The Replacement Player – Germany in the Real World

by Brent McKee

Have you ever played against one of the master players: someone legendary for their skills in negotiation, tactical insight and the ability to see and act on opportunities as they develop; in short, someone that it’s a pleasure to lose to. Unfortunately, halfway through the game this dream player drops out and is replaced by the player from Hell. Arrogant, self centered, bullying, with the tactical insight of an ant, who misjudges every situation. Of course this could never happen in real life. Except that in Germany in 1890 it really did happen.

For almost thirty years Otto von Bismarck directed the foreign and domestic policies first of Prussia then Germany. Bismarck was first and foremost a pragmatist: policies and alliances shifted as circumstances dictated. What never changed was that he would do whatever was necessary to strengthen Prussia and Germany. Every power in Europe was a potential ally and enemy. This was never clearer than in the German wars of unification. Prussia allied with Austria in 1864 to defeat Denmark, but in 1867 went to war against Austria with the tacit approval of France. In 1870 Prussia fought France while Austria-Hungary, if not allied with Prussia, was not hostile. The rewards of these wars were great. War with Denmark brought Prussia parity with Austria in Germany. The Austrian war ended Austria’s influence in Germany and gave Prussia control of Northern Germany. Finally, the war with France led to German unification under the leadership of Prussia, and Bismarck.

The Franco-Prussian War also created Germany’s greatest problem because of the humiliating terms that ended the war. France was forced to cede Alsace and Lorraine to Germany and to pay a huge indemnity (equal, on a per capita basis, to that levied on Prussia by France in 1809). The military, supported by Wilhelm I, insisted on these terms against the wishes of Bismarck. Germany’s demands eliminated the possibility of the sort of “peace of reconciliation” that had been reached with Austria. Instead a “revanchist” spirit developed in France, focussed on redeeming Alsace and Lorraine. However both Bismarck and the French leadership realized France could not fight Germany alone; they needed allies.

Bismarck’s foreign policy was based on two points: the isolation of France and the preservation of peace between Austria and Russia. Bismarck needed stability in Europe to keep France isolated and that meant preventing conflict between Austria and Russia. Bismarck’s initial effort was the original Dreikaiserbund (Three Emperors’ League), a general convention binding on no one, which called for consultations when situations arose. Possibly the one thing uniting the powers was that they were conservative monarchies and France wasn’t. Historian A.J.P. Taylor has written that “The League of the Three Emperors was supposed to secure the peace of Europe. It survived only so long as the peace of Europe was secure. Monarchical solidarity was a luxury which was blown to the winds as soon as Russia and Austria-Hungary saw their eastern interests in danger.” That happened following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. The settlement forced Russia to give back most of her gains in the Balkans, restored the Austro-Russian rivalry and destroyed the Dreikaiserbund.

Bismarck was forced to remake his foreign policy. He set out to create more binding relationships, beginning with a treaty with Austria-Hungary. Twenty-five years earlier Bismarck had opposed such a treaty, likening it to “tying our neat, sea-worthy frigate to Austria’s worm eaten old galleon”, but in 1874 an alliance made sense. Both parties were obliged to go to war if either were attacked by Russia and to maintain benevolent neutrality in wars with other powers. For Bismarck, Austria was a secondary power that Germany could dominate. The new treaty secured Germany’s southern border and was intended as a lever to bring Russia into a new alliance. It was never meant to be the central plank of Germany’s foreign policy.

Wilhelm I opposed the Austrian treaty and even considered abdicating until he realized that Bismarck was more indispensable than he was. Wilhelm’s objection was based on his close family relationship to Tsar Alexander II and because Russia’s role in restoring Prussian independence in 1813. Bismarck also wanted a treaty with Russia. He felt there was no valid reason to fight Russia and in any case Russia was too big to really defeat. He certainly didn’t want to fight Russia and France together. Nor did he want Germany dragged into a war over the Balkans, which he felt weren’t worth “the healthy bones of a Pomeranian musketeer”. Thus Bismarck moved to draw Russia into a renewed Dreikaiserbund, a mutual defense pact in which if one power were attacked the other two would maintain “benevolent neutrality”. This wasn’t enough for Bismarck. The new Dreikaiserbund was allowed to lapse in 1887, and Bismarck negotiated his final masterpiece, the Reinsurance Treaty, with Russia. The treaty was secret, and for good reason. It promised neutrality if either party was attacked. This meant that Russia would be neutral if France attacked Germany. It also meant that Germany would remain neutral if Austria attacked Russia, which contradicted the spirit of the treaty with Austria.

Events began to conspire against Bismarck. His power derived from his ability to get things done for Wilhelm I. The Kaiser wasn’t terribly intelligent but he knew enough to realize that he needed Bismarck. Bismarck’s fear was that his “master” would die. Bismarck expected that he would lose his position under the liberal Crown Prince, Friedrich. Then in 1887 Friedrich was diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer. When Wilhelm I died in 1888, Friedrich was barely able to speak and too weak to attend the funeral. He lived just 99 days after his father’s death and was succeeded by his son Wilhelm II. Bismarck had high hopes for the new emperor, who had spent time studying at the Foreign Ministry under Bismarck’s son Herbert. Yet within two years of Wilhelm taking the throne, Bismarck and his son were removed from office.

Wilhelm II was a complex character. Difficulties in his delivery resulted in his left arm being shortened and withered, which he continually tried to hide. He held gloves to create the illusion that his arm was longer, and avoided being photographed from the left side. Wilhelm was always desperate to fit in, to be one of the boys, especially among British society. He loved his father despite his liberalism, hated his English mother, adored his grandmother Queen Victoria and hated her son the future Edward VII. He regularly stated that he was half English, ignoring the fact that the British Royal Family was probably more German than the Hohenzollerns.

Bismarck underestimated the new Kaiser. He expected Wilhelm II to be content to reign not rule. Wilhelm wanted to rule and not merely as a constitutional monarch. One of his fondest memories was reading one of his father’s books which glorified the Holy Roman Empire. Wilhelm wanted the sort of power that the old emperors had and was unwilling to be restricted by a minor inconvenience like a constitution. To do this he needed to be surrounded, not by old men with minds of their own, but by people willing to follow his lead. Thus Bismarck’s time was limited. The trouble was that neither Wilhelm nor the men who surrounded him were in any way Bismarck’s equal.

Within days of Bismarck’s resignation, Herbert von Bismarck had resigned as State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, leaving a foreign affairs vacuum just days before the Reinsurance Treaty was to be renewed. General George von Caprivi was made Chancellor, while Baron Alfred Marschall von Bieberstein became Foreign Minister. Neither had any diplomatic experience. The man with diplomatic experience was Freiderich von Holstein, a professional diplomat who had been a “loyal” advisor to the Bismarcks. The Kaiser had told the Russian ambassador that Germany’s foreign policy would not change with Bismarck’s fall and that the treaty would is renewed. However Holstein had opposed the agreement, seeing Russia as a threat even as an ally. He showed the treaty to Caprivi, who asked for Holstein’s opinion. Holstein advised letting the treaty lapse. If Austria learned of the treaty it would harm relations with her, and Holstein felt that Germany needed Austria as a balance to Russia. Caprivi then advised the Kaiser to let the treaty lapse, and Wilhelm, failing to mention his pledge to renew the treaty, agreed. When Caprivi learned of the Kaiser’s promise he threatened to resign. Wilhelm had no choice but to give up the Russian treaty since he didn’t dare lose a second chancellor within a week. The decision made domestic sense, but it gave France the perfect opportunity to end her isolation. Within three years Russia joined France in an alliance. Germany had gone from being the encircler to being the encircled.

Under Bismarck, Germany’s relations with the British were basically good, largely because their interests did not conflict. Germany had a small colonial empire and her growing overseas trade was protected thy British warships. On the other hand Britain had virtually no involvement in Europe. Although he offered to enter into a treaty with Britain on at least one occasion, Bismarck understood Britain’s isolationism and that their primary concern was the colonial empire. Bismarck once commented that “An English attack would only be thinkable if we found ourselves at war with Russia and France, or did anything so utterly absurd as to fall upon Holland or Belgium or block the Baltic by blocking the sound.” Bismarck wasn’t about to do anything absurd, and his efforts were directed at avoiding a two front war with Russia and France. Indeed by encouraging the colonial ambitions of France and Russia, Germany could be sure that Britain would never enter into an alliance with them, while colonial confrontations could distract French attention from Alsace-Lorraine.

With Bismarck’s fall two developments, extensions of each other, would worsen relations and eventually lead to exactly what the German’s didn’t want, a cooling of the antagonism between Britain, France, and Russia. The first of these developments was adoption of the policy of Weltmacht, or world power, in 1890. After unification Germany was an industrial powerhouse. By 1914 they produced as much coal and twice as much steel as the British and had the second largest merchant fleet in the world. To proponents of Weltmacht this wasn’t enough. Germany had to expand overseas, and neither the fact that Germany’s existing colonies were unprofitable nor that most of the world had been colonized mattered. Germany began taking an aggressive interest in colonial affairs between 1896 and 1914. Such a policy also required a navy.

A navy had never played a major part of Bismarck’s plans. Germany’s enemies were continental, so while there may have been naval engagements they would not be decisive. The only power against which a naval battle would be crucial was Britain with whom Bismarck was careful to maintain good relations. Thus, under Bismarck the German Navy was primarily a defensive force capable of offensive action against either France or Russia, but not a challenge to the British.

Wilhelm’s position on the navy was entirely different. A combination of admiration and jealousy towards Britain led him to want “as fine a navy as the English.” He was also influenced by the writings at Alfred T. Mahan, which were becoming popular at the time. Mahan’s theory could be reduced to the belief that to be a world power you must first have sea power. And a major tenet of German national policy was Weltmacht, world power. The type of ships needed to achieve this was subject to debate. Wilhelm wanted cruisers for commerce raiding but Admiral Tirpitz, chief of the Naval High Command wanted battleships. Tirpitz presented his views to the Kaiser in an 1897 memorandum: Germany’s principle naval enemy was Britain and only the main theater of war was important. Germany didn’t have the overseas bases to sustain commerce raiding. Tirpitz stated that a fleet of seventeen battleships would make Germany a force to contend with: “Even the greatest sea state in Europe would be more conciliatory towards us if we were able to throw two or three highly trained squadrons into the political scales.” To respond to British superiority Tirpitz developed his famous Risk Theory. The idea was simple: in a war with Britain the German navy might be beaten but the British fleet would suffer such losses that other powers would inevitably attack them. Thus a strong German navy would force the British to make an agreement with Germany. The difficulty was how to become strong enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike. As both sides built more ships, and newer classes of ships, the point where such an attack would cease to be a danger moved further into the future.

It is interesting to speculate on what might have happened had Germany not tried to build a fleet to challenge Britain. As it was, although Tirpitz would never have admitted it, his Risk Theory failed. The key assumption had been that by building a powerful fleet Germany could force Britain to make an agreement with them. The British made approaches, but at the time the Germans wanted too much: Britain would have to become a full member of the Triple Alliance with Germany, Austria, and Italy. The Germans were content to wait for the British to come on bended knee, acknowledging Germany as superior. Instead Britain resolved its differences with France and Russia. With that the assumptions underpinning “Risk Theory” were negated.

Once Britain reached an agreement with France, the aim of German diplomacy shifted to destroying that relationship. Belatedly Bismarck’s successors recognized the importance of keeping France isolated. Unfortunately they lacked clear objectives and usually over reached what they could reasonably hope to achieve.

The first major opportunity was the Moroccan Crisis of 1905. Under the Anglo French Entente, France was granted dominance over Morocco. At the time German Chancellor Helmut von Bulow agreed with the provision as a way to restore order in Morocco. When two Americans were kidnapped by a Moroccan chieftain in 1904 the French took the opportunity to demand that the Sultan turn control of his army, police, and customs service over to them. The Sultan appealed for help to the German government. Bulow and Holstein seized on the situation as a way to destroy the Anglo-French agreement, and force French Foreign Minister Theophile Delcasse from office. The timing was ideal for brinkmanship: Russia was entangled with Japan, the British army was weak, and France was unprepared for war. The German position would officially be support of treaty rights and an open door policy. This was emphasized by a rather farcical visit by the Kaiser to Tangier and in the German demand for a international conference on Morocco. The crisis seemed to be producing the desired results when Delcasse resigned from office under fire from both sides of the National Assembly and from within the French Cabinet. When the Kaiser learned of this he made Bulow a Prince. However the Germans wanted more. French Premier Maurice Rouvier, acting as his own Foreign Minister, assumed that the situation would calm down with Delcasse gone. Instead he found the Germans unyielding and the British unhappy over the French failure to support Delcasse. With Germany threatening war, Rouvier gave in and accepted a conference on Morocco in the Spanish city of Algeciras. The result was scarcely the triumph Bulow and Holstein hoped for. Instead of breaking the Entente Cordiale, German bullying at the conference strengthened it, as Britain repeatedly supported the French position. Holstein was removed as a result of the diplomatic debacle, and Bulow was forced out as Chancellor in 1909.

By 1911 Germany had recognized France’s “special political interests” in Morocco in return for French promises not to obstruct German commercial interests there. However the French refused German mining companies permission to operate in southern Morocco, which was closed to international commerce under the Algeciras agreement. When a rebellion began against the new Sultan, Germany took the opportunity to pressure the French. The Algeciras agreement allowed countries to intervene in Morocco to protect their nationals. The German navy was instructed to send a gunboat, the Panther to the port of Agadir in southern Morocco to protect German citizens. First a German citizen had to be sent to Agadir to be “saved”, since there were no Germans living there. Once he arrived, sailors from the Panther and the cruiser Berlin moved to protect the “endangered German”. Although the intention was to pressure the French, the British were increasingly worried that Germany wanted to establish a permanent base along a vital sea lane. The British were prepared to go to war over this, however the Germans managed to reduce tensions with Britain by explaining the Franco-German nature of the crisis. British pressure eased off, but British support gave the French a greater will to resist German demands.

One problem was that Germany’s objectives in this confrontation were never clear. German Foreign Minister Kiderlen maintained a studied silence in public, hoping to increase the pressure on France. This led nationalistic German opinion to expect great things, including a partition of Morocco and humiliation of the French. Kiderlen did make major territorial demands, which were rejected by France. He eventually reduced his demands while the French increased their offers. When an agreement ceding 100,000 square miles of the French Congo to the German colony of Cameroon (less than half Kiderlen’s “irreducible minimum”) was finally reached, it was clear that for all he had risked Kiderlen had accomplished nothing. The British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, described it as “almost a fiasco for Germany: out of this mountain of German-made crisis came a mouse of colonial territory in Africa.”

The policy of brinkmanship reached its inevitable climax with the Balkan Crisis of July 1914, the roots of which lay in the annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina by Austria in 1908. At that time the German government had been prepared to support Austria to the point of war, even though the Kaiser described the Austria move as “a piece of brigandage”. The Russian government was forced to accept the Austrian action and the resultant loss of face in the Balkans without gains of their own. Thereafter Russia policy was to actively contest any challenge over the Balkans. At the time the Tsar said that “German action towards us has been simply brutal and we won’t stand for it.” Thus, as a result of Germany’s role in the crisis there was a significant cooling in relations between Russia and Germany even though the Kaiser considered the Tsar – his cousin Nikky – to be his dearest friend.

Of course the Germans had little choice. Although their Ambassador in Vienna, Count Tschirshky wrote in 1914, “I constantly wonder whether it really pays to bind ourselves so tightly to this phantasm of a state which is cracking in every direction”, the truth was that Austria-Hungary was Germany’s one reliable ally. For their part Austria-Hungary could do nothing internationally without German help, but the government was willing to take chances because they knew Germany would support them.

Things flashed into a crisis with the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The plot had been supported by elements within the Serbian government, but Franz Ferdinand’s death evoked general sympathy for Austria-Hungary from the international community. For Hawks within the Austrian and German governments it seemed an ideal opportunity. On the advice of his ministers, Wilhelm offered Austria-Hungary support for whatever action they took including war, assuming that Russia would not fight. Having approved the offer, the Kaiser went on a summer cruise along the Norwegian fjords, leaving management of the crisis to his Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg and State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Gottlieb von Jagow.

They apparently felt that it was just as well that the Kaiser was away. They worried that the crisis couldn’t be managed with the Kaiser interfering. Their expectations for this confrontation were great: the destruction of Serbia, the restoration of Austria-Hungary as a Great Power, and the reduction of Russia’s status. The Germans wanted swift action, but the Austrians were intent on crafting a set of demands which, they believed, Serbia could not possibly accept thereby justifying war. Astonishingly the Serbs accepted nine out of the ten Austrian demands. The Kaiser, who returned to Berlin the day that the response was received, declared it a “great moral victory for Vienna”, and ordered Bethmann-Hollweg to offer Germany as a mediator. The Chancellor ignored the Kaiser’s instructions. On July 29, Austria began shelling Belgrade.

Even as the bombardment began, Bethmann-Hollweg was worrying about world opinion. He contacted the Austrian government several times demanding, even begging them to restrict their actions and to accept mediation. After that, if Russia declared war the blame would fall on them. Austria refused all entreaties. The Chancellor wasn’t the only one trying to slow the Juggernaut. The Kaiser wrote numerous letters to Tsar Nicholas, trying alternately to bully and persuade him not to mobilize. The problem was that within Germany the Generals were anxious for war. Helmut von Moltke, chief of the General Staff, even went behind the back of the Kaiser and the Chancellor to tell his Austrian counterpart to begin full mobilization, promising that Germany would follow. On July 30, the Austrians began full mobilization. This was followed the same day by a Russian mobilization order. When word of this reached the German Foreign Office the next day, only one course seemed to exist. Ultimatums were sent to St. Petersburg demanding a halt to mobilization, and to Paris demanding that France declare its neutrality and turn over certain fortresses to Germany as a guarantee. At noon on August 1 the ultimatum to Russia expired. Wilhelm ordered general mobilization.

And there of course was the final, sickening, fatal irony. Even if France declared their neutrality, nothing could be done. The vaunted German General Staff had only one mobilization plan and that was to hurl the bulk of Germany’s 51 regular infantry divisions and 31 reserve divisions at France through Belgium. No one believed that there would be a war in which France would not be the main enemy. When Kaiser Wilhelm, in a frantic effort to keep the war from widening, tried to stop German forces from entering Luxembourg, Moltke told him “Your Majesty it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised….These arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete and once settled they cannot be altered.” So war with France was preordained, and because the Schlieffen plan insisted on doing what Bismarck had called “utterly absurd”, invading Belgium, Germany also found herself at war with Britain.

In looking at German history leading up to the start of World War I, the importance of Bismarck’s firing cannot be over emphasized. Bismarck played Diplomacy on the “real” board, shifting his policies based on the situation at the time. Bismarck would never have clung to the Austrian alliance long after it had ceased to be useful, although he might have let the Austrians think he had. Bismarck’s successors failed in exactly the areas where he had succeeded, by being inflexible in their planning and expecting things to go their way just because they wanted them to. In relations with Britain they tried to scare the British into being their friends. Instead of being conciliatory they bullied. Their failure should be a lesson to Diplomacy players.

Reprinted from Diplomacy World 77