The Bismarckian Alliance System


After the unification of Germany and the establishment of the second Reich in 1871, in means of domestic policy, Bismarck devoted the majority of his time as 1st imperial chancellor to seek out and neutralize any enemies towards the Reich that might abate Germany’s new found supremacy. Conflict between the great powers of Europe and Germany was to be avoided as Bismarck foresaw it, although Germany’s strength amplified economically and politically, it was not Bismarck’s goal to steer Germany into isolation as an ominous power of Europe as France had. Bismarck’s solution was to devise a complex system of alliances to maintain peace throughout Europe, making it mutually beneficial to all of the great powers and therefore protect his newly unified Germany allowing it to strengthen. As Bismarck did best, like that of a superior chess player, he would strategize his moves by predicting all possible outcomes and kept himself one step ahead of his opponents. Bismarck knew exactly what could cause the destruction of the German Empire. His first goal was to maintain Germany as a peaceful and friendly power as to gain trust and prestige from the powers of Europe. From which he could then manipulate and formulate his desired alliances. He pinpointed France as the biggest enemy toward the Reich, as they were still hostile over the recent annexation of Alsace and Lorraine and so Bismarck focused on keeping France isolated. It was from this he formulated most of his alliances, fearing an alliance such as the Nightmare Collation (Franco-Russian) that could jeopardy the German Empire with war. The intentions of Bismarck’s alliance system seemed to be straightforward, to isolate France, maintain a peaceful co-existence with the other two major conservative powers (Austria and Russia), and to preserve the peace throughout the growth of his alliance system. These became the main objectives of Bismarck’s foreign policy from 1871-1894, and would turn out to be quite the juggling act.

The upholding of friendly relations with all the great European powers was vital for Bismarck’s system of alliances to run smoothly. Bismarck reassured all of Europe that Germany was not a growing power to be threatened by when he declared Germany as a saturated power, meaning that it was satisfied with its existing borders and had no further territorial ambitions in Europe. The "Honest Broker" and "peacemaker" became attached to Bismarck’s name, as Europe saw Bismarck help evade war at the congress of Berlin (1878) through negotiation of the countries concerning the Balkans Crisis. Bismarck tried to appease all, and would thereafter attempt to maintain the new status quo in order to keep the peace. Bismarck also understood not to violate the fundamental principles of English diplomacy of which were to maintain the largest navy, remain the major European colonial power, and to prevent Belgium from falling into the hands of any other great power (England valued the influence of the Suez canal and eastern trade). Bismarck did not let the pursuit of minor goals, such as acquiring colonies or the building of a navy, endanger his major goals, like the maintenance of the status quo.

Bismarck knew his greatest threat to his Empire was the French, and any formation of alliance between France and any one great European power that there of. Bismarck set forth to isolate France. A punitive treaty was developed after the Franco-Prussian war to remind France that Europe had a new hierarchical power on its hands. The French were itching for their "Revanche", and grieved over the loss of Alsace and Lorraine which only infuriated them more. Bismarck tried to keep Europe flowing with bad feelings about France being a dangerous and revolutionary power, hopefully isolating France from any alliances. Bismarck was happy to find that the French were establishing an overtly democratic Republic for he assumed this would frighten off monarchical allies. The problem of France was always at the back of Bismarck’s mind. France, having such a harsh treaty imposed upon her, stood as a power that wished to revise the status quo which Bismarck strongly tried to protect. It was Bismarck’s complex system of overlapping alliances, which more than anything kept France isolated and helped preserve the peace of Europe.

A practitioner of Realpolitik, "politics of reality", Bismarck was sensible in the way of German interest, arose to opportunities that would strengthen his Empire, and was prudent in the formation of alliances. Bismarck was in need of a counterbalance to French isolation. The support of Austro-Russian friendship was the answer which would secure his southern and eastern borders as well. The early 1970’s seemed to suggest that peace could be easily maintained through the cooperation of Russia, Austria and Germany, led by conservative Emperors eager to maintain their privileges and powers and determined to hold back the forces of liberalism, democracy and socialism. The Three Emperors League was thus signed in 1873, which was dedicated to preserving the status quo and preventing revolutionary activity (much like the Concert of Europe had established). However, the idea of an Austria-Russia-German alliance slipped in the cracks as a result of the growing suspicions of Austria and Russia ambitions in the Balkans. For both Austria and Russia, the Balkan region of the decaying Ottoman Empire was vulnerable for conquest, each reasoning their rights over the territory more valid. One couldn’t forget that control over the area also meant access to the Mediterranean. The war over the Balkans caused almost all European powers a feeling of concern. The Russian’s attempt to create a pro Russian Bulgaria to help protect Russia’s access to the Mediterranean caused Britain a wave of concern for the safety of the newly completed Suez Canal. Britain and Austria joined forces and a European war seemed possible. This is where Bismarck stepped in and offered to renegotiate the peace. Thus, in 1878, the Congress of Berlin was held (it was not held in Vienna like so many years before, but in Berlin, which gained Germany prestige) where Bismarck was seen as the peacemaker rather the warmonger, being the high point of his diplomatic career. Russia saw the treaty as pro Austrian and was disillusioned with the Chancellor. Bismarck responded by signing the Dual Alliance with Austria in 1879 acting as a military alliance promising each other’s aid in the case of a Russian attack. Bismarck also benefited form this alliance for it totally secured the Empire’s southern borders, and he would also use it to woo the isolated Russia back into his alliance system.

To reinforce Bismarck’s ground even more, he utilized Franco-Italian friction over Tunis to bring Italy into the Dual Alliance. In 1882, Italy joined the Dual Alliance which created the Triple Alliance. The Russians felt threatened, and Bismarck wanted to avoid the Nightmare Collation (Franco-Russian) at all cost. It was here that Bismarck’s system had reached its greatest complexity. Germany and Russia signed a "reinsurance" treaty that made a secret promised of the country’s neutrality if attacked by a third power, which reassure Russia it was not in danger of a German-Austrian war or Germany of a Franco-Russian alliance. Also, Bismarck kept friendly relations with Britain so that such a powerful nation would not be against Germany. Now France was truly friendless, powerless and isolated. Bismarck seemed to mastermind his system of alliances, but could he continue to juggle all five balls without one dropping?

Bismarck understood Germany should remain a land-based, peace-loving European power as she had always been. Kaiser Wilhelm I died and Wilhelm the II became the new Kaiser in 1888, and had entirely different intention for German diplomacy. Wilhelm II had a plan called "Weltpolitik", which meant he wanted Germany to be a large, strong, and unbeatable empire in every possible way. Bismarck saw Wilhelm’s aspirations, especially his idea of building a navy, as a threat to Germany’s peace he spent the last twenty years building. The clash of ideas and values between Bismarck and young "Willy" made Bismarck’s only hope of protecting the peace and securing the intricate network of alliance he had created by threat to resign, for without Bismarck the alliances were doomed to fail. Wilhelm II, arrogant and confident in his ability to maintain Germany’s power, accepted Bismarck’s informal proposal and Bismarck, with no friends to turn to, was forced to resign in 1890. It was here after that the German alliances started to crumble.

France no doubt took advantage of this grand opportunity to get an ally, and the Franco-Russian Entente was formed in 1891, and formalized as an alliance in 1894. This alliance was either due to Bismarck’s inability to influence Russia, or the Tsar felt the German alliance hindered Russian economic growth and had to seek fiscal support elsewhere, relying in France as its only alternative. Bismarck’s great fear came true, and France isolation was no more and the continent was thus divided (German-Austrian-Italian and Franco-Russian). As Wilhelm II expanded Germany’s greatness, through competition of a navy with England and strong economic growth, Germany became the ominous power Bismarck sought to avoid.

Throughout 1871-1890, the peace and prosperity Bismarck brought the united Germany Empire greatly depended on his complex system of alliances that only he could maintain. He was constantly filling in the gaps to his masterminded alliance system to ensure cordial relations between Germany and the rest of Europe, yet his system was limited to only uphold for so long. It’s hard to say if Bismarck’s system failed because of his resigning from office, or if he would eventually not be able to appease all the powers of Europe simultaneously while juggling so many alliances. He could not keep all the balls in the air perpetuity, for one of them was bound to drop (Russia and the Franco-Russian alliance). Yet it can be said that the time, the feelings, and the aspirations of Europe were greatly changing, and Bismarck’s system of "peace" possible did not have a place in it.