Historical Engineering and Public Diplomacy

February 5, 2013

You quite often read that public diplomacy needs time to work.  From an organizational point of view this is a real problem because you want to be able to demonstrate impact in the current planning cycle.  The result is that PD ends up being evaluated by reference to  inputs or activity measures.    However when you start to dig into the history of  PD you start to see some cases where  the impact of government communications activities unfolds over very long periods.

Here’s a couple of examples.

When I was an undergraduate I took a final year option on The Causes of War.  As part of this we looked at the historiography of the origins of the World Wars.  This all came back to me when I was looking for material on German external communications after the First World War.   Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty  assigned responsibility for the war to Germany and it was this that was the basis for reparations so almost from day one the Auswartige Amt set out to undermine the ‘war guilt clause’.  Partly this was about conventional diplomacy but a large part was also about shaping public debate over the war in Germany and abroad.   Scholarly discussion of the  origins of the conflict was a particular interest and the AA and its front organizations would arrange for the purchase, translation and circulation of works that they saw as helpful.  They would also arrange research trips and the supply of documents for foreign scholars that were seen as sympathetic.  At the same time they would seek to arrange hostile reviews of work that they saw as unhelpful.  Behind this  was the publication between  1922 and 1926 of  40 volumes of strategically edited diplomatic correspondence, Die Grosse Politik der Europaischen Kabinette, 1871-1914.   By shifting focus from Germany to the actions of other powers  or to the operation of the international system the idea that Germany was uniquely responsible for the conflict was undermined.   The arrival of the Nazis in 1933 saw the adoption of a rather more direct line of attack on Versailles but the efforts of the Schuldreferat – the guilt department – continued to influence debate on the war for decades afterwards.   It was not until after the Second World War that researchers were able to get their hands on the full German diplomatic archives and even after that it took decades for the implications of the new research to percolate through academia.  Even if the historical community is well aware of these debates it’s still not unusual to see older studies  (eg Sidney Fay’s history) cited in the International Relations literature.   Keith Wilson’s Forging the Collective Memory provides collects several articles dealing with the work of the Schuldreferat.

Back in the ’90s you used to hear it said that Czechoslovakia was the most western oriented of the former Warsaw Pact states, they had Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera so it seemed plausible and I didn’t think about it…until a few months ago when I read Andrea Orzoff’s, Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe 1914-1948.  Orzoff’s point is that image of Czechslovakia as natural extension of Western Europe was one that was deliberately constructed by the group of nationalists around T.G. Masaryk and Edvard Benes.  The First World War offered an opportunity for the nationalists but the decision to look for support from France and Britain was not without resistance, there were nationalist factions that looked to the East and saw Czechoslovakia’s future as a monarchy ruled by a Romanov prince.  Orzoff’s book follows the efforts of Masaryk and his supporters through the creation of Czechoslovakia and into the period of the ‘first republic’.   Masaryk’s political network,  the hrad or castle, laboured mightily to maintain the image of Czechoslovakia as a liberal republic even if in some respects, particularly the treatment of national minorities, it was little different from the other central and eastern European states of the period.   In Britain Hungary’s public diplomacy, motivated by the treatment of the Hungarian minority,  chipped away at the image of Czechoslovakia.   Orzoff concludes her treatment by looking at the way that the ‘castle’ version of Czechoslovakia became entrenched American historiography – not least through the work of Madeleine Albright’s father Joszef Korbel.

What’s the moral of this story for public diplomats?  Stop wasting your time on Twitter and go and hang out with some historians.

Orzoff, A. (2011) Battle for the Castle : The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914-1948. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, K.M., ed. (1996) Forging the Collective Memory : Government and International Historians through Two World Wars. Providence RI: Berghahn Bookss


One comment

  1. Bingo! 🙂

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