Diplomatic history

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Diplomatic history deals with the history of international relations between states. Diplomatic history can be different from international relations in that the former can concern itself with the foreign policy of one state while the latter deals with relations between two or more states. Diplomatic history tends to be more concerned with the history of diplomacy, but international relations concern more with current events and creating a model intended to shed explanatory light on international politics.[1]




In the 5th century BCE Thucydides was highly concerned with the relations among states. However Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), the leading German historian of the 19th century CE, codified the modern form of diplomatic history. Ranke wrote largely on the history of Early Modern Europe, using the diplomatic archives of the European powers (particularly the Venetians) to construct a detailed understanding of the history of Europe wie es eigentlich gewesen ("as it actually happened"). Ranke saw diplomatic history as the most important kind of history to write because of his idea of the "Primacy of Foreign Affairs" (Primat der Aussenpolitik), arguing that the concerns of international relations drive the internal development of the state. Ranke's understanding of diplomatic history relied on using as sources the large number of official documents produced by modern western governments; he argued that historians should examine such sources in an objective and neutral spirit.[1]

20th century scholars[edit]

In the early 20th centuries, work by prominent diplomatic historians such as Charles Webster, Harold Temperley, Alfred Pribram, R.H. Lord and B.E. Schmitt were mostly concerned with the events such as the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna and the origins of the Franco-German War.[1] A notable event in diplomatic history occurred in 1910 when the French government start to publish all of the archives relating to the war of 1870. The Bolsheviks in Russia published key secret papers from the Allies in 1918.

Ranke's understanding of the dominance of foreign policy, and hence an emphasis on diplomatic history, remained the dominant paradigm in historical writing through the first half of the twentieth century. This emphasis, combined with the effects of the War Guilt Clause in the Treaty of Versailles (1919) which ended the First World War, led to a huge amount of historical writing on the subject of the origins of the war of 1914, with the involved governments printing huge, carefully edited, collections of documents and numerous historians writing multi-volume histories of the origins of the war.[2] In the interwar period, most diplomatic historians tended to blame all of the Great Powers of 1914 for the First World War, arguing that the war was in effect everybody's responsibility. In general, the early works in this vein fit fairly comfortably into Ranke's emphasis on Aussenpolitik.

Historian Muriel Chamberlain notes that after the First World War:

diplomatic history replaced constitutional history as the flagship of historical investigation, at once the most important, most exact and most sophisticated of historical studies.[3]

She adds that after 1945, the trend reversed, allowing political, intellectual and social history to displace diplomatic history.

For the first half of the 20th century, most diplomatic history working within the narrow confines of the Primat der Aussenpolitik approach was very narrowly concerned with foreign-policy making elites with little reference to broader historical forces. The most notable exceptions to this tendency were A. J. P. Taylor and William Medlicott in Britain, Pierre Renouvin in France, and William L. Langer in the United States, who examined economic and domestic political forces.[1]

Causes of World War Two[edit]

After the Second World War, J. K Paasikivi (in the middle), the 7th President of the Republic of Finland, was remembered as a main architect of Finland's foreign policy, especially with the Soviet Union, which was at that time the war enemy of Finland.[4]

Sir Winston Churchill's multi-volume The Second World War, especially the first volume The Gathering Storm (1948) set the framework and the interpretation for much later historiography. His interpretation, echoing his own position before the war, that World War II was caused by the mad ambitions of Adolf Hitler; Churchill damned the cowardly and weak-willed British and French leaders who used appeasement in a futile effort to avoid the war. Churchill did not consider the argument that the alternative to appeasement was a premature war that Germany would win in 1938. The British historian A. J. P. Taylor's 1961 book The Origins of the Second World War challenged Churchill's viewpoint and argued that Hitler had no master-plan for conquering the world. Instead he was an ordinary statesman –-an opportunistic leader seizing whatever chances he had for expansionism. The fact that a world war started over Poland in 1939 was due to diplomatic miscalculation by all the countries concerned, instead of being a case of German aggression. British historians such as D.C. Watt, Paul Kennedy, George Peden and David Dilks argued that appeasement was not an aberration, and that it was an old British tradition which in this case flowed from numerous structural, economic and military factors. Historians such as Christopher Thorne and Harry Hinsley abandoned the previous focus on individual leaders to discuss the broader societal influences such as public opinion and narrower ones like intelligence on diplomatic relations. In recent years the debates regarding the 1930s have continued, but new approaches are in use, such as an analysis in terms of Britain's national identity.[5][6]

French approaches[edit]

A group of French historians centered around Pierre Renouvin (1893-1974) and his protégés Jean-Baptiste Duroselle and Maurice Baumont started a new type of international history in the 1950s that included taking into account what Renouvin called forces profondes (profound forces) such as the influence of domestic politics on French foreign policy. However, Renouvin and his followers still followed the concept of la décadence with Renouvin arguing that French society under the Third Republic was “sorely lacking in initiative and dynamism” and Baumont arguing that French politicians had allowed "personal interests" to override "any sense of the general interest". In 1979, Duroselle's book La Décadence offered a total condemnation of the entire Third Republic as weak, cowardly and degenerate.[7][8]

Fischer debate on World War One[edit]

At the same time, in 1961 when the German historian Fritz Fischer published Griff nach der Weltmacht, which established that Germany had caused the First World War led to the fierce "Fischer Controversy" that tore apart the West German historical profession.[9] One result of Fischer's book was the rise in the Primat der Innenpolitik (Primacy of Domestic Politics) approach.[9] As a result of the rise of the Primat der Innenpolitik school, diplomatic historians increasing started to pay attention to domestic politics.[9] In the 1970s, the conservative German historian Andreas Hillgruber, together with his close associate Klaus Hildebrand, was involved in a very acrimonious debate with the leftish German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler over the merits of the Primat der Aussenpolitik ("primacy of foreign politics") and Primat der Innenpolitik ("primacy of domestic politics") schools.[10] Hillgruber and Hildebrand made a case for the traditional Primat der Aussenpolitik approach to diplomatic history with the stress on examining the records of the relevant foreign ministry and studies of the foreign policy decision-making elite.[11] Wehler, who favored the Primat der Innenpolitik approach, for his part contended that diplomatic history should be treated as a sub-branch of social history, calling for theoretically-based research, and argued that the real focus should be on the study of the society in question.[12] Moreover, under the influence of the Primat der Innenpolitik approach, diplomatic historians in the 1960s, 70s and 80s start to borrow models from the social sciences.[9]

Mason-Overy debate on internal pressures inside Nazi Germany[edit]

A notable example of the Primat der Innenpolitik approach was the claim by the British Marxist historian Timothy Mason who claimed that the launch of World War II in 1939 was best understood as a “barbaric variant of social imperialism”.[13] Mason argued that “Nazi Germany was always bent at some time upon a major war of expansion”.[14] However, Mason argued that the timing of such a war was determined by domestic political pressures, especially as relating to a failing economy, and had nothing to do with what Hitler wanted.[14] In Mason's view in the period between 1936 and 1941, it was the state of the German economy, and not Hitler's "will" or "intentions" that was the most important determinate on German decision-making on foreign policy.[15] Mason argued that the Nazi leaders were deeply haunted by the November Revolution of 1918, and was most unwilling to see any fall in working class living standards out of the fear that it might provoke another November Revolution.[15] According to Mason, by 1939, the “overheating” of the German economy caused by rearmament, the failure of various rearmament plans produced by the shortages of skilled workers, industrial unrest caused by the breakdown of German social policies, and the sharp drop in living standards for the German working class forced Hitler into going to war at a time and place not of his choosing.[16] Mason contended that when faced with the deep socio-economic crisis the Nazi leadership had decided to embark upon a ruthless “smash and grab” foreign policy of seizing territory in Eastern Europe which could be pitilessly plundered to support living standards in Germany.[17] Mason's theory of a "Flight into war" being imposed on Hitler generated much controversy, and in the 1980s he conducted a series of debates with economic historian Richard Overy over this matter. Overy maintained the decision to attack Poland was not caused by structural economic problems, but rather was the result of Hitler wanting a localized war at that particular time in history. For Overy, a major problem with the Mason thesis was that it rested on the assumption that in a way unrecorded by the records, that information was passed on to Hitler about the Reich's economic problems.[18] Overy argued that there was a major difference between economic pressures inducted by the problems of the Four Year Plan, and economic motives to seize raw materials, industry and foreign reserve of neighboring states as a way of accelerating the Four Year Plan.[19] Moreover, Overy asserted that the repressive capacity of the German state as a way of dealing with domestic unhappiness was somewhat downplayed by Mason.[18]

Japanese-American relations[edit]

In addition, because World War II was a global war, diplomatic historians start to focus on Japanese-American relations to understand why Japan had attacked the United States in 1941. This in turn led diplomatic historians to start to abandon the previous Euro-centric approach in favor of a more global approach.[20] A sign of the changing times was the rise to prominence of such diplomatic historians such as the Japanese historian Chihiro Hosoya, the British historian Ian Nish, and the American historian Akira Iriye, which was the first time that Asian specialists became noted diplomatic historians.

Vietnam war and revisionism[edit]

The Cold War and decolonization greatly added the tendency to a more global diplomatic history. The Vietnam War led to the rise of a revisionist school in the United States, which led many American historians such as Gabriel Kolko and William Appleman Williams to reject traditional diplomatic history in favor of a Primat der Innenpolitik approach that saw a widespread examination of the influence of American domestic politics together with various social, economic and cultural forces on foreign-policy making. In general, the American Cold War revisionists tended to focus on American foreign policy decision-making with respect to the genesis of the Cold War in the 1940s and on how the United States became involved in Vietnam in the 1960s. Starting in the 1960s, a ferocious debate has taken place within Cold War historiography between the advocates of the “orthodox” school which saw the Cold War as a case of Soviet aggression such as Vojtech Mastny against the proponents of the “revisionist” school which saw the Cold War as a case of American aggression. Latterly, a third school known as "neo-orthodox" whose most prominent member is the American historian John Lewis Gaddis has emerged, which holds through the United States borne some responsibility for the Cold War, the lion's share of the responsibility goes to the Soviet Union.

Recent trends[edit]

In Europe diplomatic history fell out of favor in the late Cold War era. Since the collapse of communism in 1989–91, however, there has been a renaissance, led especially by historians of the early modern era, in the history of diplomacy. The new approach differs from previous perspectives by the wholesale incorporation of perspectives from political science, sociology, the history of mentalities, and cultural history.

In the U.S. since the 1980s, the discipline of diplomatic history has become more relevant to and better integrated with the mainstream of the academic history profession. It has taken the lead in internationalization of American historical studies. Since it explores the interaction of domestic and international forces, the field has become increasingly important for its study of culture and identity and the exploration of political ideologies as applied to foreign affairs. There have been major influences from other new approaches such as Orientalism and globalism, as well as gender and racial history.[21] The history of human rights has become important as well.[22] Despite all these innovations, however, the core endeavor of diplomatic history remains the study of the state interacting with other states, which is also a key to its broadening appeal, since considerations of America's superpower status is essential to understanding the world internationally.

In the early 1980s, historian Jeffrey Kimball surveyed the ideological preferences of 109 active diplomatic historians in the United States as well as 54 active military historians. He reports that:

Of historians in the field of diplomatic history, 7% are Socialist, 19% are Other, 53% are Liberal, 11% are None and 10% Conservative. Of military historians, 0% are Socialist, 8% are Other, 35% are Liberal, 18% are None and 40% are Conservative.[23]

Historical studies[edit]

In Europe, diplomatic history fell out of favor in the late Cold War era. Since the collapse of communism, there has been a renaissance, led especially by historians of the early modern era, in the history of diplomacy. The new approach differs from previous perspectives by the wholesale incorporation of perspectives from political science, sociology, the history of mentalities, and cultural history.[24]

In the U.S. since 1980, the discipline of diplomatic history has become more relevant to and integrated with the mainstream of the historiographic profession, having been in the forefront of the internationalization of American historical studies. As a field that explores the meeting of domestic and international forces, the study of US foreign relations has become increasingly important for its examination of both the study of culture and identity and the exploration of political ideologies. Particularly shaped by the influence of studies of Orientalism and globalism, gender studies, race, and considerations of national identity, diplomatic history was often at the cutting edge of historical research. Despite such innovations, however, the core endeavor of diplomatic history remains the study of the state, which is also a key to its broadening appeal, since considerations of US state power are essential to understanding the world internationally.[25]

Prominent diplomatic historians[edit]

See also[edit]


General information
  • Matusumoto, Saho "Diplomatic History/International Relations" pages 314-316 from The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing ed. Kelly Boyd, Volume 1, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999, ISBN 1-884964-33-8
  1. ^ a b c d Matusumoto, Saho "Diplomatic History" pages 314-316 in Kelly Boyd, ed., The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (1999) p. 314.
  2. ^ Covered in depth in William L. Langer, The diplomacy of imperialism: 1890-1902 (2nd ed. 1951) and A.J.P. Taylor, Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (Oxford UP, 1954)
  3. ^ Muriel E Chamberlain, Pax Britannica'? British Foreign Policy 1789-1914 (1988) p 1
  4. ^ Wilsford (1995), pp. 347-352.
  5. ^ Patrick Finney, "The romance of decline: The historiography of appeasement and British national identity." Electronic Journal of International History 1 (2000) Online.
  6. ^ Donald C. Watt, "The historiography of appeasement." in Alan Sked and Chris Cook, eds. Crisis and controversy: Essays in honour of AJP Taylor (1976) pp 100+.
  7. ^ Peter Jackson, “Post-War Politics and the Historiography of French Strategy and Diplomacy Before the Second World War" History Compass, Volume 4/5, 2006 pp 870-95
  8. ^ S. W. Helprin, Some Twentieth-Century Historians (1961) pp 143-70
  9. ^ a b c d Matusumoto, Saho "Diplomatic History" pages 314-316 from The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing page 315.
  10. ^ Kershaw, Ian The Nazi Dictatorship, London, Arnold, 2000, pp. 9-11.
  11. ^ Kershaw, Ian The Nazi Dictatorship, London, Arnold, 2000, pp. 9-10.
  12. ^ Kershaw (2000), pp. 9-10.
  13. ^ Kaillis, Aristotle Fascist Ideology, London: Routledge, 2000 page 7
  14. ^ a b Kaillis, Aristotle Fascist Ideology, London: Routledge, 2000 page 165
  15. ^ a b Kershaw, Ian The Nazi Dictatorship London : Arnold 2000 page 88.
  16. ^ Kaillis, Aristotle Fascist Ideology, London: Routledge, 2000 pages 165-166
  17. ^ Kaillis, Aristotle Fascist Ideology, London: Routledge, 2000 page 166
  18. ^ a b Mason, Tim & Overy, R.J. “Debate: Germany, `domestic crisis’ and the war in 1939” from The Origins of The Second World War edited by Patrick Finney, Edward Arnold: London, United Kingdom, 1997 page 102
  19. ^ Overy, Richard “Germany, ‘Domestic Crisis’ and War in 1939” from The Third Reich edited by Christian Leitz, Blackwell: Oxford, 1999 pages 117-118
  20. ^ Saho Matusumoto, "Diplomatic History" in Kelly Boyd, ed., The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (1999) pp 314-165
  21. ^ Thomas W. Zeiler, “The Diplomatic History Bandwagon: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History (March 2009), v 95#4 pp 1053-73
  22. ^ Micheline R. Ishay, The history of human rights: From ancient times to the globalization era (2008) excerpt.
  23. ^ Jeffrey Kimball, "The Influence of Ideology on Interpretive Disagreement: A Report on a Survey of Diplomatic, Military and Peace Historians on the Causes of 20th Century U. S. Wars," The History Teacher (May, 1984) 17#3 pp. 355-384 in JSTOR
  24. ^ Matusumoto, Saho "Diplomatic History" pages 314-316 from The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing page 315
  25. ^ Zeiler (2009)

Further reading[edit]

World view[edit]

  • Anderson, M.S. The Rise of Modern Diplomacy 1450 - 1919 (1993) excerpt how diplomats operated
  • Black, Jeremy. A History of Diplomacy (2010)
  • Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy (1994), historical studies of diplomatic crises
  • Stearns, Peter N. An Encyclopedia of World History (6th ed. 2001) 1244pp; very detailed outline; see also previous editions edited by Wiliam L. Langer, which have even more detail.

European diplomacy[edit]

  • Albrecht-Carrié, René. A Diplomatic History of Europe Since the Congress of Vienna (1958), 736pp; a basic introduction, online free to borrow
  • Black, Jeremy. European International Relations, 1648-1815 (2002) excerpt and text search
  • Hill, David Jayne. A history of diplomacy in the international development of Europe (3 vol. 1914) online v 3, 1648-1775; also online; vol 2 online 1313-1648
  • Langer, William. European Alliances and Alignments 1870-1890 (2nd ed. 1950); advanced coverage of Bismarckian system
  • Langer, William L. The Diplomacy of Imperialism 1890-1902 (2 vol, 1935); advanced analysis
  • Mowat, R. B. A History of European Diplomacy 1815-1914 (1922), basic introduction
  • Mowat, R. B. History of European Diplomacy, 1451–1789 (1928) 324 pp online free
  • Petrie, Charles. Earlier diplomatic history, 1492–1713 (1949), covers all of Europe; online
    • Petrie, Charles. Diplomatic History, 1713–1933 (1946), broad summary online
  • Roosen. William J. "The functioning of ambassadors under Louis XIV." French Historical Studies 6.3 (1970): 311–332. online
  • Roosen, William James (1976). The Age of Louis XIV: The Rise of Modern Diplomacy. ISBN 9781412816670.
  • Schroeder, Paul. The Transformation of European Politics 1763–1848 (1994) online; advanced diplomatic history
  • Steiner, Zara. The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-1933 (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Steiner, Zara. The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-1939 (2011) excerpt and text search
  • Taylor, A. J. P. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848–1918 (1957) excerpt and text search, advanced coverage of all major powers


  • Carrió-Invernizzi, Diana. "A New Diplomatic History and the Networks of Spanish Diplomacy in the Baroque Era." International History Review 36.4 (2014): 603–618.
  • Crapol, Edward P. "Coming to Terms with Empire: The Historiography of Late-Nineteenth-Century American Foreign Relations." Diplomatic History (1992) 16#4 pp: 573–598.
  • Elman, Colin, and Miriam Fendius Elman. "Diplomatic history and international relations theory: respecting difference and crossing boundaries." International Security (1997) 22#1: 5-21. Online
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. "New conceptual approaches to the study of American Foreign Relations: interdisciplinary perspectives." Diplomatic History (1990) 14#3 pp: 405–424.
  • Hogan, Michael J. and Thomas G. Paterson, eds. Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, (2004), articles originally appeared in Diplomatic History and cover all main fields of American diplomatic history
  • Koshiro, Yukiko (2001). "Japan's World and World War II". Diplomatic History. 25 (3): 425–441. doi:10.1111/0145-2096.00276.
  • Plummer, Brenda Gayle. “The Changing Face of Diplomatic History: A Literature Review.” History Teacher 38#3 (2005), pp. 385–400. online. focus on United States
  • Schweizer, K.W. and M.J. Schumann. “The Revitalisation of Diplomatic History: Renewed Reflections,” Diplomacy and Statecraft 19 (2008): 149-186
  • Sowerby, Tracey A. "Early Modern Diplomatic History" History Compass (2016) 14#9 pp 441–456 DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12329; Europe 1600-1790
  • Watkins, John. "Toward a new diplomatic history of medieval and early modern Europe." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 38.1 (2008): 1-14.
  • Xia, Yafeng (2007). "New Scholarship And Directions in the Study of the Diplomatic History of the People's Republic of China". Chinese Historical Review. 14 (1): 114–140. doi:10.1179/tcr.2007.14.1.114.
  • Zeiler, Thomas W. (2009). "The Diplomatic History Bandwagon: A State of the Field". Journal of American History. 95 (4): 1053–1073. doi:10.2307/27694560. JSTOR 27694560.
  • Zeiler, Thomas W. ed. American Foreign Relations since 1600: A Guide to the Literature (2007), online

External links[edit]