What started foreign policy

The German Empire

Dr. Bernd Ulrich

Dr. Bernd Ulrich, born in 1956, is a self-employed historian and works as a publicist, (radio) author and curator. An overview of his work can be found at: www.berndulrich.com.

Bismarck's foreign policy focused on maintaining European peace. A massive change of course only took place after his forced abdication on March 18, 1890: Alliances were examined for their suitability for war. And Germany demanded a "place in the sun".

Postcard around 1900: "Germany at sea."

The survivability of the newly founded nation state with the German Empire did not depend solely on the possibilities and limits of a skillful foreign policy. But its importance is evident from the fact that Bismarck always saw it as a lever to stabilize the class state internally. The "alliance between the manor and the furnace" (Bismarck) also had to be cemented through successes in foreign policy. Especially in view of the existing potential for overthrow in the European monarchies - the uprising of the Paris Commune in the Franco-German war made this clear again - Bismarck's foreign policy, like his successors, was therefore not only determined by the "nightmare of coalitions" (cauchemar des coalitions), but also about the "nightmare of the revolution".

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Otto von Bismarck in the "Kissinger Diktat" of June 15, 1877

A French newspaper recently said of me that I had ´le cauchemar des coalitions`; For a German minister, this kind of alp will remain a legitimate one for a long time to come.

Coalitions against us can be formed on a Western-powerful basis with the entry of Austria, more dangerously perhaps on a Russian-Austrian-French basis; a great intimacy between two of the last three powers would at any time offer the third among them the means of putting a very sensitive pressure on us. Concerned about these eventualities, not immediately, but over the years, I would regard the oriental crisis as desirable results for us:
  1. Gravitation (in the sense of: focus / alignment) of Russian and Austrian interests and mutual rivalries to the east,
  2. the reason for Russia to take a strong defensive position in the East and on its coasts and to need our alliance,
  3. for England and Russia a satisfactory status quo, which gives them the same interest in the preservation of the existing that we have,
  4. the detachment of England from France, which remains hostile to us, because of Egypt and the Mediterranean,
  5. Relations between Russia and Austria, which make it difficult for both of them to jointly establish the anti-German conspiracy against us, to which centralistic or clerical elements in Austria might be inclined.
If I were able to work, I could complete and elaborate the picture that I have in mind: not that of any country acquisition, but that of an overall political situation in which all powers except France need us, and of coalitions against us through their relationships with one another, if possible From: Institute for Foreign Policy in Hamburg (ed.), The Foreign Policy of the German Reich 1871-1914, the only abbreviated edition of the official large file publication of the German Reich government authorized by the Foreign Office. Direction: Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Friedrich Thimme, Berlin 1928, Vol. I, S.58 / 59.

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Hegemonic consolidation under Bismarck

For the time being, the most obvious expression was the fear of an anti-German coalition in September 1872, when Tsar Alexander II, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Emperor Wilhelm I met to express their monarchical solidarity for "the maintenance of European peace against all shocks" to insure. The meeting led directly to the so-called three emperor agreement of June and October 1873.

In terms of foreign policy, it primarily served to isolate France. That country that, after the defeat against Prussia-Germany and the subsequent forced cession of Alsace-Lorraine, as well as a reparation payment of 5 billion francs, was looking for revenge. French diplomats began to approach Russia as early as the summer of 1871. Above all, Bismarck was able to put a stop to this development for the time being with the Three Emperor Agreement. In general, the foreign policy isolation of the western neighbor, who is considered a "hereditary enemy", should remain a central cornerstone of foreign policy. However, the crisis year of 1874 already showed that the German-Russian relationship was beginning to cool down again and France continued to seek solidarity with Germany's eastern neighbor.

Against this background, Bismarck tried to resume the strategy of the threat of war, which was so successful in the context of the wars of unification, in order to discipline France on the one hand in its revenge war lusts and on the other hand to isolate it from the European powers. These attempts culminated in the war-in-sight crisis of 1875 - and failed: after a law had been passed in France in March 1875 that resulted in military reinforcements, the government-affiliated newspaper "Die Post "and, probably with Bismarck's approval, an article under the headline" Is War In Sight? " It is true that Bismarck - unlike many leading military officers - had no intention of waging a preventive war against France. But in his eyes the case was ideally suited to test the reactions of England and Russia in particular, and also to demonstrate Austria-Hungary's military resolve.

But the unmistakable reactions of Russia and England, not to tolerate a war similar to the one brought about in 1870, or to make it possible in the first place by failing to intervene, made one thing clear to the Chancellor: the option of war was out of the question in order to influence the European balance of power and to secure the existence of the German Reich. What followed was a "politics of relative self-modesty" (Jost Dülffer), yes, the discovery of a "law of movement (es), namely to create a balance through the controlled use of power-political rivalries and to bring about peace through the restrained cultivation of international tensions". (Klaus Hildebrand) This may be formulated a little too idealistically, but characterizes the basic character of the hegemonic attempts at security in the 1870s and 1880s quite precisely.

The empire is saturated

To test the newly gained knowledge, the open oriental question - which means nothing else than the gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire and the resulting territorial claims of the European powers - and one of the many Balkan crises offered a first opportunity. From the summer of 1875 uprisings against Turkish rule in the Balkans had increased. However, the interests of Russia and Austria-Hungary were also directly affected and - after the Tsar had started a war against Turkey on April 24, 1877 and ended it on March 3, 1878 with a dictated peace - English ambitions had to be taken into account. Since the Crimean War (1853-1856), which had also started as a Russo-Turkish war and in which the religiously instrumentalized will to conquer Russia had met the determined resistance of England and France, every conflict in this region threatened to turn into a European war.

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Otto von Bismarck in a speech to the Reichstag on February 19, 1878 with a view to the Berlin Congress in June and July 1878

I do not think of mediating peace in such a way that we play the arbiter of divergent views and say: This is how it should be, and behind it stands the power of the German Reich, but I think it is more modest, yes - (...) - more that of an honest broker who really wants to get the deal done. (...)

I have many years of experience in these things and have often convinced myself: when there are two of you, the thread falls more often, and out of false shame you don't pick it up again. The moment when one could pick up the thread again passes, and one separates into silence and is out of tune. But if a third person is there, he can easily pick up the thread again, yes, if separated, he brings them together again. This is the role I am thinking of.

From: Otto von Bismarck, Gesammelte Werke (old Friedrichsruher edition), 19 vols., 1924-1933, vol. 11, pp. 526/27.

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At the Berlin Congress (June 13 to July 13, 1878), which was convened as a forum for ending the crisis, Bismarck succeeded in appearing as an "honest broker" and successfully mediating between the powers involved. In doing so, he followed the principles that he had dictated as a memo a year earlier during a cure in Bad Kissingen ("Kissinger Diktat", see documents). He did not have the vision of "some land acquisition" in mind, "but that of an overall political situation in which all powers except France need us, and where possible are prevented from coalitions against us through their relationships with one another." The basis for this was a complex alliance system, which finally culminated in the Triple Alliance Treaty between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (May 20, 1882) and was supplemented by the reinsurance treaty with Russia (June 18, 1887). It contained a mutual neutrality obligation in the event of a defense and in secret additional protocols Russia granted territorial claims in the Mediterranean and the Balkans.

Bismarck's foreign policy ambitions focused on maintaining European peace because war would destroy the empire. "We have", he explained in a speech in the Reichstag on January 11, 1887, "no warlike needs, we belong to - what old Prince Metternich called: saturated states, we have no needs that we could fight for by the sword . " However, that did not mean that the sword should not be kept sharp for the coming war and for defense against internal 'enemies'. While still under Bismarck and supported by him, two military drafts were passed in 1887 and 1890, which together with that of 1893 almost doubled the strength of the army.

The new foreign policy

"The pilot disembarks." Caricature by Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914), first published in the British magazine Punch in March 1890. Kaiser Wilhelm II watches from the deck as Bismarck leaves the ship.
After Bismarck's forced abdication (March 18, 1890), there was a sharp turn in German foreign policy. The young Kaiser Wilhelm II (June 15, 1888), enthroned after the death of his father and grandfather, appointed General of the Infantry Leo von Caprivi (1831-1899) as the new Chancellor on March 23, 1890. A "new course" in foreign policy was to be taken with him, which had to set Bismarck's diplomacy, which was perceived as stagnant, in motion. According to the historian Klaus Hildebrands, the existing alliance system was judged not for its suitability for peace, but for its suitability for war. However, since the new leadership was meanwhile in favor of a two-front war and generally distrusted the Tsarist Empire and interpreted the treaty as incompatible with the principles of the Triple Alliance, the reinsurance treaty that was due to be extended in March 1890 was allowed to expire. The turn against Russia was supposed to be offset by rapprochement with England and by the expansion and stabilization of the Triple Alliance - above all through trade agreements. All of this happened at a time when the global transition to forced imperialism had become unmistakable. After Bismarck initially rather hesitantly supported the establishment of German protected areas, especially in Africa (German South West Africa, German East Africa, Cameroon), the imperialist striving for world power soon came to the fore in Germany too. In politics, it went together with increasing centralization and cartel formation in the prosperous economy. Above all, it was able to significantly increase its industrial production volume within a few years.

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Immediately after Bismarck's resignation as Chancellor, the Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Maximilian Graf von Berchem, reflected in a memo on March 25, 1890 the reasons that had led to the non-renewal of the reinsurance treaty with Russia

The agreement is, if not the letter, at least contrary to the spirit of the Triple Alliance (what is meant is the Triple Alliance). (...)
Such a complicated policy, the success of which has been questionable at any time, cannot be continued after the departure of a statesman who was able to rely on thirty years of success and an almost magnetizing influence abroad in his work. But even Prince Bismarck did not succeed in taking advantage of the treaty; it did not save us from critical situations in relation to Russia, from the concentration of troops in Russia on our frontier and from the tsar's lively resentment. In any case, however, we will not gain so much from the treaty on the Russian side as we will gain from the same disadvantage in other directions. (...)


From: Institute for Foreign Policy in Hamburg (ed.), The Foreign Policy of the German Reich 1871-1914, the only abridged edition of the official large file publication of the German Reich government authorized by the Foreign Office. Direction: Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Friedrich Thimme, Berlin 1928, vol. I, p. 461/62.

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The development of sales markets, but also the safeguarding of raw material sources, and thus the future of the economy and prosperity, depended, according to many decision-makers, on Germany's expansion overseas. The associated disregard for the colonial peoples culminated in the first genocide attempt of the 20th century in 1905/06, when German colonial troops not only defeated the rebellious Nama and Herero peoples militarily, but also abandoned them to starvation in the desert.

Wilhelminism and world politics

"Don't be so restless! You will capsize the boat." - The bad kid. Caricature on Wilhelm II from the English Punch, 05/10/1890. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)
The young emperor, whose supposedly "personal regiment" left the mark of the epoch, was not only an enthusiastic foreign politician, he was also committed from the outset to global politics aimed at expansion and colonial possession. In day-to-day business he was advised and directed by the respective chancellors responsible for foreign policy and the state secretaries for foreign affairs. Bernhard von Bülow (1849 - 1929) achieved unsurpassed mastery in this field, appointed Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in 1897 and Chancellor of the Reich three years later. Especially when it came to the modernization and expansion of the navy, von Bülow and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849 - 1930), who was appointed State Secretary of the Reichsmarineamt in 1897, met with sympathetic ears from the emperor, who was enthusiastic about the navy. Since the mid-1890s at the latest, its foreign policy imagination has been dominated by the construction of new warships and an offensive sea strategy. He was also reacting to public opinion and its growing importance; The uninhibited enthusiasm for the new naval policy, which was intended to secure the status of world power against England as well as establish a colonial empire, broke out particularly in the educated and economic bourgeois strata of the empire, the actual bearers of an excessive nationalism. In terms of foreign policy, the naval policy approved by the Kaiser, represented by Bülow and carried out by Tirpitz - which was associated with a hitherto unknown mobilization of public opinion - led to massive German-British rivalry.

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Alfred von Tirpitz, who was appointed State Secretary in the Reichsmarineamt a year later, explains the motives for armament to the former head of the Admiralty, Albrecht von Stosch, on 13.23.1896

(…) Our policy has so far completely lacked the concept of the political meaning of sea power.

But if we want to go out into the world and gain economic strength through the sea, then we will erect a completely hollow building if we do not at the same time acquire a certain degree of naval strength. As we go out, we encounter interests present or future everywhere. This means that there are conflicts of interest.Now, after the prestige of 1870 has faded, how can the most skilful politics achieve anything without real power corresponding to the diversity of interests? In terms of world politics, however, only sea power is versatile. That is why, without the need for war, we will always draw the short straw politically. It must be taken into account that England has lost the belief that we are sending our army into the fire against Russia in her favor. Conversely, England can make very substantial concessions to Russia in East Asia if Germany pays the bill. In the latter circumstance there is a risk if we z. Are currently involved in a conflict affecting Russia, France and England. Even if we wanted to say that we are not waging a war because of transatlantic interests, we do not say the same to other three states and so we continue to work at a political disadvantage. (...)

From: Ritter, Das Deutsche Kaiserreich, pp. 301f.

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The writer Theodor Fontane wrote about the emperor in a letter to his friend, District Court Judge Georg Friedländer, on April 5, 1897

In a certain sense he frees us from the dreary forms and phenomena of old Prussia, he breaks with the gruffness, the popularism, the petty bourgeois six-and-three economy of the 1813 epoch (that of the 'liberation wars'), he lets himself be looked at, both large and small, make new pants instead of patching up the old ones.

He is quite insignificant, brisk, and has a full understanding of the fact that a German Kaiser is something different from a Margrave of Brandenburg. He has a million soldiers and wants a hundred ironclad ships; he dreams (and I will give him credit for this dream) of a humiliation of England. Germany should be on top, in everyone and everything. All of this - whether it is wise and feasible, I'll leave it open - touches me sympathetically and I wanted to willingly follow him on his rope route if I saw that he had the right chalk under his feet and the right balancing poles in his hands. But he didn't. He wants, if not the impossible, at least the most dangerous, with the wrong equipment, with insufficient resources. (...)

Prussia - and indirectly all of Germany - suffers from our East Elbe. Our nobility must be passed over; one can visit him like the Egyptian museum and bow to Ramses and Amenophis, but rule the country for his love, in the delusion: this nobility is the country - that is our misfortune and as long as this condition persists, there is a further development Outwardly unthinkable of German power and German reputation.

From: Theodor Fontane, letters, edited by Walter Keitel and Helmuth Nürnberger, 4 vol., Vol. 4 (1890-1898), 642/43.

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Meanwhile, Germany found itself exposed to constant confrontation in the field of colonial expansion. The search for a "place in the sun" began to intensify at a time when the overseas world was already divided among the established colonial powers. In North Africa, German ambitions clashed with established French interests, while the empire's oriental policy gave rise to British fears. The diplomatic conflicts that were triggered by this weighed more heavily than the supposedly strengthened world power status, especially since the "free hand policy" pursued in Berlin to the outside world - which in research early on as a kind of unrestrained staggering, as "jumping unrest" between the great powers Russia and England was characterized (Hermann Oncken) - the political alliance position of the empire clearly weakened. Only the ailing dual monarchy Austria-Hungary remained as a reliable ally.

Nevertheless, there was another chance to come to an understanding with England in 1898. The British Colonial Minister Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) submitted the "wish" for a treaty with the Triple Alliance to the German Ambassador in London, Paul Graf von Hatzfeld (1831-1901). Convinced that England was threatening to overdo itself in world politics and therefore had to look for allies, the offer was meant seriously. But it was not even seriously examined by the German government. In Wilhelmstrasse they were firmly convinced that they would be able to maintain the freedom of action guaranteed by the allegedly irreconcilable antagonism between England and Russia and by the colonial conflicts between England and France.

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From the first Reichstag speech by the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Bernhard von Bülow, in the Reichstag on December 6, 1897

The times when the German left the earth to one of his neighbors, reserved the sea for the other and the sky for himself, when pure doctrine reigns supreme - these times are over.

We consider it one of our most important tasks to promote and look after the interests of our shipping, our trade and our industry, especially in East Asia. (...) We must demand that the German missionary and the German entrepreneur, the German wares, the German flag and the German ship are just as respected in China as those of other powers. We are finally ready to take the interests of other great powers into account in East Asia, with the sure foresight that our own interests will also be given due consideration. In a word: we don't want to overshadow anyone, but we also demand our place in the sun.

From: Prince Bülow's speeches along with documentary contributions to his politics. Edited by Johannes Penzler, Vol. 1, Berlin 1907, p. 71.

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But contrary to expectations, England and France settled their colonial conflicts on April 8, 1904 and united to form the Entente cordiale. Even after the two Morocco crises in 1905/06 and 1911 provoked by Germany, it could no longer be broken. Finally, Russia and England also came to an understanding: on August 31, 1907, the two powers agreed on their areas of interest in Asia and the Middle East. It quickly became clear that the entente cordiale had developed into a triple entente. Until Bethmann Hollweg took office, Germany's foreign policy reaction to these alliance developments, understood as "encirclement", consisted primarily of seeking an even closer alliance "in loyal standing" (Bernhard von Bülow) with Austria-Hungary. His position in the Balkans should be secured at all costs.

At the end of Bülow's term in office, the one-way street of self-inflicted foreign policy isolation had made great strides. The horror picture of a war on two fronts, which was still burdening Bismarck like an alp, could become a reality. And beyond the "hereditary enemy" France and the tsarist empire, which had congealed into an absolute enemy image, Great Britain, provoked by the construction of the German battle fleet, was now one of the possible opponents in a great European war. The new Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg (1856 - 1921) managed to localize the Balkan Wars of 1912/13 in joint crisis management with England. But the idea of ​​breaking the "encirclement" by fleeing forward into an alleged preventive war won more and more supporters in Germany

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After the offer of peace and alliance by the British Colonial Minister Joseph Chamberlain to Germany in January 1901, the lecturing council in the Foreign Office noted Friedrich von Holstein, who - since the journalist Maximilian Harden called him that - epitome of the "gray eminence"

I am particularly suspicious of the current storm of friendship between Chamberlain and comrades because the threatened understanding with Russia and France is such a complete fraud. (...)

We can wait, time is running out for us. A sensible agreement with England, i.e. one in which the almost certain danger of war to which we are thereby exposing is properly taken into account, can, in my opinion, only be achieved when the feeling of the predicament in England has become more general than it is today.

From: Johannes Hohlfeld (ed.), Documents of German Politics and History from 1848 to the Present. 2 vol., Vol. II, p.122

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Selected literature:

Konrad Canis, Bismarck's Foreign Policy 1870-1890. Rise and Endangerment, Paderborn 2003

Ders., Von Bismarck on world politics. German Foreign Policy 1890-1902, Berlin 1997

Ders., The way into the abyss. German foreign policy 1902-1914, Paderborn 2011

Christopher Clark, Wilhelm II. - The rule of the last German emperor, Munich 2008 (2000)

Jost Dülffer, Hans Huebner (eds.), Otto von Bismarck. Person - Politics - Myth, Berlin 1993

Ders., Karl Holl (ed.), Ready for War. War mentality in Wilhelmine Germany 1890-1914, Göttingen 1986

Klaus Hildebrandt, German Foreign Policy 1871-1918, Munich 1994 (1989)

Ders., The Past Kingdom. German Foreign Policy from Bismarck to Hitler 1871-1945, Stuttgart 1995

Andreas Hillgruber, Bismarck's Foreign Policy, Freiburg 1972

Rainer Lahme, German Foreign Policy 1890 - 1894. From Bismarck's Equilibrium Policy to Caprivi's Alliance Strategy, Göttingen 1990

Wolfgang J. Mommsen, The Age of Imperialism, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg 1987 (1969)

Ders .: Great power position and world politics 1870-1914. The foreign policy of the German Reich, Berlin 1993

Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Bismarck and Imperialism, Cologne 1973 (1969)

Gilbert Ziebura (ed.), Basic Issues in German Foreign Policy since 1871, Darmstadt 1975 (Paths of Research, Vol. CCCXV)