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Bismarck's Impact On Foreign Policy In Germany And On The Balance Of Power In Europe
Otto von Bismarck (1815-98) is unquestionably one of the dominant figures of modern German, and European, history. Much of his fame as a statesman has always rested on his handling of foreign policy and diplomacy. His consistent policy was to position Germany as a unified and dominant power in continental Europe, consolidating her territorially and diplomatically to the point where she was, to use his own term, "satiated."
Bismarck pursued an aggressive policy, involving Germany in three localized wars, seeking to isolate France and build alliances with Austria, and maintaining a suspicious distance from Great Britain, but did not seek war or territorial expansion when he believed such activity would threaten German stability. His achievement was to leave Germany stable, peaceful, and at the heart of the European states system; to integrate a dynamic and -- to her neigbors -- always potentially threatening German Empire into the European balance of power, by recreating that balance with Germany at the center.
Historians have tended to value Bismarck's achievement all the more in contrast to what followed in the twentieth century, and have argued that the replacement of Bismarck's ideal of a balanced great power system with competition for colonies and military dominance contributed to the catastrophe of 1914-18.
The creation in 1871 of the united German Empire represented the culmination of Bismarck's pan-German policies of the preceding decade. It also represented a significant challenge to the existing European state system. The preceding German Confederation had been too fragmented and its internal government had been too cumbersome to form the basis of a state capable of threatening its neighbours, but once unification under Prussian leadership had taken place, Germany was transformed: "From being a constitutionally inert buffer, Germany had become a dynamic element in the system, with a potential for exerting pressure outwards on its neighbours that was bound to alarm them."
The new state presented both Germany herself and the rest of Europe with a dramatically changed political and diplomatic situation. The German Confederation had been too weak a polity to express German national identity and aspirations, but that was now changed with the emergence of a unified state entirely identified with German nationhood. The creation of the Empire itself reflected the successful Prussian pursuit of a number of wars, against the Danes (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1871).
These wars had secured the provinces of Schleswig-Holstein and Alsace and Lorraine for Germany and ensured that the new Reich would be led by Prussia rather than Austria and would include Bavaria and other southern German states as well as the former North German Federation.
The question for the other powers of Europe was how far Bismarck, victor of three wars, would continue to pursue warfare as a tool of German policy. France, resentful over her defeat in 1871 and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, watched Germany with unease and a desire for revenge; Austria, also recently defeated by Bismarck's Prussia, was wary of the shift northwards in the center of German power which the creation of the Reich represented, and the role of Prussia at the heart of a new great power; Russia perceived the new Germany as a potentially destabilizing force in the European states system and a threat to her influence in central and eastern Europe; only Britain, secure in her command of the seas and her global empire, seemed unconcerned by the Prussian-German ascendancy.
Bismarck's view was that war should not be necessary as a means to achieve Germany's political and diplomatic aims if other means could achieve the desired results at less cost. Unification had been followed by a period of economic depression and social unrest, and Bismarck was convinced throughout the 1870s and subsequently that Germany needed peace above all: "Uncertainty about the peace of Europe," he wrote to the Kaiser in 1879, would "be reflected in a continuation of the lack of confidence," whereas a peaceful consolidation of the international system would "recreate a sound basis for commerce and trade."
It was not only a matter of saving Germany the costs and demands of war, but of creating a peace in Europe that would serve Germany's interests. This depended upon what Bismarck saw as a balance of power, with no one great power gaining sufficient strength to challenge any other, or combining with other powers to mount such a challenge. The friendship of the newly powerful Germany would itself be a prize for which other powers (except always hostile France) would compete, and which would enable Bismarck to play them off, one against the other, while ensuring that sufficient tension between the powers remained to ensure that they would not combine against Germany. This was a complex and delicate game, but one of which Bismarck was the master:
Bismarck's system was an extremely complicated one, requiring a continuous assessment of the relationship among all the possible combinations of powers to see that the ideal balance was maintained. Bismarck' policies after the Congress of Berlin  toward Austria, Russia, Britain, France, and Italy were attempts to achieve this ideal condition.
The conditions in which diplomacy was carried out in late nineteenth-century Europe, and the particular conditions of early Imperial Germany. Diplomacy was essentially a matter of statesmen and chanceries; public opinion was rarely a factor and could generally (Bismarck certainly believed) be manipulated. In Germany, the monarch held the central position in government and had the final say on diplomatic and foreign affairs as in all others, but Bismarck's relationship with Wilhelm I was such that his policy became the policy of the Crown.
Bismarck thus had an arena in foreign policy that was comprehensible and controllable: "Diplomacy had accepted rules, a restricted area ( Europe), a fixed number of players (the five great powers), and more or less limited aims."
Bismarck's first concern after the establishment of the Reich and the settlement with France in 1871 was to establish good relations with Austria, which (as described above) had lost status and suffered military defeat at the hands of the northern Germans during the 1860s. For Bismarck an alliance between Germany and Austria was an essential building block for the stability he desired, it would counterbalance France, then experiencing a radical resurgence of revolutionary and antimonarchical politics, and it would give a lever to draw Russia into an alliance with Germany. The culmination of three years of Austrian-German-Russian negotiations was the Three Emperors' League, intended to embody monarchist solidarity in the face of French-inspired republicanism and prevent any flare-up of Austrian and Russian tensions in the Balkan region. Bismarck had a good understanding of Russia, having served as Prussian ambassador there from 1859 to 1862, and believed that the rise of anti-German and pro-French sentiment in Russia posed a threat to German interests in central Europe, and threatened Germany with an encircling Russian-French alliance. One of the purposes of the League was to head off that possibility.
The later 1870s saw the system of loose alliances that Bismarck had established being challenged by a number of developments. In Russia, the rise of the Pan-Slavist movement, with its emphasis on Russia's leadership of the Slavic world posing a threat to Germany's status in central and eastern Europe, continued to undermine prospects for a German-Russian alignment. France had recovered with great success from the defeat of 1871 and the ensuing domestic political instability, had paid off the indemnity demanded of her by Germany earlier than scheduled and had secured the evacuation of German troops from occupied French territories on the Rhine as a result. Germany watched with alarm as the French spent much of their new wealth on re-armament and a re-organization of their military, to the extent that there were some in the German political and military elite who argued for a pre-emptive strike against France. Bismarck rejected this idea, but did indulge in a certain amount of sabre-rattling and aggressive posturing towards France, to the extent that 1875 saw a significant war scare in western Europe.
The crisis ultimately blew over, but Bismarck was forced into an appearance of retreat from his aggressive language and sustained what was the only significant diplomatic defeat of his career by bringing the other great powers of Europe together against Germany. The German high command misjudged the reality of the French Army, believing it to be much stronger than it was, and Bismarck had misjudged the political climate, believing that France would back down in the face of German threats and would not receive the support of other powers.
Meanwhile, the European powder keg of the Balkans was threatening explosion once again. An insurrection against Turkish rule had broken out in Bosnia in 1875, and had spread to Bulgaria by the following year, were the Ottoman authorities repressed it with great violence and bloodshed. Serbia and Montenegro declared war on Turkey as a result, but were decisively defeated by the Turks in September 1876.…[continue]
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