Dropping the Pilot - Sir John Tenniel, 29.03.1890, Punch Magazine
Drop­ping the Pilot – Sir John Ten­niel, 29.03.1890, Punch Magazine

Head­er, left to right: Ger­man Sec­ret­ar­ies of the For­eign Office after Otto von Bis­mar­ck: Her­bert von Bis­mar­ck, his son (in office Octo­ber 24, 1885 until March 26, 1890), Bernhard von Bülow, later Chan­cel­lor (Octo­ber 20, 1897 until Octo­ber 23, 1900), Hein­rich Leon­hard von Tschirsch­ky und Bögen­dorff (Janu­ary 24, 1906 until Octo­ber 25, 1907), Wil­helm von Schoen (Octo­ber 26,1907 until June 27, 1910), Alfred von Kider­len-Wächter (June 27, 1910 until Decem­ber 30, 1912) and Got­tlieb von Jagow (Janu­ary 11, 1913 until Novem­ber 22, 1916).


The Iron Chan­cel­lor had retired – quite against his will – on March 18, 1890. He has always con­sidered his highest duty to ensure friendly rela­tions with all nations sur­round­ing Ger­many, if pos­sible. That France, irate over the defeat of 1871 but moment­ar­ily impot­ent, would remain the per­petu­al enemy was clear. What had to be avoided, under all cir­cum­stances, was that she found con­tin­ent­al allies, in par­tic­u­lar in the East, i.e. Rus­sia, to aid her in con­duct­ing a retali­at­ory war. Bismarck’s anti­dote for this par­tic­u­lar venom was to devel­op the best dip­lo­mat­ic rela­tions with the oth­er two large reac­tion­ary mon­arch­ies, Rus­sia and Aus­tria. These two nations and Ger­many signed a 
com­pact called the Dreikais­er­bund, the League of the Three Emper­ors, in which the mon­archs agreed to mutu­al neut­ral­ity in the case that one of them were attacked by France or the Otto­man Empire.

Aware that ten­sions devel­op­ing between Rus­sia and Aus­tria over the Balkans might even­tu­ally exert a neg­at­ive impact on this treaty, Bis­mar­ck con­duc­ted an addi­tion­al pact with the Czar, the so-called “Rück­ver­sicher­ungs­ver­trag”
or “Rein­sur­ance Treaty”, which held Rus­sia to neut­ral­ity in the case of a new Franco-Ger­man war regard­less of ori­gin, and thus banned the spectre of Ger­many hav­ing to fight a two-front war. Bismarck’s fun­da­ment­al doc­trine was, obvi­ously enough, to keep France dip­lo­mat­ic­ally isol­ated as much as pos­sible.

To under­take this neut­ral­iz­a­tion of French dip­lomacy, the Second Empire, one is temp­ted to say “nat­ur­ally”, relied on a For­eign Office staff com­posed chiefly of the nobil­ity and not respons­ible to the par­lia­ment.

No stat­ist­ic­al inform­a­tion about the dip­lo­mat­ic corps in the Kais­er­reich is as strik­ing as the share of nobles. Of the 548 dip­lo­mats in ser­vice in the peri­od 1871 – 1914, no few­er than 377, i.e. 69 per cent, were noble. The per­cent­age of nobles was high­er if we count only the for­eign mis­sions and not the Aus­wärtiges Amt [For­eign Office] itself. The ambas­sad­ors of Imper­i­al Ger­many were noble to a man. The most import­ant depart­ment in the Aus­wärtiges Amt was the Polit­ic­al Depart­ment IA, which in the peri­od from 1871 to 1914 was 61 per cent noble.

It is true that there was a con­stant increase in the share of middle-class mem­bers of the dip­lo­mat­ic ser­vice in this peri­od and bey­ond it. But dur­ing the Kais­er­reich such com­mon­ers were deployed almost exclus­ively either in the less import­ant depart­ments of the Aus­wärtiges Amt, namely in the Trade, Leg­al or Colo­ni­al Depart­ments, or else in the Con­su­lar Ser­vice. If middle-class people entered the dip­lo­mat­ic mis­sions abroad at all, then dur­ing the Wil­helmine peri­od [1888 – 1918] they were on the whole sent to South Africa or the Middle or Far East, areas which were import­ant com­mer­cially but where aris­to­crats were unwill­ing to serve.

Not only was the exe­cu­tion of the Reich’s for­eign policy in the hands of the nobil­ity, it was, with few excep­tions, the north­ern, Prot­est­ant, that is, “Prus­si­an” aris­to­cracy, which occu­pied the lion’s share of the avail­able posts; Cath­ol­ics were far less rep­res­en­ted.

The exclus­ive esprit de corps of the Ger­man dip­lo­mat­ic ser­vice was also pro­moted by a degree of con­fes­sion­al dis­crim­in­a­tion. Until 1945 the ratio of Cath­ol­ics among the dip­lo­mats was sig­ni­fic­antly lower than the nation­al ratio. This situ­ation can only par­tially be explained by the fact that until 1918 the Ger­man middle states main­tained their own dip­lo­mat­ic ser­vice.

What was per­haps more import­ant was that the major­ity of south Ger­man aris­to­crat­ic fam­il­ies loathed the idea of state ser­vice under the detested Hohen­zollerns and that until the turn of the cen­tury they saw the real
focus of their social aspir­a­tions in the Hof­burg of Vienna rather than in Pots­dam and Ber­lin. Who­ever reads the extens­ive private cor­res­pond­ence of Ger­man dip­lo­mats of the imper­i­al peri­od will be astoun­ded at the almost patho­lo­gic­al fear of so-called “Ultra­mont­an­ism” [the idea that Ger­man Cath­ol­ics and the Centre Party were remote-con­trolled by the pope], which pre­vailed among even the highest and appar­ently most open-minded dip­lo­mats and states­men in Ber­lin.

There was a wide­spread con­vic­tion that any soft­ness towards “Ultra­mont­an­ism” would have as a logic­al con­sequence the dis­in­teg­ra­tion of the Reich. Cath­ol­ics could there­fore only be recruited into the ser­vice of the
Reich if they had taken a firm and unequi­voc­al stand against Rome and against the Centre Party. (36)

Quite con­trary to the impres­sion of strength and unity that the Reich gov­ern­ment attemp­ted to pro­ject to the out­side, the for­mu­la­tion and exe­cu­tion of her for­eign policy required from the chan­cel­lor an intim­ate under­stand­ing of the mat­ters at hand and the abil­ity and will­power to impose them, should the need arise, even against the ideas of the mon­arch. Bis­mar­ck pos­sessed the required abil­it­ies and was able to handle Wil­helm I, who could be stub­born at times. But when Wilhelm’s suc­cessor Kais­er Friedrich Wil­helm III suc­cumbed to throat can­cer in 1888 after less than a hun­dred days in office, the third Kais­er of the year, Wil­helm II, took over.

Things at the For­eign Office began to change soon there­after. The young emper­or did not trust Bis­mar­ck impli­citly, the way his grand­fath­er had, per­haps because he con­sidered him­self a nat­ur­al tal­ent in for­eign affairs. In 1890, Bis­mar­ck was retired against his will, to be replaced by Bar­on Marschall von Bieber­stein, whom the old chan­cel­lor mocked by call­ing him a “min­istre étrange aux affairs”,* and Chan­cel­lor Count Leo Caprivi, who had neither know­ledge of nor exper­i­ence in for­eign mat­ters and openly admit­ted that he desired none. By all appear­ances, the new staff of the office did not under­stand Bismarck’s secur­ity sys­tem or thought it expend­able. Ger­man for­eign policy freed itself from the fet­ters of real­ity. (* It was a word play on “for­eign” and “estranged”: a “min­istre aux affairs étranges” is a for­eign min­is­ter, but a “min­istre étrangè aux affairs” is a min­is­ter “estranged from”, that is, “clue­less about” his affairs.)

Bismarck’s Rein­sur­ance Treaty, the pièce de résist­ance of his for­eign policy, was simply allowed to expire; the new sec­ret­ary of state did not even inquire in St. Peters­burg wheth­er the Czar desired a pro­long­a­tion of the com­pact. The
Rus­si­an court, per­plexed, could only inter­pret Berlin’s silence as a sign of inex­plic­able Ger­man hos­til­ity, and looked for a new ally in the West. France was ready and will­ing.

The next dip­lo­mat­ic cata­strophe befell the rela­tions with Great Bri­tain. Ever since the Sev­en Years’ War, which had seen the allies emer­ging as vic­tors, Anglo-Prus­si­an rela­tions had been amic­able, for the greatest part, and the shared vic­tory over Napo­leon at Water­loo had forged a spe­cial bond. From the 1890s on, how­ever, Wil­helmine Ger­many embarked upon an unne­ces­sary and rather hareb­rained nav­al arma­ments race with Eng­land, which dir­ectly threatened the Brit­ish Empire’s depend­ence on open sea lines for com­merce, com­mu­nic­a­tion, and the admin­is­tra­tion of her pos­ses­sions.

With the excep­tion of the medi­ev­al Hanseat­ic League, Ger­many had no extens­ive his­tory as a nav­al power, for her geo­graph­ic­al pos­i­tion in the middle of the con­tin­ent mostly obvi­ated this need. The expan­sion of the French and Brit­ish colo­ni­al empires in the nine­teenth cen­tury, how­ever, fatally ignited, in cer­tain Ger­man circles, a desire for com­pet­i­tion. The new Reich sub­sequently embarked upon col­on­iz­ing the leftovers; those parts of the globe that oth­er powers had judged too poor to be desired. Even­tu­ally, four Afric­an ter­rit­or­ies were iden­ti­fied, occu­pied and col­on­ized with drum rolls and fan­fare: today’s Togo, Cameroon, Nam­i­bia and Tan­zania. In addi­tion, a part of New Guinea, Sam­oa, Tsing-Tao in China and a few island archipela­gos in the Pacific Ocean were obtained.

These appro­pri­ations were, alas, no fer­tile lands which could feed the mul­ti­tudes at home; to be hon­est, they were not very use­ful at all, unless one wanted to study exot­ic bac­teria in fever-infes­ted Cameroon. But there are cases in which beauty is meas­ured by the cost or effort to achieve it, and such was the case with the fledgling Ger­man colo­ni­al empire. His­tory teach­ers delivered a con­tinu­ous stream of lec­tures and hom­il­ies to high school stu­dents in regard to the [tech­nic­ally Aus­tri­an, but nev­er mind] Empire of Charles V in the six­teenth cen­tury, in which the sun, pro­ver­bi­ally, nev­er set, and many obed­i­ent Ger­man pupils – and their par­ents – developed the desire to keep the “place in the sun” their emper­or had pub­licly claimed for the coun­try at all cost. Logic­ally, the newly acquired Ger­man ter­rit­or­ies had to be defen­ded against thiev­ish hands, which included all the for­eign navies that might anchor near the coast at any moment to rob Ger­many of north-east­ern New Guinea and its can­ni­bal vil­lages, who could say?

With the expli­cit con­sent of the Kais­er, the Ger­man Sec­ret­ary of the Navy, Tirpitz, had brought a huge navy bill through par­lia­ment which enabled the launch, at a fever­ish pace, of an ever-increas­ing num­ber of battle­ships and less­er ves­sels for the pro­tec­tion of the colon­ies. New shipyards had to be built to accom­mod­ate the pro­gram, to the
bewil­der­ment of the Brit­ish who could not in the world ima­gine a reas­on why Ger­many needed a fleet of battle­ships, unless to chal­lenge the Roy­al Navy. Great Bri­tain, con­sequen­tially, sought aid against pos­sible Ger­man liber­ties, and by 1912, two dec­ades later, France, Rus­sia and Great Bri­tain were allied, at least defens­ively, in the Triple Entente, a treaty against Wil­helmine Ger­many and its val­or­ous allies Aus­tria-Hun­gary and Italy, the “Dreibund” or Triple Alli­ance.

Alliances 1914
Alli­ances 1914

The For­eign Office in Ber­lin clearly did not under­stand the real­it­ies it cre­ated, and its cal­lous reck­less­ness allowed France to play the “Ger­man Dom­in­a­tion of Europe!” card against the Teuton­ic men­ace with great suc­cess. While Ger­many
had advanced her indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion faster than any oth­er con­tin­ent­al coun­try and had become the world’s second-biggest indus­tri­al nation, after the Brit­ish Empire but before the USA, her polit­ic­al cul­ture had remained essen­tially pre-mod­ern, which was made worse by the young emperor’s rash­ness.

Wil­helm II had been born with a crippled left arm and developed a crippled self-esteem; his cous­in Nich­olas II, the Rus­si­an Tsar, once called him a “shame­less exhib­i­tion­ist.” The young mon­arch had a propensity to evoke the most unfor­tu­nate impres­sions wherever he appeared; his con­stant demands of great­er power for Ger­many failed to make him pop­u­lar any­where, and, to make it worse, these exhorta­tions were often delivered with poor charm and a com­plete lack of dip­lo­mat­ic sens­it­iv­ity.

Hence, by 1914, the efforts of Wilhelm’s noble dip­lo­mats had res­ul­ted in the enmity of Great Bri­tain, France and Rus­sia, unpop­ular­ity in the world – per­haps with the excep­tion of the Otto­mans – and an arms race of the like the globe had nev­er seen before.

As I have said before, there is a rule of thumb in his­tory which holds that the more arms are being stacked upon each oth­er, the great­er the prob­ab­il­ity that they will go off one day. They did on August 1, 1914.

(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2015/19)

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