German Foreign Policy 1890-1914

Bismarck was a very autocratic statesman and dealt with matters personally. He was the force behind German foreign policy during his reign, and Germany went where his finger pointed. Bismarck was a very successful statesman, opportunist or not, and managed to isolate France from the other great powers and keep relations with Russia friendly. However, when he was dismissed, the Bismarck system retired with him. A new and a very controversial era of German foreign policy ensued, running from Bismarck’s dismissal until the beginning of the First World War. It has been argued that it was the provocative, clumsy and seemingly aimless German foreign policy from 1890 to 1914 that lead to the First World War.

Bismarck was succeeded as Chancellor in 1890 by Caprivi, who, for the next four years, attempted to untangle the complex system of alliances and commitments Bismarck had created during his long stay in office. The most important decision, in accordance with this policy, was the rejection of Russia’s proposal to renew the Reinsurance Treaty between Germany and Russia. Caprivi saw the alliance with Russia as being inconsistent with Germany’s commitment to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Dual Alliance. Caprivi also assumed that it would distance Britain from Germany, the former whom Caprivi hoped to join the Triple Alliance. However, the diplomatic move backfired in a most severe manner for Germany. Britain wished for good relations with Germany, but did not want its hands tied by continental commitments, or, as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury put it:  Britain wished to avoid the “encumbering engagements of an alliance”. Relations with Britain did improve, thanks to the gestures by Germany, such as the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890, which neutralized colonial tensions in East Africa and provided Germany with a naval base in the North Sea. Russia, however, overcoming mutual distrust (aided by the fear of an Anglo-German alliance), allied itself with France in 1892, putting an end to decades of French isolation, which was one of the aims and greatest achievements of the Bismarck system. Germany made minimal (if not non-existent in retrospective) gains, while an embittered France gained a powerful ally on Germany’s eastern flank, something which Bismarck had sought to avoid for his entire time as chancellor. The ‘new course’ of Caprivi failed to achieve any of its goals.

Having failed to reach an alliance with Britain, Germany became more hostile, if such a term can be used, in her foreign policy in an attempt to pressure Britain into accepting German offers of alliance. After the British-sponsored coup attempt against the Boers in Transvaal, the so-called Jameson raid, failed in 1895, Germany issued the infamous Krüger telegram in January of 1896. In short, the telegram from the Kaiser to the President of the Transvaal, Krüger, congratulated the Boers in successfully countering the threat and supported their independence. Thousands of Germans were active in the commercial life of the area, and the concern expressed by the Kaiser seems quite reasonable, but it worsened Anglo-German relations severely, as the British interpreted the telegram as serious meddling with their imperial interests in the region. The friendly relations Caprivi had managed to create between the two powers earlier in the 1890’s had now become very tense.

Bismarck had, during his reign, practiced a very restrained continental policy and not heeded calls to acquire colonies for the German Empire. In 1896, the Kaiser proclaimed that “nothing must henceforth be settled in the world without the intervention of Germany and the German Emperor”. This signalled the beginning of the German Weltpolitik, or ‘world politics’. Bülow was appointed foreign minister and he was committed to achieve colonial conquests for Germany, but the results were rather meager, consisting of Samoa, the Mariana and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Most historians, with the notable exception of Fischer, would agree that the expansionist phase of German policy overseas, Weltpolitik, was aimless by nature, and it would seem that the sole reason to acquire colonies was the fact that Germany had to have colonies in order to qualify for a great power. Again, the costs of this policy greatly outweighed the benefits, as Germany was, on more than one occasion, seen as meddling in the interests of other colonial powers, further creating tension between Germany and the traditional colonial empires, such as Britain and France. The other important appointment Kaiser Wilhelm II made was that of Admiral Tirpitz, who was to head the navy office. This paved the way for the naval race. Germany began a massive naval build-up in the turn of the century, and, thus, at least seemingly, challenged British naval supremacy. Again, this was viewed as a provocation by the British, for whom naval supremacy was essential due to the enormous British Empire spread out in all corners of the world. The Boer further caused the relations between the two powers to deteriorate, with Anglophobia peaking in Germany in 1902 during the Boer War.

Due to mounting tensions in 1904 between Russia (France’s ally) and Japan (Britain’s ally), the British and French reached an agreement and managed to settle their colonial rivalries. This was a major blow to Germany, who had been trying to exploit these rivalries. In 1905, Germany provoked a crisis (which is known as the first Moroccan crisis) by openly supporting ‘Moroccan independence’, with the aim to weaken Franco-British relations, which, in their current threat, were clearly perceived as threatening. However, as the plan once again backfired against the Germans, the British, unexpectedly (to the Germans), decided to back France on the issue, thus, further strengthening the relations between the two friendly powers. Plans against German aggression were, for the first time, being drafted by the British as a result of this crisis. After the British and Russians managed to settle their colonial disputes in 1907, Europe had, in practice, been divided between what would be the warring sides seven years later. Germany’s position was weaker than ever. In the Bosnian crisis of 1908, Germany gave Austria her full support, but the sides backed down on this occasion. Germany felt compelled by her commitment to Austria, who was her only trustworthy ally, but that absolute support for Austria only worsened Russo-German relationships. The Germans had very few options, none of them good, by this stage. During the second Moroccan crisis in 1911, Germany could have scored a major diplomatic victory, but made a mess of it by demanding too much territory from France. Again, the gains were minimal compared to the diplomatic damage Germany suffered. By 1914, the situation had, in essence, spiralled out of control. Germany honoured her alliance with Austria as she had done every time before. Germany felt that her only choice of winning a war was to strike first, to strike hard and fast.

German policy can easily be seen to be provocative and clumsy from the point of view of the other powers, firstly, because it often was just that, and, secondly, because there simply was very little room for another great European power. It shook the status quo of Europe to the core to have a very powerful Empire rise in its midst. German aims can easily be understood when put into that context. However, the Kaiser and his ministers made severe miscalculations on several occasions, and were certainly clumsy in their diplomatic manoeuvres. For example, during the second Moroccan crisis, when they had already managed to pressure the French into compliance, they took it a step too far with too hefty demands. Also, the inconsistency of German policy, the fluctuating nature of it, can partially explain why it was so often misinterpreted by the other European powers. German police makers, the Kaiser in particular, seemed to suffer from a sort of impatience, which put the other powers on their toes. German policymakers never wished for a European conflict that can be seen, but it cannot be denied that their clumsy attempts at diplomacy and miscalculations on their part is to blame, to a great extent, for the division in Europe in the first decade of the 1900’s. The consistency which Bismarck had managed to stick to, a clear system, perhaps, more readable to his counter-parts, had vanished. An impatient military superpower in the heart of Europe struck fear and suspicion into many and often led to Germany’s actions being treated with a cynical eye.