The Last Wise Man

An introduction to the diaries of George F. Kennan

JUNE 14, 1940

Left Berlin shortly before one o’clock on the newly revived express train to The Hague. Prisoners, probably Polish, were working in the fields between Berlin and Hanover. The sun beat hard on the flat, treeless fields, and the armed guards kept the prisoners lined up in neat, Germanic rows.

Beyond Hanover we began to encounter long trains of boxcars with fresh prisoners of war, presumably from this western front. The only openings for light and air were little apertures cut high up, near the ends of the cars, and through these one could see the crowded heads, the pale faces, and the bewildered eyes that stared, full of boredom and homesickness, out over the cold severity of the north of German plain.

At the border two trainloads of SS, complete with motor vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, and filed kitchens on flat cars, were waiting on a siding. Here, in contrast to the prisoners’ cars, the sliding doors of the boxcars were thrown open; the soldiers, crowding the doorways, all looking very much alike, stared at our luxurious train, and devoured the newspapers and magazines that some of the passengers tossed to them.

There was little damage visible in Holland, at least in the district through which we passed. Now and then there was a burnt-out farmhouse or a gutted warehouse along the tracks. But everything had already been thoroughly cleaned up with true Dutch neatness, and the bridge across the Ijssel, blown up by the retreating Dutch, had already been repaired sufficiently by the Germans to permit our heavy train to crawl over it.

By the time we reached Deventer, it was dark, and the blinds had to be pulled in the cars to observe the laws of the blackout. I sat through the rest of the evening listening to a conversation between a smug Nazi businessman and a successful Dutch fifth-columnist. I had to grip the cushion, in our first-class compartment, to keep from butting in and attempting to blast some of the complacency and hypocrisy out of the conversation. The German, cold and pompous, merely re-echoed the Volkischer Beobachter editorials and was scarcely worth annoying. But the Dutchman, who had a keen, subtle intelligence and a fine command of language, put my reserve to a hard test. Professing understanding for National Socialist ideals, he told the German of Dutch tradition and of the bourgeois conservatism of the Netherlands and pointed out regretfully how hard it would be to train Dutch youth, who had only a small country to fall back on and no great conquests to look forward to, to be National Socialists.

JUNE 15, 1940

Rain—a misty English rain, smelling of spongy meadows and of the nearby sea - sifted down through the great lime trees onto the cobblestone streets of The Hague.

In the afternoon I went for a long walk. The housefronts of the town, prim and well proportioned, breathed Puritanism and a solid, unostentatious prosperity. The sense of formality was so overpowering that I could only envisage generations of guests arriving for tea and being scrutinized with chilly suspicion by the servants. This was obviously a country where no grown-up who did not walk the primrose path could lay claim to warmth or forgiveness or tenderness. But civilization it was indeed.

I walked out to Scheveningen, getting thoroughly drenched in the process. A half a gale was blowing from the northwest. The great breakers were fighting their way in onto the sands in a melee of foam. The rain-swept boardwalk was deserted; and out at sea, in those mine-infested waters, no vessels moved.

The electric-railway station was dark and empty. I was not sure at first that the trains were running. In the guardroom a few German soldiers sat drinking beer, and an ugly waitress chucked one of them under the chin. On the train back to The Hague my only fellow passengers were four little Dutch schoolchildren, who chattered cheerfully, impervious to the gray day, the rain-streaked windows, the deserted places, and all the ruin.

The train deposited us at a big station somewhere in the eastern part of the city. It took me nearly an hour to find the legation again. The search led through miles of sober streets, across bridges, along quiet canals, through Shady little squares. I watched the sturdy, impassive, stubborn people trundling their bicycles and pushing their barges. Their fidelity to habit and tradition was so strong that it seemed as though nothing could ever change them.

JUNE 16, 1940

I took another long walk this morning, 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.

In the afternoon E. drove me around in his car. First we went over to a small nearby town, to see our consul at Rotterdam, whose office and home had been destroyed in the bombing and who had taken temporary quarters in that place. We found him at home, and had drinks with him. The room was opened completely on one side, toward the garden. There the rain drizzled onto the rich grass and a little weed-covered canal, and everything was very Dutch and sad and peaceful. Across the canal a stream of people passed on bicycles, and a beautiful copper beech shimmered in the rain.

From there we drove to Rotterdam. We came into town along a normal city street, with shops open, trams running, crowds of busy people on the sidewalks. 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, but in most places there was only a gray plain of devastation. 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.

JUNE 17, 1940

Got up early in the morning to take a six o’clock train back to Berlin. The five-hour trip across occupied Holland, in the dead hours of Sunday morning, was very dull indeed. It was still raining; the towns were empty; one had a feeling of the world's being forsaken by everyone but the cows. I read the German paper, pondered gloomily the propaganda patter about the "senseless resistance" of the Dutch, and reflected that if there were anything in this war that had made any sense to me at all, it was the resistance that had produced the ruins of Rotterdam.

JULY 2, 1940

This morning, since offers of free rides were still not forthcoming from the Germans, B. offered me one of his cars, together with the requisite quantity of gasoline; and at exactly 2:00 P.M. I set out from his country place, near Waterloo, in a little Chevrolet bound for Paris. I had with me one of the American ambulance drivers, who was trying to get down to Paris to recover his clothes. Warned that the intervening country had been reduced by the fighting to a state of desolation that made it as uncharitable to travelers as a desert, we were armed with a bottle of drinking water and some chocolate, to keep us alive in case we broke down on the way.

The devastation, especially south of the old Belgian frontier, was indeed formidable. All the towns were damaged, and certain large ones, particularly Valenciennes and Cambrai, were completely gutted, deserted, and uninhabitable. Here the road led through streets where the house façades were standing on both sides, but back of the façades, visible through the gaping, paneless windows, there was wreckage and ashes and debris. In spots the odor of decomposing corpses still stole out to the streets to tell its grim message to the outside world. These communities seemed to have been entirely vacated, probably at the insistence of the military authorities, by any inhabitants who had escaped destruction in the bombardment. They were shut off and guarded by German sentries, probably to prevent pillaging; and it affected me strangely to see these inscrutable, weather-beaten German sentries, standing guard there over their own handiwork of destruction. As though it mattered now who stood before these shattered homes and these stinking corpses! As though this tangled litter of half-destroyed human belongings had any more value when life and hope had already been destroyed!

Refugees were laboriously making their way back northward, in search of their homes. Most were traveling on the great two-wheeled horse-drawn cart of the French peasant, which could accommodate a whole family and many of its belongings. Some were on bicycles. Some pushed baby buggies with a few parcels of belongings on them. Their faces were unforgettable, stripped of all pretension, of all falseness, of all vanity, of all self-consciousness, seared with fatigue and fear and suffering.

I saw a young girl bouncing along on top of one of the carts. Her dress was torn and soiled. She had probably not had her clothes off, or been able to wash, for days. She was resting her chin in her hand and staring fixedly down at the road. All the youth had gone out of her face. There was only a bitterness too deep for complaint, a wondering too intense for questions. What would be her reaction to life after this? Just try to tell her of liberalism and democracy, of progress, of ideals, of tradition, of romantic love; see how far you get. What is going to be her impression of humanity? Do you think she's going to come out of it a flaming little patriot? She saw the complete moral breakdown and degradation of her own people. She saw them fight with each other and stumble over each other in their blind stampede to get away and to save their possessions before the advancing Germans. She saw her own soldiers, routed, demoralized, trying to push their way back through the streams of refugees on the highways. She saw her own people pillaging and looting in a veritable orgy of dissolution as they fled before the advancing enemy; possibly she joined in the looting herself. She saw these French people in all the ugliness of panic, defeat, and demoralization.

In the suburbs of Paris there were few people, but the streets looked no less normal than those of Brussels. As we drove down the rue Lafayette, the passers-by became fewer and fewer. By the time we reached the Opéra, the streets were practically empty. The city was simply dead. Policemen stood listlessly on the corners, but there was no traffic to direct and no pedestrians to guard. At the Café de la Paix six German officers sat at an outside table. They looked lonely sitting there with the empty café behind them and the empty cold street before them - no passersby to watch, no other guests to support them, no one but themselves to witness their triumph.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In