Bismarckian Alliance System

By Rand Miller, Class of 2003

The alliance system crafted and employed by Otto von Bismarck in the late nineteenth century was based upon a "policy of peace", and was designed to keep the newly unified German Empire in favor with the whole of Europe while gaining power. The major powers of Europe would likely intervene if the threat of a powerful Prussia became imminent, so Bismarck ingeniously played the "honest broker" of peace alliances in order to pacify these fears. The Bismarckian Alliance system reflected the character of its creator, deceptively and underhandedly befriending nearly every major power in Europe while simultaneously betraying their friendship as necessary for German interests. The system consisted of three parts (the creation of a peaceful German facade, the formation of defensive alliances, and the isolation of enemies), and was very successful until Bismarck’s retirement in 1890.

The first incidence of Bismarck’s policy surfaced in 1878 at the so-called Berlin Congress, in which Europe was forces to recognize Germany as a nation. Russia had recently gained huge accessions from the Turks in the Balkan War, including the holy site of Constantinople. In order to assure themselves access to the Mediterranean, the Russians attempted to create a pro-Russian Bulgaria, in the process causing angst among the British and the Austrians who were opposed to the spread of Russian power. Britain and Austria felt that these Russian attempts to secure Bulgaria were grounds for a declaration of war. Bismarck, who felt that international war might destroy his new Empire, saw in this situation a great opportunity, and moved in as a peace mediator between the Russians, Austrians, and British at a Congress in Berlin. Bismarck’s goals at this Berlin Congress were threefold: to sooth the British and Austrians and appear as an international peacemaker, to keep the Russians from gaining too much power (which might threaten Bismarck’s Empire), and to create closer ties between Germany and Austria. In these goals Bismarck was successful; the peace between world powers was maintained, the German Empire gained legitimacy of sorts, and the peace terms that were agreed upon at the Congress hindered the Russians while pleasing the Austrians. According to Bismarck’s visions, Germany had begun to gain power through peaceful methods.

The new, pro-Austrian peace terms of the Berlin Congress, created under the arbitration of the scheming Bismarck in 1878, caused the rift between Austria and Germany to become much smaller while isolating the Russians, ultimately leading to a military alliance. Bismarck needed to ‘make nice’ with Austria in order to pacify the Southern German states that had been angered by the persecution of Catholics during the class struggle Kulturkampf. Following the 1878 Congress, Austria was almost ‘friendly’ toward the Empire while Russia felt wronged by Germany. Acting quickly, Bismarck formed a defensive military Dual Alliance with Austria in 1879, a treaty stating that each country would defend the other if attacked by Russia. In a brilliant but complicated diplomatic maneuver, Bismarck further insured the well being of the German Empire by signing the defensive Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1885. The Bismarckian System effectively made peaceful relations with Austria and to some degree Russia; although the alliances were military, they were defensive and therefore fit the Bismarckian ‘policy of peace’.

One final facet of the Bismarckian Alliance system was the constant struggle to isolate and weaken the French. Bismarck was well aware that, following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the French wanted nothing short of Revanche, a glorious revenge for their lost territory and pride. Bismarck was greatly alarmed when the supposedly defeated French managed to rapidly rebuild their military by 1873, and he took measures to keep them from turning on his Empire. In his classic style, Bismarck achieved this goal by underhanded tactics and duplicity. Bismarck actually backed the French in their colonial endeavors, helping them to colonize such places as Romania, Africa, and Asia. This action caused the British to become occupied with protecting their colonial supremacy while the French were busily attempting to become a colonial power themselves, leaving Germany somewhat free to make power moves in Europe without anyone taking notice. Bismarck further isolated the French by bringing the Italians into his Dual Alliance, creating the so-called Triple Alliance of 1882. Now Bismarck could be assured that if military movements were to threaten Germany, France would be engaged by Italy, and the Austrian and German soldiers would be free to concentrate on any threat from Russia. These actions by the German Chancellor remained ‘peaceful’ in theory, reinforcing the basis of his system of alliances.

Bismarck’s Alliance system of the 1870’s to the 1890’s was intricate and complex, but it always followed the same basic criteria of gaining power for the German Empire while maintaining peaceful relations with world powers. By 1890, when Bismarck retired from his post as Chancellor, the following had transpired due to the his alliance system: Germany was allied defensively with Austria and Italy against France and Russia (and to some extent Britain), Russia had a secret defense pact with Germany, and the French were receiving German backing in their colonial expansion. All the while, Germany was isolating Russia and France and gaining political leverage over everyone. This summary of the Bismarckian Alliance system shows that the character of Bismarck was reflected perfectly in his foreign policy; it was devious, deceptive, and for the most part powerful and successful.