B.2. World Politics and Domestic Challenges, 1890-1914
The “New Course”:
The situation changed with the accession to the throne of Wilhelm II in 1888 and his dismissal of Bismarck two years later. In light of later events, Bismarck’s dismissal has appeared as a fatal mistake. Wilhelm II, however, had good reasons to dismiss the chancellor, who had become stubborn and self-righteous. The immediate cause of Bismarck’s fall was his insistence on the renewal of the anti-socialist laws, but a clash between him and the new Kaiser could not have been delayed much longer. Wilhelm II, who initially seemed well-intended, was determined to use his constitutional rights to a larger extent than his grandfather had done. Wilhelm II found many allies in the state administration who had become angry at Bismarck’s arbitrary and autocratic leadership. Not that popularity or parliamentary support mattered very much, but it did not help Bismarck that he had few friends in the Reichstag, which he had all too often spurned. He seems also to have become alienated from the people. For documents on this, see H-German: Bismarck’s Fall from Power, 1890.
Bismarck’s fall has been considered a landmark. An English caricature depicted him as the pilot leaving the German state ship, while he was being watched by a self-righteous Wilhelm II. Many books have had titles such as “Germany after Bismarck”. Whereas Wehler claims that German history was following a fatal course since the failed revolution of 1848, many other historians see the decade after 1890 as the decisive period during which German history “went astray.”
Indeed, some profound changes occurred, but at first they concerned foreign politics more than the domestic scene. For a short time Wilhelm II and his new chancellor Leo von Caprivimade some social concessions and pursued a more liberal policy by dropping the anti-socialist laws and by reducing protective tariffs. But after Caprivi’s dismissal in 1894 the conservatives in the government gained the upper hand again, and Wilhelm II was so angry about the lack of popular gratitude for his policies that he considered a coup d’état in order to limit the Reichstag’s rights even further. Domestic politics, however, did not change much during the 1890s.
Not so foreign politics. Bismarck’s successors were neither able nor willing to handle the complex strings of his foreign policy. When the treaty with Russia needed to be renewed in 1890 they declined to do so, arguing that it contradicted some clauses of the Austro-German alliance. They were right concerning the letters of the treaties, but slight contradictions had never bothered Bismarck, who believed that ambiguities would refrain a nation from going to war and attached more importance to a good understanding with other nations than to the exact terms of treaties.
The Russians, who had hoped to renew the treaty with Germany, now negotiated an alliance with France, which was completed in 1894. The two most powerful nations bordering directly on Germany became allies. Should German tensions with the French or Russians escalate, Germany would face a two-front war. It remains open to doubt whether the German government could have prevented the Franco-Russian rapprochement for much longer. France was investing large sums in Russian industrialization and had so desperately been looking for an alliance partner that the fundamental difference of political systems did not matter (France was a democratic republic, Russia an autocracy). Moreover, mutual dislike, fanned by growing Slavic and Germanic racism, made the alliance of Russia and Germany increasingly unpopular in both countries.
To replace Russia with another alliance partner proved very difficult for German diplomacy. Caprivi sought an alliance with Britain, but Britain refused to give up its “splendid isolation” protected by the largest battle fleet in the world. Toward the end of the 1890s British diplomats sounded out the chances for an alliance with Germany, but the British did not want to commit themselves as closely as the Germans wanted. In both countries this alliance would have had powerful enemies, since Britain and Germany were fierce trade rivals. The Germans, moreover, wanted to be recognized as an equal partner to the British Empire in world and colonial politics, a status Britain was unwilling to grant. Conservative Germans, finally, resented the liberal political system in Britain and denounced the British national character as spoiled by commercial greed. In any case, the British diplomats were in no hurry, and the Germans did not believe that Britain, which almost went to war with France during an incident in East Africa in 1898, would ever come to terms with its main overseas rivals, France and Russia. By 1900 Germany was still allied to Austria-Hungary and Italy only (the Triple Alliance). The Triple Alliance faced only the Russian-French alliance, and under these conditions Europe could be considered roughly in a balance of power.
New factors in foreign policy:
But a more fundamental change in foreign policy occurred around the turn of the century. It is hard to say when and where it happened first, but it was a European phenomenon that shaped foreign politics until 1914. First, foreign politics became more of a popular concern than it had ever been before. The proliferation of a daily newspaper press and the progress in communication technique (telegraph) made it possible for many Europeans even in remote areas to receive a recent update on the course of world politics. At the same time Europeans started to identify more with their nation states and considered its prestige a matter of highest interest. Although popular opinion could not everywhere articulate itself democratically, public concern with foreign policy and national prestige put more pressure on governments. A diplomatic defeat was considered as a national humiliation and thus endangered governments more than before.
Second, nationalism in most countries became more aggressive and more antagonistic to members of other nations. It often blended with an arrogant racism. Many English people felt to belong to the supreme race in the world, so did many French, Germans, Russians, and Italians. This racism was imported into the political realm from biology and included Darwinist elements. The world appeared as a fighting ground of ruthless enemies, where only the fittest could survive. Compassion, morality, and forgiveness seemed inadequate forms of behavior between nations; instead readiness for war seemed the only appropriate attitude.
This frame of mind reflected some of the fast transformations the industrial revolution had brought about. It was a crude upshot and — at the same time — denial of much nineteenth-century thinking. Marx and Engels had defined history as a great impersonal process dominated by economic forces. Friedrich Nietzsche had discredited much of Christian morality for the hypocrisy and weakness of character it often concealed. Sigmund Freud was just starting to advance a revolutionary theory that deconstructed the notion of the conscious individual and of humans being uncontested masters of their own will. Nationalism at the end of the 19th century absorbed much of the new thinking in crude fashion but also implied a desperate revolt against it. If Christian values were corrupt, maybe at least one’s own nation could “civilize” the world by infusing it with its character; if history was shaped by impersonal forces, maybe one’s own nation could leave an imprint on it at least for a while.
Although the new racism initially found most resonance among the middle classes, the workers succumbed to some of its notions, too. An unskilled English factory worker may have felt to stand at the bottom of his own society, but integrative nationalism told him that he was far superior to a laborer — and even a prince — in India. In Germany a popular socialist pamphlet synthesized Marx and Darwin by claiming that because of selection through harsh living conditions the proletariat was the fittest class and would survive the degenerate nobility and bourgeoisie. It became one of the most popular texts read by workers (Marx’s obscurity sharing responsibility for this.) Although the Socialist parties everywhere proclaimed international proletarian solidarity, it became increasingly apparent that Marx was wrong when he said that the proletarian knows no fatherland.
In sum, people all over Europe identified more strongly with their nation and its prestige and started to watch the foreign policy of the diplomats more carefully than before. Impressed by Darwinist ideas they came to see the situation of their nations as a crude alternative of expansion or decline, hegemony or submission, and this ideology increasingly shaped foreign affairs.
The “place in the sun”:
Let us now analyze these new factors of foreign policy in Germany. In 1890 Caprivi ceded some contested territory in East Africa to the British in exchange for Helgoland, an island off the German North Sea coast occupied by the British navy since the Napoleonic wars. Some radical nationalists got so infuriated about the loss of land in Africa that they formed a new organization to propagate colonial expansion. The Pan-German League, as the new organization was called, soon started to put forward integrative nationalism. Although its membership remained unimpressive in numbers (20-40,000 members, mostly industrialists, businessmen, lawyers, teachers, and some Protestant ministers), it became an influential pressure group for foreign political success and expansion due to the profile and influence of its members and supporters. Several powerful industrialists funded the Pan-German League and helped it to conquer a strong position in the press. Teachers tried to instill a new generation of students with arrogant nationalism. From now on every foreign political failure and every half-hearted diplomatic initiative was sure to be extensively criticized by this small but vociferous group.
A second incident indicating a departure from Bismarck’s diplomacy was the inaugural lecture delivered by the sociologist Max Weber in 1895. Weber declared that the foundation of the German Empire in 1871 should be regarded not as a terminal achievement, but as a step in a continuing national history toward more glory and success. Weber was generally a reasonable and moderate politician far removed from the chauvinism of the Pan-Germans. He wanted to disturb what he considered a lazy mood in Germany. But his lecture, which incited enthusiasm, mirrored the widespread feeling of threatening decline through stagnation. More and more Germans felt that their nation had lost the contest for empire despite its impressive industrial advances. Britain and France owned huge colonial empires, and Russia had expanded southward and eastward, but Germany seemed stuck with some unconnected territories that nobody else had really wanted. This seemed unjust to Germans, since their industrial capacity was superior to either the French or Russian and was rapidly catching up with Britain. In sum, many Germans felt that something had to be done to avoid that their nation would lose all say in international matters.
The government and — above all — the Kaiser shared this feeling. They declared that Germany deserved a place in the sun and would start world politics (Weltpolitik). What Weltpolitik meant was not clear; it often was an emphatic claim to have a say in world matters on par with Britain and other powerful nations. Nationalist opinion became sensitive to questions of prestige and often assumed an irrational character.
In 1897 Wilhelm II appointed two ministers who represented a new quality of foreign politics: Bernhard von Bülow, an outspoken proponent of Weltpolitik, became foreign minister (in 1900 chancellor), and Alfred Tirpitz naval minister (later ennobled). Tirpitz promised to build up a battle fleet as the means of power for Weltpolitik. An excellent manipulator of the press and of parliamentarians, he won a Reichstag majority for a long-term shipbuilding program which made Germany a major sea power. (This plan is so intricate that it deserves special explanation in another lecture.)
Under Wilhelm II and Bülow German foreign politics assumed a different tone. Foreigners perceived it as nasty, swaggering, aggressive, and insensitive. My grandmother, who lived 1901-1984, used to tell a joke from this period characteristic for the tone of German diplomacy (see Joke). German foreign policy before 1914 did deserve caricature, but the image of plump diplomats following the genius Bismarck must be put into context. The premises of Bismarck’s foreign policy after 1871 were defensive. He wanted to preserve, not change, the status quo, and this already required masterful diplomacy. His successors, however, were convinced that the status quo would lead to decline and that Germany had to expand in order to remain strong; this assumption — however questionable — made German diplomacy a no-win game.
Earlier Marxist interpretations have explained the push to Weltpolitik by the importance of new overseas markets for a growing European industry. But the importance of an overseas empire was far overestimated already by contemporaries. The capital investment needed to make the German colonies a market for industrial goods would have vastly exceeded German resources. Export into foreign colonies and independent underdeveloped countries, moreover, proved a satisfactory alternative to a market in a protected national empire.
Some historians, including Wehler, have claimed that the German politicians adopted Weltpolitik primarily for domestic reasons. After the anti-socialist laws had failed, according to Wehler, the ruling elites wanted to reconcile the rising working class with the state and its social order through integrative nationalism, passion for overseas expansion, and concern for national prestige. This should undermine the workers’ loyalty to the revolutionary socialist party and the trade unions and preserve the backward political system. In my opinion, economic interest of businessmen and the political manipulation of the workers did play a role in Weltpolitik, but I do not think that they explain all of it. The world was growing together. Improving communications and cheap transportation through the steamship made the globe a smaller place in which peripheral matters no longer existed. German industrialization reached the typical point at which the agrarian sector becomes so small compared to the industrial sector that a country becomes dependent upon imported foods and raw materials. This forced the Germans to take more interest in overseas affairs.
Go on to B.3.