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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