Sunday, 12 March 2017

Towards 1914 (1): the Bismarck system

Otto von Bismarck
Puppet-master of Europe
Public domai

'In the approach to the outbreak of the First World War, four factors were crucial: first, the ambitions and strategies of the great powers; second, the system of alliances, the danger of which was less to drag allies into the abyss than to make them concerned lest their opposite numbers renege on their commitments at the last moment; third, the balance of power in the decision-making process between military men and civilian politicians; last, the pressure of both nationalist and socialist anti-militaristic opinion, and the opportunity offered by the war to achieve the ultimate in national integration'. Robert Gildea, Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914, 3rd edn. (Oxford, 2003), 429.

Europe after 1870

The two great factors in Europe after the Franco-Prussian War and the formation of the German Empire were:
(a) the ‘German question’ (the place of Germany in the new world order) and
(b) the persistent Eastern Question, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the resultant rivalry between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans.

Bismarck was the major player in this geopolitical game. He saw Germany as a ‘saturated’ power that needed consolidation rather than new territory, but this depended on Europe remaining at peace through the creation of stable alliances. In 1873 he formed the Three Emperors' League, the  Dreikaiserbund, a conservative alliance designed to maintain good relations with Russia and Austria-Hungary and to prevent them from coming into conflict in the Balkans. 

The League allowed Germany to achieve two objectives: to avoid the choice between Austria and Russia, and to maintain France in isolation. But could it hold?

France was obsessed with Germany’s demographic and military superiority. French politicians were divided between revanchists, who wished to regain the lost provinces and those who wanted to abandon Alsace-Lorraine and seek an overseas empire.

Excluded from Italy and Germany by its military defeats, Austria-Hungary had become a south-eastern power. The dominating concern of the Dual Monarchy was the need to check Russian influence in the Balkans, an area that was becoming increasingly disturbed because of the decline of the Ottoman Empire. This meant that tensions were inevitable, making the Dreikaiserbund fundamentally unstable  Bismarck tried to keep the peace by maintaining a policy of neutrality over the Balkans. In 1876 he famously declared in a speech to the Reichstag that the Balkan Question was not worth ‘the healthy bones of one Pomeranian musketeer’. But he could not avoid involvement in the region

The Congress of Berlin

The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 was a serious threat to the European order. Acting, in his own words, as 'honest broker', Bismarck summoned the Congress of Berlin in 1878 to revise the Treaty of San Stefano that Russia had imposed on the Ottoman Empire. The Russians saw the Congress as a humiliation; they had defeated the Ottomans only to lose their new client state of 'big Bulgaria'. On the other hand, Austria-Hungary made a decisive gain, when it was given leave to occupy and administer the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of the Russian delegates told the Serb plenipotentiary at Berlin that the situation was only temporary as ‘within fifteen years at the latest we shall be forced to fight Austria’.

Contemporary map of the Balkans after
the Congress of Berlin.
Public Domain

The Congress saw the defeat of Bismarck’s strategy to maintain his alliances with both Austria-Hungary and Russia. Russian nationalists (Panslavists) were gaining in influence. Russia felt let down by Germany, and relations between Berlin and St Petersburg cooled in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination.

Bismarck's alliances

The Dual Alliance: Following the Berlin Congress, Bismarck visited Vienna in September 1879. On 7 October the secret Dual Alliance was signed between Germany and Austria-Hungary. 

Its terms were not only secret but very limited: 

  1. if one of the signatories were to be attacked by Russia the other was to come to her support. 
  2. if either were attacked by another power, the other would maintain benevolent neutrality unless Russia joined the attacker.  

What was the purpose of this alliance?  As Germany was in no immediate danger from Russia, it seems clear that Bismarck’s aim was to attach Austria-Hungary to Germany so that he could prevent her from going to war with Russia. The success of the alliance therefore depended on Germany's ability to restrain Austria-Hungary. This remained the case while Bismarck was in power. It was to be a different story later on.

The Triple Alliance: Bismarck followed this up by making overtures to Britain, but nothing came of it. In 1881 he renewed the fragile Dreikaiserbund. In May 1882 Italy, furious at the French occupation of Tunis, came into the Dual Alliance, which then became the Triple Alliance. Germany and Austria-Hungary promised to help Italy against a French attack and vice versa.

The Triple Alliance, 1882
Public Domain

Bismarck seemed to have made Europe more peaceful because he had contained the rivalries between Austria-Hungary and Russia and had neutralised and isolated France. At the same time France was becoming more hostile to Britain because of the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. This destroyed the chance of Anglo-French co-operation for twenty years.

The Bulgarian crisis, 1885

The Balkans continued unstable after the Congress of Berlin. In September 1885 the ruler of Bulgaria, Prince Alexander of Battenberg brought Ottoman-controlled Eastern Rumelia into Bulgaria. Russia refused to approve this independent action and Alexander III ordered the withdrawal of all Russian officers and advisors in the Bulgarian army. Later in the year Serbia declared war on Bulgaria, on the grounds that the balance of power in the Balkans was upset by Bulgarian unification. The Serbs were heavily defeated, and in April 1886 the Powers recognised the new state under the ‘personal union’ of Alexander. A major war had been avoided, but the 1878 settlement had been undermined and the decline in Ottoman power was confirmed.

In August Alexander 1886 was kidnapped by Russian officers and bullied into abdicating. The newly elected Bulgarian assembly turned out to be very anti-Russian, opening up the threat of a direct Russian invasion. Yet it was obvious that Austria-Hungary would not allow this to happen. 

This crisis made the renewal of the Dreikaiserbund impossible. Instead Bismarck negotiated a secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1887 though he knew this was a feeble substitute. His attempt at bridge-building between Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed. 

The Bulgarian crisis had shown that Austro-Russian rivalry in the Balkans was now the great destabilising factor in eastern Europe.  An even greater problem (from Bismarck's point of view) was how to keep France isolated. Would he be able to prevent a Franco-Russian rapprochement? In 1888 the first Russian loan was floated in Paris and the dependence of Russia on the French capital market began.

The fall of Bismarck

In 1888 Emperor William I died and was succeeded by his son Frederick III, Queen Victoria’s son-in-law. But within three months he was dead of throat cancer and his son Wilhelm II became Kaiser. He wished to pursue his own policies both at home and abroad and saw Bismarck as a hindrance. In 1890 he forced his resignation over social policy. 

'Dropping the Pilot'
from Punch
Public Domain


Bismarck’s fall did not immediately change German foreign policy but it opened the way for the transformation of the European system which he had dominated since 1870. His achievements were thrown away in the next decade. German foreign policy became confused and dependent on the Kaiser’s unstable character.

The fragile Concert of Europe that Bismarck had sought to create, in effect came to an end as new occasions of conflict arose.

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