Introductory: The Age of William II
1890, the year of Bismarck’s dismissal as German Chancellor, was a turning point in both European and German history. It marked the arrival of a new era, that of William II. Its immediate consequence, the non-renewal of the Russo-German Reinsurance treaty, was quickly followed by the Franco-Russian pact that restored the balance of power and established the system of rival alliances which lasted until the First World War. In German foreign policy the control and prudence exercised by Bismarck gave way to a less coherent course and later to a policy of expansion that proved ultimately disastrous. It would be wrong to exaggerate the changes caused by the disappearance of one man: the legacy left by Bismarck was less solid than it looked, and his network of treaties had already begun to disintegrate. Bismarck’s most recent English biographer speaks of the ‘virtual collapse’ of his diplomacy, largely by circumstances beyond his control.1 Russia, on whose friendship Bismarck relied to neutralise French hostility and minimise the chances of an Austro-Russian war, showed in 1887 that she set a diminishing value on the German alliance, and was alienated by Bismarck’s transparent displays of displeasure. Although Bismarck’s aim, acknowledged by the other powers, was preservation of the status quo, his previous record (three wars), occasional sabre-rattling (the war scare of 1875), calculated duplicity and attempts to embroil other nations with each other inevitably left a certain distrust among his neighbours. Still, compared with a revisionist France and an expansionist Russia, and even with an Austria-Hungary seeking a new sphere of influence in the Balkans, Germany represented a force for peace. Even at the end of the century this assessment seemed valid in the eyes of Great Britain, Europe’s only major uncommitted power.
KeywordsForeign Policy Social Democratic Party Tariff Policy Weimar Republic German History
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