Bismarck's foreign policy 1871-90

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Bismarck's foreign policy 1871-90:

a 'juggler on horseback'?.David Bell and Ian Cawood. Modern History Review 11.3 (Feb 2000): p30(4). (2816 words) 

What were Bismarck's reasons for switching from expansion ('nationalist poacher') to consolidation ('imperialist gamekeeper') after 1871? 

Although there has recently been much debate on the nature of Bismarck's Germany, there is remarkably little discussion of his foreign policy, especially after 1871. Hans-Ulrich Wehler only allotted 10% of his book The German Empire to foreign policy, and his 'primacy of domestic policy' seems to have become the orthodox interpretation. 

It must be acknowledged that Bismarck did use foreign affairs for domestic political advantage, especially in his struggles with the Reichstag. 

But one should not overlook the point we stressed in our article on Bismarck's domestic politics ('From Poacher to Gamekeeper', MODERN HISTORY REVIEW, Vol. 10, No. 4), that he was an arch-pragmatist, concerned primarily with the practical problem of creating and then consolidating the united Kleindeutschland. The unification of Germany was the product of power-politics and the Army rather than of idealistic nationalism and the liberal middle classes. Bismarck's subsequent conduct of foreign policy continued this opportunistic and hard-headed approach. 

Bismarck's priorities after 1871 

The year 1871 marked a significant change of direction for Bismarck. Bismarck 'the Disturber of the Peace' became Bismarck 'the Sober, Moderate and Conservative Statesman'. Why? In his own words, 'Germany is a satiated power'. Hereafter he was primarily concerned with consolidating the newly unified Germany. 'When we have arrived in a good harbour we should be content, and cultivate and hold what we have won.' In practice this meant that whereas before 1870 Prussian foreign policy had been essentially aggressive and warlike, now the Iron Chancellor sought a period of peace -- but peace on his terms. 

Setting it in context, it becomes easier to appreciate the meaning of this abrupt change. Bismarck's goal in the 1860s had been to establish the Prussian monarchy's control over northern Germany; in 1866 he had shown a marked disinterest in expanding the borders of Germany to include Austria. He had often expressed doubts as to whether the other European powers would stand for the emergence of a new power in central Europe, and thus his abandonment of conquest as a policy once Germany was brought under Prussian control is unsurprising. Indeed, despite achieving unification in 1871 he was strongly aware of the fragile nature of this new union, and his main priority was to strengthen the internal bonds holding the new Germany together. 

This would not be easy, however. Germany had advanced into a position of 'latent hegemony' over Europe. Bruce Waller has pointed out that 'Germany's population was slightly larger than France's and her army was very much better, but she was less united than France, and her economy was more precarious'. In reality, Germany stood on the threshold of an era of massive economic growth. Germany's recent victories over France and Austria had removed its two most serious rivals for the leadership of central Europe. The trouble was that it was Germany's very military and economic power that made it vulnerable. It had become a threat to the balance of power, and historically any great power on the verge of European hegemony found itself the target of a broad European coalition and subsequently the loser of a ruinous war. As Disraeli observed in 1871, 'There is not a diplomatic tradition that has not been swept away.... The balance of power has been entirely destroyed.' 

Bismarck was acutely conscious of this, stating in 1877 his fear that any European conflict might draw Germany in and provide the country's rivals with an opportunity to reverse its recent gains. This explains why 'the nationalist poacher had to become imperial gamekeeper'. Bismarck had to convince his contemporaries in Europe of his peaceful intentions -- especially Britain and Russia, which were Germany's greatest rivals after France's defeat. He found them understandably suspicious of the sincerity of his conversion. Nowhere was this more true than with France. 

Relations with France 

'We are literally immobilised by France', bemoaned Holstein in 1886. French revanchism (literally, a desire for revenge) after 1871 focused particularly upon the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, with their substantial industrial assets. Bismarck always rejected the view that he had made French resentment worse by insisting on the annexation of these territories, remarking that 'This bitterness would be just as great even if they had come out of the war without loss of territory'. 

Whether or not this was the case, revanchism was so strong that there was virtually no prospect of patching up relations there. French opposition became, in Geiss's words, 'a negative constant' in Bismarck's foreign policy calculations. While Bismarck was confident that the German Army could defeat France (or any other continental power) alone, he feared that if France could acquire allies -- especially either Austria-Hungary or Russia -- Germany would be faced with an unwinnable two-front war. Thus Bismarck, unable to adopt the other extreme (destroying France altogether), exerted every effort to isolate France diplomatically and outface it militarily. He wanted to persuade France to 'turn your eyes away from Alsace-Lorraine, and seek satisfaction elsewhere' (Bismarck to the French Ambassador, 1878). 

Initially, Bismarck continued to rely upon the aggressive tactics of the 1860s. By precipitating the 'War in Sight' crisis of 1875 he attempted to deter French rearmament, but he was forced to back down after a diplomatic slap on the wrist from his 'ally' Russia, which he never forgave. The crisis did teach him important lessons about the need to reassess his tactics in the new era of diplomacy, however, and about the dubious reliability of the Dreikaiserbund ('League of the Three Emperors') between Austria, Russia and Germany. 

Bismarck concluded that he would achieve more positive results by 'diverting competing interests to the periphery'. For example, by encouraging French colonial designs he might confine any conflicts that may arise to arenas where Germany had no interests. He would thereby lead France further into isolation by pitting it against Britain in the colonial sphere. In the short term this seemed to work rather well: French rivalry with Britain (in Egypt) and Italy (in Tunis) led to French estrangement from these two powers and their drift into Germany's orbit in the early 1880s. In the long run, however, it was no basis for German security. The war scare of 1887, caused by the rise of the revanchist Boulanger, showed this. 

Relations with Russia and Austria-Hungary 

Bismarck remarked in 1863 that 'the secret of politics is ... a good treaty with Russia'. Most Germans, for different reasons, could agree that Russia was their enemy -- except Bismarck. He regarded Russia as the pivot of his European 'system', viewing any war with Russia as a war to the death, not least because it would give France an opportunity to reopen its struggle with Germany over Alsace-Lorraine. Fundamental Russian interests ran counter to those of Austria-Hungary and Germany, however. The Balkans, growing agrarian rivalry between German and Russian farmers, and -- later -- Russia's capital needs for industrialisation, which Germany could or would not sufficiently meet, all suggested an eventual break between the two powers. 

At the heart of Bismarck's difficulties with Russia lay the Balkans. The terminal decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire provided a cockpit of Austro-Russian rivalry in the region. 'Pan-Slavism' and Russia's strategic interests in south-eastern Europe conflicted with the Austro-Hungarian policy of 'Drang nach Osten'. This was itself a response to the unification of Germany and Italy, which had forced Austria out of central Europe. 

Bismarck feared that a war over this issue between the two great eastern powers might allow France to escape from its diplomatic isolation, because 'German foreign policy will always be obliged to join a war if the independence of Austria-Hungary were threatened by a Russian attack'. Consequently he sought to tie Austria, Russia and Germany into a 'firm closing of the ranks of the monarchical-conservative elements of Europe'. This entailed a remarkable but surely ultimately doomed balancing act, begun with the Dreikaiserbund in the 1870s and pursued through increasingly desperate measures in the 1880s. 

After the Congress of Berlin and Russia's (temporary) estrangement from Germany, Bismarck looked for a way to 'force Russia to ... come to an agreement with Germany on his own terms'. His 'Dual Alliance' with Austria was partially designed with this in mind, but also ensured that, should Russia not come around, he could rely on healthy relations with Austria. 

Bismarck played a game of brinkmanship with the Russians throughout the 1870s and '80s. He threatened them with measures like the Dual Alliance and the tariffs of 1879, yet simultaneously reeled them in via the Reinsurance Treaty and his personally good relations with Shuvalov. This often appears unsustainable in the long term, but the fact that it had not run its course by 1890 is evident from the Russians' interest in renewing the Reinsurance Treaty in this year. 

Relations with Britain 

Bismarck perhaps stands most guilty of neglecting relations with Great Britain. From the outset, Britain had been wary of Germany's potential to disrupt the balance of power. Although Bismarck managed periodically to work alongside his British counterparts, co-operating for example in the drawing up of the Mediterranean Agreements in 1887, his colonial policy threatened Britain more than any other power. The tariffs policy that was so damaging to Russo-German relations hurt Britain too, and can be seen as presaging the Anglo-German rivalry that contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914. 

Wehler suggests that Bismarck deliberately sought to keep alive 'German annoyance with England' because he did not wish to encourage further liberalisation of German politics along British lines. He was afraid of the liberal parliamentary leanings of Crown Prince Frederick and his domineering wife, the English Princess Victoria. It is more likely that Bismarck relied on British colonial rivalries with France and Russia to neutralise them. The failure to build a stronger relationship with Britain, although understandable at the time given the British government's preference for 'splendid isolation', was to cause trouble for Bismarck's successors, especially once the German Navy began to expand. 

1878-79: the 'change of direction' 

Historians searching for connections between domestic and foreign politics have made much of Bismarck's supposed 'change of direction' in 1878-79. They suggest that his abandonment of the Kulturkampf and his introduction of tariffs mirror the loosening of ties with Russia (whose agricultural exporters were hit hard by German tariffs) and the negotiation of the Dual Alliance with (Catholic) Austria. Certainly, around 1879 Bismarck changed his entire approach to foreign affairs. The creation of alliances, first with Austria and then with Italy, Russia and Romania, resulted in a network of agreements. Some of these were barely reconcilable, focusing on Germany and pointedly excluding France. This policy was a radical departure from the 'free-hand' approach followed before the Congress of Berlin. 

Attempting to explain this 'diplomatic revolution', Geiss argues that domestic factors were central, citing Bismarck's memorandum to the Emperor in August 1879: 'With Austria we have more in common than with Russia. German kinship, historical memories, the German language ... all that makes an alliance with Austria more popular, perhaps also more enduring in Germany than an alliance with Russia.' 

Once again, however, we must be cautious about Bismarck's words. By the end of 1879 the Russian Ambassador had sounded out Bismarck regarding the renewal of the Dreikaiserbund -- early conversations which bore fruit in 1881. Indeed, Bismarck later remarked, 'I knew that the Russians would come to us once we had nailed down the Austrians'. The Austrian alliance seems to fit better with Bismarck's well-attested fear of isolation within Europe and his desire to 'dig a ditch between Austria and the Western powers'. This policy seems to have more to do with Bismarck's oft-stated objective that in any alliances of the five European powers he wanted Germany to be in a majority of at least three to two. 

Assessment: 'master juggler'? 

At the heart of Bismarck's approach to foreign policy lies the idea of a 'balance of tensions'. By this he sought to surround Germany with allies and friends, while setting the other powers at each others' throats. He thereby enabled himself to pose as a neutral and even-handed 'honest broker', as at Berlin in 1878. As he famously remarked, he sought 'an overall political situation in which all powers except France have need of us and are as far as possible kept from forming coalitions against us by their relations with one another'. 

To this end Bismarck was very flexible, deploying formal alliances and military commitments, threat and bluster, rumour, bilateral and multilateral diplomacy and the fomenting of divisions among the other powers. Whatever compromises and concessions were needed, whatever force was necessary to achieve his goal -- everything was justifiable in his eyes. His perpetual objective was to preserve the peace. 

In 1883 Bismarck wrote to the German Ambassador in Vienna, 'Any war that breaks out must place the survival of the European order in jeopardy'. He restated the fact many times. 'The task of our policy is, if possible, to prevent war entirely and, if that is not possible, at least to postpone it. I would not have a hand in any other policy.' He repeatedly stressed to his colleagues in the German government that in the event of a defeat in some future war Germany would, in his view, face dismemberment by its enemies. 

The year 1871 remains the turning-point of Bismarck's foreign policy, although 1875 was clearly significant too. He would later claim that he had achieved his goal by 1871, but he still continued the diplomacy of threat and bluster until the setback of 1875 caused him to think again. We should, then, see 1871 as the date at which he changed his goals -- from expansion to consolidation -- but not his tactics. These were modified in the light of the 'War in Sight' crisis and the Balkan crisis of 1875-78, which left Germany temporarily isolated and vulnerable. 

In foreign as in domestic policy, Bismarck was consistent in his aims but not in his approach. It is difficult not to see him as reacting to events as they occurred, often impetuously and without recourse to a 'grand plan'. His overall objective was merely to preserve the new German state, and he improvised solutions to developments on the international scene. Berghahn perceptively describes Bismarck's policy as a 'tightrope act', which does not diminish Bismarck's skill as an improviser but does highlight the lack of a strategy. 


Certainly, on occasion, Bismarck was torn between his domestic and foreign policy imperatives. He may have sought to use the 1875 crisis with France to justify the recent increase of the military budget. He learnt his lesson though, and until the mid-1880s did not allow domestic affairs to distract him from his 'juggling'. By then, however, the failure of the Sozialistenkampf and the need for a compliant Reichstag forced him to use foreign affairs to help secure Reichstag election victories. In 1884 Bismarck exploited colonial successes and in 1887 the Boulanger crisis to win 'khaki elections'. But both of these victories were symptoms of Bismarck's weakening grasp on power, and when the new Kaiser (Wilhelm II) demanded a 'New Course' in foreign affairs, Bismarck's policy had few defenders. 

Bismarck's successors abandoned the difficult aspects of his subtle diplomatic balancing act and jettisoned his 'balance of tensions'. Most did not appreciate the vulnerability of the German Empire, however, sandwiched between the other great powers. Those who did regarded the solution as the further expansion of the Reich, which would have horrified Bismarck. Finally -- disastrously -- they ignored his last advice to von Tirpitz in 1898 that 'Germany should keep within her borders', and thereby led their nation into world war and ruin. 

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