THIS IS A MATURE, warm, beautifully-written book and yet ultimately not a little questionable. Its author, distinguished by his diplomatic record as well as by his many earlier publications, has now gone back in time, to ponder upon the long-term origins of the catastrophic European conflict of 1914-1918. Professor Kennan is not keen here to write another general survey of the causes of that war, but prefers instead a more selective approach. Arguing that "one of the major components out of which the fateful situation of 1914 was constructed" was the alliance between France and Russia, he has concentrated upon the circumstances which led to the creation of that pact and which, therefore, replaced the "European order" that Bismarck had supervised for the two decades before his own dismissal in 1890.

At first impression, this might seem both a dry and arcane topic, and a rather indirect approach to Professor Kennan's goal. But that impression is soon lost after the reader's immersion in the text. It is the work of a supreme stylist, able not merely to tell a straight story but also to recreate atmosphere -- of the intrigues and maneuvers of Parisian politics in the 1880s, of the tumultuous nationalism in the Balkan states, of the gloomy and oppressive court of Alexander III, for whose ear rival Russian factions contended. The character portrayals are especially good: Giers, the sober and pro-German foreign minister, is nicely rehabilitated; the politics of the emotional Katkov, his panslavic and pro-French rival, are beautifully delineated; that shadowy and fascinating "double-agent," Elie de Cyon, is brought out of the mists; ambitious grandes dames with their political salons, cosmopolitan bankers delicately feeling their way through the great-power rivalry, monarchs, ambassadors, generals -- all are portrayed with the same assured but sensitive touch. Spiced thus, the diplomatic narrative about the breakdown of the League of the Three Emperors (Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary), the complexities of the Bulgarian question and the gradual development of contacts between Paris and St. Petersburg is easy to imbibe, even for the nonhistorian. Above all, Kennan successfully shows the rising waves of nationalist distemper, the rejection of moderation and caution, in the policies of the Russian court, in the successive governments of France and, last but not least, in Germany itself under its new and impetuous emperor, Wilhelm II. Against all these forces, Bismarck, keen to preserve the status quo, fought a losing battle. His defeat in 1890, it is suggested, pointed European politics along a path which only terminated in 1914.

There is no doubt that this book will receive, and deserves, acclaim in the press. There is also little doubt, to this reader, that reviews in professional historical journals will be more critical and reserved. In part, such criticisms will derive from the narrow specialisms of the age: Diplomatic history, political narrative, character-portrayals -- in short, history as storytelling -- is at a discount, compared with the concentration upon the social and economic movements of the past. Since this is essentially a matter of taste, there is no need for Professor Kennan to have regrets at that line of attack. More serious might be the technical reservations: that if the author had used the French military archives, he would scarcely have made his comments upon the increasing strength and confidence of the French army; that if he had used the Bismarck family papers, he would probably have recast to some degree his story of the Iron Chancellor's policy; that there is curiously little about Britain in this tale of European diplomacy; that there is no discussion of Professor Hillgruber's interesting interpretation of Bismarck's foreign policy (published in 1972), of reference to Dr. Mueller-Link's massive study of Russo-German relations (1977). But these are points about which the general reader will care little.

What the general reader should care about is the portrayal of Bismarck in these pages. Professor Kennan views the chancellor's character, and especially his aims, with a distinct sympathy. Bismarck appears in these pages as a prudent but heavily-burdened Sisyphus, attempting always to prevent the boulder of European order from running down the slopes towards international anarchy; or as the wise Daedalus, warning the impulsive Icarus (Wilhelm II) against flying into the sun. This is Bismarck's as he himself would want to be seen.

There is some truth in this picture, to be sure, and few readers can have much sympathy with the chancellor's opponents -- the French revanchists, the prejudiced Alexander III, the intriguing Waldersee, the rabid Panslavs, the immature Wilhelm II. But there was a lot more to Bismarck and to his "order," or his system, than appears here. There was the man of almost uncontrollable rage, who never forgave, and loved to hate, his enemies; who rescued those forces in German society most opposed to gradual reforms and compromise; who instigated and encouraged press campaigns against internal and external foes; who exploited the fear of foreign "threats" and whipped up nationalist fervor to discredit the domestic opposition; and who did his utmost, often by very unsavory methods, to undermine an alternative European order, the Gladstonian Concert of Europe, which aimed at bringing nations together rather than playing them off against each other. Given this side of Bismarck's character, is it all that surprising that many of his contemporaries were not convinced of the merits of his "European order"?

In sum, this is a moving book, written with a rare grace and telling a fine tale; but its portrayal of the chief character is far too rosy. Ultimately, it begs many questions about whether Bismarck may safely be presented as the antithesis to those forces which were within a generation to take Europe into the cauldron of war.