Personal Politics in the Postwar World. Western Diplomacy Behind the Scenes

Erlandsson, Susanna
London 2022: Bloomsbury
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Rezensiert für den Arbeitskreis Historische Friedens- und Konfliktforschung bei H-Soz-Kult von:
Julia Eichenberg, Universität Bayreuth

“For all the people behind the scenes” is the dedication of Susanna Erlandsson’s book and sets the tone for her study in diplomatic history. The book follows the international careers of a Dutch diplomatic couple, Eelco van Kleffens and his wife Margaret van Kleffens. The choice of the subject of this “micro study” forms one of the main messages: Diplomacy was not just a profession for one person, but a profession for two. The manifold challenges included not only the official diplomatic policy with negotiations, correspondence, and political guidelines but also the informal, social: receptions, conversations, and networks. As argued convincingly by Barbara Keys, the political can not be separated from the personal, and sympathies and antipathies always had an impact on diplomatic relations.[1] Even the contemporary foreign offices of the individual countries (cited here from Dutch sources, but also from the British Foreign Office) understood this impact and saw the diplomat’s wife as responsible for the creation and filling of such informal spaces.

The biography of the van Kleffens provides the red thread of the book, but Erlandsson opts for a topical, rather than chronological structure. In four parts, she discusses The Diplomatic Couple (I), The Diplomatic Home (II), Dinner Diplomacy (III), and Diplomatic Aptitude (IV). Throughout these case studies, she pursues her main argument, that “it seems crucial to understand the heterosexual couple as an organizational unit and symbol […] to explain how twentieth-century diplomacy worked” (p. 5). As these diplomatic couples “were generally white, Christian, and upper class”, Erlandsson underlines the importance of not only discussing gender but also class, and to reflect also on household staff and others needed to uphold diplomatic networks (p. 6).

Part I, The Diplomatic Couple, interlinks reflections on the legal definitions of diplomats and their spouses in western diplomacy with the very personal case study of Eelco van Kleffens’ courtship of Margaret Horstmann. According to their letters, their marriage can hardly be regarded as separate from their diplomatic career, as the promise of the latter seems to have been both one of van Kleffens’ motivations to woe as well as his main asset in winning over the much younger Horstmann. Erlandsson convincingly shows that both displayed the fundamental understanding of a diplomatic career being based on a married couple, as also reflected in publications on diplomacy, as well as internal Foreign Service regulations, for example about secrecy and marital trust (p. 35ff.). Deviations from the rule of the diplomatic couple, for example in the person of Thanassis Aghnides, divorced Greek ambassador to London[2], were regarded as incomplete and in need of support by either other diplomat’s wives or a female relative: “To put it crudely, women were indispensable but replaceable. Although the lack of a wife was a handicap in everyday diplomatic practices, widowed, divorced, or unmarried men could still have careers as diplomats, as long as they did not challenge the template of the heterosexual couple.” (p. 47)

Part II, The Diplomatic Home, discusses the overlaps between personal and public life for diplomats, as their homes were often based in or close to the embassies and often doubled as venues for informal receptions, essential to diplomatic networking. Domestic staff, Erlandsson points out, was central to the functioning of a diplomatic household, and usually an area overseen by the diplomatic wife. Erlandsson describes the “home as a diplomatic arena” (although it does not become clear whether this terminology is based on sources or analysis), important to consolidating hierarchies within the national diplomatic network (p. 77) as well as underlining international standing by being invited not only to official receptions but also to informal gatherings at home (p. 81). PR outreach about diplomatic homes, often featuring “private life”, including games, children, and pets, was used to popularize the diplomats.

Dinner Diplomacy (Part III) discusses “how eating and drinking together was employed as a diplomatic method in the mid-twentieth century” (p. 95), regarding both the everyday practice as well as the importance of the choice of food served. While containing interesting quotes and anecdotes, the reader would have wished for both more examples of actual dinners (including menus and preparations) and more integration into the wide field of research of diplomatic practices and symbolic diplomacy (including guest lists, seating orders, etc).

The last part, Diplomatic Aptitude (IV), discusses the evaluation of skills in the diplomatic field if diplomatic work is understood to combine both formal and informal aspects. Erlandsson follows her primary sources in pointing out that charm and manners were considered more important as a diplomat’s wife’s traits than language skills and education (p. 130). Under “Diplomatic Appearances” she discusses fashion and looks as well as table decorations. Erlandsson also returns to discussing race and ethnicity here, including the Dutch relation to their colonies. This proves an interesting topic and might have deserved more space. Finally, the part engages with the challenges of diplomatic conversation, and extensively quotes Margaret van Kleffens’ thoughts on suitable topics, interesting guests and balanced seating, and the impact of charm, manners, and – after all – language skills and general education. While the part on conversation relies heavily on van Kleffens’ diary, the following paragraphs analyse “Dinner discourse as a gendered, heterosexual practice”, linking the gendered role to their participation in the conversation. Erlandsson underlines the “concrete division of male and female spheres and topics [… as well as…] gendered ways of pursuing common goals and talking to people in mixed spheres.” (p. 165) Rather than restraining women to the unpolitical sphere, Erlandsson argues with van Kleffens, it also opened up back channels of informal chats about politics between the diplomatic wives (p. 168) and introduced small talk and even flirting as strategies of informal networking (p. 168ff.).

Margaret van Kleffens is a gifted diary writer, and Erlandsson complements her accounts with a broad range of other primary sources. At the same time, far from being only anecdotal, Erlandsson engages in a thoughtful analysis of what we are witnessing, connecting it to the field of research in diplomatic history, and clearly targeting an academic audience. The book’s structure, preferring topics and analysis over chronology, underlines this approach. It is worth mentioning the well selected pictures, and the wonderful cover image, depicting a well-dressed couple at a dinner reception, poignantly invoking (if not depicting) the van Kleffens.

Erlandsson offers a micro-study of the van Kleffens couple as a diplomatic unit, as one diplomatic actor, based largely on the diaries of the wife Margaret. Unfortunately, the very generalised title, Personal Politics in the Postwar World. Western Diplomacy behind the Scenes, seems to hide its main protagonists, the van Kleffens, and, even worse, Margaret. While the whole book aims to render those “behind the scenes” visible, the title seems to do the opposite, which is regrettable, considering the wonderful anecdotes of the diaries as well as the thoughtful attention to analysis.

Erlandsson opens up important topics which surely await some more in-depth research: firstly, displaying the dominance of the white heterosexual couple in diplomacy touches upon questions of sexuality and race which hopefully will encourage more studies to follow (Part I, pp. 48–52). The analysis of a diplomatic home hopefully lays the ground for further research on diplomatic staff with regard to salaries and race, but also on the stereotype of a diplomatic couple vs. a diplomatic family (Part II). Erlandsson’s book offers us fascinating insight into the backstage of the diplomatic scene. Her thoughtful micro-study of the van Kleffens couple as a prototype of European diplomatic couples of the 20th Century can be highly recommended to readers interested in diplomatic history, gender history, or the history of daily life in European upper classes.

[1] Barbara Keys, The Diplomat’s two minds. Deconstructing a Foreign Policy Myth, in: Diplomatic History 44, no. 1 (January 2020), pp. 1–21.
[2] Comp. Haakon A. Ikonomou, Wilsonian Moments. Thanassis Aghnides between Empire and Nation State, in: Global Biographies: Lived History As Method, ed. by Laura Almagor et al., Manchester 2022, pp. 25–43.

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