To what extent did Bismarck’s successors change his policy in the decade 1890-1900? The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 acted as a watershed in European history with the formation of the German Empire. No power alone, (perhaps with the exception of Russia) could defeat the new German Empire, and all the European powers with the exception of France were willing to allow Bismarck to consolidate German gains provided there was no further expansion. Bismarck having successfully won the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and having united Germany, sought to ‘ preserve the settlement of 1871’ by maintaining the status of the German empire as a great power amongst the European nations and avoiding conflict. Between 1871- 1890 Bismarck presided as the chancellor and introduced a variety of foreign and domestic policies in the hope of keeping Germany a great power. At home, he concentrated on building a powerful German state and encouraged nationalism and the ideal of a German national identity.
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In foreign affairs his goal was to make Prussia the dominant power in the German Empire, and to establish the empire as a great power in Europe. Through various alliance systems he managed to accomplish this aim. His resignation in 1890 marked the end of the Bismarckian system and ushered in the Wilehenmne era. This essay will set out to explore the extent to which Bismarck’s successors, William II, Leo von Caprivi, Hohenlohe and Bulow, changed his policy in the decade 1890-1900. With the resignation of Bismarck in 1990 Emperor William II appointed Leo Von Caprivi as the chancellor. Unlike Bismarck who held conservative values and believed that for Germany to became a great power it should maintain the status quo, Caprivi was liberal in his outlook and advocated a more active foreign policy. Bismarck appreciated Germany’s precariousness position amongst the Great Powers and therefore made it his priority to protect Germany’s expanding power.
The constant threat of French revival to reclaim Alasce-Lorraine, and conflict in the Balkans which could lead to conflict between the Habsburg monarchy and Russia which would undoubtedly involve Germany led Bismarck to actively pursue a systematic set of alliances and agreements which helped to maintain European peace. Therefore between 1872 up till his resignation Bismark through the negotiation of a variety of treaties adopted a pacific policy of diplomatically isolating France, whilst maintaining cordial relations with other nations in Europe, in particular Russia and Austria. In 1873 the League of 3 Emperors was formed (Germany, Russia, Austria, extended in 1881) and in 1882 the Triple alliance (Germany, Italy, Austria was concluded). Bismarck’s network of treaties and alliances although contradictory in many details, prevented France from forming an alliance directed against Germany and maintained the status quo. Of the five major powers in Europe three were now allied with Germany and so the risk of “ encirclement” was reduced. Bismarck’s successors rapidly abandoned his cautious and peaceful foreign policy by embarking on a more liberal policy. This was most notable by Capravis refusal to renew the reinsurance treaty in 1991.
Whilst the new government proclaimed that they intended to continue thefriendshipwith Russia, Capravi with the backing of the new emperor William II was convinced that the Reinsurance Treaty was incompatible with the terms of the Triple Alliance and that moreover, it presented Germany with too few advantages. Additionally the government proclaimed that in the atmosphere of anti-Russian sentiments in Germany, it was unwise to sign a treaty which would have far-reaching commitments. The affect of not renewing the treaty was that Russia greatly believed that the new government had embarked on a new foreign policy aimed against Russia. Consequently this lead Russia to turn to France as an ally and thus a dual alliance between France and Russia was signed in 1894. By allowing the treaty to lapse Bismarck’s successors greatly weakened Germany’s position amongst the powers as well as in the Balkans, This was because the dual alliance not only ended the isolation of France but also created the nightmare situation of facing the possibility of a two-front war which Bismarck had feared. Consequently Germany was tied firmly to Austria-Hungary as the only ally. In this sense by refusing to renew the treaty Capravi changed Bismarck’s policy from “ keeping a free hand” and avoiding conflict by actively creating two rival alliance blocks.
Austria-Hungarian and Russian antagonisms in the Balkans not only threatened the immediate powers but also threatened Germany. Whilst the situation in the Balkans was of no interest to Bismarck he knew that conflict in the Balkans could have repercussions for Germany. Through the system of alliance therefore Bismarck had restrained Austrian aggression against Russia. However under Bulow, Bismarck’s policy with regards to the intervention in the Balkans was dropped. Germany out of fear that the weakening of her only ally would in turn weaken her own position actively encouraged Austrian antagonisms towards Russia. In doing so Bismarck’s successors reversed his policy of non-intervention in the Balkans. Bismarck was a staunch advocate of ‘ Realpolitik’ and believed that Germany needed to maintain peace in order to remain a great power.
He strongly believed that by expanding too greatly and too fast it would interrupt the balance of power in Europe by creating rival alliances. Therefore through his foreign policy in particular thorough alliances and agreements he aimed to pave the way for Germany to become a great European power. Speaking in the Reichstag in 1887 this was made clear. “ Any government which goes beyond its sphere of interest and tries to exert pressure or influence on the policy of other countries, seeking to take charge of things is operating outside the sphere allotted to it by God. It is pursing Machtpolitik, not a policy based on national interest; it is seeking only prestige. [i] We will not do that. It is clear therefore that German interest under Bismarck solely lay in Europe.
Bismarck’s resignation in 1890 not only brought new faces into politics but also new ideologies, hopes and ambitions. William II was not satisfied with just having influence in Europe but desired to be a dominant world power. Therefore under the influence of Bulow as Foreign Minister in 1897, German foreign policy assumed a different tone. There was a break away with Bismarck’s conservative foreign policy as his successors embarked on a policy of Weltpolitik with the aim of increasing Germanys influence in the world. The decision to leave Bismarck’s conservative policies however cannot be solely attributed to the Kaiser and his ministers ambitious nature but it was also largely due to internal pressure. A more popular concern and interest in foreign affairs amongst the public meant that a combination of political, economical as well as physiological factors pushed the Reich to embark on this new course. Most notable were the ideals of nationalism, national prestige as well as the belief in Social-Darwinism.
Bismarck’s conservative outlook on foreign policy meant that he opposed the ideas of seeking colonies as he did not want to disturb the balance of power in Europe. Additionally he felt that German colonial ambitions could build a rift with Britain who by far had the largest imperialist claims amongst the Great powers. Therefore although Germany under Bismarck joined in the European scramble for Africa, Bismarck firmly made sure that German acquisitions did not strain her relations with other European powers states, and in particular that it did not coincide with British interest. Additionally colonial ambitions for Bismarck were only to encourage German traders and not to act as a military base. Had colonialism not fitted in with Bismarck’s foreign policy he would have certainly have not encouraged it. Bismarck made it clear that imperialist claims were not much concern when he proclaimed “ my map of Africa lies in Europe. Here is Russia and here is France with Germany in the middle; that is my map of Africa.
”[ii] Bismarck’s successors rejected the idea that Germany was a satiated state and aimed to make her a world power and thus pushed the Reich to break with Bismarck’s policy of Realpolitik. William II believed that by acquiring colonies Germany could deservedly have its ‘ place in the sun. ’ These new interests in colonial ambitions were a change form Bismarck’s believe in maintaining hegemony with the other powers, as the colonial ambitions increasingly led Germany to conflict with the other great powers and greatly diminished German support, In particular with regards to Great Britain. Although Bismarck had made no formal alliance with Britain he had remained on friendly terms with her and saw “ Britain as Germany’s old and traditional ally. However German interference in British sphere of interests led to conflict with Britain who felt that there position was being undermined. The most notable incident being the Kruger telegram. This incident not only led to Anglo- German antagonism but went against Bismarck’s policy of remaining on good terms with the British.
This incident as well as Germanys’ aggressive colonial ambition was partly the reason which led Britain to conclude the triple entente with Russia and France in 1907. As well as colonial ambitions weltpolik was characterized by an expansion in Germany’s naval power. Appointing Admiral Von Tirpitz as the naval officer in 1907 William II intended to make Germany’s naval superior amongst the great powers and rival to that of Britain. However the affect of the naval program was to increase hostility between Britain and Germany. By implementing the plan Germany directly threatened British hegemony over the seas. Additionally because Germany already had the most powerful army amongst the great powers an increase in naval power was seen as intimidating and a direct provocation for war. Although Bismarck had been concerned with ncreasing the efficiency of the German army, Von Tirpitz’s decision to increase Germany’s naval force escalated a Naval and armaments race and created two rival blocs amongst the great powers, which had been Bismarck’s worst nightmare.
Thus whilst it could be argued that Tirpitz was following Bismarck’s policy in increasing Germany’s defensive power, the move was more hostile and clearly demonstrated an ideological move to gain more power. There can be no doubt that Bismarck’s successors radically changed his foreign policy in the decade 1890-1900. Whereas Bismarck was aware of the precautions nature of Germany’s semi-hegemonial position in Europe[iii] and through his policies aimed to establish German hegemony over Europe, his successors turned a blind eye to this. Through the desire for Germany to play a larger role not only in European but also international affairs they harbored an idealistic believe of gaining the status of a world power. Therefore the decade saw a move from Bismarck’s conservative policies to more liberal policies all in the name of ‘ Weltpolitik’. This new bellicosity not only alarmed the rest of Europe but succeeded in creating Bismarck’s nightmare of a German encirclement. Bibliography- Bridge, F.
R and Bullen, R, The great powers and the European states system 1815- 1914 (London 1980) Carr, William, A History of Germany 1815-1990 (Great Britain, 1969) Holborn, Hajo, A history of modern Germany 1840- 1945 (Great Britain, 1969) Mann, Golo, The history of modern Germany since 1789 (London, 1984) Medlicott, W. N, Bismarck and modern Germany (London 1965) Rich, Norman, Great Power Diplomacy 1814-1914 (New York, 1992. Taylor, A. J. P, Bismarck the man and the statesman (London, 1955) Taylor, A. J. P, The course of German history a survey of the development of Germany since 1815 (London, 1945) Taylor, A.
J. P, The struggle for mastery in Europe 1848- 1918 (London, 1971) Wilson, K. M, Problems and Possibilities: Exercises in statesmanship 1814-1918 (Brimscombe Port, 2003) Footnotes ———————– [i] William Carr, A History of Germany 1815-1990 (Great Britain, 1969) p. 162 [ii] Hajo, Holborn A history of modern Germany 1840- 1945 (Great Britain, 1969) [iii] Carr, A history of Germany p. 162