcove.”

Taking Kirk’s background well into consideration, Kennan explained “He was a carryover from an older day when to be rich entitled you to be eccentric, and he made the most of the privilege. He kept in the swank Grunewald district” Kennan said, “an enormous mansion (selected, he always maintained, because it was the only house he could find in Berlin with only one red room), where he maintained a staff of Italian servants and in which he gave a large luncheon every Sunday noon, as a means of revenging himself for such hospitality as his position required him to accept.”

Kennan held that “for himself food meant nothing; he saw no reason why you could not live exclusively on vitamin pills and concentrates, like an Arctic explorer, and nearly ruined his health trying to do so.” He continued: “[Kirk] took a box at the opera for the season; and his only recreation, so far as we could observe, was to slink into the back of the box for a portion of the performance, and leave again, unseen by the audience, before it ended.”

Perceiving Kirk as an admirable and inspiring, yet emotionally scarred man, Kennan speculated that “Deliberately...as a gesture of defiance and self-protection, and in the indulgence of a fine sense of the theatrical, Kirk worked at giving himself the aspect of exactly that sort of American career diplomat of which the American philistine has always been most suspicious: elegant, overrefined, haughty, and remote. It was a manner of enlivening life by playing the buffoon.”

Kirk found in the U.S. embassy in Germany a role in life which—although apparently based on feigned helplessness—filled a peculiar need in him. Kennan said “He was anything but an intellectual. He never wrote anything if he could help it. He was even suspicious of many of our efforts at interpretative reporting, discouraged them, and preferred that we make our points obliquely by a shrewdly selective coverage of the Nazi press. His understanding was intuitive” Kennan thought, “rather than analytical. [Kirk’s] conversation consisted largely of weary, allusive quips. His posing sometimes went so far” Kennan admitted, “as to raise doubts whether he was serious.”

Not one to accept surface appearances, Kennan surmised that “behind this facade of urbane and even exaggerated sophistication there lay great intuitive shrewdness and a devastatingly critical sense of humor, directed to himself as well as others. No one impressed him” Kennan assessed. “He treated the most pretentious women like sluts, and they glowed in response. He was seen, on one occasion, to greet an ebullient American butter-and-egg man by unctuously sticking out one fin and saying [with allusion to an early ‘Kirk’s soap’ advertisement]: ‘My line’s soap; what’s yours?’”

In the course of his service with the U.S. embassy Kirk developed a lucid vision of what Nazism meant to Germany and to the world. Kennan reported: “He despised the Nazis and held them at arm’s length with a barbed irony. Even at the height of their military successes” he said, Kirk declined “to entertain for a second the possibility that they might win the war. ‘They have undertaken,’ he would insist, ‘something they cannot finish. They will find no stopping point. That is the cardinal sin: to start something you cannot finish’.”

Obviously deeply moved by his relationship with Kirk, Kennan later wrote: “I have realized, in subsequent years, that I learned much from Kirk—more, perhaps, than from any other chief...he was a good teacher. I am particularly indebted to him” he remarked, “for the impressive lesson he gave me, by example even more that by precept, of the importance of the means as compared with the ends. The only thing worth living for” Kirk once advised Kennan, “was good form. He himself had little to live for; there were moments when he would have liked to leave this life; but suicide would be an abrupt act, and abruptness was the height of bad form.”

Kirk had told Kennan: “Never, never, do anything abrupt. It never pays.” Claiming that he had entered the diplomatic corps “only to spare [his mother] having her bags inspected at frontiers,” Kirk disclaimed all further interest in the Foreign Service after his mother’s death. He contemplated resigning from the corps but could not do it, “especially in wartime; that would have been abrupt.” Remaining in diplomatic work by default, Kirk promised that “When the war is over, I shall leave it so gradually and quietly that no one will know I am gone.” True to his word, he later did.

           When Kirk left his post at the U.S. embassy in October of 1940, he disclosed to Kennan “the most delicate and valuable of his clandestine ‘contacts’ among the German oppositionists.” Among these people Kennan met two aristocrats who never lost hope that the low-class, uncivilized Hitler would be turned out and the monarchy—or at least a tolerable bourgeois democracy—restored as the legitimate government in Berlin. The most notable of the two, Count Helmuth James von Moltke survived the Nazi’s rise to power as a great-grandnephew of the prominent nineteenth-century army commander of the same last name.

            As Kirk had quietly periodically met with Moltke to keep tabs of the German political scene, Kennan perpetuated this ritual. It had been Moltke who convinced Kirk of his belief that despite initial military victories, the Germans would lose the war. While Moltke held no office nor attracted any followers, he did remain connected with German military strategists. Kennan maintained that “The meetings between the two men were not in themselves of any great impropriety. They involved no specific political deals or arrangements... And nothing, God knows, could have been further from the thoughts of FDR or Cordell Hull than to authorize Kirk to have political dealings with the conservative German opposition.”

At the same time, however, Kennan recognized that “meetings in wartime between anyone occupying so sensitive a position as that of Moltke on the one hand, and the American charge d’affaires on the other, would scarcely have commended themselves to Moltke’s military superiors, and much less to the Gestapo...and nothing could have been more foreign to his nature. Hence” Kennan revealed, “the conspiratorial character of the meetings.”

After Kirk left Berlin, Kennan continued secretly to meet Moltke. “I saw him first” he recalled, “by prearrangement, in the blackout—in a little study-apartment which he kept over a garage in the center of the old residential district near the Tiergarten. Later” Kennan added, “when the Russian campaign was on, he became for some reason bolder. He cheerfully came to lunch, one time, with my wife and myself.” Kennan also reported “He once filled me with astonishment and consternation by walking into the American embassy in broad daylight and asking to see me. I received him immediately, took him out onto the balcony of the office, where traffic noises were likely to drown out the effectiveness of the microphones, and asked him how he had dared to do this.”

Moltke smugly replied “Oh, the Gestapo would never believe that anyone coming this openly could be coming for anything other than a legitimate purpose.”

As Moltke became increasingly willing to funnel information to the U.S. embassy, Kennan came to know him as a personal friend. Kennan admired Moltke’s “profound religious faith and outstanding courage.” A tall, good-looking man, Moltke appeared to be “an idealist, and a firm believer in democratic ideals.” Kennan generally praised Moltke as a “sophisticated aristocrat, in every sense a man of the word.”

On their first meeting Kennan found Moltke “immersed in a study of the Federalist Papers—to get ideas for the constitution of a future democratic Germany.” Kennan later recalled that “the picture of this scion of a famous Prussian military family, himself employed by the German general staff in the midst of a great world war, hiding himself away and turning, in all humility, to the works of some of the founding fathers of our own democracy for ideas as to how Germany might be led out of its existing corruption and bewilderment has never left me.”

Moltke so impressed Kennan by his longing for a free government and the rights of people everywhere—despite his heritage of complacent privilege and monarchy—that the young diplomat declared years later “I consider [Moltke] to have been the greatest person, morally, and the largest and most enlightened in his concepts, that I met on either side of the battle lines in the Second World War. Even at that time [early in the war]” Kennan said, “he had looked beyond the whole sordid arrogance and the apparent triumphs of the Hitler regime; he had seen through to the ultimate catastrophe and had put himself to it inwardly, preparing himself— as he would eventually have liked to help his people—for the necessity of starting all over again, albeit in defeat and humiliation, to erect a new national edifice on a new and better moral foundation.”

In particular Moltke impressed Kennan “by the extent to which [he] had risen, in his agony, above the pettiness and primitivism of latter-day nationalism.” Moltke correctly predicted that following the war “My own homeland of Silesia will go to the Czechs or the Poles,” yet he insisted that while sad, the loss of German territory did not matter. “For us” Moltke wrote to an English friend, “Europe after the war is less a problem of frontiers and soldiers, of top-heavy organizations or grand plans... Europe after the war is a question of how the picture of man can be reestablished in the breast of our fellow citizens.”

A committed champion of German resistance to Hitler’s tyranny, the Protestant Moltke offered refuge in his Silesian country manor to a local Catholic school which had been closed by the Gestapo. For this and other acts of open defiance, Moltke landed in prison a number of times. During the Putsch of 20 July 1944, the Gestapo tortured Moltke for confidential information. Afterwards the Volksgericht—“People’s Court”—tried the fallen partisan and in early 1945 ordered him hung at the Ploetzensee prison. “With his death, to which he went bravely and movingly” Kennan paid tribute, “the future of Germany lost a great moral force.”

While Moltke represented one of the most forceful public figures to defy the Nazi dictatorship, he was not the only member of the former ruling class to struggle on behalf of a Germany liberated from the Nazi menace. A grandson of the famous chancellor and the governor of Brandenburg province, Gottfried Bismarck also distinguished himself as an ardent anti-Fascist.

In what appeared to be utter disregard for Gestapo disapproval, Bismarck and his wife Melanie invited Kennan and his wife Annalise to the Bismarcks’ West Prussian estate during the 1940 Holiday season. Kennan acknowledged “I realized, on arrival there, that the invitation itself had been a source of considerable tension between him and the local Gestapo. It was clear that my presence as a guest at his home caused much indignation in local Nazi circles.”

A year later the Bismarcks renewed their invitation to the Kennans for a Christmas visit; however, the United States’ entry into the Second World War following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 assured that the Kennans would never be able to accept that invitation. Nevertheless, Kennan recognized that “the invitation itself was a brave and defiant gesture.”

After Kennan left Germany, Nazi officials arrested the Bismarcks. Herr Bismarck received a death sentence, but it was delayed and before it could executed the Hitler regime fell. The Gestapo broke Frau Bismarck’s facial bones, yet she also survived until the war’s end. Emphasizing the fateful irony that fell upon too many Germans who somehow survived the horrors of the Third Reich, Kennan grievously reported later that he visited the Bismarcks after the war “at the old Chancellor’s former estate, near Hamburg; but shortly after that the hazards of the highway completed what the Gestapo had failed to complete, and both were killed in a motor accident.”


Work Life

Working with the U.S. embassy in Berlin, George F. Kennanexperienced life in wartime Germany on more personal, even spiritual levels. By the spring of 1940 most people, Kennan said, expected the war to spill westward. “The greatest surprise was” he noted, that fighting on the western front “should have begun with the German attack on Denmark and Norway.” At the time Kennan and his family were visiting his Danish wife’s relatives in Kristiansand. Fortunately, he was able to return his two young daughters and wife to Germany two days before German warships shelled the city. “This they did” he remembered, “in the first hours of the surprise attack, the inhabitants being obliged to flee up into the snow-covered hills until the shelling was over.”

The Kennans kept their children in Berlin over the summer, but by early autumn—just before the British began nighttime bombing attacks on the city—realized their safety was uncertain. Kennan took his family to Italy and “saw them off, late one night, from a deserted dock in Genoa—the tear-stained faces peering wretchedly out at me from the thick glass of the portholes, at dock level. Wondering whether I would ever see them again” he recalled, “I made my way back through the false paradise of Switzerland to Berlin for the last year of duty there before [the U.S.’] entry into the war.”

Once back in Berlin, Kennan’s work took him to areas recently captured by the still-undefeated German army. Having already lived in occupied Czechoslovakia, he visited Danzig immediately after the German attack that ostensibly had provoked the beginning of the Second World War. As he recounted later, “I was dispatched to the Low Countries and France, on the heels of the invading German forces, to establish communication with such of our official personnel as had not been evacuated prior to the entry of the German troops.” He continued: “I saw the bombed-out area of Rotterdam while it was still smoking. I saw the eerily deserted Paris of June 1940 after the panicky flight of most its entire population”—a scene he described as “surely one of the strangest and most unreal spectacles of modern times.” To his surprise, that winter the German government allowed Kennan to “pay a Christmas visit” to his wife’s family in Kristiansand; that trip took him through occupied Denmark, as well as to Oslo and southern Norway.

Kennan remembered those journeys as “depressing experiences. In the face of the visible evidences of sweeping Nazi successes, there being no reason as yet to reckon with the likelihood of an armed conflict between Germany and Russia, and with our own Congress still strongly committed to a policy of neutrality, it was difficult to foresee anything else than a complete German military victory on the European continent. How hard it was, in these circumstances” he admitted, “to retain hope for any brighter future.”

The disillusioning reality of life in German-occupied lands seemed particularly clear in the Netherlands, where Kennan looked for signs of what Nazi domination over Europe might mean. In the Hague soon after German victory over Dutch resistance, Kennan took a walk on the afternoon of 15 June 1940. He recorded in his journal later that day: “I walked out to Schevenigen, getting thoroughly drenched in the process. A half gale was blowing from the northwest and the great breakers were fighting their way onto the sands in a melee of foam.” While atmospheric conditions along the sea seemed normal, he noted “The rain-swept boardwalk was deserted; and out at sea, in those mine-infested waters, no vessels moved.”

As was the harbor, Kennan found “The electric railway station was dark and deserted.” Unsure whether or not the trains were running, he checked with a number of German soldiers who sat drinking beer and noticed that “an ugly waitress chucked one of them under the chin.” On the train back to the Hague the only other passengers were “four little school-children who chatted cheerfully, impervious to the gray day, the rain-streaked windows, the deserted places, and all the ruin.”

With a surrealistic, haunting awareness which he never would forget, Kennan made his way from the Hague’s train station to locate the office of the U.S. legation. “The search led through miles of sober streets” he said, “across bridges, along quiet canals, through shady little squares.” Kennan watched the “sturdy, impassive, stubborn people trundling their bicycles and pushing their barges. Their fidelity of habit and tradition was so strong” he claimed, “that it seemed as though nothing could ever change them. But try as I might” he mourned, “I could see little but ruin and decline ahead for most of them. What could Germany give this country economically to replace her position as the center for a colonial empire, as a transit point for overseas trade?” He wondered “would a Europe dominated by Germany, confined to a continental, autarkic economic policy...need much in the way of windows to the outside world?”

Having grown to young manhood in socialist-minded Milwaukee and himself a liberal and a humanitarian, Kennan felt great concern about what German domination would mean for the Dutch. He thought “One could only expect that to the spiritual misery attendant upon the destruction of a great culture and a great tradition there would be added the misery of foreign exploitation and economic decline, and that someday large parts of these Dutch cities, sinking back into the swamps from which they had been so proudly and so competently erected, would become merely a curiosity for the edification of future generations of German tourists and would perhaps help to give the latter a sense of appreciation—tardy and helpless appreciation—for the values their forefathers had so lightheartedly destroyed.”

             On 16 June Kennan recorded in his journal that he again had taken a morning walk, this time “only to hear a German military band playing on a square to a sizable audience of placid, politely applauding Dutchmen, and to see a place, only a block or two from the legation, where bombs had wiped out most of the inside of a city block.” That afternoon he drove with Foreign Service officer Howard Elting to a small town outside Rotterdam. The two visited the U.S. consul there whose home and office had been bombed during the German invasion. Kennan reported that “We found him at home, and had drinks with him. The room opened completely on one side” he noted, “toward the garden. There the rain drizzled onto rich grass and a little weed-covered canal, and everything was very Dutch and very sad and peaceful. Across the canal” he added, “a stream of people passed on bicycles, and a beautiful copper beech shimmered in the rain.”

In this setting of recurrent destruction interrupted by what remained of “normality,” Kennan noticed the odd marriage of devastation and the remnants of an honorable culture. When he returned to Rotterdam “along a normal city street, with shops open, trams running, crowds of busy people on the sidewalks,” Kennan abruptly found himself thrown back amidst ruins. “Suddenly, with as little transition as though someone had performed the operation with a gigantic knife, the houses stopped and there began a wide open field of tumbled bricks and rubbish. Here and there a wall or even the gutted framework of a house remained” he observed, “but in most places there was only a gray plain of devastation.”

The primary streets leading into the ruined area remained untouched; trams and automobiles sped by as was normal and “the unfathomable Dutch wheeled along on their bicycles as though nothing unusual had occurred. At one of the main corners of the city” Kennan continued, “traffic was still fairly thick, but not a building was left standing anywhere near, and the impression gained was that it was a crossing out somewhere in the country, between fields that had been used as dumping grounds for debris and refuse.”

Kennan found that “Most striking of all, apart from the ghastly scope of the destruction...was the utter absence of transitions. Where bombs had not fallen” he discovered, “everything seemed in perfect order. Where they had fallen, there was simply nothing left at all. I saw a shop doing business and people living in a house on one side of which there was a perfectly normal city scene and on the other side of which, beginning right at the side of the house, there stretched nothing but a desert of bleached, smoking debris, as far as the eye could see.”

The chaotic waste to which Rotterdam had been reduced deeply disturbed the young diplomat. On the Sunday morning of 17 June he rode an early train back to Berlin. Kennan recorded that “The five-hour trip across occupied Holland, in the dead hours of Sunday morning, was very dull indeed.” The rain continued to fall, the towns remained empty and he had the feeling “of the world’s being forsaken by everyone but the cows.” Reading the German papers, Kennan “pondered gloomily on the propaganda patter about the ‘senseless resistance,’ and reflected that if there was any-thing in this war that had many any sense to me at all, it was the resistance that had produced the ruins of Rotterdam.”



             The United States Department of State transferred George F. Kennan from his post in Prague to the U.S. embassy in Berlin in late 1939, when the Nazis overtook the fraction of Czechoslovakia that remained after Hitler had sheared the formerly sovereign nation of the Sudetenland. Kennan had intended to continue the reporting role he had performed for the U.S. government while in Prague, yet he soon discovered that the U.S. embassy in Germany “was faced at that moment with formidable administrative problems for which the department had made no adequate provisions.” Besides attending to the concerns of U.S. Americans in Germany and representing Washington in the German capital, the embassy had accepted many of the former responsibilities of the French and British embassies: “the protection of their nationals, their diplomatic property, their prisoners of war, and the tasks connected with the exchange of their official personnel. And in addition to this” Kennan noted, “there were many new problems affecting American interests themselves.” In short, the U.S. embassy became overwhelmed by the diplomatic concerns and duties of war.

            Having lived in both London and Berlin at various times during the Second World War, Kennan thought that of the two, “the usual wartime hardships and inconveniences of personal life” in the great German metropolis were “considerably greater.” During that first winter of the war, Berlin struggled with persistent energy shortages, coupled with frozen canals which ordinarily afforded transport for the fuel necessary for lights, heating and cooking. “Whole blocks of huge apartment houses could not be heated at all” he reported, “and had to be evacuated in zero weather.” He continued: “Both rationing and blackout rules were severe. Private automobiling was banned entirely. Air raid precautions, too” he said, “were stricter than in London. No one was allowed on the streets during the period of an alarm. People caught out at evening parties by the sounding of the air raid sirens were often obliged to enjoy their host’s hospitality until the all-clear sounded shortly before dawn.”

Under such conditions the U.S. embassy’s job of executing its myriad duties became nearly impossible. Kennan commented that “getting night-duty personnel back and forth between their homes and the embassy and in meeting couriers and other travelers who arrived at night at remote suburban stations [as long-distance trains had discontinued service into the city after the British began bombing Berlin] can easily be imagined. They were heightened by the fact” he complained, “that when the war began the embassy possessed not a single official vehicle, nor would the government buy it one.” Instead, Alexander Kirk, the embassy’s charge d’affaires “contemptuously” purchased with his own money a Renault and a small luggage trailer. Kennan sarcastically remarked that Kirk had “successfully solicited the department’s gracious consent that it should be placed on the inventory of the official property.”

Beyond the effects of the war on the U.S. diplomatic mission, however, Kennan also described the serious impact it had on German life. Having lived in Germany’s largest city in the early thirties to study Russian language, literature and history at the Berlin Seminar for Oriental Languages and at the university in Berlin, he knew what the city had been like before Adolf Hitler succeeded in taking power. Of his experience in returning to the great city in wartime, Kennan later wrote that “Setting and language were familiar. Except for occasional visits to the Foreign Office on official business, I had nothing to do with the regime, nor did most of the people I knew.”

According to Kennan, “The Berliners themselves—the simple people, that is—were, of all the major urban or regional elements among the German population, the least Nazified in their outlook. They could never be induced” he claimed, “to give the Nazi salute. They continued to the end to greet each other with the usual ‘Guten Morgen’ in place of the obligatory ‘Heil Hitler.’ Nor did they evidence any particular enthusiasm for the war. I can testify [because he attended the subsequent rally on that day] that they witnessed with a reserved, sullen silence the victory parade of the troops returning from the successful completion of the Polish campaign. Not even the most frantic efforts of professional Nazi agitators” he purported, “could provoke them to demonstrations of elation or approval.”

Kennan continued, saying that “The news of the fall of Paris was received with the same inscrutable silence and reserve.” The afternoon of the surrender of the City of Light, Kennan rode the city’s buses “where practically everyone’s conversation was audible” for many miles. “I heard no one as much as mention the event” he marveled. Instead “the talk was all of food cards and the price of stockings.”

Aware of the discrepancy between the official claim of “Ein Volk, Ein Land” and the behavior of Germans he saw on the streets of Berlin, Kennan mused that “what struck one most about wartime Berlin was the undemonstrative but unmistakable inner detachment of the people from the pretentious purposes of the regime, and the way in which ordinary life went on, as best it could, under the growing difficulties of wartime discipline.” He observed “The war dominated the public prints; but it was, so far as concerned the Berliners and to a large extent common people in other great cities as well, the regime’s war, not theirs.”

At the same time, however, the perceptive Kennan began “warning against putting too great a reliance on the differences between Hitler and the German people when it came to judging the prospects for war and peace. Some of the German people” he wrote, “might have lost the edge of their enthusiasm under the pressure of wartime privation [and] others might have been shocked and estranged by the character of Hitler’s regime. The fact remained” nonetheless, that Hitler acted “in the best traditions of German nationalism, and his conception of his own mission [was] perhaps clearer than that of his predecessors because it [was] uncomplicated by any sense of responsibility to European culture as a whole.”

Of the monster the Germans had unleashed under the Nazis, Kennan wrote “The colossus is genuine; and it now stands defiant before the French and the British, unified and disciplined, armed with a destructive power never before seen in history, determined to dominate Europe or to carry the entire continent to a common destruction.”


Parting Glances

After “that memorable December Sunday evening” in late 1941 when George F. Kennan learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, his life in the Third Reich would never be the same. While it never had been an easy assignment since its start soon after the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939, Kennan’s two-year stay had never before involved being the official enemy of Adolf Hitler and all the German people; with the declaration of war between Germany and the United States, the formerly “free” Kennan became an imprisoned hostage.

Hearing the news of the attack on a shortwave radio, Kennan awoke Leland Morris, the U.S. embassy’s charge d’affaires and as many other embassy officers as he could by telephone. Late that night Kennan and the others met in the embassy to plan a course of action “now that the end seemed near.” As Kennan shared later, “For four days we lived in excruciating uncertainty as the Germans deliberated whether or not to support their Japanese associates by declaring war on the United States. One by one, during those four days, our channels of communication with the outside world ceased to function. Telegrams” he noted, “even to our government, were no longer accepted at the telegraph office. By late Tuesday, our telephones mysteriously ceased to function. It became impossible” he said, to communicate with Washington or with anyone else. We were now on our own.”

Realizing that should Germany and the United States become hostile the embassy staff would “look like fools” had they not prepared for such an event, they set about destroying codes and classified correspondence starting on Tuesday night through Wednesday morning. Finally, on Thursday their status was made clear as Hitler was about to address the Reichstag.

As Hitler’s speech neared Kennan noticed as the square in front of the embassy filled with sound trucks and “mobs of people—to what purpose we were not sure. We closed the metal blinds on the windows on the ground floor and waited for the storm” he recalled, “but it failed to come. Instead” he explained, “while Hitler was fulminating against [the United States] in the Reichstag, the telephone suddenly and mysteriously came to life—to admit a phone call from the Foreign Office saying that a car and an officer of the protocol section would arrive in a few moments to escort the charge d’affaires to the presence of the foreign minister. The officer appeared almost instantaneously.” Kennan received the officer and struggled to “entertain him” while Morris made preparations for the meeting; Kennan remembered later “a stiffer conversation has never transpired.”

The German government’s representatives drove Morris off to the Wilhelmstrasse “to be kept standing while Ribbentrop, striking ferocious attitudes, read out loud the declaration of war and then, after screaming at him: ‘Ihr Praesident hat diesen Krieg gewollt; jetzt hat er ihn’ (Your President has wanted this war; now he has it), turned on his heel and stamped away.” Not quite sure what to do with the U.S. Americans remaining in Germany, however, the Foreign Office—having had its fun—consulted the Fuehrer for further instructions. It appeared to Kennan that Hitler had left immediately after the address for field headquarters, so “it took two days to get a reply. This, when it finally came on Saturday morning, was laconic, and packed with Hitlerian fury.” The response demanded that “By the end of the week the Americans must be out of Berlin.”

At that point Kennan answered a summons to the Foreign Office on Saturday afternoon and learned that “all American embassy personnel would be required to liquidate their residential establishments forthwith and to report to the chancery, with not more than two pieces of hand luggage, at eight o’clock the following morning.” Kennan added “This, over the course of a hectic and sleepless night, was in some way accomplished.” On Sunday morning, 14 December all staff and their families collected at the embassy “only to find the building, inside and out, already guarded by members of the Gestapo, and ourselves their prisoners.” Then, the entire assemblage moved by bus and rail to Bad Nauheim, near Frankfurt am Main. Noting that a few other U.S. American journalists “picked up in other parts of Europe” were added to this group, Kennan reported that the number eventually grew to one-hundred and thirty.

As the prisoners were kept incommunicado with their government throughout their internment, Kennan later complained “Not until the end of April 1942 did the United States government bother to communicate with us, which” he maintained, “it could easily have done through the Swiss. For knowledge of what plans, if any, were being made for our exchange and removal “ Kennan explained, “we remained dependent over the winter on such crumbs of gossip or information as we could eke out of the Germans or the Swiss representatives who occasionally visited us.”

Kennan charged that during the entirety of their stay in Bad Nauheim he “bore personally the immediate responsibility for disciplinary control of this motley group of hungry, cold, and worried prisoners, as well as for every aspect of their liaison with their German captors. Their cares, their quarrels, their jealousies, their complaints filled every moment of my waking day” he grumbled. “The details of this ordeal” he mused, “would alone make a book.”

At least Kennan gained something being interned by the Nazis with a group peppered with so many intolerable characters: “The experience taught me something about the behavior of human beings in adversity: the untrustworthiness and failure of a minority at one end of the human spectrum; the rather passive response to leadership on the part of a majority in the middle; the extraordinary faithfulness, courage, and general excellence of a few. I came away” he said, “with a new admiration for one portion of mankind, but a portion which, as I now recognized, would never be more than a minority. For the majority at the center, I felt a mixture of sympathy and solicitude. For the remainder” he admitted, “there was only horror and repulsion.”

Years later Kennan recalled the specific difficulties of his role at Bad Nauheim. “Particularly disillusioning” he remembered, “were the endless complaints about food which I was compelled to receive, and of which I was often obliged, somewhat against my will, to make myself the spokesman in dealings with the Germans.” While acknowledging that the eventually emaciated U.S. American internees received only the meager rations allowed civilian Germans and even less than other prisoners of war—for they were beyond the reach of precious Red Cross relief packages—Kennan countered “we were not the only people in Europe who were hungry at that time, and more important things were at stake than the filling of our bellies.”

Finally—after five long months of confinement—the German and U.S. governments agreed to exchange each country’s captured diplomats and other citizens. Those imprisoned at Bad Nauheim traveled through Spain and Portugal to Lisbon “against a similar party of Germans.” Passing through Spain the U.S. diplomatic officers “found it necessary to lock the doors of the trains to keep the more exuberant members of our party (primarily the journalists) from disappearing into the crowded, chaotic stations in search of liquor and then getting left behind.” Kennan griped “I was myself in charge of the first of the trains, and was up all night trying to keep my unruly flock together.”

When the U.S. Americans reached the Portuguese border, the assistant U.S. naval attache in Lisbon, Ted Rousseau, met them. “Leaving my charges imprisoned in the train” Kennan recounted, “I inquired whether by any chance one could breakfast in the station.” Rousseau answered to the affirmative, at which point Kennan, “who had been for five months on the receiving end of the food complaints, took final revenge upon my fellow internees by repairing to the station buffet and eating a breakfast of several eggs, leaving the rest of them to nurse their empty bellies over the remaining six or seven hours of rail journey before making themselves sick, as all of us did, on the rich fare of Lisbon.”

As the train made the last leg of its journey from the Portuguese frontier to Lisbon, Kennan “whiled away those remaining hours in the train by trying to compose a set of farewell verses to my companions of the last five months. Referring to the Jeschke Grand Hotel and the little stream that characterized Bad Nauheim, Kennan wrote:


From you, embattled comrades in abstention,

Compatriots to this or that degree,

Who’ve shared with me the hardships of detention

In Jeschke's Grand and guarded hostelry


From you, my doughty champions of the larder,

Who’ve fought with such persistency and skill,

Such mighty hearts, such overwhelming ardor,

The uninspiring battle of the swill—


From you, my friends, from your aggrieved digestions,

From all the pangs of which you love to tell,

Your dwindling flesh and your enraged intestines:

Permit me now to take a fond farewell.


For five long months you’ve slept and nursed your bellies,

Or strolled along the Usa’s quiet shores,

Eaten your rolls and failed to eat your jellies,

While others toiled and tramped and fought the wars.


The world might choke in food-restricting measures;

Chinese might starve; and Poles might waste away;

But God forbid that you—my tender treasures—

Should face the horrors of a meatless day.


about Kennan's internment

reflections on Kennan's career upon his 101st birthday

| Home |


on this page

First Impressions

Work Life

German Homefront

Parting Glances

selected letters by Kennan

Hints of the Coming Hell

Events in Prague

Hamburg Trip

Berlin Train

Tour of Occupied Countries

Persecution of Berlin's Jews